The Audition

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Count it all joy, my brothers,
when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith
produces steadfastness. (Jas 1:2–3)

The Audition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the end of my second summer working as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout Camps, I pooled my summer’s earnings with savings and bought a new Conn 88h trombone, which classified as a base trombone. The Conn 88h differed visibly from the tenor trombone, a Silver Bach Stradivarius dating from the 1930s, that I had played since the fifth grade because it had a Remington mouthpiece, a trigger for outer register notes, and a distinctive, mellow sound. Shortly after getting my new trombone, I auditioned and won a coveted first chair in the Prince George’s County Youth Orchestra and I began practicing an hour a day.

During my last two years of high school, I also played first chair in both the Parkdale Symphonic Band and the school orchestra. During my senior year, few other instrumentalists enrolled in the music composition class or competed in county and state solo competitions. Meanwhile, at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, I sang in the Youth Choir and took voice lessons from choir director. I also took private lessons from the tubist with the National Symphony Orchestra. My favorite photograph from senior year shows me performing in a jazz ensemble with “shades,” which suggests how much music meant to me.

Music obviously played an important role in my social life and I enjoyed modest success as a player. But what was less obvious was that music taught me personal discipline and served as a metaphor for God’s presence in my life. At one point, I began aware of my lack of Sabbath rest and prayed to God that, because I could not set aside my commitments, he allow me to honor the Sabbath as I slept. God honored that prayer by waking me each morning to the sound of joyous music.

I started to consider music as a career possibility. As I prepared to apply to colleges in the fall of 1971, I announced to my parents, friends, and teachers my plans to audition for the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.

At that point I did not understand the seriousness of my decision to audition for music school, either in terms of the talent or the commitment required. College seemed a long way off so I assumed naively that picking a course of study in high school allowed plenty of time to prepare. While this assumption might have been true for academic majors, music required a higher level of preparation and I had only a couple months to prepare for the audition.

My music teacher and adviser expressed concern about my preparation for this audition, probably motivated by the fact that I saw music as more of a social activity than a professional aspiration. Professional musicians practice many hours a day to reach a level of perfection seldom attained by amateurs. I had only recently moved from half an hour to an hour a day of practice daily, not a professional level of commitment.

By year end 1971, I started practicing closer to two hours a day and my teacher arranged for me to study with a colleague of his, a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. The new instructor adjusted my embouchure to account for my over-bite, which would help me play with a wider range in the upper register. This reconfigured embouchure required the use of new muscles in my mouth and the old muscles to be used differently, which initially reduced my performance range. Of course, the new, more vigorous practice schedule, embouchure change, and new teacher excited and overwhelmed me as I prepared to audition.

Also overwhelmed was my father, who saw music as a great hobby, but doubted that my modest talent could blossom into a viable career. In fact, he had confidence that the music department at Indiana University would reach the same conclusion, but he encouraged me to prove that I too could live with the result. We agreed that, if I passed the audition, I could study music, but if I failed, I would focus my studies elsewhere. My father’s advice about the audition seemed sound enough and I promised to accept it.

When the time came to audition, I traveled alone to Bloomington on a Friday and stayed the night in one of the dormitories. A friend, who studied viola and whom I had met the previous summer at a church retreat, invited me to dinner in the cafeteria and she introduced me to some other students. Tired from the trip, after dinner I took a shower and went to bed early.

On Saturday morning, I walked over to the music building early to warm up. After warming up, I waited with students coming and going—horns blowing, strings playing, flutes piping—as auditions ran late. Jazzed up, overstimulated, and anxious beyond words, when my turn to play arrived, I could not play a Bb scale. Having given the judges no reason to pass me, I failed the audition hands down.

When I returned home, I remained active in the music program in high school and spent the spring and early summer preparing for a concert tour in Europe with the Parkdale Symphonic Band in July. Meanwhile, I accepted admission at Indiana University and prepared to enter as a freshman without a major.

After the band returned home in early August, I needed some time to myself and planned a last-minute bicycle trip out to begin school in Indiana. I needed time because my shame and humiliation over the failed audition ran too deep for conscious reflection in a kind of emotional hijacking. In the months that followed, I lost my longstanding interest in trombone, classical music, and the church, where I so often sang and played.

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Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.
(1 Cor 9:24)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the oldest books on my bookshelf is L.E. Moore’s Elementary Aviation, which teaches pilots the rudiments of navigation, such as flying on instruments, meteorology, and radio navigation.  I studied this book with great interest in Junior High School because I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and become a pilot. When I learned that my eyesight was not good enough to qualify for pilot’s training, I joined a Sea Explorer’s unit and set my sights on the Naval Academy. My interest in the academies continued into high school where I began running with the cross country team (1970) after learning that cadets were expected to be athletes and the military had physical training requirements.

My fascination with all things military was obvious to my friends. One friend in high school, having run into me at a scout camporee, nicknamed me “the General” and, when he learned that I had joined the Sea Explorers, he revised my nickname to be “the Admiral”. In keeping with my nickname, for two summers in a row, I worked as an aquatics instructor at Camp Ross, one of the six camps at Goshen Scout Camps, which meant that I learned to row, canoe, and sail well enough to teach others. In like manner, I also attended seamanship classes offered for Sea Explorers on Saturday mornings at the Navy Yard in Washington DC.

