In the May 2017 edition of The Commons, we featured this column written by Western’s oldest living alumni, Rev. Wallace Stoepker (’46). Sadly, we received news that Rev. Stoepker passed away on December 13th. The full obituary which includes a wonderful tribute to his life and ministry can be found below:
“On December 13, 2019, the Reverend Wallace (Wally) Robert Stoepker, a lifelong servant of God and loving husband to Dorothy May Stoepker for over 73 years, entered into fellowship with all the saints and with Christ, our Saviour.
Wally was born on June 21st, 1921 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the son of Seward and Mary Stoepker, who grew up playing in neighborhood parks, making soap-box derby cars, and peddling newspapers with his dog, Snoopy. Through his years at Central High School he exhibited gifts for ministry at Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. He graduated from Hope College in Holland, MI in 1943 with a degree in philosophy. During college, he raised money for the Salvation Army playing multiple musical instruments in downtown Grand Rapids. He was the oldest living graduate of Western Theological Seminary, having graduated in 1946.
Following graduation, Wally and Dorothy were married on May 16, 1946. Dorothy was the joy of his life and he courted her every day with devout, unconditional love.
Wally faithfully served six congregations for 40 years: Clymer Hill Reformed Church, Clymer, NY; Ferry Memorial Reformed Church, Montague, MI; Aberdeen Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI; Brooklyn Reformed Church, Brooklyn, OH; Greenwood Reformed Church, Kalamazoo, MI; and Maranatha Reformed Church, Wainfleet, Ontario. His ministry was pastoral, with an emphasis on acceptance and love. His preaching continued at Friendship Village through 2019 where he and Dorothy lived. His last sermon challenged us and himself to be content and helpful.
Wally was a lifelong tennis player, boater, campfire builder, musician, and he loved to go on picnics with the family. He and Dorothy spent summers initially at Silver Lake and then at Kline’s Resort in Vicksburg, MI with a wonderful community of lifelong friends.
In addition to being a devoted husband, Wally was a loving and supportive father of four children, nine grandchildren, & eleven great grandchildren. With love and honor, he is remembered by his sons Dr. David Stoepker & wife Carol, Daniel Stoepker (dec.) & partner Brad Kosko (dec.) & Barb Cripe (dec.), Tim Stoepker & wife Jane; daughter Ruth Stoepker Wilson & husband Charles (dec.); grandchildren Elizabeth & Matt Duncan, Sarah & Dr. Leland Webb, Andrew Stoepker, Jennifer & Mike Jura, Dr. Jeremy Stoepker & Dr. Tanveer Ahmed, Tom & Julia Stoepker, Marta Stoepker & Nate Rott, Dr. Peter & Brooke Stoepker & Sophie Stoepker; & great-grandchildren Gabe Webb, Mallory Webb, Alydia Jura, Carlie Jura, Avery Jura, Skyler Jura, Peter Stoepker, Malini Stoepker, Nicole Stoepker, Liam Stoepker, and Everett Stoepker.
Wally, Dorothy, and family are thankful for the care and support at Friendship Village where they have lived for two years.
A service of the resurrection will be held at Southridge Reformed Church, 6726 Texas Drive, Kalamazoo, MI 49009, on 12/20 at 11am. Visitation will be at Langeland Family Funeral Home at 6-8pm on 12/19 from 6-8pm. Memorials can be donated to “The Reverend Wallace and Dorothy Stoepker Scholarship Fund”, Western Theological Seminary 101 East 13th Street, Holland, Mi 49423 and to “Open Doors”, PO Box 50102 Kalamazoo, MI 49005-0102.”
Western Theological Seminary (WTS) is pleased to announce it has received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to fund Churches in Mission. The project aims to learn with and from congregations as they discern God’s movement in their neighborhoods.
Churches in Mission will extend the work of the Formation for Ministry office and will be led by Shari Oosting and Dr. Kyle Small. The seminary will deploy the $1 million grant to invite two cohorts of up to 15 churches each to discover the needs in their community, to clarify congregational mission, and to determine how to join the ongoing work of God in their neighborhoods.
Project Director Shari Oosting recognizes the timeliness of this opportunity, “The context of Christian ministry in the U.S. is changing quickly, and we’re thrilled to dedicate the next five years to listening, discerning, and celebrating local mission projects.” Kyle Small, Director of Research and Learning, sees this as an extension of WTS’s partnership with the church, “We love the church, and we desire to prepare leaders for the church in mission. This generous gift provided by Lilly Endowment is WTS’s opportunity to accompany congregations and prepare leaders to discover and join the Holy Spirit’s movement in and through local communities.”
Western Theological Seminary has a long tradition of putting beliefs and convictions into visible objects or form.
