The Journey to Seminary

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him,
They have no wine. And Jesus said to her,
Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
(John 2:3-4)

Roughly a month after my departure from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in January 2004, I attended an inquirer’s weekend held at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in Princeton, New Jersey, which I immediately fell in love with. The seminary put me up in their guest house and the program included faculty talks, meetings with admissions counselors, and visits to classes. Because I became aware of my own calling in part through preaching, I attended a preaching class. Before the weekend was over, my hair was on fire for the Lord and to attend PTS. Still, red flags were unavoidable which arose primarily in my interactions with the students.

During lunch on Friday in the cafeteria, for example, it became abundantly clear that not all the students were comfortable hanging out with someone twice their age—out of an inquiry group of sixty, only a handful of prospective students were second career. The vast majority of students could not have been more than 25 years of age and many of the faculty that we visited with were younger than I. Given a choice between attending a play called the Vagina Monologues[1] and a film, The Passion of the Christ,[2] all but one inquirer (other than myself) opted to attend the former, highlighting not only an age difference in interests but also a less-obvious theological distinction that became more obvious as the weekend wore on.

In Friday chapel, for example, a senior preached about his experience with evangelism on the New York subway—his evangelism consisted of wearing a PTS tie shirt so that everyone could see. He then proceeded to ridicule apologetics—which I had identified on my PTS application as my primary interest. I later learned that PTS offered no classes in apologetics and that the seminary’s commitment to theological diversity consisted primarily of hiring faculty who self-identified as liberal or evangelical. It was unlikely to find faculty with experience or interest in missions or evangelism.

PTS offered a wonderful sendoff dinner Friday evening where each inquirer was asked to talk about themselves and their experience. The typical student responded that they enjoyed their young group experience in high school and wanted to continue that experience by working for the church. When my turn came, I opined that I felt called to ministry but did not know if I could enter seminary because I still needed to work to support my family and PTS did not offer part-time studies. I later completed my application to PTS, but withdrew it after finding work at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) and seeing Maryam’s relief to see me working again.

Over the next several years, I despaired of being able to being able to attend seminary full-time as I visited other schools, studied Greek and Hebrew, and continued to lead adult Bible studies at Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC).

When my sister, Diane, developed a second round of breast cancer in 2006, I made a special effort to visit her in Philadelphia after Christmas. She had started chemo-therapy unsuccessfully in the fall and planned a new round of chemo after the holidays. To cheer her up, I bought her a DVD film, Last Holiday,[3] which starred Queen Latifah. The film featured a plot where a woman was diagnosed with a fatal disease, blew her life savings on a final holiday to visit a European hotel employing her favorite celebrity chef, and, then, learned that she had been misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, Diane was not misdiagnosed and she died unexpectedly on Monday, February 12th due to complications accompanying her treatment.

Diane’s expected death left the family gasping.

When Mom called called me at 6:30 a.m. that morning, a friend, Ming, and I were commuting east down route 66 just before the Beltway. I called my brother, John, and returned to Centreville to drop off Ming and pick him up. John and I then traveled to a hospital near Springfield where she was being treated and my parents were waiting. They traveled there earlier that weekend to visit, Diane, at the end of her week under care for a reaction to the chemo. On Sunday night, however, blood clots developed, she had a heart attack, a stoke, and, then, lost consciousness—among her last words were to ask for her brothers.

When John and I arrived at the hospital mid-morning, she was in the intensive care unit on life-support; nothing more could be done. The person I saw lying there no longer looked like my sister; she had departed. I consoled Hugo while we waited for their pastor to arrive. At that point, scripture was read; prayers were offered; and Diane was removed from life support.

Funeral services were planned that week for Thursday in Philadelphia and Saturday in McLean where Diane would be interned in the family plot at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church. I planned to attend the Saturday service locally, but my dad put the arm on me to eulogize Diane at both services so I changed my plans. Other than family, the only one that I knew attending the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield service was my best friend from high school, Rev. Jonathan Jenkins; yet, I drew comfort from the company of the many strangers as I mourned my sister that evening. At the service in McLean, many of my colleagues from OFHEO attended and began looking at me differently after that point forward.

Over the following year, I began to think differently about the idea of part-time seminary studies and in March of 2008 I drove to Charlotte, North Carolina with a friend, Jeff Snell, to attend an open house at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS). From the moment we walked in the door, it was obvious to me that GCTS was a different kind of seminary. Many of the inquirers were older and obviously considering a second career in ministry; many more of the inquirers were African Americans; and the entire curriculum was available to part-time students taking classes over long weekend visits. I applied; I was accepted; and I began classes the following August.




