You think I’m exaggerating when I say that from up there on the hill, you can watch your dog run away for three days, but Holland Center Christian Reformed Church, Lodgepole, SD, is so far off the beaten path, it makes Alton, Iowa, my home, feel congested.
Nothing but endless rolling grasslands all around. Perkins County is not just “big” country, it’s gargantuan. When I pulled up to the church Sunday morning, I couldn’t help wondering how often Holland Center gets a visitor in a place where there are probably more pronghorns than people.
The CRC’s “find a church” list claimed Holland Center is five miles south of Lodgepole, then three miles west. That’s where I found it. You pass just one ranch on those three miles of gravel over nothing but big-shouldered range land so barren cattle have to wander for forage. It’s the deep freeze come January; scorching heat like you wouldn’t believe in July.
Only buffalo are suited for such a nasty climate, and you don’t have to go far to find the place where a state historical marker claims the Last Great Buffalo Hunt went down in 1882.
I wanted to go to church at Holland Center. Call me crazy. I was out in the far reaches of South Dakota anyway last week, so I got myself into the closest motel I could find, twenty miles away. I’d been driving all day, so I walked into a steak house/bar on a downtown street, a place jammed full of cowboys, so full I never got farther than the front door. I asked the woman at the motel desk about other places to eat. Only two, she said. The other one has a Thai cook, she told me, so they serve Thai food.
Two huge men, my age, walked in the place after I ordered, obviously first-timers too. We were the only three customers in the place. Straight out of Hee-Haw they were, bib overalls big as army tents, seed caps on both their noggins, both slightly hard of hearing which made it clear they had no clue what to order from an odd menu. Neither did I. One of them said he’d been in Vietnam forty years ago, but he didn’t know what to make of it either. “This is foreign food,” one of ’em said, shocked. When the owner walked in, an Asian woman, they were chuckling to themselves about only wanting hamburgers. “You a foreigner?” one of them asked. I’m not making this up.
I got up early on Sunday–the denominational listing claimed services start at eight (you read that right). Holland Center isn’t exactly seeker-friendly. I got there a touch early anyway, walked in past an entire family of greeters–five or six kids, grandpas and grandmas all in a line. Hearty smiles on handsome people who looked trim and scoured by the unforgiving country they call home.
I didn’t expect people to get out of pews when I walked in, but they did, stepped right out to greet me. It was precious really. Pastor shook my hand warmly. They share him with a Methodist church down the road; hence, the meeting time: “he’s got to get back to Prairie City.”
People told me he does far more than meet their expectations. “I call him a ‘Reformed Wesleyan,'” an old man told me, grinning. He introduced himself by name, then told me that his grandad, more than a century ago, had moved out to Perkins County from Grand Rapids when his wife came down with asthma. He’d been furniture maker. They stopped near Lodgepole, which, likely as not, was actually a town back then.
They started a church up out in the country, he told me, when they heard about a bunch of Dutch people (Dutch as in,”from the Netherlands”) who had some land just west a ways. So they put the church in the middle and called it Holland Center. Made some sense, I guess.
I liked the “reformed Wesleyan” preacher, quite frankly. He tried his best to get out some baseline principles about being a believer, took scripture that morning from the very beginning, book of Genesis, because he wanted to establish some foundations in a manner that he gambled was a bit airy and even a little professorial. He apologized for not hitting a scripture in his usual fashion. He wanted to establish what was absolutely basic about the Christian faith.
He held forth from a clump of hand-written notes, but hated standing behind the pulpit so much he’d come out in front time after time after time to explain a point more vividly. It was hard not like a preacher that earnest.
But that Sunday morning, the real sermon was right in front of me, where an old man who’d gone out of his way to greet me sat in pew with his wife. He’d not introduced me to her earlier, made no mention of her, even though I stood right there beside him–and them. He didn’t regard her at all, a gender attitude I determined was less chauvinistic than simply cultural.
But once the pastor started defining basic principles, that old rancher laid his arm around his wife, held her shoulder, stroked her back, let her know he was there, almost as if they were kids again, spooning in that tempered moment in all of our lives when, try as we might, we can’t go a minute without touching the person we love. A couple times, with his hand, he smoothed her hair in the back, and when he did I realized I’d never seen an old man do that before, not in church, not in public. It was moving, beautiful.
When the worship was over, he looked for me again as he helped his wife into the wheelchair he’d left in the aisle beside them, a wheelchair I hadn’t noticed. “The wife’s got Parkinsons,” he told me, smiling at her, at his love, as if they were newlyweds.
There are two hymnals in the rack at Holland Center CRC, one of them, for the record, is the blue Psalter Hymnal in plastic covers that will keep them from harm for a ton of years yet. Music?–traditional. And get this: a male organist!–amazing.
And the singing?–nothing to write home about, dominated, oddly enough, by men’s voices. Somehow–maybe it was because last week was the week of Harvey Weinstein–somehow I found that beautiful too.
Way out there in the country, where once upon a time the buffalo roamed and proghorns stayed alive in grueling winters by following those endless herds through snow that could well have killed them had the bison not stamped it down, way out there twenty miles from Tip Top Motel and Suzy’s Thai menu, last Sunday morning, I worshiped the Lord in an old white frame church on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and was blessed by a sermon on some basic Christian principles.
What a joy.