This shows up in the shape of the atrium, the redesigned chapel, the circular architectural elements appearing throughout the seminary’s interior, and now, in five new pieces of art in the Jack and Mary DeWitt Learning Center.
Several months ago, WTS commissioned local artist Joel Schoon-Tanis to create four paintings around the theme “The Heart of Western Theological Seminary.” On October 23, Joel revealed and explained his paintings entitled, “Spiritual Development,” “Ministry,” “The Church,” and “Worship.” They can be seen on the east and west walls of the main level of the learning center.
Art expresses who we are and who we aspire to be. One can say that form also forms.
The form of our buildings, art, and programs not only expresses our beliefs and convictions—it forms our students, staff and faculty. So, too, do the books we read.
In that light, this year the faculty assembled a collection of personally recommended books, which are named “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” and are accessible on the second floor of the learning center.
These works of rigorous theology, spiritual piety, biography, history, philosophy, and literature have formed this faculty and community. The books are honest “witnesses” to God’s truth and, like art, they are witnesses of what Western has been, who we are, and who we aspire to be.
2011 M.Div. graduate Nathaniel Bull was commissioned to paint “The Great Cloud,” which was delivered in July and hangs next to the faculty’s recommended books collection.
Photo: Julie spends some time with former residents and Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson (right)
Rev. Julie Myers was the first WTS student to graduate with a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) alongside her Master of Divinity in 2017.
Three years earlier, she had been reluctant to begin seminary, turning in her application one day before the due date. At that time, she had just begun working at Benjamin’s Hope (a living community for adults with disabilities), but her church recognized her gifts of ministry and encouraged her to attend seminary.
At WTS she took as many Disability and Ministry courses as she could simply because they interested her. She was later surprised to realize she had enough credits to earn the GCDM. After graduation she was ordained and worked at Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI as their special needs coordinator before eventually returning to work part-time at Benjamin’s Hope and at Western’s Friendship House while she completes a Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree.
The Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House is the seminary housing where students live in apartment pods with young adults with cognitive disabilities (Friends) and learn from each other. As resident advisor, Julie does administrative work, schedules house events, attends meetings, and makes herself available for the Friends.
She moved into the Friendship House this past March, along with her two teenage children—the first family to live in the house since its formation in 2007.
“I love living in the Friendship House with my kids!” she says. “I am in the final stages of a divorce, and although it has been difficult, God has blessed us abundantly over and over again.”
Living among those with different challenges and gifts has been eye-opening and enriching for her children.
“They are learning to practice hospitality—and in a healthy way,” she says, keeping an open-door policy to the residents while learning how to set boundaries for self-care.
In 2016 Julie was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Sarcoidosis. “Essentially, it can attack any organ in your body and cause it to work against itself,” she explains. Previously in remission, the disease flared up at the end of the summer, right as classes were set to begin.
“The timing could not have been worse,” she says. “I don’t remember much about the first days in the hospital except for what the ER doctor said: ‘Ma’am, your calcium levels are higher than I have ever seen in my career… your blood is beginning to crystalize, and your kidneys and liver are beginning to shut down. We are trying the best we can to stabilize you.’ I heard what he was saying, and I knew it was serious, but I couldn’t focus on much. All I felt was an incredible sense of peace from God. He was there beside me, holding me, keeping me alive. I wasn’t afraid.”
Eventually she recovered enough to return home, but she has to take high doses of steroids and other medicine to keep the disease in check. The side effects are significant, but this is the only treatment for Sarcoidosis, as there is no cure.
Julie was worried about keeping up with schoolwork, but WTS staff and faculty have been very supportive. Her own work around disability and ministry reminds her to be kind to herself, listen to what her body needs, and set realistic expectations. She realizes she is now living into what she has studied so long.
For her Th.M. project, Julie is examining how people with cognitive disabilities experience and process grief and trauma. She is hopeful that her Th.M. coursework will give her the research and writing experience she’ll need to join Dr. Ben Conner’s Doctor of Ministry Disability and Ministry cohort next June.
Julie would like to continue living and working in the Friendship House until she completes both the Th.M. and D.Min. degrees. She wants to write about disability and ministry and hopes to teach in an undergraduate or seminary setting some day.
In regard to her own chronic illness, “I feel confident that God’s got this,” she says. “He is the Great Physician and healer. I will be forever grateful for the place I am in now, even though it may seem like my life is in turmoil (which it is!). This has brought my children closer to the Lord, and we are thankful for all of our blessings.”
Photo: The Girod Fellows and other research assistants meet for a discussion over lunch with their mentor, Dr. Todd Billings.
In 2017 Western began accepting applications for the Girod Fellowship, a full-tuition scholarship for students with outstanding research and writing skills who display eagerness for deep theological learning and have a heart for the church’s ministry. Girod Fellows also serve as research assistants to the seminary’s holder of the Gordon H. Girod Research Chair of Reformed Theology, Dr. J. Todd Billings. Now with three full-time Girod Fellows, the program is drawing academically-outstanding students to Western and forming thoughtful, theologically-minded leaders for the church.
