Post Author: Susan Sytsma Bratt
Fifty-one years ago my maternal grandmother was sitting on a suitcase in Grand Central Station, crowds pressing in, sounds swirling around, smells lingering. Her new husband had gone off in search of some food for the final leg of their journey to their new home in Holland, MI. My grandpa clutched their one lone American coin, a quarter, and selected large navel oranges and some dark chocolates to share with his new bride – luxuries they did not have the opportunity to possess in a post-war Germany with limited opportunity, limited promise, limited security.
My grandparents’ family could not understand why they would want to leave their home, why they would want to start over. Starting over as an immigrant is humbling. Grandpa headed off to a third shift job at Krampton’s Factory each day. His advanced degree in agriculture was not of much use without his own farm. Grandma went to work at Lemmon Fresh Dry Cleaner and spent her days listening to English on the radio and from the customers, as she steamed, pressed, and pleated clothing. Her degree in home economics was not of much use without her own home.
I joined the Presbyterian Church (USA) after being baptized, confirmed, and formed by Dutch Calvinists. Like my grandparents, I paid the cost of passage and started over in the ordination process. After going through the ordination process in the Christian Reformed Church for three years, I chose to leave my motherland. The shift for me was significant, like immigrating to a new country. I had a Master’s of Divinity but no congregation, no call, no status. Yet the new land contained opportunity, promise, and security for me to have full citizenship. Like my grandparents who worked odd jobs out of their field, I found work at Ann Taylor as I navigated toward ordination in the PC(USA). Ivy League-educated, I folded stacks of cashmere sweaters, listening to the conversations of women fingering suiting; I offer pastoral care while I try to help the client find her funeral ensemble among the displays of clothes.
My grandma shares how she and grandpa made their way in a strange land through the gift of community. Their church, Graafschap Christian Reformed Church, embraced them. Women taught my grandmother English. Bonds of friendship forged. Over the last 50 years they have made a new home with rich friendships.
I, too, have made my way to the land of the PC(USA) through the gift of community. From seminary professors to other women like me who were contemplating immigration, I forged many bonds of support and courage. “They aren’t your people,” my grandma would say to me as I contemplated the move. She knew the pain of saying goodbye, the grief of starting over, the sadness of living apart from those she held dear. Yet, she chose to leave, chose to risk, chose to start over.
There is much to love about this new land. My grandparents were soon able to buy their own farm, send their three children off to college, and pass on their Calvinist faith to the next generation. They reminisce that they could not have done all of this in the “old country.” They make pilgrimages time to time and keep close kinship with family and friends, never forgetting where they came from, what forged them, what carried them here.
Much like my grandparents made a home in the new land of the United States, I have made a spiritual home among Presbyterians. The PC(USA) is not the land of milk and honey. It is an imperfect denomination filled with imperfect people. Yet, it is a wonderful community where I am fully able to live into my call as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, to claim my voice, and to use my gifts.
I also realize the PC(USA) needs me, needs the gifts that the CRC gave me of Biblical literacy, theological depth, confessional formation. I go back and visit the “old country” of the Christian Reformed Church, drawing from the resources of Calvin, Kuyper, and the Catechism. I keep close kinship with my sisters who have chosen to stay, who are called to remain. I try not to forget where I came from, what formed me, what carried me here.
We have come a long way from sitting on that suitcase and savoring that first meal of an orange and chocolates. I’m grateful for the journey, and for the cloud of witnesses who gifted me with an abundance of love and grace, and a spirit of courage to forge a path to new lands.
Susan Sytsma Bratt is an Associate Pastor at Northridge Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. She drinks way too much coffee & enjoys exploring the world with her toddler Emma and husband Peter.
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Used with permission