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Marine Corp Marathon


Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race,
I have kept the faith.”
(2 Tim 4:7)

Marine Corp Marathon

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the summer of 1987, Maryam and I spent about two weeks visiting relatives over the Fourth of July. Having successfully transitioned into Finance and Tax Branch, I found myself in the midst of a long research project in the office and busy with a pastoral nominating committee in my church. While not exactly bored, I needed inspiration to motor through the doldrums of a summer in the Washington heat.


I went to my supervisor in late July and proposed to alter my schedule so that I could have a two-hour break over the lunch hour to train for the Marine Corps Marathon, which is normally run the first week in November. He approved of the idea and even helped me get a key to the building to start work promptly at 6 a.m.

Stretching My Workout

Training for my first marathon was a heady move for me because I had never previously run over ten miles. Ten miles was a benchmark for me because I ran a 10 kilometer race while at Michigan State University and would often run ten miles in those days “just to clear my head”. But a marathon was 26 miles and I was already 34 years old—everyone that I talked to called marathon running a “young man’s sport”. I never met anyone else who had actually run one, but I had a bit more than three months to train and set my goal simply to finish. I figured that I could run ten-minute miles pretty much forever or “til the cows come home”, as we used to say down on the farm.

Lunchtime Fun

Training over the lunch hour turned out to be more fun than I had imagined. The Economic Research Service had a locker room in the New York Avenue office. From there, I could run down New York Avenue past the Treasury Department and the White House to the mall. Oftentimes, I would watch the president’s helicopter take off from the White House lawn and one day I just about ran over the FBI director as he ducked out of an office on 15th Street next to the

Oftentimes, I would watch the president’s helicopter take off from the White House lawn. On one occasion I just about ran over the FBI director as he ducked out of an office on 15th Street next to the Old Ebbitt Grill. Cutting across the mall, I was able to run across the 14th Street bridge into Virginia, run along the Potomac River, and back across Memorial Bridge—the route favored by military runners who were often supported by comrades dispensing water. As I got stronger, I could then proceed past the Lincoln Memorial, up the mall, and around Capital Hill before returning to the office, a run of about 8 miles. One could not imagine a more pleasant run.


As the race approached in October, I began taking longer runs on the weekends, especially Saturdays. In finishing a 20-mile run, I started having a lot of pain which I simply could not ignore. I had to finish up my run walking in pain like I had never previously experienced.

It was still bothering me on Tuesday when I tried running again over the noon hour. As I was suiting up in the locker room, I asked some of my friends if they had ever had this problem. In turn, they asked: “Did you drink any liquid? Your problem sounds like dehydration.” Opps. I had never trained drinking anything. “My coach in Junior High School told us that drinking water would lead to cramps.” Apparently, my coach was badly informed—there were no runners’ magazines or Internet back then. From that day, I began stopping to drink water as I trained.

Race Day

On race day, I drove to the Marine Corps Memorial which serves both as the starting and finishing point. As I lined up, I joined the more than seven thousand runners. They were packed so tight that it took several minutes after the gun went off to even begin the slow trot north up the route 110 to the Key Bridge, which crosses over the Potomac into Georgetown. In Georgetown, spectators lined the streets and it was clear that not everyone trained adequately or paced themselves properly. There I saw a former Secretary of Agriculture bent over and heaving along M Street.

Capital Hill

The run up to Capitol Hill was a breeze with runners chatting and waving at the television crews along the route. By the time we reached the Hain’s Point the runners began to “hit the wall”, where endurance becomes more challenging. At that point, I remember asking a handicapped runner in a tricycle vehicle for a ride (only half joking).

Back to Virginia

I reached a critical point on the 14th Street Bridge, when I wiped my forehead only to find salt crystals. I began freaking out, at which point a fellow runner talked me back into sanity. The final stretch on route 110 was labored enough that a fast walker could have bested me. Still, I made it to the finish line, had my photograph taken, and collected my metal. I too 4 hours and 15 minutes, meeting my goal of running ten-minute miles.

Follow up

The following year I began training earlier. I was on track to run eight-minute miles, but I over-trained, got sick, and never ran another marathon. My knees gave out in 1989 making such distance running too painful. In the years that followed, I began swimming laps instead.


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Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.
If they say, Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason; …
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths”
(Prov 1:10-11, 15)

In the third and fourth grades, I attended Brent Elementary School[1] which required that we meet a school bus every morning, but on other occasions I walked there or rode my bicycle. Generally, I crossed Good Luck Road, walked to Jodie Street, followed Jodie all the way to the Carrollton Parkway. Going right on Carrollton Parkway, I could cut across Brier Ditch by going up the hill to Charles Carroll Junior High School and down the other side which had a sidewalk. But that route was dangerous if the usual bullies were hanging around when it was safer to go left on Carrollton Parkway cutting over to Lamont Drive. Turning right on Lamont Drive took you all the way to the school, but it was a much longer walk and more difficult because of the hills.