James Schetelich became the first Girod Fellow during the 2018-2019 school year, and two more fellows followed this year—Anna Erickson and Jacob (Jake) Chipka. The fellowships have helped to widen Western’s drawing power. Jake learned of the Girod Fellowship from WTS Admissions Director Jill English during her visit to Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, where he was serving as an athletics chaplain. James and Anna heard about WTS through professor recommendations at Wheaton College. Anna was attracted to Western because of its Reformed background and evangelical direction, as well as its ecumenical spirit.
Another big draw is the opportunity to work alongside Professor Todd Billings.
“Dr. Billings is so brilliant and has shaped the church in really formative ways, yet he writes and speaks with such humility,” Jake says. “He’s so cognizant and comfortable with the idea that he doesn’t have all the answers. I think for Dr. Billings, study is a form of worship, being drawn into the mystery of God.”
One way Dr. Billings models this humility is by encouraging the Fellows to give feedback on his writing. For the last several months, they have been busy reading chapters for his newest book, tentatively titled The End of the Christian Life.
Dr. Billings writes as a member of the cancer community, as well as one who has studied Christian death and dying extensively after he received a $25,000 grant from the Louisville Institute to research “Congregational Life and the Dying: Renewing Resurrection Hope in a Medical Age.”
The End of the Christian Life, set to release in the fall of 2020, will explore the idea that a daily embrace of mortality is an important part of discipleship. It will examine cultural factors that prevent this exercise as well as personal stories from members of the cancer community, sociological research, and theological insight.
“I don’t want feedback that’s just compliant,” Dr. Billings says. Rather, he encourages the Girod Fellows to be brutally honest—something they get more comfortable with as they get to know him.
“80% of the time their feedback leads to some type of revision,” he explains. “One time I started a chapter completely over, and I think it ended up better.”
Dr. Billings encourages the Girod Fellows to research areas of their own interest, as well, and take ownership of the events that the Girod Chair hosts. Some of the 2019-2020 events include weekly Pastor-Theologian Lunches, a colloquy and public panel on the theology of marriage and singleness, and a lecture in February on “An Augustinian Theology of Mass Incarceration.” His assistant, WTS alumna Katlyn DeVries ‘19, plays a large role in organizing these events and mentoring the Fellows as well.
Since the Girod Fellows are all in-residence M.Div. students, they have also become active leaders on campus through participating in chapel, serving as representatives on student council, and living in the Friendship House alongside young adults with cognitive disabilities.
A large focus of the fellowship and the work of Dr. Billings in general is doing theological research and study on behalf of the wider church. James says this is done not in a remote “high-tower” but more cooperatively, in order to be theologically rich and applicable to the church’s needs.
“Remember that you are small,” Anna recalls Dr. Billings telling her. In other words, remember that Jesus is already at work in the church, and that studying these topics is merely entering into the work He’s already doing.
Jake, Anna, and James have research interests of their own that they hope to examine through the Fellowship as they prepare for ministry.
Jake is passionate about those on the margins of the church, especially those experiencing mental illness. He is currently working with Dr. Billings on a project that examines illness, healing, and the Gospel, comparing how the medical world approaches these topics. His background in studying medicine as an undergrad is well-suited to this work.
Anna is currently working with Academic Dean Kristen Johnson on a research project around discipleship and the Great Commission. She would like to delve deeper into American Evangelicalism and is also interested in reading Karl Barth and learning more about the Reformed tradition.
James is enthralled by John’s gospel in the New Testament and would love to dive deep into it—something he often talks about with Dr. Billings while taking him to medical appointments for cancer treatments. James plans to apply for Ph.D. programs and is interested in becoming a pastor-theologian.
Several summers ago, Dr. Billings held listening sessions with local pastors about the scope of the Girod Research Chair, gauging what they were most interested in—was it the events? Opportunities for congregational learning? He found that pastors were most excited about the Girod Fellows—a program for forming thoughtful, theologically-minded leaders for the church who can engage in difficult topics with humility and depth.
That’s what the church needs, and we trust that’s what the Girod Fellowship is accomplishing.
Interested in applying for the Girod Fellowship? Connect with our Admissions department today!
The Gordon H. Girod Research Chair of Reformed Theology
“To be Reformed is to hold within one’s heart a deep conviction concerning the most basic truths set forth in the Word of God.” That was the sentiment of Gordon H. Girod, for whom the Chair is named. Girod was a passionate preacher and pastor who cared deeply about Reformed theology.
In 2013, Girod’s daughter Carol and her husband, David Van Andel, gave a generous gift that would ensure the continuation of the seminary’s focus on training pastors committed to deep theological engagement in the Reformed tradition.
