This month’s profile features Helen Bonzelaar and Nola Galluch. On Sunday, April 7, COS will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Basic English Service. Helen and Nola played key roles in its founding.
Interviewer: Helen and Nola, thanks for being here. Could you take us back to the beginnings of BES? Whose idea was it?
Nola: I think it was yours, wasn’t it, Helen?
Helen: Yes. We were sitting in the COS living room and Gene Rubingh was chair of the Refugee Task Force (now called the Refugee Support Team). I was saying, “But, those people who are taking our ESL classes don’t have the vocabulary to understand soteriology and ecclesiastical terms that are not in their ESL book. Furthermore, we need community to support them.” And so, Gene said, “Would you be chairman?” I said that I would as long as Nola would support us. Just as when COS started, we didn’t know clearly where our journey would go. But we had faith in God that it would happen. We followed the text from Philippians, to empty ourselves and be open to God’s leading. It was so surprising. We found ourselves across the street from all kinds of people who were moving into the neighborhood from all kinds of countries. We discovered new parts of the world right here at our Burton Street entrance. And that’s how it all got started.
Interviewer: Nola, what about you? What was your early role in it?
Nola: I had just been through a very difficult time when I had to stop my work as a Christian counselor – as a social worker and pastoral counselor – because due to my stroke, I couldn’t process things fast enough to work as a therapist. So, I had had to retire early, and I was very depressed; I felt that God had no more use for me. Then Helen asked me if I would like to help start a basic English worship service. For me personally, it was such an answer to prayer! Working with the BES has allowed me to use more of my real gifts and fulfilled my sense of calling more than anything else I have done. At the beginning I filled many roles. It was really a full-time job. I had the responsibility for finding a pianist each week (which was sometimes difficult!), preparing the liturgy, choosing all the songs, doing the PowerPoints. I also did a lot of visiting, and sometimes I preached. Now we have Andrew and Coni and other people doing many of these jobs.
Interviewer: What were some of the early challenges you faced?
Nola: One was learning how to work together. For instance, there were different opinions about how structured or unstructured our liturgy should be. Finding preachers and pianists was often a challenge. During the early years it seemed like we kept running into pressure from various sources to change the purpose and focus of BES. Some BES attenders were internationals whose English was very good—and we have always been happy to include them and we’ve benefited a lot from their contributions. But some of them (and also some COS members) wanted us to change the name to the International Service and to stop prioritizing the language needs of the refugees and ESL students—and it sometimes felt like we had to be very vigilant about protecting this purpose for the service.
Helen: It was hard to find a name. We called it the Basic English Service; we are still not all that happy with the name, but it certainly is descriptive. On the first time we gathered, we looked around. Some of the people were from the standard service but there were five people from Nepal in the group. There were Prasad, and Lal, and others. We had earlier welcomed them as refugees. So, again we said, “Welcome.”
Interviewer: Who invited them the first time?
Nola: It was Peter Sanyasi. And I think it was the second week when they told us that the whole group wanted to be baptized.
Helen: For Peter, it was joining the church and making a profession of faith. He had already been baptized. Some of them came to my basement and we made the mural that is now in the front of the BES worship space during the Advent and Epiphany seasons. The images reflect some of the African new Americans who are part of us, and also the views of people who had come from an animistic-oriented family and had become Christians. The Lord made a circular movement in the world, got Christianity to India, across to Nepal, and now back to the United States that ties us together in a way that we never could have imagined.
Nola: One thing that is clear to me is that the Holy Spirit has been working through this. Our little efforts of starting this, all of the hurdles we had to get over, it never could have come together without the work of the Spirit.
Helen: Jack Roeda expressed it in a beautiful way. At the beginning, he wasn’t so sure about BES. But later, before he retired, he said, “Oh, BES is one of the better things that has happened at COS.”
Interviewer: We have talked about some of the early struggles, but there were struggles as you went along, weren’t there?