The bully problem around Charles Carroll stemmed from the fact that the school sat on a hill surrounded on one side by Brier Ditch and on the other side by a deep creek. For a long time, the only way across the creek on our side was to cross on a fallen tree. So if someone picked a fight with you, they would simply say in front of all your friends: “I will meet you at the creek.” If you did want to fight or be pushed into the creek, it was a long walk home down Lamont Drive. Everyone was happier when they later built a reinforced steel bridge across the creek.

In third grade, I had a friend named Michael who I used to enjoy working with in class. He and I built the only working telegraphs in our class that year, but the following year he started hanging around with a gang that enjoyed picking fights on the playground during recess. One day in recess, he threw sand in my face and grabbed the kick ball that I had been playing with. When I cleaned the sand out of my eyes and went to retrieve my ball, a gang fight broke out. Michael began throwing punches while his gang harassed me. I threw the gang off my back and fought back with Michael until the teachers broke up the fight. They sent us to the aid station where the nurse cleaned up all of Michael’s blood; they then sent us to the principal’s office where our parents were called and we were sent home.

Michael never reformed, but he always kept a nervous eye on me. Apparently, most of his victims did not fight back. We shared a shop class later in eighth grade where he spent the hour sharpening wooden knives on the sander to threaten people with—including the teacher. By the time we reached high school, Michael disappeared into the juvenile detection system never to return.



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Latin American Missions

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And a ruler asked him, Good Teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life? …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him,
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have
and distribute to the poor, and you will have
treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
(Luke 18:18-2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As my time at Cornell University grew closer to an end in 1979, my anxiety grew because I had accepted admission, I thought, to the doctoral program only to learn later that my admission was contingent on maintaining a straight-A average. As the son of an economist, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life living in my father’s shadow if I did not finish a doctorate and I had no contingency plan for finishing up. I therefore explored options that would allow me to improve my Spanish and continue in Latin American studies. My uncle John suggested that I consider spending some time overseas working in missions with the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

The RCA sought missionaries that would live and work in Latin America so I was eager to apply. The interview required a psychiatric examination so I made a day-trip to Princeton, New Jersey to meet with an evaluator. There I took a series of written tests, including a Rorschach test and an opportunity to draw a recreational scene. In going over the Rorschach test, the evaluator seemed surprised that I noticed an increasing use of color in ink blots, as if no one had previously noticed. He also seemed interested in the tennis game that I drew, because it pictured me with my best friend who was also considering ministry.

In the interview that followed, no mention was made of my examination, but focused more on the ministry requirements, should I enter missions. The interviewer pointed to the relational component required for effective missions work, while I was more concerned with the technical requirements, having just finished graduate work in agricultural development. When we discussed salary, I flinched—working full-time for the RCA I would earn less than in the internship that I had had the previous summer working for the federal government. If I had completed a seminary degree, he explained, the RCA could offer me a higher salary. However, the conversation broke down when the interviewed told me that the RCA required at least a ten-year commitment of missionaries.

Ten years!

I had been thinking of working in missions for two or three years, but ten years was outside the scope of my thinking. In 1979, I was single and only 26 years old. I had never planned activities more than about five years into the future. What woman would consider even dating me knowing that I earned only a meager income and would disappear to parts unknown for an entire decade? No wonder that the interviewer passed over my examination results quickly; the idea of a ten-year commitment freaked me out and I could not continue the discussion. I left the interview distraught over my school situation and the prospect of never enjoying a decent job and normal family life.

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Boundaries Revisited

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was,
and when he saw him, he had compassion.” (Luke 10:33)

Boundaries Revisited

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the summer of 2002, Pastor Rob Bromhead at Centreville Presbyterian Church preached a sermon which referred to a book by Henry Cloud and John Townsend called Boundaries. What is a boundary? Cloud and Townsend write: Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t (25). The sermon intrigued me. That afternoon I went on-line and ordered a copy of the book.

Reading through Cloud and Townsend, two points made a big impression on me.

The first impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s reading of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-35. They ask: why do we call the Samaritan good rather than great? They observe that the Samaritan saved the life of the man assaulted by robbers and cared for him (this made him “good”), but the Samaritan did not depart from his business trip to take care of him; instead, he delegated the man’s care and continued his trip. In other words, the Good Samaritan did what he could, but maintained healthy boundaries on his care giving.

