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Have It Your Way: Pleasant Valley had it all

It all started in the late 70s.

The idea came to Jeanette Dahms as she sat in church one morning—about three minutes or so after she'd been whacked in the ear by a high-velocity Frosted Mini-Wheat, winged by Abigail Andrews's little Josh, who was just starting preschool. Jeanette's daughter, Marilynn, was in her last year at Dover College, studying to be a teacher, and Jeanette herself had been a teacher for years. So Jeanette had this brilliant idea that she and her daughter ought to take all the preschool kids and bring them into the basement of the church about the time the really heavy worship stuff started. That way, she could fashion church out of crafts and lessons and songs, something perfectly apropos for the tots. The council went for it. The rest is history.

Maggie Frazier had a calling for kids too—the older kind. In the early '80s she and Gregg, her new husband, a star tennis player in college who looked as if he'd just stepped off of Baywatch, were appointed youth leaders. The program was a mess. Kids didn't want to come. They were too busy. So Maggie had this idea that they should have their own church on Sunday nights—more sharing, more small-group stuff, more songs with actions, more intimacy. More goofiness, really—kids being what they are. And it worked. So after a few months, the Fraziers asked the council if they could meet in the school instead of the basement, and the council gave them their blessing.

In '84, an adult Bible study led by Morris Kuiper, a young philosophy professor from the college, got huge. Not only did it recruit energetic students, but it also attracted two dozen of the more doctrinally-inclined members to regular after-church gatherings. Kuiper led them slowly through all kinds of material—from Calvin's Institutes (that took three years alone) through Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry (they watched the movie once they'd read the book, then rented a Greyhound and visited Sauk Center, Minnesota, one weekend, to better understand the matrix of someone so poisoned to American Protestantism). In 1988, Kuiper himself approached the council with a request they couldn't deny, Kuiper being as charismatic (no, he didn't do tongues) as he was. Could they have a Sunday service once a month, a special service patterned after Calvin's own Genevan congregation's practice of worship? Sure, the council said. God bless you.

A year later, Bessie Langstraat (not to be outdone) designed a series of services meant to bring the Holy Spirit more tangibly into the hearts of the congregation. She wanted people to feel God's presence, so she passed out tambourines, covered the windows with cardboard, and projected the words of lively praise songs on a huge screen she rented every Sunday. People raised their hands, clapped them, and used them heartily in robust hugs. Some of Kuiper's group raised an eyebrow at all the exuberance, and that made the council uncomfortable too. So Bessie, Carl Mayfield, and the Feddars decided that they'd meet on their own at dawn every Sunday, since their kind of people recognized sunrise as the moment the Spirit was most likely to fill their hearts and souls. The council breathed a sigh of relief. Bessie promised to be gone by ten, when the ordinary church was scheduled to meet.

Chris Mortenson got together with Mark Richards one day and lamented the fact that people from Pleasant Valley Church couldn't get the kinds of business deals they needed—if the church wanted to watch its budget grow. The two of them were convinced that if there could be a special service for Sunday golfers—say, Wednesday night or so—that the two of them (not to mention other movers and shakers) could get out on the links on the Sabbath and strike the kinds of deals that didn't have an inch of slice on them. "A regular service?" the council asked. "Write it up any way you want," the golfers said. And they did. Fore.

Mark Blanchard, a southpaw, met with the council about two years ago in order to indicate to them how ungainly it was for left-handers taking communion. "You know how it is when we eat? We kind of get in the way," he told them. "So I'm wondering if we can't have a separate Lord's Supper for left-handers sometime—say, every other celebration." He looked around the room and noticed a few of his brothers holding pencils. "Besides, it's a kind of solidarity." What could the council do?

Then last year it was two new groups, coming en masse. A whole number of guys who'd been to Promise Keepers wanted like mad, they said, to keep up the inspiration, the high. If it was good for men to get together at Shea stadium, they said, why not, say, once a month at Pleasant Valley too? Didn't have to be in church either. They could meet out on the football field—which of course isn't used but eight times or so a year anyway.

Invite guys from other churches too. A number of them high-fived right there in the room. They even broke into song—"Face to Face/Warrior to Warrior." How could the council vote against the leading of the Spirit?

It wasn't a month later that the couples who'd attended Cursillo, still high from their mysterious weekends, came with a similar request. When the council wanted to know how their particular service might be undertaken, they said it was private—kind of a couple thing. But everybody in church knew that the men and women who'd attended came home with renewed zeal, and nobody doubted that what went on in those secret meetings (and in the marriages that were enriched by them) was anything but the Spirit's work. So the Cursillo alumni met once a month—and not in church. That was part of the magic, they said. They had a separate service at a monastery-like meditation center about a hundred miles away.

Our church has also become a symbol of a kind of multi-culturalism during the past decade, and the movement keeps right on marching.

Just a few years ago, the people of Dutch extraction (those not already involved in one of the other movements) asked to have their own service after the pattern of the old Dutch ways—psalter music, men and women on opposite sides of the church, offering bags on long poles, lots of dour faces. The whole business was created by the 150th anniversary of Scholte and Van Raalte's coming to America in the late 1840s. Peppermints were handed out at the door.

The congregation's African Americans met together on alternate Sunday afternoons and created a gospel choir that churches all around the city regularly hired out. After awhile, they weren't in Pleasant Valley at all, popular as they became.

The Koreans, proud of their heritage and not interested in giving up their language, eventually grew to a number so significant they could simply leave Pleasant Valley and start their own community fellowship—with the council's blessing, of course.

Today, one look at Pleasant Valley's calendar is enough to convince anyone of the Spirited life of this church. My goodness, you can hardly scratch in a special offering because the days are so incredibly full. It's a wonder. It really is.

Oh, yes, did I tell you about single moms worship? You can only imagine how meaningful. And widows, of course. My goodness, I never even mentioned Pleasant Valley's seniors. They started their own Sunday afternoon service in 1985,1 think, and they've always paid for their own retired pastor to minister specifically to their needs.

I must be forgetting someone. Dairymen?—of course. We've created a late-morning service for them. That way they can all milk at the same hour. Parents with teens—everybody knows there's nothing more humbling than having teenagers. These people need each other. The artistically gifted meet once a month to create poetry and billowing cloudlike wall hangings. Every three months or so there's victims church; it's not even mentioned in the bulletin.

Bulletins—oh, my word, bulletins. We've got only fourteen now, because paper prices have skyrocketed. We had to do some consolidation. We had presses running all week. Nobody can say that Pleasant Valley's an iceberg. Nobody.

Anyway, get this. Last week, the young people came to the council and asked whether the entire congregation could worship together. It was something they'd not seen, they said, and wouldn't that be really different? That's right, everybody—little kids, big kids, redheads, rednecks, educated, educa-ble, old, young, beefy, anorexic, Dutch American, un-American, Francophone, and Spanish-speaking, tongue-speaking, praise-speaking, public speakers, cold hands, warm hands, raised hands, golfers, gofers, gaffers, red and yellow, black and white, people precious in his sight, folks in stretch pants, sweat pants, training pants, white shoes, red shoes and platforms, big hair, no hair, hairshirts—they asked if everybody could come together just once for worship. "What do you think?" they said.

What a day that will be! Praise the Lord!