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Retired pastor’s sedentary life leads to ‘armchair ministry’

By Brenda Velasco

At 90 years of age, Pastor John Van Ens prays daily for people and places that graced his life during his active years of ministry. 

Now living a sedentary life because of chronic health problems, he continues ministering to people through his “armchair ministry.”

Rev John Van Ens
Rev. John Van Ens in his armchair

“I call it ‘armchair ministry,’ because I use my laptop to communicate through email and Facebook, and my cell phone to talk to people who need my prayers,” said John, who has served as a Christian Reformed church pastor since 1952. 

“I receive calls and emails from people I’ve known for years,” said John, who worships at New Hope Christian Reformed Church.  “Some live in Sri Lanka, London, Australia and Florida to name a few.  I pray with them or listen to many each week.  Sometimes people share that a loved one has passed away or is ill, and I give them support.  It’s a form of ecumenical outreach.”

John met many of his armchair ministry contacts in places he served, such as Germany, Sri Lanka, Guam and Los Angeles. 

“I’ve been blessed to see places and meet people with diverse backgrounds,” he said. 

John and his identical twin brother Clarence were born in 1919 on a dairy farm near Grand Rapids, Mich., and grew up active in the Christian Reformed Church in Byron Center, Mich.

“Clarence is five minutes older than me,” he said, noting that his parents were not anticipating twins.

John again followed his brother 30 years later, choosing to enter seminary to become a pastor.  Clarence had gone into seminary right after college, while John explored other options.

“After high school, Clarence and I attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids.  He studied for ministry, and I studied education.  During World War II, I enlisted as an Army Cadet in 1943,” John said.  “I married in 1944 and went to Germany to work with the United States Constabulary Forces and as an editor for the Intelligence Department.”

While in Germany, John felt called to pastoral ministry.

“I remember standing in one of the cities in Germany, looking around, and seeing this once beautiful place in ruins, all bombed out and thinking to myself, there must be a better solution,” he said. 

John also visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany, which he said was a moving and emotional experience. 

“I immediately thought, what we need are Bibles instead of bombs,” he said.  “I heard the inner voice of the Spirit calling me and I needed to respond to it.”

After leaving the service in 1947, he returned to the United States, where his wife Sylvia arranged for him to teach math at a high school in Chicago. 

After two years of teaching, he and his wife returned to Grand Rapids so that he could study at Calvin Seminary.  After graduating in 1952, he heard from a Sri Lankan pastor at the seminary about a Dutch Christian Reformed Church in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, which was seeking two pastors. 

John told Clarence, who was interested, so the twins answered the call to head overseas together, stopping enroute in Europe to visit their ancestral land of the Netherlands, and also to visit France and Monte Carlo.

“Sri Lanka, known as the Isle of Eternal Sunshine, the Pearl of the Orient, and the Gem of the East, has vast tea and rubber plantations,” John said. 

John and Clarence served 16 years in Sri Lanka, working as pastors in seven churches and teaching at the Christian Reformed Seminary.

“When we arrived we found a struggling, drifting Reformed Church,” he said.  “Our mission was to reform the church from within and call the people back to the Gospel of forgiveness of sins as taught by John Calvin.”

The brothers preached at five worship services on Sundays and encouraged outreach ministry to the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. 

“To work side-by-side with my brother was a form of encouragement and challenge,” John said.  “As the old proverb says, iron sharpens iron.”

They ministered to people who were mostly Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and English-speaking Dutch Burghers.  They worked with both Sinhalese and Tamil people who have a history of conflicts and tension between them because of religious and ethnic differences.  The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist, while the Tamil are Hindu. 

“The people were accepting of us, and treated us with respect.” John said.  “We would praise God in all languages.  The people had so much vitality and faith in God.”

The brothers organized a church youth federation, a youth choir, a music guild, a new church and distribution of Bibles. 

John and his wife, who had no children of their own, returned to the United States to adopt their first child, a daughter.  They later adopted three more girls—one Sinhalese and two Dutch Burghers—from a Sri Lankan orphanage near their home.

The night before they left Sri Lanka, he ordained three young men into the ministry.  Two of them have served for 40 years.

In 1968, John headed to Los Angeles as pastor of an inner-city Christian Reformed Church.  Five years later, he went to Vermillion, S.D., as campus pastor at the University of South Dakota.  His pastoral work later took him to Florida, then Guam, where he spent four years as pastor of the Faith Presbyterian Reformed Church.

After retiring in 1982 from full-time ministry, he and his wife settled in Long Beach, Calif., where he served 12 years as part-time pastor of evangelism of a Christian Reformed Church.  In  1995, they moved to Apopka, Fla., near Orlando, where he served as part-time minister of visitation at a Christian Reformed Church. 

In 2000, because of declining health, he retired.  John and Sylvia moved to Wichita Falls, Tex., where their daughter Jillian was stationed with the U.S.  Air Force.  Sylvia moved back to Orlando two years later.  John stayed with Jillian, who is his primary health provider.  In 2007, he moved with her to Spokane when she became a nurse at the Spokane Veterans Administration Medical Center. 

John regularly phones his wife, who stayed in their home in Orlando, as well as his other children and his brother in Florida.

John is content that his “armchair ministry” leaves him time for his grandchildren.

“My grandchildren are the joy of my life.” John said.  “I enjoy every moment of the day with them and am proud of what they have achieved.”

His granddaughter, Haley, is active in music ministries at New Hope Christian Reformed Church. 

John was surprised to learn that the pastor there, the Rev. Perry Tinklenberg, was a former student of his at the University of South Dakota.

“Recently I sent a prayer booklet to a friend who’s daughter-in-law died suddenly,” John said.  “I continue to be amazed that God will use an old man to minister the gifts of the Spirit to those in need.  It gives me a deep sense of humility that God uses me even as I head into my 91st year.”

John also works on his memoirs so his grandchildren will remember what he accomplished and the people he met. 

“God has been good to me.” John said.  “My motivation for everything that I’ve done has been through the sinless life of Jesus and that my life is in God’s hands.  I have a great sense of freedom and joy.  The life and resurrection of Jesus assures me that the best is yet to come.”

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