Nola: One challenge that we have run into is an expectation on the part of some COS members that people would go to BES until their English improved and then they would come to the Standard English Service. For the most part, that hasn’t happened. I think it’s because of the community aspect – it is a simpler, more intimate style of worship – and the relationships that people have there. However, there have been a few who have made that shift. We also find that students from Indonesia, Korea, and other countries – even teachers, seminarians, and professors – have come to BES. These are people who certainly had enough English to participate in SES.
Helen: Early on, I had hoped to see people from SES integrate into the BES community, but then it began to happen. There are now deacons and elders who are part of BES. And there are people who are part of both worship communities and tie them together. And I praise God for the beauty of the leadership that Joel and Liju have exercised and are doing things that I can no longer do. So, it is wonderful to see the body of Christ functioning.
Interviewer: You commented on the sense of community that people experience in BES. Can you expand on that?
Helen: The community comes in two directions. It’s people from COS reaching out to people from other countries and finding companionship. And it goes the other way too. I can email Prasad in the middle of the night and I know he is working in a factory. And I might get an answer even at that time of the night! So, it’s like family.
Nola: BES is still small enough that almost everybody knows everybody. We get invited to birthday parties and special occasions like that. I’m thinking too of our prayer times in the BES service, where we have an open mic. When we first started, it was mostly Helen and I sharing prayer concerns. Now it is everybody; even people who need somebody to translate will share their concerns.
Helen: I think one of the most beautiful symbols of our unity is the circle at the end of the service when we are holding hands and smiling across the circle. Or frowning or whatever. But we are brothers and sisters.
Interviewer: So, it seems to me that now after ten years, BES is pretty well-established and pretty stable. Would you agree?
Nola: Yes. Last year John Witvliet pointed out to me that by approving the two copastors, Council demonstrated that COS now owns BES as an important part of its ministry. It is huge that Andrew has stayed on as the main pastor of BES. God has used him so much!
Helen: We have evolved to the point where people from other countries are now taking the leadership in BES.
Interviewer: Which brings me to my last question for you. What’s your vision for the future of BES?
Helen: I look at that little cloud of witnesses, the kids, when they leave BES for children’s worship, and I see them joyfully running together. They are our future. To see some of the young people of BES on committees of the larger church, operating our sound equipment, helping to coordinate the services, that’s encouraging.
Nola: It was with Andrew’s help that we formed a BES committee with as many internationals as Caucasian Americans. It is so good to get their perspective! Often, they say things that we had no idea they were thinking.
Helen: And part of that richness comes from their spirit-filled lives. They are living close to God – they keep our faith fresh.
Nola: Many of them have been through such trauma in their lives and their faith has been a matter of life and death to them. So many of them have a very strong faith and there is much we can learn from them. The church community has been a large part of their lives, not just on Sundays but throughout the week.
Helen: My prayer is that we can all dare to share a meal at a table with some of these people from other countries and dare to eat some of their cauliflower goodies as well as our fruits and vegetables from Western Michigan. The future of BES is that the Holy Spirit wants to give us a vision. It’s not something we create out of our own desires.
Nola: And now our children have the opportunity to get to know people from around the world. I heard one of our international BES members say that it is wonderful to be able to worship with people from so many countries. We don’t have to go far away to a mission field. We have this opportunity right here with some of the people amongst us who are not yet believers. Our worship is enriched by the presence of Pentecostals and Catholics and Baptists, all of them with backgrounds that we can learn from. So, one vision I have for the future here is that we can more and more learn from the internationals among us and drop some of the feelings of superiority that we Americans tend to have, that we can become better learners.
Helen: And listeners. It’s joy. It all ties back to emptying ourselves, to not being so “I” oriented. To become more “You” oriented.
Interviewer: Any last comments about the birthday party?
Helen: You know, even the wooden shoes among us celebrate birthdays with great fervor. Abraham Kuyper once left a council meeting early to go home and celebrate his birthday. So now we have our tenth birthday coming up and I realize how important it is to celebrate our birthday out loud and in public. This is part of what God gave us in the last supper – celebrating out loud and in public. And that’s what we will be doing.
Interviewer: Thank you, Helen and Nola.
This interview was conducted by Jim Bradley on February 22, 2019