This combination of care for the church and deep theological thinking exemplifies the focus of the Girod Research Chair today.
Current Girod Initiatives:
The Girod Fellows Scholarship
PTL! Pastor Theologian Lunches for students
Girod Grants and Colloquy Groups for pastors
Events featuring scholars and speakers
Upcoming Girod Events:
February 10, 1:30pm – Dr. Joseph Small, author of Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World
February 27, 7pm – Dr. Greg Lee, Wheaton College, public lecture on “An Augustinian Theology of Mass Incarceration”
 Girod, Gordon. The Deeper Faith: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort (Grand Rapids: Reformed Publications, 1958), 7.
Western Theological Seminary and Cook Library Holiday Hours:
Sat & Sun: Closed
Regular academic hours resume Mon, Jan 27.
Notes on End of Year giving:
- Please postmark your end-of-the year gift by December 31, 2019 if you wish to be receipted for calendar 2019.
- WTS will be closed between December 21, 2019 and January 1, 2020 for the Christmas Holiday. If you wish to make a gift of stock/securities in this timeframe, please contact Andy Bast (Director of Development) at 616-566-3555 (cell) or firstname.lastname@example.org for routing information.
Thank you and have a blessed holiday season!
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2019 FROM 4:30-6 P.M. in Mulder Chapel
Join Dr. Jay Dolmage, Professor at the University of Waterloo, for this important talk on creating environments of access and universal design for learning. In this talk, we will collaborate to address the ableist attitudes, policies, and practices that are built into higher education. We will also interrogate the minimal and temporary means we have been given to address inequities, and the cost such an approach has for disabled students and faculty. Finally, we will explore our own ableist biases, apologies and defenses in an effort to build tools for anti-ableist education.
Dr. Dolmage is committed to disability rights in his scholarship, service, and teaching. His work brings together rhetoric, writing, disability studies, and critical pedagogy. His first book, entitled Disability Rhetoric, was published with Syracuse University Press in 2014. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education was published with Michigan University Press in 2017 and is available in an open-access version online. Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability was published in 2018 with Ohio State University Press. Dr. Dolmage is the Founding Editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies.
In this age of Facebook and meals eaten on the run, people are losing the ability to slow down and converse face to face. Many don’t have a chance to connect with and learn from those living in vastly different financial circumstances. Although not everyone knows it, Western Theological Seminary provides an opportunity for a cross-community meal every day of the week.
Nearly 28 years ago, WTS and Community Action House (CAH) came together to launch the Community Kitchen. WTS invites the community to use our facilities, and CAH provides staffing, food, and volunteers to provide meals seven days a week nearly every day of the year.
Lunch: Monday-Friday from 11-12:30
Breakfast: Saturday & Sunday from 9-10:30am
Sometimes people who know about the Community Kitchen wonder who it’s intended for. It’s for the neighbor down the street in between jobs. Or the mom living in a hotel with her kids who doesn’t have a stove but can tell her family, “We’re having pancakes for breakfast this weekend!” It’s for the college student with no time to eat if he doesn’t swing in. It’s for seminary staff and students who want to listen to the wisdom around the table as guests talk about their experiences.
The ALICE population in Ottawa County is growing (ALICE is a United Way term meaning Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed). With the affordable housing crisis in Holland, the rising cost of living, medical costs, transportation, groceries, and the challenge of finding daycare, a full time job (or two) may not be enough to cover basic needs.
The Community Kitchen is a constant support for anyone seeking a healthy meal and welcoming community. When people come with regularity, they have the joy of entering into each other’s lives and really getting to know each other. Guests share their past experiences, their challenges, and what brings hope. What a privilege to encourage and to be encouraged.
The CK team consists of Community Kitchen Coordinator Felicia Thompson who runs the kitchen, preparing around 150 meals a day, and Melissa Roessing who supervises Community Action House’s Food Security programs (which includes the food pantry and Community Kitchen). But volunteers are the heart of what makes the kitchen function. They’re preparing fresh salads, cutting up fruit, serving food, washing dishes, cleaning tables, and greeting those who enter by name. That is some of the beauty that happens on a daily basis.
People come regularly because this is more than a meal. It’s a chance to see friends, to meet new people, and to experience community.
If you already come to the Kitchen, we’ll see you soon! But if you haven’t yet, consider this your formal invitation: come and join us at the Community Kitchen to nourish your body and your soul. Also—we are always in need of more helping hands if you’re interested in volunteering to keep this community institution serving!
–post contributed by Melissa Roessing
Join us on Monday, November 4 for the 2019 Bast Preaching Festival featuring Wheaton College chaplain, Timothy Blackmon! Information about speakers, workshops, and registration can be found here: