CRC Pastor with Prophetic Voice Dies
We were sitting in the basement of Coit Community CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a fellowship gathering on a recent Saturday morning when the conversation turned understandably to focus on Albert Hamstra.
A long-time and beloved member of the congregation and a prophetic voice for the underdog, Albert had died unexpectedly earlier in the week from a massive heart attack. He had just returned home from a yoga class on Tuesday, July 13, when it happened.
At the age of 71, Hamstra seemed to be a picture of health as he came to church on Sundays, smiling and nodding to people whenever he walked in and took a seat next to Mindy, his wife of many years.
“He was a real gentleman. He was a teacher to me,” said Earl Hogle, a member of the congregation.
William Lugrand, another member, added: “He was a brother who had a big impact on my life. He was awesome to me.”
Always low-key, except when defending the rights of people living on the margins, Hamstra touched many members of our congregation in multiple ways.
“We’re shocked. I can’t get around it in my head,” said Jerome Burton, the pastor of Coit Community who officiated on July 24 at Hamstra’s funeral.
“Not many people know what he did behind the scenes for the poor and how he stood up for those in prison,” said Burton. “He would focus on what is on God’s heart. Look at what he did across the street.”
An apartment building will be built across from Coit, and, as a result of lobbying from Hamstra and a few others, will set aside several apartments for people who depend on a fixed income.
“We’ve lost the conscience of our church. He was always living for Jesus Christ,” said Burton.
As a commissioned pastor at Coit, I spoke to Albert Hamstra often about matters of ministry. I always felt better after those conversations. I also remember Albert telling me once how, when he and Mindy were serving as missionaries overseas, he spent a year translating the Bible from the original languages. That was simply something he wanted to do.
Born in Rensselaer, Ind., Albert married Mindy in 1974. Ordained in the CRC, he and his wife served with Christian Reformed World Missions (now Resonate Global Mission) in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Hong Kong before moving to Grand Rapids so that he could serve as Asia regional director and director of special projects for World Missions. He retired in 2017.
“He had a knack for getting the best out of people and then getting out of the way,” said Joel Hogan, who served as international director of World Missions before retiring a few years ago. “He lived his life with such integrity. He was an instrument of God’s grace and peace for so many of us.”
Gary Bekker, former director of World Missions, said, “He had a relentless, persistent passion for racial justice. But he was always humble.”
And Lois Craven, who worked for many years for World Missions, said, “Albert always believed in me and encouraged me. He gave wise counsel and helped to clarify issues.”
Albert Hamstra loved to read, especially on the history of the Middle Ages, and in recent years almost entirely about race in America. He was not only a voracious reader, say family members, but also a gifted writer, preacher, and thinker.
In the past several years, Hamstra was involved in Congregations Organizing for Racial Reconciliation (CORR), and he helped to guide the work of the Micah Center in Grand Rapids, which seeks to connect churches with community institutions to address various social justice issues.
Before he died, Hamstra was working with Jordan Bruxvoort, former director of the Micah Center, on a biblically based curriculum geared to helping people fight racism.
Serving together at the Micah Center, Hamstra and Bruxvoort also addressed issues of immigration, worker’s rights, racial equity and payday lending.
“Albert put a lot of heart and time into causes he supported,” said Bruxvoort, who now runs the Naomi Center to assist workers and immigrants. “He came to work seriously but didn’t take himself seriously.”
With the backing of Hamstra, Bruxvoort took up the case of two immigrants who came to South Dakota as the victims of human trafficking.
“We found the support to hire a lawyer to help these workers obtain work permits. They have since started their own finished carpentry business.”
Because Coit Community CRC’s sanctuary is small, Albert’s funeral took place at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids. Along with Jerome Burton, Bruxvoort participated in the funeral by reading Scripture.
“Albert cared about me and was with me every step along the way,” said Bruxvoort. “We came up every year to visit him and Mindy. My kids loved him.”
Preaching from the book of Proverbs during the funeral, Burton said, “Albert spoke up for people who couldn’t speak for themselves. He worked hard to bring justice to our community and to the world.”
Two of Albert’s six children gave remembrances of their father at the funeral. It was clear they had lost someone who was very dear to them. He was a father who took time for them, they said; he helped them to realize the world held a great deal of meaning and that it was up to them to take part in it.
“Love was a living reality coming through his character and faith,” said Jacob Hamstra. “He taught us to take up a task and to go out into the world to do something that matters. He showed us a different way.”
Rena Dam, Hamstra’s daughter, said her father was many things — including being a gardener. One of his greatest loves, she said, was tending the garden with Mindy at their home in Grand Rapids.
“He cared so tenderly for that garden,” she said. “Through nimble hands, my parents created the space for that garden. He was all in for” appreciating God’s creation.
She added that, even in death, her father sought to honor life and see it go forward in a healthful way. Hamstra willed his body to go to the University of Michigan out of gratitude for its research in congenital heart defects. The life of her son, Malachi Dam, is indebted to the university’s research in that area, she explained.
“We’ll miss my dad so much,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “He did so much and touched so many lives.”