Bert Witvoet’s Charisma: Juggler, Story-teller, Mentor

Bert Witvoet was a friend and mentor-of-sorts to me, as the dad of my friend Ed Witvoet. He was also a significant figure in the Reformed institutions I would call my faith home base. I wrote an obituary here and what follows below was a eulogy I gave at the Memorial Service at Jubilee Christian Reformed Church on March 14th, just before COVID restrictions came on in force.

March 14, 2020

Alice and Bert Witvoet, married for almost 60 years (photo courtesy of family)

I’ve been asked to speak about Bert and his charisma—his gift of grace—in the broader Christian community.

I first crossed paths with Bert in the 1970s, my classmate John’s dad, as he wielded his chrome sword, a vacuum cleaner appendage, caretaking the institution called Immanuel Christian School in Scarborough, a cooperative in which all parents shared the custodial duties. He was a Kuyperian knight, half of the duo of Bert and Arnie, set to reform Christian schooling pedagogy away from the factory model, and towards a more open-concept child-centred joy-in-learning, and to reform the Dutch immigrant church from the temptation to fear and insularity and toward a full-orbed Kingdom of God love and vitality.

We would cross paths again in the 1990s here at Jubilee CRC, where he asked me to write for The Christian Courier. Mischievously, he asked me to blindly co-write a column with a young woman, a regular feature for the newspaper to be called “Two Under 35.” We would exchange ideas in print about generational issues for a year, and then we would finally met and write about the experience. Bert wasn’t afraid to take public risks; in fact, he enjoyed them.

Around that time I asked Bert to meet with me once a month for coffee on Brock University’s campus where I was university chaplain. We would sit at a picnic table in the courtyard, and he would pull out two slices of Alice’s raisin nut loaf and we would talk of the hills and valleys of kingdom work in contested territory. A good journalist, Bert knew how to listen and ask perceptive questions. Rarely was he nervous or insecure.

One of the most important nut loaf moments was when he said to me: “I think your time at Brock is winding down.” I was taken aback but not entirely surprised. It was the gift of confirmation. We Reformers talk so freely of our calling to something, and comparatively little meditating about our calling away from something. We like entrances more than exits.

Well, Bert the sinful saint has been called away now, and he exited willingly, peacefully even, surrounded by his devoted family, blessed to leave on a song, a prayer, and whispers of love. We will miss the nut loaf of his wise and playful personality.

But this was not the first time Bert was called away. As a creative and romantic master teacher beloved by students, he was called away from HDCH, TDCH, Harbord Collegiate, and from pioneering Scarborough Christian High. As a gifted writer of about 3000 articles, he was called away from the Vanguard, the Christian School Herald, The Christian Educators Journal, and of course, multiple times from The Christian Courier.

He was a journalist, not didactic or precise, but he held his own with the doctors of philosophy. I remember him pushing back with Henk Hart at the ICS at some conference in the College St. building. He was enough of a lay philosopher himself to not shy away from a good debate.

When he left the Christian Educators Journal, board member Bill Boerman-Cornell wrote: “I will miss his voice… thoughtful, measured, wise, and quick to laugh.” We will all miss his voice, his intelligent eyes and goofy grin.

Bert was himself a board member, and I think a good one: for ICS, Beacon Christian School, for Jubilee, and the binational CRCNA. As I already said, he knew how to ask good questions. But his love, I think, was the world of dreams and the arts.

I remember he would share his dreams and visions in his sermons, one of which was a dream of the deceased Pastor Peter Nicolai whispering from the next world. Bert said Nicolai turned to look at Bert and said somewhat wistfully, “If I could do it again, I would do it differently. I would preach more about beauty.”  Bert thrived on beauty, creativity, and Seerveld-like allusiveness.

Bert the Juggler

Who was Bert Witvoet in all these roles? I offer three images, each highlighting some theme in his complex character. The first being that of a juggler. On one level, he juggled numerous activities—French teacher, editor-on-the-run, mail courier, cook, hymn writer, and Synod summarizer. On another level, he juggled viewpoints, including multiple voices through the tough conversations of gender roles, evolution, and church schism in the 1990s.

He also juggled the twin goods of tradition and innovation. As a transitional figure in the Dutch-Canadian community, he changed the name of Calvinist Contact to The Christian Courier, and he ended the Dutch language pages.

