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Senior M.Div. student Ruth Estell may be what’s called an “old soul,” but don’t be fooled by her mild manner.

Born to RCA missionary parents and raised in Taiwan, Ruth came to the States to earn her undergrad and graduate degrees from Wheaton College, and then returned to China to teach English.

Ruth with children from the group home in Taiwan

After ten years, she heard about an opportunity to work and live in a home for children and adults with disabilities in Taiwan. She jumped at the chance to do more ministry and Bible teaching.

In Taiwan, Ruth volunteered to teach an English Bible study in a men’s maximum security prison—with no guards in the room.

“At first I wasn’t so sure,” she admits, “but I ended up loving it. The men were very respectful and appreciated that I was willing to come there.”

She saw God at work, even witnessing some men get baptized and grow in their faith.

Ruth planned to take over for the director of the group home in Taiwan, but after a year and a half, the woman grew inexplicably hostile toward her.

Ruth started to believe the negative things her teammate was saying about her, and for the first time in her life, she doubted if God really loved her. She found herself in a downward spiral emotionally, spiritually, and physically. After praying about what to do, she knew she had to leave the mission field.

She returned to the U.S. to live with her mother, who had retired to Zeeland, MI. Their family had spent many summers on furlough in the RCA mission houses in Holland, so Ruth knew a lot of people in the West Michigan area.

“When I came back, I thought I was done serving God forever,” Ruth admits.“I would have been content to do whatever just to pay the bills.”

However, many people who knew her story were praying for her, and many reached out with love and support. Some shared their own stories of being hurt by brothers and sisters in the church.

A lot of healing took place, and Ruth realized that she still had a deep desire to serve God in her work. As she began to feel a call to chaplaincy, she knew she would need a Master of Divinity, and that led her to Western Theological Seminary.

Two and a half years later, Ruth is on track to graduate this May. She hopes to work as a chaplain in a retirement home or hospital.

“I am a third culture kid,” she says, “and Chinese culture respects the elderly, so perhaps that infiltrated my heart. I love the elderly.”

Two of Ruth’s internships have been at retirement homes, but she also completed a year of church ministry and one summer term of Clinical Pastoral Education at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where she worked with children and adolescents and at a women’s addiction recovery residential house.

“My abilities and confidence have grown,” she shares. “Children and adolescents are very honest. I have dealt with a lot of anger but also some very honest questions. You don’t always have the answers, but you can be there and listen to them.”

This year, Ruth is interning at Holland Hospital, where God is growing a love for the stranger in her. Many times she can only have one or two conversations with patients before they leave the hospital.

Harp class, led by Dr. Carol Bechtel

Ruth is part of a group of musicians that WTS professor Dr. Carol Bechtel is teaching to play the harp. At the hospital, Ruth plays the harp therapeutically—a ministry that can touch some patients and families in a special way.

“One lady I visited was very formal when I went in as the chaplain. I could tell she highly respected the clergy,” recalls Ruth. “She thanked me for coming and asked me to pray but didn’t have much to say. Later I came in just to play the harp, and soon she started sharing about her diagnosis, how she was feeling, her family… More pastoral care was done when I wasn’t there as the ‘official’ chaplain.”

Other times, patients are unresponsive or restless, and the harp music puts a calm over the room and the family. Sometimes the music frees people to have a good cry.

“I can’t answer ‘Why would God let this happen?’ or ‘Why don’t I feel God’s presence?” but I can acknowledge feelings and encourage people to reach out to God,” Ruth says. “Sometimes I run out of words, and then the music lets them rest in that.”

If people come from a Christian background, hymns remind them of times God spoke into their lives. Recently a dying patient began singing along to the hymns Ruth was playing on her harp, creating a beautiful moment that touched the family deeply. Later they asked her to play at his funeral.

Being able to play the harp for people is a “tool in my tool box,” Ruth says. “It’s just another way to care for people.”

Ruth is also grateful for Dr. Suzanne McDonald’s classes on “Aging and Dementia” and eschatology. These classes have helped her to establish a theological foundation and to understand how to care for people at the end of life.

“What I like about Western is that it’s not all about heady, intellectual knowledge,” she shares. “The professors realize they’re preparing us for serving actual people. It has kept me humble.”

Thinking ahead to graduation, Ruth says, “I think chaplaincy will be a good fit for the passions and gifts God has given me. Retirement home, hospital, hospice…I’m open to wherever God might lead.”

The Van Raalte Fellowship is a new partnership between Western Theological Seminary, 3sixty ministries (a community development non-profit), Pillar Church, and All Saints Anglican Church. The two-year fellowship allows students to earn internship credit, participate in a mentored peer group, and worship with Pillar Church and All Saints Anglican Church while helping to connect the church with opportunities for justice in the city of Holland.