I am not sure exactly when my doubts about the wisdom of pursuing a career in the military began to seep in. My Dad, who had attended the reserved officer training corps (ROTC) and served in Korea, used to refer to the pilot’s job as being a kind of bus service in the sky. While he never really supported my goal of being a pilot nor my interest later in music, he also never really said what I should do—that was something I needed to sort out on my own.

My own doubts about the military began to surface in watching the evening news. Video clips from Vietnam dominated the evening news for years on end, but progress in ending the war seemed illusive. World War II lasted for five years and involved battles all over the world so why did this little “police action” in Vietnam take so long and involve no serious progress after years of effort? The explanations seemed inadequate while the nightmare of modern war began to seep in—it was hard to reconcile the carnage on the evening news with explanations given. Why the massacre at Mi Lai?[1] Why the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner?[2] The images on the news were shocking; provocative; un-American.

Containing communism was the explanation for the war that made political sense because we thought of communism as bad, even if what that meant was unclear. We had no idea, for example, that communism was officially atheistic and openly persecuted Christians, although we had a pretty good idea that communism was a thin veil over totalitarianism—a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Defending South Vietnam from a communist takeover was therefore consistent with the Christian concept of a just war. However, the images of the war seen on the television news seemed inconsistent with that concept. To my eighteen year old eyes, indiscriminate bombing, routine use of napalm, and relocation of civilians appeared shocking; provocative; un-American.

Although my questions about the Vietnam War already colored my thinking in 1968 when I campaigned, like my parents, for Richard Nixon because of his plan to the end war, these questions did not affect my attitude about military service or the Naval Academy until around 1971, which was my junior year in high school. In high school, I read authors, like Thoreau and Faulkner, who inspired me to think for myself, but the disconnect between my Christian faith and my aspirations to become a military officer were also beginning to emerge. This disconnect came to a head on August 4, 1972 I wrote the following to my draft board:

I can not fight in a war because as a Christian my highest duty is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I believe that life is the sacred gift of God which is to be honored and respected by all men. I believe that every man has a constructive contribution to make to humanity and that each man has the right to fulfill this destiny. I believe there is a beauty in all life and that we should use love, concern, and non-violent methods to solve our conflicts. I believe all men are of one indivisible whole and that each man’s life is important to the life of the whole. I must live in peace to uphold my faith.

I wrote as a pacifist because I did not understand “just war” theory, which better reflected my true feelings. I was not opposed to a just war, but Vietnam did not appear to be a just war. Ironically, the highly principled image that I had of military officers was also inconsistent with the image of Vietnam that appeared on the evening news, but how do you write that in an application to your draft board?

My draft board responded my application and brief essay by classifying me as I-0, which exempted me from military service, but required that I take the usual military medical examination and that I find alternative service to perform, if and when my number was called. In the fall of 1972, I took my medical examination in Indianapolis where in a room filled with several hundred registrants I was the only one classified I-0 which was obvious because I was asked to stand up alone in front of everyone and, in front of everyone, they told me that I did not need to answer form questions about my affiliations.

During the fall, I  wrote to public interest research groups around the country inquiring about job prospects that might satisfy my alternative service requirement. One group in Baltimore, Maryland, responded to my inquiry, but none was ultimately needed because the Vietnam War was declared over on December 31, 1972. My draft number—13—was never called. Because numbers up to 153 had been called in the previous year, I took the war’s end as God’s gracious provision.




Faulkner, William. 2011. A Fable (Orig Pub 1955). New York: Vintage International.

Moore, L.E. 1943. Elementary Aviation. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1965. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Harper and Row Publishers (Harper Classic).

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Coming Home

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

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil 1:21)

Coming Home

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My decision to study economics forced me to re-organize priorities both inside and outside school. In school, economics required supporting work in mathematics, statistics, and computer science which I had not taken. Outside of school, my volunteer work in the Indiana Public Research Group (INPIRG) was a constant distraction from my studies. I looked for schools closer to home.

INPIRG Distracts

In my sophomore year of college (1973), for example, my volunteering included work on a local congressional campaign, community organizing, and support for other INPIRG projects. The congressional campaign involved chauffeuring a friend of mine, Charlotte, around the district in Indiana accompanying her on numerous campaign stops. The community organizing involved organizing local community groups on the west side (across the railroad tracks) of Bloomington to protest the city’s neglect in taking care of burned out house on the edge of town. The support for other INPIRG projects involved recruiting students for demonstrations and volunteering for things, like the weekly grocery store price survey, when other volunteers failed to show up.

Being a faithful volunteer was personally meaningful and introduced me to many interesting people both in the local community and on campus, but after I was turned down for a paid position as a community organizer for INPIRG, I started to feel abused. This feeling reached a boiling point when the executive director scheduled a defective-part demonstration at an automotive plant in Fort Wayne during exams week and asked me to recruit students to help out—I did my best, but ultimately I was the only student who was willing to attend the demonstration. After the demonstration and poor performance on exams, I decided to transfer to another school rather than study economics at Indiana University.

College of William and Mary

Transferring to another school proved more challenging than I initiated envisioned, in part, because in the spring of 1973 my parents moved from Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia. Virginia had good schools so, not thinking much about it, I applied for and was accepted at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, thinking that I would save my parents money by going to school in state. School in Indiana would be over in April and summer school classes started in June, leaving me the month of May open to earn the money to pay for summer school expenses.