But Bert also loved some old tunes. I remember as he followed Alice and Ed across the country on the 2005 C2C bicycle tour, we stopped at the Alberta museum that housed the small Monarch CRC building, the first CRC in Canada. Bert rather brazenly sat behind the ancient pump organ in there, opened an old hymnal and started playing and singing the Genevan Psalm 42: “As the hart about to falter, in its trembling agony; longs for flowing streams of water, so my God I long for thee…”

Bert also juggled two poles of his personality and simultaneously two approaches to culture. The first I will call Bold Bert, who as VP at TDCH in 1967 pressed his board to be engagers of culture, and prepare students for worldly-wise life rather than fearfully protect them from antithetical confrontations. Catcher in the Rye’s crude and blasphemous language and nihilistic cynicism toward phony adult mores cries out for an informed and compassionate response, he said. Christian education confidently wrestles with the times, not timidly hiding from them.

Bold Bert, however, lost his job, burned out at least twice, and so Wary Witvoet, 40 years later in 2008, writes his first editorial as interim editor after Harry DeNederlanden’s passing, entitling it “Fight Against the Atomization of Our Society!” Talking about trends of family fragmentation, he writes:

As Christians we need to sit up and take notice. We need to maintain or create an alternative to the dominant popular culture more than ever before. Not that we will entirely escape the breakdown of community… we need to find new ways of being communities… with a common vision, an atmosphere of love and trust, and developing an ethos of leadership for service…

A good Kuyperian, Bert knew, is also Near Unto God, and spiritual formation, what Calvin professor Jamie Smith has called our cultural liturgies, are what ground us and shape us for spiritual warfare with the idols of our time. Bold Bert gave way to a more Wary Witvoet.

Bert as Story-Teller

Bert was a juggler, but he was also a story-teller. He told stories of borrowed toothbrushes, the dawn of women’s hair cuts, and encounters with married gay men on a train. His death this week signals the end of a generation of pioneers, who built institutions animated by the story of post-War immigrants, tempted to ethnocentrism and legalism, but gifted with a many-splendored kingdom wisdom for human flourishing and shalom in every arena of creaturely life.

Now who will take up the story-telling mantle in this unpredictable new world of pandemics, climate change, nationalism, consumerism, terrorism, refugees, sexual scandal, and post-Christian politics?

In 1999 Bert beckoned in CC: “Where are you, young… believers in the culturally relevant message of [Christ’s] kingdom?”

Bert as Mentor

One of those younger colleagues is current CC editor Angela Bick, who appeared in the role 10 years later, and she tells me Bert’s shadow was always humble, often humourous, and steadfastly helpful to her. Bert as mentor models the trust and transfer necessary for a more assimilated, more complex post-immigrant era.

Juggler, story-teller, mentor. Before I end with a quote from Bert, I’ll let you in on a secret. Bert asked instead of flowers, you give generously to four organizations, none of which was The Christian Courier, the paper he travelled alongside for some 35 years! Odd. The bereft family decided to correct this old teacher’s oversight, and added CC to the list.

What to make of this? I think this is his last two homework assignments to you. First, guess why he didn’t include CC in the list. Was it his modesty? Maybe. Secondly, donate to one of the now five favourite charitable institutions. Such investment is an opportunity for us to be not just cultural critics, but culture makers and care-takers in movements that carry echoes of Bert’s voice and charisma.

I will give the last words to Bert. Christ was king for Bert, but he was also a rescuer, friend, a healer, a host.

In 1999, under his last official editorial entitled “Writing the Essay of our Life Story” he references snowboarding son Steve’s signature on his emails: a quote from writer Stephen Graham in his book The Gentle Art of Tramping: “After we die, we may be set to write an essay on our life story. It will be ‘impressions de voyage.’ Fifty years in an office will be shrivelled up to a dot, and a few days in the wilds will expand into the whole essay.” Bert says “So much for my stay in the CC office—shrivelled up to a dot.” Yet, he adds, Steve doesn’t understand “the wilds of the Reformed community…”

Then he offers what sounds like a final prayer. Hear his voice:

One should never retire from the kingdom. I am hoping to be free to serve and love my Lord in new and better ways. He deserves everything I’ve got. He has given me a loving wife, children and extended family and a supportive faith community. He has given me excellent health and hope. He has allowed me to work in an interesting corner of his vineyard. Jesus took care of my wages (the wages of my sin, that is.) How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation. Cheers!

Bert has been called away now. Cheers, Bert! Good final words for a juggler’s farewell.

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