This insight into healthy boundaries in care giving impressed me greatly because for years anxiety about not being able to “save the world” had left me feeling powerless to initiate simple steps of charity that were well within my reach. The healthy boundaries displayed by the Good Samaritan therefore empowered me to take steps to become more charitable myself. While I still could not save the world, I could offer charity to the needy person in front of me.

The second impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s observation about abuse. Abusers are people who disrespect other people’s boundaries. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries; it is their responsibility to respect them. Both parts are important in reducing the relational uncertainty that often causes pain, anxiety, and stress.

Thinking about stress, I remember working years earlier for a manager who was a screamer—if you offended his sensibilities, he threw a loud tantrum. After experiencing a couple of these tantrums, I went to a friend who knew him better to ask why she continued to work with him. She responded that she really enjoyed working with him because once you knew what his hot buttons were, life was easy—he was very consistent. In other words, my screaming manager had well-formed boundaries and, contrary to my initial assessment, his staff did not see him as abusive.

Cloud and Townsend’s teaching about abuse alerted me to problems in my own life. In the office and at home, I lacked safe time and space, and experienced a feeling of being out of control because I had let other people hijack my boundaries. In the office, when I began to assert personal boundaries, my supervisory took offense and over the next year engineered my early retirement along with six months severance pay to walk out the door. At home, I asserted personal boundaries by volunteering to serve as an elder at church in the fall of 2002.

My three-year term as elder began in January 2003 and in our first meeting I volunteered to serve as clerk of session. While many people view the clerk’s role as primarily being the chief note-taker, I viewed the clerk as the chief lay leadership role in the church. Thus, when Pastor Rob appealed to the elders to help out on Sunday mornings by offering personal testimonies (we lost our associate pastor), I told him: “I do not feel comfortable offering a personal testimony, but I will help you preach.” Over the next year I preached about once a quarter and began teaching adult Sunday school on a regular basis.

The engineering of my retirement took the form of a series of short term research projects under tight supervision. Projects that others might work on over several months, I had to complete in about six weeks. Topics were carefully scrutinized by supervisor and the final reports had to meet specifications acceptable to a bank examiner. When another colleague of mine was placed in this situation, he filed a discrimination lawsuit; in my case, I simply cranked out half a dozen studies that were published internally. But that was not the intent—the basic strategy was to put me on a treadmill and crank up the speed until something broke, which it did.

In early 2004, I found myself approaching an administrative deadline for early retirement with no word as to whether my request to retire would be granted. The stress was enormous because a campaign was underway to organize an employee union at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and management released no information to me or anyone else about who would be allowed to retire. Although I had applied to retire and my office planned a sendoff party on Friday, as of Thursday morning I had no decision from management.

Thursday afternoon, I was whisked into the office of the Senior Deputy Comptroller for Economics. Without the benefit of counsel or another job offer, I was confronted with the necessity of negotiating my departure package alone without much preparation. Would I get early retirement, the six month severance package promised, or find myself pushed out with neither? In order to retire without a position, I argued for early retirement and the six months severance because without both I could not make ends meet—both were granted.

Although I was not able to find another federal position, I interviewed for a software consulting position the following Monday and, in the coming days, I used my severance package to pay off my mortgage. In February, for example, on a whim, I attended the inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary and applied for admission, much to the dismay of my immediate family; for kicks and giggles, I was also studying Greek when time allowed. Early in the summer, I succeeded in finding a consulting placement and applied for a permanent position as a financial engineer with the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO). When the OFHEO position eventually came through in August, my high hourly wage as a consultant allowed me to argue successfully for about a 30 percent increase in salary over my prior federal salary, a completely unexpected windfall.

Particularly in view of my windfall, the sequence of events—sermon heard, boundaries established, windfall received, preaching felt—began to weigh on my mind and I remembered my pledge to God in 1992 over my son’s hospital bed: “Lord, do not take him, take me.” As time passed over the next couple of years, I felt God’s call, but did not know exactly what to do about it.


Henry Cloud and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Breech Birth

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
(Psalm 121:1-2)

Breech Birth

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When my oldest child, Christine, was born, Maryam became so attached to her that she refused to hire babysitters and refused to leave her alone with anyone. On rare occasions, Mama Bozorg and I were allowed to watch her, but we were among the chosen few. As she drew closer to delivering our second child, Marjolijn Narsis,[1] Maryam’s attachment to her daughter became an important concern.