Earning summer school expenses in a month was just barely doable, if I worked construction during the day and worked in a restaurant at night. For construction, I worked as a plumber’s helper constructing the McLean House where, at first, I helped a plumber hang pipe, but, after the old veteran screwed it up his assignment, the foreman made it abundantly clear that my real job was to keep the plumber out of trouble—the trouble was that he “brown bagged” breakfast at six-thirty in the morning and to cover up his alcohol consumption drank profuse amounts of coffee all day. For restaurant work, I worked the dinner shift at Roy Rogers in Falls Church where I flipped burgers until after eleven and routinely closed out the place. Between construction and restaurant work, by the end of May I was so exhausted that at one point the foreman at the McLean House accused me of having fallen asleep while standing up. Asleep or awake, I earned my summer school expenses in a month.

At William and Mary that summer, I enrolled in principles of economics and calculus, lived in the Jefferson House, and worked washing dishes in George’s Campus Restaurant in Greek Town. I remember economics mostly because my professor smoked cigars blowing smoke and telling stories of his government service and because a pitcher of beer was my favorite study aid. Studying in Jefferson House, known best for its six-inch cockroaches, was a lost cause because of a lack of air conditioning and the intense summer heat. It was cooler washing dishes at George’s Campus Restaurant, where I enjoyed hanging out and got my only real meal of the day.

Out of State at Home

One day I received a letter in the mail from William and Mary informing me that I was being classified as an out-of-state student. This classification, which substantially increased my tuition costs and defeated my primary reason to return to Virginia from Indiana, caused me great distress and with letter in hand I went to visit the college president. The president, sitting behind a figure of three monkeys (hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil) on his desk, quietly explained to me that, because I had an Indiana driver’s license and registered to vote in Indiana, that I was not a resident of Virginia. To that I responded: if I am not a Virginia resident, then what state am I a resident of? My parents no longer reside in Maryland where I grew up; I have never actually lived outside of school in Indiana; and Virginia is my only real home—how can I not be a resident? The legal answer was that I was not “domiciled” in Virginia because I could not at that point in my life know where I would live following graduation and Virginia required that I be domiciled in Virginia.

Domiciled or not, the president had actually done me a favor because William and Mary was not a good fit, both because of the small class sizes and strong influence of fraternities on student housing. The small class size meant that my cigar-smoking professor, who waxed eloquently about the distinguished history of tidewater Virginia to the detriment weightier topics, would be unavoidable. And, although I was not enamored with Jefferson House, I was even less interested in pledging a fraternity, in part, because of their culture and, in part, because of my own independent streak. The parochial outlook on life at William and Mary and the high tuition costs made the college a bad fit.

Iowa State

When I checked expenses at Iowa State University, where my father attended college, they were lower than at William and Mary College. Iowa State had the additional benefits of being closer to my grandparents and of having a nationally-recognized program in agricultural economics, which was of interest. The idea of studying at Iowa State also pleased everyone in my family. When I applied to and was accepted by Iowa State, I felt that I was truly coming home.

Also see: Looking Back

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Listening and Talking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
but the lips of a fool consume him.” (Eccl 10:12)

Listening and Talking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first year of college at Indiana University I lived and worked in the Graduate Residence Center (GRC) where everyone had a roommate, telephones were in the hall, and two of the three buildings housed men. Because GRC had both men’s and women’s buildings, it was considered co-educational.

My education in dealing with the opposite sex was less exciting than one might believe from recent movies. The movie that everyone talked about in 1972 was Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) where a high school graduate is seduced by an older woman and falls in love with her daughter.[1] The only older women that I met were professors and, although I became acquainted with many young women, they were more interested in dating older guys who were experienced in social settings and could afford to date.

Money was always a problem in college. Although my dad paid my college tuition and room and board, every other expense—books, travel, and entertainment—came out of my account. By Christmas of my freshman year my bank account was pretty much empty of savings from my summer work in high school and I started the New Year working in the cafeteria where I normally was assigned to the dish machine, but occasionally worked the food line. I enjoyed working the line because I soon became acquainted with just about everyone in GRC, including the co-eds. Still, dating co-eds required money and most of my money went to books and traveling home over vacations—even pizza money for Sunday evening dinner was hard to come by and required strict budgeting. My budget simply did not include money for dating.

Dating was not really on my mind in my freshman year, not only because I could not afford it, but because I missed a close friend back at home in Maryland. For me, she was like the freshwater pike that got away and grew longer and more ornery with each telling of the tale, vaccinating me from the advances from other women. Vaccinated or not, it was easier telling myself that my standards were too high than to admit that it was painful seeing older guys date my female friends.

Dating friends in high school, conversation might be about common things, like a class or activity that we shared, but it often quickly wandered into more serious matters, like plans for the future and how many children that you wanted to have. Future plans were a perfect date topic because in the 1970s dating was treated like a job interview for marriage and guys naturally paid for dinner and activities to demonstrate their willingness (and hopefully future ability) to provide for a family, should they marry. Marriage was on everyone’s mind which made dating, like an important job interview, an activity that made almost everyone nervous, because everyone obsessed about being the perfect date.

