Focus on Faith: Pastor urges his flock to ask the hard questions

In his 58-plus years on the planet, Rich Scheenstra has spent very important parts of his life in So

In his 58-plus years on the planet, Rich Scheenstra has spent very important parts of his life in Southern California and Holland, Mich. So, if you’re thinking he might be a little bit Dutch boy and a little bit Beach Boy, you’d be right.

Senior pastor at the Bellevue Reformed Church on Broadway in Schenectady, Scheenstra is Dutch, as his name suggests; his father and his mother’s parents were born in the Netherlands. And if you’re lucky enough to catch him strumming his guitar and singing a song, you can’t help but notice the resemblance to Mike Love of the Beach Boys.

But while his family history and his music are both integral parts of his life, his focus these days is on Jesus Christ and the 120-plus people that make up his congregation in the Bellevue section of the city.

“I was in a Christian-rock band back in the early 1970s, but it’s just not on my agenda these days,” he said. “I’ve written and arranged some music, and I’ve been encouraged to record something, but all I’m interested in is what we do with our music to make our Sunday worship service better. My schedule is full right now, so I’m not in a position to worry about that, and it’s not something I’m thinking about.”

Exploring life’s questions

What he is thinking about, along with his usual duties at Bellevue Reformed, is the Alpha Course the church is offering beginning Wednesday night at 6:30. Scheduled for 11 weeks and designed to help people “explore the meaning of life,” the Alpha Course was created by the Church of England’s Charles Marnham in 1978 and then taken over and revamped in 1990 by the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, at the time curate at Holy Trinity in London.

“The goal is to give people some understanding of the basic Christian faith, and we’re not going to answer all the big questions,” said Scheenstra. “But we’re going to give people the opportunity to think about them, and to talk about them, and they’re going to hear the questions raised and discussed.”

The first Wednesday is an introductory session, “so people can see if they really want to take the 10-week course,” he said. “We share a meal together, we get to know each other, and there’s really not a lot that I do. We watch a video about the Alpha Course, and then we break up into small discussion groups and have our group leaders, who are members of our church.”

Scheenstra has been exploring those questions for years now, ever since his senior year at the University of California-Riverside when he suddenly felt called to become a minister.

“I grew up in a Reformed Church, but my own faith journey involved a lot of doubt and questioning,” he said.

“I didn’t really embrace my Christian faith fully until my sophomore year of college. I was majoring in history and political science, and I continued that course until New Year’s Day of my senior year. I was planning on becoming a teacher. But while I was waiting for my acceptance into the teaching credential program, I thought to myself, ‘What would I do if that didn’t come?’

“Well, I got the acceptance a few days later, but it didn’t matter,” he continued. “I knew at that moment what I wanted to do.”

So, instead of becoming a teacher, he went to the Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., for three years, and became an ordained minister. He accepted a call to a small suburban church near Kalamazoo, Mich., where he met his wife, Sharon, and spent three years.

Concern for poor

“During that time, I did a lot of reading about God’s concern for the poor, and I just felt really drawn into that world,” he said. “I wanted to know what I could do, as a church pastor, to help the poor, those people in the margins, and I ended up becoming a director of a homeless shelter and started my own house church.”

During that time, Scheenstra found himself investigating all kinds of faith. He studied monastic spirituality, social justice and psychology — anything that would help him deal with the poor.

“I was concerned about the emotional and mental needs of the people I was working with,” he said. “Because of health concerns, my wife and I even looked into new age spirituality, specifically as to how it converged with all the psychology stuff I was exploring at the time.”

Then, however, he felt he was drifting a bit too far from the Jesus Christ he had come to know and love.

“My wife and I went on a retreat, and while we were there we both felt pulled back to what I call our basic New Testament faith,” he said. “For me, it came when I was reading a tiny book on the Lord’s Prayer, and for my wife it came in a dream. We all have a philosophy or a political view that we happen to embrace from time to time, or we have a particular focus like social justice or church growth, and sometimes we make that equal to or we put it in the place of Jesus Christ himself. But as I read the New Testament, I kept going back to the centrality of Christ, and realized you can’t pin him down to a particular theology or spirituality or social perspective. He’s much bigger than all of that.”

It was around that time, nine years ago, that Scheenstra accepted the call to come to the Bellevue Reformed Church.

“My wife and I moved into a place about 90 seconds away from church,” he said. “We felt it was important to be a part of the community.”

He said his nine years in Schenectady have been extremely gratifying.

“It’s a struggle, but our church has increased some, gradually, and what’s more significant is that it’s a different congregation,” he said. “It’s been quite exciting to see the diversity and the level of commitment we have here.”

Among the things Scheenstra has implimented at BRF is Kids Hope USA, a national program designed to match up elementary grade students with mentors from a nearby church.

“We’re not a real large group, but we’re very dedicated,” said Scheenstra. “We have some excellent outreach ministries, and we were the first church in New York to participate in Kids Hope USA. We work with Van Corlaer Elementary School and we have a great relationship with them.”

Valued member of group

He has also served on the Albany Synod’s Committee of Management for the Trinity Reformed Church in Rotterdam, helping that congregation regain its footing after some tough times. Chairman Fred Daniels, a member at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, said Scheenstra has been a valuable member of that group.

“He’s just a tremendous guy, and very accessible,” said Daniels. “He’s smart, but he also has a huge heart and he’s a very good listener. I could tell that from our very first committee meeting.”

While Scheenstra is very comfortable in the Reformed faith, he doesn’t feel his group has a corner on the market.

“We don’t tell our people, ‘This is what we believe, and you must believe it, too,’ ” said Scheenstra, who grew up in Ontario, Calif., about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. “Our church is a place where you can grow. We have a sign — it’s usually up outside — that says, ‘No perfect people allowed.’ We believe that God accepts us where we are, but he also loves us too much to keep us where we are. So, our goal is to help people grow more fully, and let them come alive as sons and daughters of God in a way that reaches out to others in the world.”

He and his wife have four grown sons between the ages of 31 and 39; their youngest son died at 22 as the result of an acute asthma attack. When they’re not at the church, which is most often, you might find them camping.

“My wife and I both used to go camping, and now we’re just starting to get back into it,” he said. “We’re just discovering the mountains up north, and when I get the chance I like to hike and go for a run.”

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