Editor’s Note: Dr. Eugene Heideman died on Sunday, May 15, 2022. A leading theological voice in the Reformed Church in America, Gene was raised in Wisconsin and held degrees from Central College, Western Theological Seminary, and the National University of Utrecht, where he studied with A.A. Van Ruler. In a unique career, Gene served as a pastor in Edmonton, Alberta, a missionary in India, a professor and chaplain at Central College, academic dean and professor at Western Theological Seminary, and a denominational executive with the RCA. As a denominational staff member, Gene was instrumental in developing Perspectives Journal (a forerunner of today’s Reformed Journal) as a theological magazine of the RCA. A Service of Witness to the Resurrection took place on Wednesday, May 25th at Third Reformed Church in Holland, MI.
Kent Fry, a former student of Gene’s at Central who later would serve as Gene’s pastor, offers this reflection on Gene’s life and legacy.
Recently, I was in communication with a Central College classmate from almost 50 years ago. To my surprise, she shared that during her college and working career Gene Heideman, the chaplain of Central, was her “second father.” I found it an apt comment because it named something of Gene’s impact and influence on my own life and faith journey.
I came to Central in 1973, an 18-year-old freshman from a suburb of Chicago, who had spent his formative years growing up in New Jersey. Somehow I found my way to the cornfields of Iowa and Central College. Dr. Heideman was the professor of my introduction to religion class during my first semester and I quickly realized this wasn’t like one of the childhood Sunday School classes I infrequently attended. I made my way to Sunday morning college chapel as a first-year student to hear Gene give the message. Although he had a distinctive speaking voice, no one would call him an orator. Yet he was insightful, authentic, sincere, compassionate, and clearly communicated the person of Jesus.
Later that first semester I came in to talk with him about a personal matter. The exact nature of the problem has long since escaped me, but what I do remember were his words: “A person at your age, who has just lost his mother before beginning college, cannot have such a significant loss happen without it impacting you.” Of course, Gene was not looking at my presenting issue but helping me to uncover something underneath the surface which was the real issue. Sensing that I had not done the important grief work as an 18 year old male, I was handling significant loss by stuffing feelings. Gene was helping me to understand that the spiritual dimension of life with God cannot be disconnected to the human relational dimension of life. This was the first—but not the last—time Gene provided insight and guidance to me–not only during my college career, but in seminary, and during my career as a pastor. He was a second father to me, a mentor of my faith, and later a wise resource for the practice of ordained ministry.
Nobody would list “matchmaker” as one of Gene’s skills, but I owe knowing the person who became my wife to him. Joyce and I had both signed up for a spring break mission trip to Chicago. We were given an assignment that required getting around the city. That particular day was anything but spring like, as a cold wind blew off the lake. Gene insisted we could walk to the place we needed to go, but the problem was Gene’s directions led us in the exact wrong direction! During the out-of-the way excursion, Joyce and I bonded as a couple. Gene always took a special pleasure knowing that he had brought us together with his wrong directions.
I have been doing research at the Van Raalte Institute at Hope College on Gene’s writings, which are quite prolific. One particular journal article is pertinent to this tribute. Gene was asked to respond to an article by a minister who was reflecting on Christian calling. In the article the minister confessed that he always had “bad calls,” meaning congregations lacking size and financial resources. Gene responded by empathizing with the minister, but then asserted we can’t know a good call from a bad call. Gene wrote, “One short moment may be more significant than the whole career and all of the callings together. Job’s moment of humility was more significant than all the speeches. Esther’s last dinner with the king outweighed all the rest of her life . . . Perhaps everything in my career to this moment has been nothing more than preparation for that one conversation or one crucial dinner party. Or perhaps, as with Boaz and Ruth in their middle age, something already said, written, preached, or done decades ago has already opened the way to the coming of the King and now everything else is joyful postlude. We live out our careers seeking truth, and doing love; God makes fruitful our callings, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as they may be.”
Gene had one of the most varied ordained careers of any person who has ever served in the RCA. He graduated from Western Theological Seminary in 1954, and then went to Utrecht in the Netherlands for his Ph.D. He served a Dutch immigrant congregation in Canada and then spent most of the 1960s in India as a missionary. Gene and Mary and family returned to the United States, in part to resource better services for their daughter Ruth, who has Down syndrome. Gene was at Central College from 1970 to 1976, at Western Theological Seminary between 1976 and1982 and then held various positions at the RCA including Secretary of Program, Director of World Missions, and Director of Reformed Church World Service. He retired in 1994. The legendary Eugene Osterhaven, long-time professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary, once told me that Gene was the ablest church administrator he had ever known.
In those varied and extensive ministerial callings, Gene may not have the name recognition of other figures of his generation, but he had a quiet influence. Gene was a perceptive theological thinker who influenced the Reformed Church in America and the Reformed tradition for more than six decades. It was remarkable that at Gene’s memorial service, Don Bruggink said he and Gene had been friends for 75 years! This was evidence of Gene’s personal care and commitment in relationships that graced so many of us in family, church, and society. The Holy Spirit can only know his ultimate impact. After hearing of his effect on a college classmate from all those years ago, I can also imagine his quiet influence on a Dutch immigrant parishioner in the church in Canada; an Indian Christian outcast; students and teaching colleagues at Central College and Western Theological Seminary; RCA denominational staff; a classis delegate to the General Program Council or General Synod; a church member sitting next to Gene and Mary on a Sunday morning in the pew in Iowa, New York, Delaware, or Michigan; and participants in Hope senior professional courses or residents of Freedom Village; and of course friends and family.
Gene may be best known in the RCA as the author of Our Song of Hope, a contemporary confession written in the 1970’s. It was adopted in 1978 by the RCA as a teaching document useful for the articulation of the church’s faith in our contemporary world. In contrast to other Reformed confessions which look to the past to focus on God’s providence, Our Song of Hope emphasizes eschatology–God coming to us by the Holy Spirit from the future:
In each year and in every place
We expect the coming of Christ’s Spirit.
As we listen to the world’s concerns….
God will give us knowledge,
Teach us to respond with maturity,
And give us courage to act with integrity.
In 2005, Gene did an interview for Perspectives Journal in which he tells the story of developing Our Song of Hope and also illuminates ways he attempted to differentiate this new confession from previous confessions. The complete text of Our Song of Hope may be accessed here.
One might assume that the small rural community of Hingham, Wisconsin, would not be the soil to grow such a thoughtful and perceptive Reformed theologian and writer. However, Gene gave witness that he was loved into being by Christian parents, uncles and aunts, neighbors, and friends. “They reared me in an atmosphere of grace and acceptance in family, church, and community,” he said. “The church was a place where God was present.”
Just before Gene suffered a stroke in 2019, I was sitting next to him in church on a Wednesday morning at a men’s breakfast and book study. We were discussing the current friction in the denomination, which he was able to put into a much larger context of denominational history and the forces at work in society and culture. “I have come to the point where I think for the good of the church and for many Christians it would be better for us to graciously separate,” he said. Then he paused and reflected from his own heart and piety, “I must be humble as a Christian, and I must never say that I am somehow better or more faithful than those who feel led to separate. Sometimes at the end of life you don’t have all the issues of life entirely figured out and you must simply rest in Christ.”
It was a sacred moment on an early Wednesday morning, and I am thankful for his impact on others, his amazing humility, and his quiet and influential presence in my life for nearly a half century. To God be the glory!