Unable to date, hanging out with female friends in college was unscripted, awkward, and without an obvious social context—what do you even talk about? I knew almost everyone in GRC from working in the cafeteria, but “I see that you really like green beans” is a pickup line not suggesting a lengthy conversation. Real conversation required common ground that was frequently lacking and verbal skills that I simply did not possess and that were not in the curriculum. In searching for common ground, I soon discovered a friend from high school lived in GRC and made friends with another girl who grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. In developing verbal skills, I soon discovered “the question”.

Questions were cool because you could ask a question and listen potentially for hours to the answer, speaking only occasionally to say something like “yeah” or “tell me more”, because most people love to talk. I loved questions and became a good listener, but there is one problem with questions—they only really worked well in one-on-one conversation. Once two becomes three, conversation takes on a competitive element and it is not cool to dominate the conversation for too long. When conversation morphed into a group dialogue, as I discovered in my freshman year, I was lost both because of my limited social skills and because I did not perceive a social context suggesting that being the “life of the party” was important. More important was that I learn to earn a living and reach a point where I might support a family.


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The Dish Machine

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“But when he came to himself, he said, How many of
my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread,
but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

The Dish Machine

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of my senior year in high school, I used the money that I earned as a camp counselor during the summer at Goshen Scout Camps to buy a new Conn 88h trombone. My interest in music quickly escalated and I announced my interest in studying music in college. My decision to study music came to the chagrin of my music teacher, who being the tuba player in the National Symphony Orchestra, arranged for me to begin lessons with a trombonist, also with the National Symphony Orchestra. Between my trombone, my new teacher, and my new practice schedule, it became clear that I was under-prepared for spring auditions even as I applied to the music department at Indiana University (IU). When I clutched in the audition, unable to play even a Bb scale, I was so ashamed of myself that I gave up the trombone and could not enjoy classical music for more than a decade. Unable to study music, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 1972 as a freshman without a major.

In the fall, IU registration was a chaotic event in which students entered a large auditorium with tables set up for the different departments and walked between the tables to sign up for classes. Once enrolled in a sufficient number of classes, students stood in line to pay for your tuition before exiting. As I waited in line, I met a volunteer with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), a student group funded by a tuition checkoff, and he invited me to an organizational meeting to learn more about the group. Intrigued, I checked off INPIRG on my tuition form and attended the meeting where I was elected as a student representative to the INPIRG board of directors.

INPIRG quickly became a home away from home. As an INPIRG director, my friends were mostly law students who identified with Ralph Nader who was famous for his work on automobile safety [1]. Nader’s new book in 1971, Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, which led to the organization of the student PIRGs [2], such as INPIRG, all over the country. In INPIRG, I chaired the personnel committee which hired an executive director that fall and I directed a new bookstore pricing survey which quickly became popular among students.

My volunteer work as a “Nader Raider” was less popular with my roommate who was a business major. He spent most of his time practicing his putting and ganged up with a student across the hall to torment me when I studied for exams. In view of such torments, I quickly moved into a private room in the German Language House, because of my interest in German literature and language studies, and out of the Graduate Residence Center (GRC).

Still, before I left, GRC helped me expand on my work with INPIRG. More than just the first co-educational dormitory on campus, GRC faculty advisers worked closely with residents to initiate independent study programs. In my case, I developed a program in the spring of my freshman year that allowed me to assist almost full-time in an INPIRG study of Indiana state government offices. My contribution to the study involved studies of two offices: a new state regulator of private schools and the state department of weights and measures. Both studies required travel to Indianapolis to interview state officials, background reading assignments, and lengthy written reports.

Between my independent study project and the bookstore survey, in INPIRG I was heavily involved in political and economic research. This research did not, however, mix well with my other studies, particularly my studies in German literature where I struggled to keep up and where I clearly could not identify with the nihilism so prevalent in postmodern literature. The despair in contemporary literature seriously disturbed me, even though I did not attend church during these years, and I had trouble envisioning a future majoring in literature.

In my distress, I visited a professor in the comparative literature department to seek counsel where I asked: “where should I aspire to attend graduate school if I continue studying comparative literature?” Harvard University, he answered. Then, I asked: “how many IU students have been admitted to graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University?” None, he answered, stoking my distress.

Being one of the few men living at this point in the German Language House, I sought refuge from my distress in attending the many campus parties that I was invited to. The parties were good, but they kept me up late and Sunday morning I was scheduled to work the dish machine at 6:00 a.m. The early shift on Sunday mornings was lite work because hardly anyone got up for breakfast and I could just sleep—nobody knew; nobody cared.

One Sunday morning I will never forget—I woke up hanging over the dish machine with a terrible hangover from the party the night before. Smarting from the hangover, I resolved that I could not continue doing what I had been doing—bogged down in depressive literature and being manipulated into self-destructive political activism—where I would never finish school or find a career. Knowing from experience that politicians mostly argue about economics and economic studies were doable, that morning I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an economist.

[1] Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1965).

[2] New York: Grossman Publishers.

