Neal VanderWaal felt the love from both his school and his church. In photo on the left, Neal is pictured in the back row, middle with his fifth grade class. On the right, `13-year-old Neal accepts his Pathfinder investiture certificate from Elder Herr, at the Rockford Church.

February 17, 2022

A boy and a church

Retiree and former educator Neal VanderWaal reflects on growing up in the church and provides lessons on how to keep youth engaged in ministry.

My story begins on December 16, 1911. That's when my dad, Henry VanderWaal, was born in Aalten, Netherlands. My grandparents were Methodists and attended church fairly regularly. They then moved to the United States and settled near Mosinee, Wisconsin where my grandfather tried farming and finally worked in a paper mill.  

My mother, Eleanor Scheufel was born January 9, 1916 in Marion, Wisconsin.  Her parents were Lutheran but religion wasn't a big part of their life beyond going to church on Easter and Christmas. 

When my parents married in 1935, neither church became important and they stopped attending church except for a few times during the year and for a wedding or funeral. During the Great Depression my mother's dad lost his farm and they moved to Rockford, Illinois. In February of 1936, because there were no jobs in the Wausau, Wisconsin area for my dad, my parents also moved to Rockford. 

Elder Ortner and his wife, Alice, who baptized Neal and his family.
Elder Ortner and his wife, Alice, who baptized Neal and his family.

Next to their rented home in Rockford, lived a Seventh-day Adventist by the name of Dolly DuPre. Immediately, Mrs. DuPre began bringing food and helping my grandmother in any way she could. My family loved her despite her “crazy” religion. 

I was born in 1936, baptized as a Methodist, and don't remember that we ever went back to the church despite the fact that it was only a few blocks away.  Religion was ok for others but not for us. One day, Mrs. DuPre invited my grandmother to a series of meetings put on by Elder J.L. Shuler. I went with my grandmother and still remember the large frightening pictures of the beasts of Daniel and Revelation on the stage of the Rockford Theatre. 

My grandmother joined the Rockford Seventh-day Adventist church in March of 1943 but none of the rest of the family had any interest in attending. And then on December 24 of 1943, my dad, a truck mechanic, was pounding on a punch trying to get a piston out of an engine. He didn't have safety glasses on and a piece of steel lodged in his eye. Infection set in, and because there was no penicillin at that time, they finally removed his eye and he was released from the hospital after three months in intensive care. 

During his hospital stay, the pastor of the Rockford church, Elder Avery, visited my dad many times; gave my parents Bible studies and they joined the church in 1944. 

In the little white church on the corner of Myott and Auburn streets, we were welcomed warmly. Everybody opened their hearts and arms and we were loved.  The ladies of the church taught my mother and grandmother how to cook vegetarian meals. We were invited to people's homes and Sabbath was a day we looked forward to eagerly. 

In 1945 I was enrolled in fourth grade in the one-teacher school in a room at the rear of the church. The children of the school were involved in the service almost every week singing or reciting Bible texts and we were always given loud “amens” and hugged and praised. We children and youth were a part of the church family. 

I remember my grandmother's friends especially sought me out and hugged and affirmed me for things I had done or made. For a bake sale, I made a sponge cake.  According to them it was the best sponge cake they had ever tasted and I wanted to make sponge cakes the rest of my life! For a home-economics project, I made a pair of pajamas and got lots of praise even though shortly thereafter a string came loose and one arm came off. 

When I came home from Broadview Academy on weekends or for the summer, I was met with open arms, and lots of hugs and affirmation, because these people were my family and they loved me. I never wanted to disappoint them in any way.  When I sold books as a student literature evangelist in the summers they were interested in hearing stories of my sales and contacts and successes.  Many of the other young people I went to Sabbath School and church with during those years in the Rockford church still love the Lord and are faithful members of the Seventh-day Adventist church. 

Now my parents and all of the older church members are asleep waiting for Jesus to come. Most of them may not have thought they did much to promote the Kingdom of God on this earth but the love they showed a boy who came into their midst lives on. It lives on as I remember the hugs and praise and affirmations I heard from people who loved the Lord and also loved me. Love, the kind they gave me, cannot be forgotten, because it changes us and is what keeps  us going during difficult times. 

Neal, second from left in back, stands next to Pastor Herr who pastored the Rockfort Church for three years. Herr picked up Neal and his sister up everyday and took them to school. He was a great influence to them.
Neal, second from left in back, stands next to Pastor Herr who pastored the Rockfort Church for three years. Herr picked up Neal and his sister up everyday and took them to school. He was a great influence to them.

Today our young people crave this type of love and appreciation and affirmation from adults even though we adults may not think so. Young people don't want to disappoint people who love them and will come on Sabbath to feel the love of adults in church. They want to be included in the service and want to feel appreciated and valued. They wither under criticism whether it is verbal or the looks that say, “I don't like the way you dress,” and will stay away if it hurts to come to church.   

Many of them won't find love anywhere else, including their homes. What better way to show God's love than to love our young people. Programs and youth rallies and mission trips are all valuable but nothing can replace the arms of loving church members in the life of a child or young person.  When God wants to hug and praise our young people He has no one else to do it but us. 

Seventy-nine years ago, in 1943, in the midst of World War II, my family joined the Seventh-day Adventist church for the truth we heard but we stayed for the love we felt. 


Keeping our Youth 

Fact:  Every person, young or old, has the need to be Noticed, Accepted, Loved and Appreciated.  They are looking for ways to be a part of the group and find acceptance from adults. 

Fact:  It is necessary to have a method that reaches out to the young people in the church and let them know that they are Noticed, Accepted, Loved and Appreciated if we want to keep our youth coming to church. 

Fact:  The method must be simple and easy or it won't continue to be used.  It must be effective and bring rapid results. 

Fact:  It must be good for the adults participating in the program as well as for the youth. 

Fact:  It must not be formalized into a program with a name.  It must be completely informal and used by those who truly care about our young people and their future. 

Fact:  Almost everyone has E-mail and can start immediately.

Method:  Designated adults in church have e-mail address for each young person.  Each Sabbath or whenever we want youth Noticed, Accepted and Appreciated, adults send e-mail to youth with the following messages:  “Nice job with the scripture”  “You have a beautiful voice”  “I'm always happy to see you”  “Missed you last week”  “I'm proud of you”  “I'm praying for you”  “You make our church proud”  “We're happy you are with us”  This method works! 


Neal Vanderwaal is a member of the Battle Creek Tabernacle Church.