Remembering Gerald Vandezande

With his unassuming manner and quiet resolve to bring the reality of the Lordship of Jesus into the public arena, Gerald Vandezande would tell politicians and bureaucrats, “All I'm looking for is another conversation." As many learned to concede to this tall, persistent Dutchman they would find over time that they were being swayed by one of Canada's most influential Christians.

Over a lifetime, Jerry (his preferred name and spelling) brought a Christian perspective into Canada's public arena - one conversation, one conviction at a time. His tenacity had a lasting impact and empowered many outstanding evangelical leaders.

Vandezande came to Canada in 1950 at age 17 from the Netherlands. With a night school education he went from farm worker to bank employee. The bank sent him to Sarnia where he met his wife, Wynne, at the local Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Jerry was already involved in numerous public causes. Growing up under German occupation had shown him the power of concerted Christian action. He never forgot his parents' bravery sheltering Jews or the courage of local pastors preaching gospel values to congregations where Nazis watched from the pews.

Sensing a call to ministry, he was advised by professor H. Evan Runner of Calvin College to continue in community activism. “There are many pastors, but few people do the things that you do."

Jerry didn't miss his calling. His 2001 Order of Canada citation, among many national honours, recognized his “powerful and respected voice for social justice."

Labour leader

In 1969 he became the first executive secretary of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1961, moving his family to Toronto and taking a 50 per cent pay cut. Ontario refused to certify the union because members had to be Christian; the ban continued after non-Christians were invited to join.

Jerry needed to obtain legal status for CLAC to survive but CRC clergy opposed legal action against the government. He defied them and after his case won in the Supreme Court of Ontario, Jerry was able to expand CLAC to British Columbia and Alberta. Today, with 50,000 members, the CLAC is a successful national organization.

Vandezande could have retired as a CLAC leader but he had a larger vision of change.

He developed a CLAC offshoot, the Committee for Justice and Liberty that became the CJL Foundation and in the 1970s cooperated with other church activists opposing the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline. During those years he shared leadership with John Olthius, and they joined the Alberta-based Christian Action Foundation to form Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), which continues to thrive.

Positive attention

By the 1980s, Jerry developed new ways to influence public opinion, including alternative budgets to question federal spending priorities. He learned to draw positive media attention to public justice issues and patiently cultivated an impressive circle of national and international political contacts who respected his credible, non-partisan voice on Parliament Hill. He used to say that every national party had asked him to run as their candidate.

In the mid-1980s, when Brian Stiller emerged as the politically engaged leader of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), Jerry was his mentor and liaison into political circles. As religious conservatives asserted themselves across North America, Vandezande assisted the EFC to develop a national platform that was balanced, non-partisan and reflected public justice issues.

He took part in 200 episodes of Stiller's TV program, Cross Currents both as an on-camera guest and resource. Producer Karen Pascal recalled his leading role, particularly his access to politicians who usually didn't do Christian TV. She, too, was inspired and is now a leader in Christian media through Windborne Productions. “Jerry saw my potential to communicate the Christian worldview."

In the 1990s Vandezande responded to Ontario's Common Sense revolution, where his strong presence in Queen's Park brought new attention from the media. Even where his efforts seemed to fail, for example, in obtaining public funding for Ontario's independent religious schools, he earned the respect of leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities who brought him in as a speaker. He helped them form a strong new coalition to address social service cuts and aid secular coalitions such as the Campaign Against Child Poverty.

Vandezande wrote prolifically for publications and his books included Christians in Crisis: Toward Responsible Citizenship (1983), Let Justice Flow! Taking Healing Steps in a Wounded World (1994), Political Action in an Era of Budget Cuts: What Faith Communities Can Do About Poverty (1996) and Justice, Not Just Us: Faith Perspectives and National Priorities (1999).

Wide-ranging influence

Jerry was married to Wynne for 54 years. They had two daughters, Janice and Karen, parents of their five grandchildren. Wynne and Jerry have kept their membership at Grace Christian Reformed Church in Scarborough, Ontario, since 1971 where he was an active member, often speaking to the young people and influencing many others.

It's impossible to fully comprehend Jerry's national and international influence. Rick Tobias of Yonge Street Mission said, “Gerald Vandezande has done more than anyone to raise awareness and influence the church on the issues of poverty and injustice."

Persistent to the end, Jerry was actively in touch with numerous leading figures, overcoming a series of small strokes and quadruple bypass surgery until he passed away in his armchair early on July 16 at age 77.

Vandezande was extolled by many at his funeral including MP John McKay (Scarborough – Guildwood) who never stopped being impressed at his friend's ability to give others a new perspective. “Why was he able to convince us? Because there can be said of few among us that he sought justice, to be merciful and to walk humbly with his God."

For more on Gerald Vandezande's life visit www.cpj.ca.

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