The night before she was born, Maryam had trouble sleeping and went into labor early in the morning. Her labor was irregular, however, and did not make progress towards regular contractions every ten minutes, as parents are normally advised. By five o’clock in the morning, I became concerned that, after having labor pains all night, something was wrong and we started having a debate about calling our sister-in-law, Julie. But Maryam did not want to leave Christine with anyone! By five thirty, I was pulling my hair out and called Julie.

Julie came over promptly. Maryam and I called ahead to Inova Fairfax Hospital and drove over together. On arrival, we checked into the natal unit and, thinking that delivery was hours away like with Christine, we were shocked that the doctors whisked us immediately into the delivery room; Marjolijn was a breech baby and needed an emergency Cesarean delivery. The delivery went fine, but the emergency surprised us and Maryam enjoyed a longer stay in the hospital than planned. When Christine and I arrived at the hospital the next day to visit, Maryam was very unhappy to see that her daughter happily holding onto her Dad rather than running immediately to Mom!

In the months that followed, the division of labor in the family changed dramatically. With one child, you can almost maintain your lifestyle as a young couple; with two children, lifestyle adjustments are mandatory. This dilemma becomes really obvious because a single child gets a lot of attention—I call it the pet kid phenomena—which simply cannot be sustained when you have two. In my case, I bought a new single lens reflect (SLR) camera when Christine was born and filmed her every move. When Marjolijn was born, I took fewer photographs, not for lack of interest, but because with two children in play at least one is always in motion. If that weren’t bad enough, Marjolijn experienced even more colic than her sister and we were tired all the time.

Our battles with colic strained a lot of relationships because hardly anyone wants a colicky baby around or to care for one. I remember, for example, being told undiplomatically one Sunday morning to move to the back of the church, Cub Run Elementary School, because my daughter, Christine, was making too much noise. Churches today mostly lack a cry room[2] and expect parents to disappear during worship or to delegate care to someone else, which we never did. Caring for our two girls accordingly required teamwork, whether in church or in taking part in family gatherings.

The fact that the girls were only 16 months apart meant that they was always very close and very competitive. When Stephen Reza came along 16 months after Marjolijn, the pattern continued. Our kids were not only siblings, they were best friends, and they were inseparable. And anyone who tried to separate the troika (or treated any one of them badly) felt their wrath! They also all spoke Parsi making it possible to have private conversations out in front of most anyone, including Dad. And Maryam, who insisted that the kids use her first name, was the leader of the pack.

[1] Marjolijn is named for the daughter of close friends of ours, Map and Jan, from the Netherlands who also happened to attend Lewinsville Presbyterian Church where Maryam and I were married. When Maryam and I were engaged, Map and Jan rented Maryam a room. Map was a stay-at-home mom able and willing offer plenty of helpful advice while Jan was an agronomist with the World Bank able to talk shop with me. Needless to say, we hit it off immediately and remain close friends.

[2] A cry room was a glass encased room at the back of the sanctuary where parents both care for their own infants while hearing and seeing the worship service. The one that I remember best was at Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

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First Fruits

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“The LORD said to Moses,
Consecrate to me all the firstborn.”
(Exod 13:1-2)

First Fruits

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Around 1980 after I returned from year’s study in Germany, I returned to Iowa to visit my grandparents and other family. My grandparents had moved to Oskaloosa at that point, but continued to rent the farm to a neighbor who purchased the farm outright about four years later. Grandpa Frank and I drove out the farm to take care of some chores when he engaged me in conversation about seminary. He encouraged me to go to seminary saying that he would pay my tuition, but I was more interested in the prospect of entering a career in agriculture. I will always remember the look that he gave me—he clearly thought I was nuts to even consider farming.

Later in that trip I drove up to Clarion, Iowa to visit my Uncle Hubert’s family who all farmed a section of land that Hubert had purchased during the Great Depression. Hubert, who was Frank’s cousin and not a close relative, bought land when everyone else was leaving agriculture in those days because he felt strongly that families should stick together and that farming afforded the opportunity for children to grow up with roots that were not available to kids growing up in the city. Hubert mentored my father when he attended Iowa State University in the 19050s and then he mentored me when I attended Iowa State. As a local republican party chairman, he knew everyone and introduced me to the governor and several presidential candidates who would always stop by for a visit at local political gatherings.

Hubert’s kids did not pick up his interest in agricultural politics. Hubert set up his kids, a son and two daughters, in farming that same section of land and built himself a modest home on one of the properties as a retirement residence. His generosity led, however, to family conflict because his son, the oldest, believed that he should inherit the entire property. This disagreement led to a family split. When I would visit, I would be received at each farmstead and bear news of the siblings at each stop along the way. They were so close and yet so far from each other—Hubert’s generosity was not enough to overcome this jealousy and his pain ran deep enough that years later he despaired greatly, but always to himself.

On this particular trip, I was invited to a dinner party but everyone seemed a bit distant. I sat on a couch for a few minutes before I recognized that the young woman sitting next to me was someone that I was actually quite fond of several years earlier. She was one of Hubert’s grand-daughters and lived in Minnesota, far from my usual stomping grounds when I attended Iowa State. As we talked, she related how she had been a year in Brazil as a foreign student, much like I had been in Germany. She also felt rather distant in the group. Recognizing a common issue, I questioned other family members about why they were not talking with us. They responded that they did not think that we, as world travelers, would find their company very interesting. I quickly dispelled that idea; the ice was soon broken; and I was able to enjoy their hospitality to its fullest.

Hospitality was always a core value in the Hiemstra family.

On a later trip in October 1996, my office at the Comptroller of the Currency sent me to an agricultural bankers’ conference in Des Moines. Because my uncle, Dave, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, I rented a car and drove to Cedar Rapids to visit him. Dave met me with complete grace and we spent the day quietly putting together puzzles, which were long a favorite family pass-time. Puzzles offer shy people the opportunity to hang out with no requirement that anyone be forced to make conversation. Conversation was certainly not on my mind—what do you say to someone dying that you will never see again in this life?

At one point, we took a break from putting puzzles together and Dave made a puzzling comment—“I don’t know that I am good enough to go to heaven”. I was shocked; I took his statement as a theological question; I was shocked because his brother, John, is a pastor and I certainly was not—at the time, I was only an agricultural economist—why was he asking me? I assured him that as a Christian his salvation was assured, even if life is sometimes a bit confusing. To make my point, I cited the Apostle Paul:

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7-9)

If the Apostle Paul could suffer weakness and be saved, then so could we, I argued. Dave seemed satisfied by my explanation and remained ever gracious. When I stood speechless at his door, not knowing what to say, he reached over and kissed me on the cheek goodbye—Dave is the only man that I have ever allowed to kiss me.

Dave’s question about salvation and my grandfather’s offer to pay for seminary puzzled me for years. I later learned that my grandfather held the doctrine of the first fruits close to his heart. He was not himself the oldest sibling, but as a young man wanted to enter the ministry but did not have his father’s support so he went into farming. My uncle, John, was the oldest sibling and pursued a career as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. As the oldest grandchild, grandpa naturally looked to me to go into ministry and in God’s timing I did eventually hear the call.

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The Art of Reading

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
(Luke 2:46-47)

The Art of Reading

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During summer vacations in grade school, my dad sponsored reading contests. My sister, Diane, and I kept records of all the things that we read during the summer and at the end of the summer we earned some sort of prize for having read the most. I have long forgotten the prizes that we earned, but I loved reading the Hardy Boy and the Lone Ranger series and frequent trips to the library and local used book stores where such books could often be purchased for something like a quarter. Long after our summer reading contests were forgotten, I found it natural to explore new reading topics during the long summer school breaks.

In the fall of 1971 at Parkdale Senior High School, I was invited to take an honors history course with Mrs. C. Signing up for this class was a big deal because we earned college credit and attended seminars at the University of Maryland. Actually, I only remember a single seminar on a Saturday at the university and a huge reading list for the class. I struggled to complete the reading and to write the paper that we were assigned. Friends of mine skipped the readings and made up fanciful book titles to justify imaginative conclusions to their papers. It was an open joke throughout the class, but Mrs. C. never called them on it. The whole affair offended my sensitivities and I was proud to have completed the readings, but when Mrs. C. gave me a B for the class, I complained exposing the cheaters for making light of the class. She never said anything, but changed my grade to an A.

My experience with history did not sour me on reading.

I did not always understand what I was reading, but I found reading useful on two levels, as I learned in my college experience with economic history. On the surface level, was reading for content picking out the facts and the dates, as in reading history only as a narrative or chronology. On a deeper level, however, was to read paying attention to how the author argued his case. The case could be argued in terms of historical observations with hypotheses proven, presumably, by the number of observations explained by the hypothesis.

I learned to solve the problem of not understanding a particular author by reading more than one author in a field. A particular field, like history or psychology, started to make sense after reading a half-dozen books in the field; reading a dozen books generally made one a regular expert, even in tougher fields like learning a new computer language—as I learned later in my career. Writing book reviews throughout my career has sped up the process by forcing one to study the author’s method of argumentation, even when it might not be obvious on the first pass. Of course, authors having little or no obvious structure to their thought—chapters thrown together in kind of like a verbal collage—were also exposed at this point.

None of this was obvious in grade school when I started writing. I read because I loved reading and learning new things. Things that helped make my world more interesting; things that gave me something to talk about; things that replaced maybe the emptiness of life in the slow lane. When I read and wrote myself out, life simply made more sense. And I like it that way.

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It’s Academic

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Beloved, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,
for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
(1 John 4:1)

It’s Academic

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I got angry.

During the fall of my senior year at Parkdale Senior High School, Parkdale decided to begin competing in the It’s Academic show which aired on NBC Channel 4 television in the Washington metro area.[1] To establish the team, the faculty sponsor walked down to the guidance office and asked for the names of the top 15 students in the school. I was not on the list and I got angry. My English teacher was the faculty sponsor and must have heard me complaining about it in class because an open interview was scheduled down at the television studio—anyone who wanted to compete was welcome to attend.

The interview attracted little attention. There were the top 15 students and there was me. The interview consisted of a mock It’s Academic quiz show where the interviewer would pose a question and the first student to raise a hand got to answer the question. No penalty was assigned for an incorrect answer. Because the questions were pretty basic questions about science and other academic subjects, the basic contest was to see who could raise their hand first. As it turned out, I personally answered about 90 percent of the questions posed correctly through fast hand-raising and was invited to join the team.

The other students, all classmates and friends, were livid. My performance made them look pretty stupid and they resented it. The faculty sponsor set up after school meetings to prepare for the show and we started meeting on a regular basis.

About that time, I decided that I wanted to attend Indiana University and my father agreed on one condition—I needed to get a job working nights and weekends to help pay the expense of going to school out of state. Consequently, I began selling children’s shoes at a shop in Capital Plaza Mall.[2]

Selling children’s shoes was more of an education than I bargained for. The shoes were expensive, upscale brands which attracted customers primarily from the District of Columbia. African American women, who could not afford a lot of things in 1971, felt they needed to buy good shoes for their kids. By contrast, local white women in Prince George’s County, like my mom, shopped at discount stores, like K-Mart, for their kids’ shoes, not feeling it necessary to show-off by buying top-of-the-line foot-ware.  Honestly, I do not think the shoes were any better. The management seemed aware of this dilemma, but were happy to charge premium prices and to slip ill-fitting shoes on many a foot to keep such status-conscious mothers happy.

Actually, a lot of the things these managers did really bothered me.

It bothered me, for example, that managers refused to let me study while we were sitting around on quiet days. While other employees sat around shooting the breeze, if I took out a book, I was assigned to sort shoes in the back or to watch the store, while the rest of them partied, blowing dope out back. It also bothered me that when President Nixon announced a price freeze on August 15, 1971 to combat inflation,[3] we were immediately assigned to raise the prices on all the shoes in the store. I guess that working in that store bothered me about as much as my studying bothered those managers, who knew they were stuck selling shoes because they neglected their own studies.

I did not earn a lot of money selling children’ shoes, but I missed afternoon practice sessions with the It’s Academic team and was placed on the back up team. Being on the back up team meant that we got to cheer for the regular team when we finally were invited on the show to compete. I loved the competition, in part, because I got to sit next to a friend who I later invited to the prom, but the team lost and lost badly. Just as in the interview, they simply did not understand the rules and complained that the other team cheated, being especially fast button-pushers. Too bad the team’s fastest button-pusher was sidelined!




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Early Marriage

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die…”
(Eccl 3:1-2)

Early Marriage

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Maryam and I were married on November 24, 1984, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Shirlington, Virginia. This apartment was located within walking distance of King Street where my family lived during our first year in Washington in 1960 and not far from my office in Southwest Washington. Our families helped us purchase our cars and donated most of our furniture. We did not have much debt, but we were eager to pay back our family loans and to begin saving for a place of our own.

Not being finished with my dissertation, I started work with the government at a GS-11, which was simply meager relative to the cost of living in Northern Virginia. The Shirlington Apartments, where we lived, were solidly built, probably in the 1940s, with a stone exterior and hardwood floors; the rent was affordable, but misbehaving neighbors and an encroaching urban environment made the area fairly sketchy. At one point, the police chased an African American man in a stolen car into the neighborhood where he crashed the car and took off on foot. Drug sales were common a block from us and a clerk was murdered during a robbery in a shopping center down the street. As an evening jogger, I was sensitive to the chances that I had to take, but I worried more about Maryam being exposed to such things. When my mother in law visited and suffered verbal abuse from a relative of the owners of the apartments, we became anxious to find a place of our own somewhere else.

Between my meager income, the sketchy environment, and our desire to find a place of our own, Maryam was eager to find work in her field—chemistry or chemical engineering—but professional work was tied to defense contracting and she did not yet have a green card. At one point, she interviewed with a company looking for a chemist outside of defense, but when the interviewer learned that she was married, the interview was over. While we began the byzantine process of applying for her green card, it became obvious that we could not successfully navigate the process alone—in the Reagan years following the Iranian Revolution, resentment against Iranians was bitterly deep. Maryam began working retail and, later, substitute teaching primarily because no one asked for about your immigration status when they had no one else willing to do the work.

Maryam was a talented sales representative for a fashionable woman’s store, Thimbles, at Tyson Corner shopping center. She routinely outsold the other sales staff, was a featured store model, and was asked to help out in other stores throughout the region. She also accumulated a substantial wardrobe of suits and dresses bought at a deep discount on account of her bonuses.

During this period, my schedule was tight. Maryam dropped me off in the office at 6 a.m. and drove to the mall where she hung out until the store opened at 10 a.m. Later, she picked me up and we had dinner together. Then, I worked until 8 or 9 p.m., went jogging, and worked a bit more before going the bed. In May 1985, when I returned to East Lansing, Michigan to defend my dissertation, I learned that no one expected that I would ever return and that I finished my doctorate before most of the colleagues that I had left behind me at school. With my dissertation behind me and with both us of working and saving everything, we entered 1986 looking for a home of our own [1]. We purchased our first home at 5519 Shipley Court in Centreville, Virginia later in 1986, even though I had not yet been promoted—Maryam’s hard work was instrumental in our being able to afford a house [2].

More important than her hard work in retail, however, was Maryam’s experience teaching. Most substitutes cannot assist in teaching mathematics and chemistry classes, but Maryam was different—she not only taught these lessons, teachers began requesting her from high schools throughout Fairfax County and she soon was offered long-term, substituting opportunities. What’s more, she loved teaching, was good at it, and was quickly able to bond with troubled students, many of whom were also immigrants. She soon decided to study for a teaching certificate and later earned a master’s degree in education at George Mason University.

At some point, I received a flyer in the mail from Senator Paul Trible which described his legislative accomplishments and solicited feedback on issues that we were concerned about. I responded to his solicitation describing our problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Not long afterwards, we received a letter in the mail from Senator Trible asking us to call his office about the INS problem. When we called, his office intervened on our behalf with the INS and Maryam soon had her green card.

After we purchased our first home and I entered finance, I felt confident enough to train for and run the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987. My logic was that I did not need to worry about promotion, because I was new to finance but I was nonetheless promoted that year! I trained for the marathon again in 1988 and received a second promotion! At this point, I had the financial wherewithal to pay family expenses without Maryam’s salary and we began thinking about children.

We put off having children for close to five years both because of the financial pressure and because we needed to settle into our relationship. Outside of the usual challenges that newlyweds faced, we were both strong-willed individuals; we came from radically different cultures; and we married much later than most of our friends—age brings maturity, but it also makes relational growth more challenging. In spite of being Muslim, for example, Maryam promised to attend church with me and, for the most part, kept that promise, but we did not share the same level of commitment in attending. Bringing children into the relational mix required special care making financial security especially important.

By 1988, the groundwork had been laid for us to think about kids and we took the plunge. Shortly after announcing that we were expecting, Maryam spontaneously miscarried leading to a bit of embarrassment. All eyes in my family were on us, because I am the oldest child in the Hiemstra clan and so our child would be the first to make my parents grandparents. Being the youngest sibling, Maryam did not receive quite so much scrutiny in her family.

In any case, Maryam was pregnant in 1989 as she applied for citizenship and when my brother, John, married Julie Oweis on November 25. Our first child, Christine, was born a short time later on December 14th. Maryam accordingly took the oath of citizenship in the Alexandria Courthouse on a snowy day after Christmas that year with a week-old newborn in her arms.

[1] We spent almost none of our earnings other than for necessities. When we sat down with a loan officer to purchase a mortgage, he could not believe how much we had saved and insisted on documenting everything. His assumption was that someone lent us our down-payment, which was simply not true. He was not accustomed to seeing newlyweds coming to the table with a 10-percent down-payment that was saved on their own.

[2] Finishing my degree in 1985 did not result in immediate promotion—a sore point at the time. However, when I entered finance in 1987, I received three grade level increases in three years. Having started government as a GS-11, by September 1989 when I began work at the Farm Credit Administration I was a GS-14—an usually rapid progression not often seen in the Economic Research Service in USDA where I started out.

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