Remembering Gerald Vandezande: Prophet and Friend

by Brian Walsh

Matt Redman’s song “Blessed be your Name” is a powerful testimony to praise in the face of both joy and sorrow.

Blessed be your name
in the land that is plentiful
where your streams of abundance flow
blessed be your name

Blessed be your name
when I’m found in a desert place
though I walk through the wilderness
blessed be your name.

Redman has it right. Blessing the name of God is a radical act that happens whether the “world’s ‘all as it should be’” or we’re “on the road marked with suffering.” And so Redman invites us to sing:

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord …

But then in the bridge he pushes the song to a place that I seldom can go. He calls the singing community to a moment of faithful profession that often leaves me silent as the rest of the congregation sings. You see, when we sing:

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

I usually find myself with a closed mouth and tears in my eyes. I can’t sing those lines so I let my sisters and brothers sing them for me.

You see, when I think through the folks whose death has most deeply impacted me over the last decade and a half I end up with an average age of around 28. Three babies and a whole group of friends ranging in age from mid 20’s to their late 40’s. I just can’t sing “you give and take away/my heart will choose to say.” Mostly my heart has not been able to make that choice to sing “blessed be your name” in the face of all of these deaths.

But this morning I sang those words. And as I sang the tears poured down my cheeks. I sang them for my friend Gerald Vandezande. Gerald died at the age of 77 on Saturday morning, July 16. And in the face of his death my heart can choose to say, “blessed be Your name.”

Perhaps because I know that Gerald would want me to make that choice in the face of his death.

Perhaps because I can say to my God this morning, “You have given us a beloved friend and prophet in Gerald Vandezande. And now you have taken him away. Blessed be Your name. Blessed be the God and Father of Gerald Vandezande. Blessed be the God of Jesus Christ who has given us this rich gift in Gerald. Blessed be the Holy Spirit who empowered this servant in a powerful ministry of justice.”

Fifteen years ago I asked Gerald to preach at my installation as a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto. I wanted Gerald to be the first to give voice to the shape of our campus ministry. I wanted a respected leader and beloved friend to sketch out a vision for campus ministry that had depth, breadth and passion.

Depth, breadth and passion. That was Gerald Vandezande. The founder of Citizens for Public Justice and a member of the Order of Canada, Gerald was a pioneering visionary for Christian political action in this country. Indeed, the scope of his influence can be seen from the friends that he kept.

Politicians from all political parties would not only given him a listening, but would seek his advice on matters of both policy and personal life. Within the context of Christian faith in this country, he has had a profound impact across the denominational spectrum. And he has also been at the forefront of various multi-faith coalitions, bringing together people of faith on a variety of common causes.

And you don’t accomplish all of this without depth, breadth and passion.

Gerald’s faith was deeply rooted in Jesus Christ and in a daily, radical and integral reading of Scripture. Never satisfied with cheap proof-texting, Gerald wanted to plumb to the depths of the biblical story and to find there the deep resources for a life of justice-seeking discipleship.

For Gerald, justice wasn’t a “special interest” precisely because Gerald saw justice as rooted in the very covenantal character of God, the world and human society. Justice, as it were, “goes all the way down.” To not seek justice is to be out of sync with the very nature of reality. Injustice goes ‘against the grain’ of creation and is an affront both to the God who created all things and to the neighbour created in the image of that God.

It is this kind of spiritual depth that I long for in the lives of the students in our campus ministry. So it was only natural that on a number of occasions we invited Gerald to come and spend an evening with our students. It almost didn’t matter what he said when he visited us, what mattered most was that students would meet an older man who had a radically profound Christian spirituality.

That depth of faith was matched by a breadth of vision. Rooted in a Kuyperian worldview of the redemption of all of life, together with a multidimensional philosophy of how all things are integrated, Gerald could address any issue (and I mean any issue!) with wisdom and insight and quickly come up with a credible Christian perspective on the matter at hand.

And it was the way in which he could bring together economic, political, social, ethical, legal and religious dimensions of an issue that made his analysis stand out. For example, he would say that you can’t talk about abortion as if it were simply a moral issue without attending to the socio-economic, educational and communal dimensions of the matter.

He would similarly say that you can’t talk about something like a pipeline down the MacKenzie River Valley without addressing aboriginal traditions and land claims, ecological risks, international relations, or our society’s addiction to an abundant and cheap supply of fossil fuels.

Again, this kind of interdisciplinary, holistic breadth is something that we encourage in our campus ministry. We want our students to be people who can make connections and not be lost in the narrow vision of their disciplines. Students who can see things whole, students who can seek the restoration of all of creation through their studies. That’s why I wanted Gerald to speak at my installation.

And Gerald’s breadth of vision also drove the generous hospitality of his public life. While deeply committed to his own Reformed community this was not a man in a cultural ghetto. Not only was his political presence decidedly non-partisan, he also loved to reach out across religious, racial and cultural divisions. Around Gerald Vandezande multi-faith and multi-ethnic coalitions naturally emerged.

Finally, Gerald Vandezande was a man of profound passion. Whether he was addressing child poverty, ecological justice, aboriginal rights, the role of the church in society, social service cuts, homelessness, or the budget, Gerald spoke and lived out of a passion that I found deeply compelling. Admittedly, sometimes Gerald’s passions could also be overwhelming.

Sometimes his passion and his energy would leave the rest of us thinking that there must be something wrong with us because somehow we couldn’t keep up. And it was a deep frustration for Gerald when his own body couldn’t keep up with his passion and his desire to be busy for justice. But this passion, this embrace of the pain of others, the pain of all of creation, was animated by a vision of restoration.

Gerald Vandezande lived out of a hope for a coming Kingdom that needed to be anticipated in every daily act now. And that is the kind of passion, the kind of hope, and the kind of daily practice that we seek to engender in campus ministry.

Gerald Vandezande was a prophet in our time. He was a mentor for many of us, and I am honoured to say that he was my friend.

Gerald knew that ours is a plentiful land, and yet for many it is a wilderness. He knew that the road of faithfulness is marked with suffering and that darkness closes in through injustice and all other kinds of brokenness. And yet he would sing with all of the breath that was in him, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And today, I join the chorus. Today I can sing,

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

My heart can make that choice out of gratitude. It seems like the only thing that I could possibly sing today.


Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

5 Responses to “Remembering Gerald Vandezande: Prophet and Friend”

  1. amanda m

    My thoughts and prayers are with you, Gerald, and his family.

  2. Dion Oxford

    A prophet and friend indeed. He will be missed.
    Thanks for this Brian

  3. Lorraine Land

    Thank you Brian for the blessing of your beautiful written tribute to a man who was a blessing in the lives of so many …. Many of us would not be in the places we are today if it were not for his vision and inspiration ….

  4. bert hielema

    Dear Brian,

    Thanks for posting your thoughtful and beautiful response honouring my dear friend Gerald.

    Bert Hielema.

  5. Flyn Ritchie

    Brian – Thanks for your insightful comment about Gerald. He was a prophetic leader for the church right across Canada as we grappled with how to act justly in our culture.


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