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Oaks of Righteousness

ShipOfFools_web_10042015they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD,
that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:3)

Oaks of Righteousness

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ordination committee requested that I volunteer outside of my own congregation as a pastoral intern. Having never been an intern, I emailed the General Presbyter who put me in touch with half a dozen pastors serving urban congregations. Among these pastors, only Pastor Chris responded and he quickly arranged a visit to First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

Because my younger sister, Diane, and her husband lived in Americana Drive for a number of years, Annandale was familiar; unfamiliar were the Hispanic day-workers hanging out on Little River Turnpike in front of the McDonalds. The pavement on Little River Turnpike seemed worn and the bedding plants around the houses seemed overgrown. I remembered a youthful and neatly trimmed Annandale populated by crew-cut veterans and maintained by ever-vigilant Eagle Scouts. Like an old scout, Annandale had aged.

In the late 1970s when my sister and her husband purchased a garden condominium on Americana Drive, Annandale was an affordable, up-and-coming, suburban town inside the Beltway, close to Washington DC, with good schools. In the early 1980 they were joined by my other sister, Karen, and her husband who purchased a brand-new townhouse on Campanionship Drive. By the 1990s Diane and her husband had resettled in Philadelphia; Karen resettled in Florida. By 2007, the year before I entered seminary, Diane died following complications during a second round of breast cancer. When I visited Annandale in May of 2009, my Annandale memories were no longer fresh and, on the way over to the church, Americana Drive eluded me.

Driving up Newcastle Drive, the grounds of the brick church greeted me with enormous oaks, marked out and steady. Unsteady trees, like white pine or popular, can grow 30-40 feet in a few years, but steadiness requires the patience of an oak. A straight, tall oak, hearkening to a time before missionaries brought the hope of salvation to fearsome and heathen Frisians, adorns the Hiemstra coat of arms. Disarming pin oak is my father’s favorite, but formative white oak—faithfully rooted, humbly set—guarded the spire of First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

At the end of the long, winding driveway, First Presbyterian Church of Annandale offers many doors to enter the building and, for those in need, the shelter of a roof on rainy days. Sunshine, not rain, was my fortune on that first visit and I instinctively ducked under the roof to the door across the hall from the sanctuary. The sanctuary beckoned me with a large white Celtic cross on fire with an avian image of the Holy Spirit that hung behind a modern pulpit. Modern red and yellow stained glass hung overhead and to the left, but wooden organ to the right of the cross captured my attention first. Baptized in the shadow of a pipe organ, confirmed by a Handel chorus, and offered communion by melodies still craddled in my mother’s arms, memories of organ music comforted me. Annandale was familiar before a word was spoken and I knew I was not far from home.

Pastor Chris found me before I found him. He granted me a tour of the many classrooms, the day-care center, the kitchen, the library, and the staff offices. With the facility came a church’s proud history—the building was dedicated in 1960 and expanded in 1963; by 1970, the church had 575 children in Sunday school; two years later membership peaked at 883 active members; and in 1974 the organ was added.[1] More recent history, however, peaked my interest—the church had evolving partnerships with First Korean Presbyterian Church of Virginia (since 1965) and a Pakistani mission congregation, found in few other congregations. And neither partnering congregation was a mere tenant; multilingual worship services took place on special occasions during the year.

I was hooked. For the next year, I served as a pastoral intern at First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.


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Hitch Hiking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD,
plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and
a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to
me, and I will hear you.” (Jer 29:11-12 ESV)

Hitch Hiking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During spring break in March, 1973, I visited my parents driving a Volvo owned by a wealthy graduate student from Bloomington, Indiana to in Lanham, Maryland. As this student was not returning to Bloomington, I accepted an invitation from several friends and decided to return to school by way of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I got up early, wrote on a sign—BOSTON—with a magic marker, I threw my clothes and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I walked past Riverdale shopping center to stand on the north-bound ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

As I reached the ramp, it was already seven in the morning. By quarter to eight, I secured a ride from one of many drivers creeping past me going up the hill to the Parkway. As I learned, the Parkway runs parallel with Interstate 95 and they both lead to Baltimore where they eventually come together and Interstate 95 continues all the way to Boston, a car trip optimistically to be driven in about ten hours.


During that long day, I remember thumbing my way through the 95 business district in Philadelphia, but the trip from Phily to NYC took all afternoon. Later that night, a couple graciously picked me up and drove me to the other side of New York City. After standing around for a couple hours in the dark, after midnight I left the interstate, walked over to an apartment building, and slept the night in a heated stairwell. People walking up the stairs would occasionally wake me, but no one gave me a hard time and I ate breakfast in a nearby restaurant early in the morning.

Later that morning I made good progress until I reached Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, I quickly found a ride, but driver drove me across town, stopped in a lonely place, and parked the car. For the next several hours, this older man sipped coffee, cried, and talked about a strained relationship with his son. The strains became obvious because when I spoke about my relationship with my own father, he became irritated and defensive. My anxiety about our conversation grew, not only because I was anxious to reach Cambridge, but because it soon became obvious that the man was drinking coffee to cover up his alcoholism. Eventually, the man tired of our conversation and dropped me off on the other side of Bridgeport. From there, I traveled to Cambridge and found my way to Harvard University.

At Harvard University, I stayed at Adams House, where my best friend lived in a coop with three other guys. During the several days at Adams House, I visited the Fox Club, attended two classes, and took part in a youth program at my friend’s church. In one class, we heard a history lecture which featured parliamentary events during colonial times that took place in the building where we were sitting. In the second class, we heard a guest presentation by the producers of Sesame Street, a popular educational television program for young kids. At the church, we participated in a youth program where I was uncomfortably the only one in the room struggling with disbelief. All things considered, Harvard impressed me as a serious school and the prospect of returning to Indiana University where I actually studied bothered me greatly.

Also bothering was the weather. As I prepared to leave Cambridge, the hot spring days turned to bitter cold and the cold weather left the yellow wind-breaker I had worn in my trip up from Maryland totally insufficient. To keep warm (and to the amusement of passers by), I found myself dancing in the cold alongside of the road.

The road trip west from Cambridge was uneventful until I got picked up in Connecticut by a couple of long-hair, hippy bartenders in a Volkswagen bus on their way to Pittsburgh. Getting a ride to Pittsburgh was a dream come true after so many short rides and so much energetic dancing. Even better, they knew a woman in Pittsburgh who could put us all up for the night.

When we arrived in Pittsburgh late that afternoon, it seemed odd that my bartending hosts were in no hurry to call their friend; in fact, they did not know her telephone number. Instead, they found a bar and started knocking down shot glasses of hard liquor. Worse, when we piled back into the bus, they drove up an exit ramp and we found ourselves dodging cars driving down the wrong side of the highway. It was after midnight when they finally stopped to ask for directions and another drunk—a lawyer and former Maryland University basketball player—invited us to his house for the night. After the lawyer fixed us breakfast at around 2 a.m., I was given a room with a bed and I went to sleep.

At about 7:30 a.m. that morning, I woke with a child pulling on my foot. “Daddy, daddy,” she said: “some strange men are sleeping on the couch.” I rolled over and responded: “I am so sorry. Your father is in the other room.” Then, I got the bartenders up and said: ”We need to go. This guy is going to wake up; not remember anything; and call the cops.” So we left. The bartenders drove me to the west side of Pittsburgh and let me out.

The roads west of Pittsburgh were neither direct nor busy. I spent most of the day getting short rides out of Pennsylvania and by evening had only reached Cambridge, Ohio. However, the ride that dropped me off in Cambridge left me at a truck stop and advised me to hitch rides with truckers whose trips were typically longer—it was good advice.

At the truck stop, one trucker made sure that I found a ride going west. After some welcome dinner that evening, I found myself bound for Indianapolis with a trucker. The trucker’s cab had only a driver’s seat so I slept uncomfortably on a pile of junk that night. But, in the morning I woke up and ate breakfast with the trucker in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, I met a black student from school who was also hitch hiking and we teamed up to travel together south on route 37 to Bloomington. We quickly found a ride with a local man who began telling us stories as we traveled. However, the story he told us we passed through Martinsville, Indiana gave us pause. It seems that a few years earlier —1968—a 21-year old black woman named Carol Jenkins who sold encyclopedias door-to-door had been found dead on the street in Martinville and that the crime had never been solved. The rumor was that she had murdered by the Klu Klux Klan as a warning to other blacks to stay out of Martinsville.[1] That may be so. . .it was at least a conversation killer. . .we never so happy to return to school.

Needless to say, that was my last experiment with hitch hiking.


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Dank Sunrise (1972)


Dank Sunrise (1972)[1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Cold rain plummets through a dense veil of vibrating pines to shatter against lichen covered stone, lost on a forgotten mountain ridge abandoned by time to grow into dust. Soil braced rock remains silent listening to the moaning of each pine spiced bead contributing its loneliness to a stream of tears. An unforgiving wind shuffles a dull mist among the evergreens as it hastens to a distant shower. Splinter white limbs lie shivering, raped by an early winter ice storm in this dark season.

Propped up beneath an apex of lifeless stone with his back adjacent to a leafless white oak, an unstirring youth sits staring into the bleak environment. An inanimate individual, he is prodded by the dank sunrise to awaken. Untouched by the selfish wind, his eyes are open solely to the wetting of the pounding rain: yet they speak of a unique pilgrimage, a venture into the soul.

In the fluid sunlight of a late May morn Tamen clears the soft brown hair from his eyes as he wanders into the low thick blueberry and shaggy laurel of a woodland pasture. A pair of head-bobbing turtle dove take wing disturbed by the passing of the inquiring stranger near their hidden perch in the underbrush. Tamen is attracted to a small hillside clearing by a myriad of bright-colored insects producing the resonance of a crafted lute. Wading among the flowering blue-green grasses with a warm breeze bathing his tanned face, he uncovers a path well scored with radiant-textured dandies and winding rasberries leading up the life-lit meadow into the pines.

Over fallen timber, across dry rock ledges, and through clear scented mountain runs, the peaceful path leads Tamen through remnants of quieter timess when wise men hoed the fields together and hunted with each other the woodlands in preparation for the clouded seasons. Below whistling caverns and whispering white pine, he passes experiencing the unselfish melodies of nature’s conscience which has been unheard by generations of self-isolated men. Up the moutain’s slope to the ridge, the beauteous trail terminates in the reflections of the mineral water of a crystal pool.

The cool serenity of the pool invites the sojourner to relax securely at the water’s skirt. Peering down with the expressive innocence of an infant at play, Tamen is attentive to the life-painted images dancing on the wavering liquid. In its reflections he sees an unfamiliar child skipping alone in the March sunlight on a field of fresh-green rye grass. First in silent amazement, then with tears in his eyes, Tamen watches the shining adolescent grow in life into a man of his own image. Tamen, awakened in this natural solitude, is quiet with himself.

a window opens       clouds thicken
light implodes          motion freezes
ice melts                a crow sings

[1] This vignette won second place in a 1972 Parkdale Senior High School ( literary contest.

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The Daily Work Roster


The Daily Work Roster

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Before a young person can go off and conquer the world, they must be potty trained, learn to walk and talk, and be able to take care of themselves. One of the rites of passage along the way is summer camp. The camp to end all camps, if you are a Boy Scout, is Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.

Philmont is not just any camp. Philmont Scout Ranch consists of 214 square miles of almost pristine wilderness—mountains and ranchland and woods—in the northern New Mexico donated over the period from 1938 to 1942 to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) by oil tycoon Waite Phillips. In the confines of the ranch are authentic gold mines, outlaw hideouts, Apache and Ute Indian heritage sites, a B-24 crash site, dinosaur excavation sites, and hunting lodges previously employed by America’s rich and famous. Wildlife include scorpions, tarantulas, freshwater fish, eagles, rattlesnakes, deer, elk, coyote, antelope, mountain lion, buffalo, beaver, wild turkey, and bear.[1] You get the idea—Philmont is a super camp.

As I was to learn, Philmont tests the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared,” as well as any camp. Gathering firewood by myself one evening, I was reminded why walking alone in the woods was a really bad idea—only about a hundred yards from our campsite I found a deer carcass freshly torn into bloody pieces.  During our eleven days at Philmont in July 1968, we had many other challenges.  We saddled Harlan’s burros, rode horses, shot skeet, forded the Cimarron River, repelled down Cimarroncito’s rock ledges, contended with midnight bear raids, and walked 500 feet into the Cyphers gold mine (and turned the lights out). We sought to be real men and do manly stuff, and Philmont obliged.

But many times Philmont’s greatest challenges were problems that we brought with us. I should know. As duly elected crew leader, I was responsible for coordinating daily schedules. Tents needed to put up and taken down; firewood needed to be gathered; water acquired and often purified; and meals cooked. We had an experienced group of scouts and these activities went like clockwork during our shakedown backpacking trip near Catoctin Mountain in Maryland. Five days into Philmont and the clockwork started breaking down—volunteers started malingering and open rebellion soon followed. Too late, the crew leader had to draw up a work roster on scarce paper and my leadership credibility crumbled.

Things got worse.

Several years earlier at Ocean City, Maryland I injured my back riding waves with an inner tube mattress on the beach. On a good wave, my mattress got too far in front of a large wave and I plunged head first over the wave. I landed on my face and the wave threw my legs over my back. I was paralyzed for several minutes unable to get up and nearly drowned before slowly crawling out of the water on my stomach. No one saw me; no one came running. This back injury has haunted me ever since.

At Philmont, after several days of backpacking my back gave out and it was all that I could do just to walk. My pain was so intense that the adults debated helicoptering me out. I became a liability for the team and the guys resented having to slow down for me. Worse, we hiked each day with a deadline—afternoon rain was avoidable only once tents were pitched; if we were late in making camp, freezing rain soaked us and our gear. Even though several of the scouts were family friends, the stress of the long days, the rigorous backpacking, and the skimpy trail meals at Philmont brought out the worst in people—for the remainder of the trip I was harshly ridiculed at every turn.

At Philmont, my dreams of western adventure and my concepts of self-sufficiency morphed into a struggle to survive. Nothing about my background and nothing I could do made up for a weakened back and the mundane challenges of eleven days on the trail. My dependence on the team and their respect for me hung on conditions outside my control.

Still, life went on and several highlights of the trip were yet to come.

One such highlight came when we returned to camp headquarters and discovered the Tooth Of Time Traders commissary. There on sale at the commissary we found the belts, belt buckles, jackets, and patches that proved that allowed us to brag about our Philmont experiences when we returned home.

In the commissary, for example, I bought a coveted copy of Robert Baden-Powell’s book, Scouting for Boys (1908), which began the scouting movement in Great Britain. In the military, Powell distinguished himself as a general during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899).[2] When his military days were over, he noticed that young men were growing up undisciplined and unprepared for the vigor of adult life. Powell saw this problem limiting Britain’s military preparedness and he envisioned the Boy Scouts as a solution. Later, I gifted this book to my Scoutmaster (and early mentor) when he retired after many years of scouting service.

Another highlight was our visit on the bus trip home to the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado. The museum featured many Indian handicrafts and, as we were told, the Koshare Indians were, in fact, Boy Scout troop 232 which focuses on studying Indian dances and customs.[3] The troop danced for us in traditional Indian attire and explained to us that Koshare means clown or “delight-maker” in the Hopi Indian language.  And delighted we were.




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The Detour

Called Along the Way

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When the pickup slowed and the driver looked over at me, I saw only the gun rack. He pulled over ahead of me, got out, and waved me over. I slowed my bicycle and stopped behind the pickup, leaning on one foot—300 hundred miles from home, off my route, and all alone, I felt vulnerable—scared that I might end up like the two bikers in Easy Rider—shotgunned to death.[1] Only in August 1972, I was not motorcycling drugs from California to Florida; I was cycling from Washington DC to start college in Indiana.