Three of this year’s Van Raalte Fellows are first-year seminary students Alisha Riepma, Katie Alley, and Leah Wielenga.

A week in the life of a Van Raalte Fellow involves attending classes at WTS, meeting in a peer group and individually with Rev. Jenna Brandsen ‘15, pastor of formation for mission at Pillar Church, and having lots of conversations with community members and neighbors. At least once a week, the fellows eat at the Community Kitchen at WTS. On Sundays, they work as interns at Pillar Church, and Katie helps with the children’s ministry. They can also attend morning and evening prayers at All Saints Anglican Church throughout the week.

Every other Sunday, the fellows host dinner at Alisha’s house, inviting members of the Holland community to eat with them. Recently they were joined by two Holland police officers and got to hear about their experience in the city. Another evening, they invited a student who lives at the Friendship House to talk about intentional communities at the seminary. Soon they hope to invite a woman who has her MSW and is living in low-income housing doing grassroots social work in Holland.

Their goal is “to live outward-focused lives.” An important focus of the internship is living right in the neighborhood they serve. Each week they walk through the city and pray to have conversations with their neighbors.

“Something has changed within me to expect conversations with people, to seek out those conversations, and to find ways that I can really know my neighbors,” shares Leah.

One of these conversations happened when Leah noticed a neighbor sweeping up a broken bottle on the sidewalk. She stopped to chat and he explained that when underage drinkers don’t want to get caught with an open container, they throw it out of their car. In the past year, three neighborhood dogs had to be put down because of serious infections in their cut paws.

She quickly discovered that her new friend, Ed, was the neighborhood go-to-guy. He pointed out who lived where and shared that he used to make pots of coffee for the police officers and firemen in the area who would come and chat in his driveway. One time, he helped a woman who was being harassed. He already knew the police were looking for a suspect who had harassed other women, so he was able to put her in contact with them to help catch the guy.

“Community development is not about always having big plans and big goals,” explains Leah. “It’s about knowing what matters to people and knowing what people have to offer and care to invest.”

The fellows’ goal is to connect people to their communities and specifically to help the church connect to the city in a real, meaningful way.

“It’s like there are underground cords connecting people already, but they just don’t know they’re there. It’s our job to unearth them,” Leah shares.

Alisha Riepma

Alisha Riepma

Katie Alley

Katie Alley

Leah Wielenga

Leah Wielenga

One way Katie gets to know her neighborhood is by walking everywhere she goes and shopping at the stores closest to her home. That way she makes sure her mind is always focused on who the people are around her.

This internship has caused Katie to form friendships with neighbors like the greeters at her local Meijer store, the workers at Kilwins where she gets a weekly ice cream cone, and her mailman.

“Being in an internship that says, ‘your job is to notice’ has changed my mindset to recognize that these are members of my community who are often overlooked, they are my neighbors, and I benefit from their work, so I want to know them,” she explains.

Alisha has noticed that topics from her classes at WTS spill over into her life as a Van Raalte Fellow. Whether at church or in a conversation at the Community Kitchen, she has “a good theological framework.”

For Katie, the internship has stripped away a lot of preconceived notions about people and has caused her to ask different questions in class.

Because the fellowship is so new, there is a lot of openness and flexibility for the fellows to explore different passions. Katie has developed a passion for one-on-one connections that have led her to pursue chaplaincy. She is working with Jenna to visit shut-ins through Pillar Church. Leah is realizing that it is easy for her to connect with people who are more “rough around the edges.” She hopes to use her passion for drama and improv to plan some improv workshops in the community. Alisha is thinking deeply about what church could look like with a more community-oriented mindset.

Katie recommends the internship for students who feel called but don’t know what they want to do yet, because it allows the chance to converse with lots of different people and be involved in different types of ministry.

“The leadership has been really excellent. I feel like we are learning from people who genuinely care about us, and the city, and the church,” Katie shares.

Above all, the fellows are humbled by the work God is already doing in the city of Holland.

“It’s so easy to think I’m going to bring Jesus into the Community Kitchen, and then I’ve been so surprised and proven wrong that Jesus is already there,” shares Katie. “Every time we sit and eat with some new friends, I think, ‘maybe this person doesn’t know the Lord,’ but then we start having conversations and they know more about the Bible than we do! Or they invite us to church! It’s like a really beautiful un-learning of things, where God keeps showing me where I’ve been wrong the whole time. It’s been exciting and so humbling.”

“It’s not enjoyable in the moment to be wrong,” agrees Alisha,“But later it’s enjoyable to know that God is so much bigger than what I perceive things to be, and He’s at work everywhere and in ways more expansive than I imagine.”

 

 

Check out the Housing page for more info about the Van Raalte Fellowship.