“Why did you leave route 50?” His question stoked my anxiety: this guy had obviously followed me for at least the hour trip down route 19 from Clarksburg.

“Route 50 forbids bicycles west of Bridgeport.” I answered. Actually, where route 50 divided into a four-lane highway, the big, green sign had written in white letters: pedestrians, bicycles, motor-driven cycles—prohibited. Elaborating, I continued: “I was detouring south to route 119 where I could continue west.” 

He laughed: “We had 10 bicyclists ride through here last week. Nobody cares about that sign…”

“Really? Thanks for the tip.” I responded as the driver returned to his truck.

This gun-rack angel just saved me from a difficult detour and perhaps an extra day’s travel, I figured as he drove off. Still, I was more than an hour’s ride south of Clarksburg, unfamiliar with the area west of route 19, and without a topographical map in the mountains of West Virginia. Studying the traffic map that I had, I could see that local roads could be used to jog over to route 50 at Salem, about 18 miles off—as the crow flies. Just the sort of challenge that Eagle Scouts enjoy, I thought to myself.

With an official BSA[2] yucca backpack slung over the handlebars, I cycled up route 33 that cuts off route 19, Milfort Street, along Sycamore Creek. As the road ascended uphill into the woods, the grading became progressively rougher. Pavement gave way to gravel, which gave way to dirt which gave way to stones, which gave way to transmission-eating boulders. Walking my bike through shaded, old-growth oaks among the boulders at least gave relief from the morning heat.

As the grading improved and I found myself passing tin-roofed shacks—not abandoned, not maintained, just depressing to look at—I found myself in the Appalachia mentioned on television only during election years and then only in passing. Curious locals asked only—”where y’a headed?” —but must have questioned my sanity as I panted up the hill that morning on a 3-speed bike built mostly for city streets.

My thoughts wandered, focused partly on the war—far off in Southeast Asia, yet ever-present in political rallies, school discussions, and family feuds.

My thoughts wandered, focused partly on the endless hillside that I walked more than peddled. By my fourth day on the road I was used to the sunburn, but relieving my hunger would have to wait until I returned to a more populated area. And I hoped that my canteen water would last until I got there.

My thoughts wandered, focused mainly on a friend I desperately wanted to see and foolishly visited my first night out at a camp west of Winchester, Virginia…Now that my foolishness had legs, the remainder of the trip—like life itself—seemed pointless and cruel. Late in the morning and graciously before I lost my mind, the hillside peaked at the ridge and the grading upgraded to macadam[3] for the first time since leaving route 19.

With the ridge, my thoughts quickened. Gone were the oak trees, the dirt road, and Appalachian poverty—they seemed to melt away like the morning mist in afternoon sun. Present now were bluegrass fields neatly grazed, white boarded fences, and country homes with expansive porches—the only thing missing was an icy cold, root beer. As my bike picked up speed gliding down the hill, a black lab on one porch began to take interest and sounded off as he ran down the yard. I paid little attention, continuing to accelerate. What dog can run 40 miles an hour? I thought, more focused on enjoying the breeze as I picked up speed.

Suddenly, I heard growls as the dog snapped at my left foot—this stupid dog was giving serious chase! Still accelerating, I moved my left foot over to stand with both feet on the right peddle. The dog had seen that trick before and moved to snap at me on the right side. Still accelerating, I moved both feet back over to the left peddle. Before the dog could respond, the road veered sharply to the left. Being on the left peddle, I could not lean into it—I was going too fast, could not break, and ran off the right side of the road into the ditch.

My front wheel slid into a roadside sewer and pitched me over the handlebars. I hit the ground on the other side of the ditch hard—sliding and rolling another 20-30 feet.  I came to a stop face down:  Stunned…Sweating…Speechless…I did not look up; I did not get up; I just lay there barely conscious. No one came running; no one noticed my accident at all.

Finally, I turned my head to see where I was. The dog stood on the road just looking at me. When he saw me look up, he wagged his tail, and wandered off. At that point, I smelled the sewage and sat up not understanding my situation.

I got up and examined my bike. I was sure that it had been ruined, but the front wheel was hardly bent at all. I pulled up a few weeds to clean off the sewage, but I could do nothing about the smell.

I don’t remember much about the trip down route 31 to route 28 and up to Patterson Fork Road that took me into Salem. I remember the heat, the exhaustion, and the hunger; I also remember the anxious desire to call my parents—my emergency dime was ready for action. As I drew closer to Salem, however, I resolved to find a restaurant, to get cleaned up, and to eat lunch before deciding what to do next.

I was feeling sorry for myself as I washed up and got rid of the smell. But my other senses returned as I enjoyed a home-cooked hamburger with fries and that slice of apple pie a la mode. With every bite, I forgot more—more about the dog, more about the foolishness, and more about that irritating smell. Soon, I reflected on the unlikely intervention of that gun-rack angel and I remembered my mileage goal for the day. After lunch, I reported home on my progress, got back on my bike, and cycled on to Ohio.



[2] BSA is short for Boy Scouts of America.


The Detou

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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