Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

Crazy Poor Dutch People


Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s “community columnist”:

I wanted to call my new book “Crazy Poor Dutch People Who Immigrated to the U.S. and Became Rich, Republican and (Ironically) Anti-immigration,” but my publisher thought that title was too long and unnecessarily provocative. Plus, the allusion to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already dated.

Instead, I went with “The Truth About Who We Are,” which is not nearly as clever. It is available from the publisher and will soon be available through Amazon.

When I retired less than a year ago, I took up the country’s second most popular hobby which is genealogy. (The first is gardening, if you don’t count watching TV.) I spent long hours constructing my family tree. I had no idea before I started that so many resources were available online, everything from baptism and death records to ship manifests and grave locations.

I explored cemeteries all over West Michigan and interviewed everyone—mostly my 91–year–old mother—who could help me identify relatives in old photographs. I traced my ancestry back to the 1700s and stopped there, though without much effort I could have gone further.

The name Brouwer, I discovered, first appeared in my family tree around 1811 when Napoleon Bonaparte, whose army was occupying northern Europe at the time, decided that everyone in the Netherlands had to adopt a last name. He also decreed that there should be registries for births, marriages and deaths. Say what you want about the “little Corsican,” as the Dutch and others called him, he should be the patron saint of genealogists everywhere.

I also discovered that my ancestors were desperately poor. I should have guessed as much, but I had no idea how poor or how desperate. Historian James D. Bratt, in his fine history of Dutch Calvinists in America, calls this mid to late 19th century migration “a mass exodus of the rural poor.” The Netherlands did not send its best. And neither did Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland and the other countries who sent millions of immigrants to the U.S.

But poverty was not their only motivation. I am also descended from a separatist religious movement, people who hated the state church in the Netherlands and longed to be free to worship as they saw fit.

I was unable to find any record that the state church was sorry to see my ancestors leave. In fact, the state church must have felt relief with each departing ship. Sad to say, though, the separatist spirit which began in the Netherlands continued in the new world, with personal as well as ecclesiastical implications. The people from whom I am descended battled over doctrinal matters that most of us would find inconsequential today.

My father grew up in a household where his mother was Christian Reformed, his father Reformed Church in America, and his grandfather (who came to live with them after he had been widowed) Protestant Reformed. My father never said much about this Reformed family in–fighting, but he began to paint at an early age and seemed to find solace in painting throughout his life.

What I came to realize as I did my research is that these are the factors that formed and shaped the person I am today. More than my DNA, which I sent off to be tested as part of my research, these traits—some good and inspiring, others troubling—shape me in some profound ways.

My grandparents and great-grandparents came to the U.S. and sacrificed a great deal. Most of them left school after the eighth grade to work at jobs I would never consider taking. Most of them worked long hours and responded heroically to personal setbacks, such as the loss of children to diseases which would be relatively easy to treat today. Most of them wanted the best for me and created a world in which I could thrive and, as my mother (still) likes to say, “make something of yourself.”

The work ethic of Dutch immigrants was breath-taking. Within a year after Albertus Van Raalte established the colony that was to become Holland, the Detroit Free Press reported that “there were about 200 houses of all descriptions, from the rude hut covered with bark, to the well finished and painted frame house … in front of the house a gate, and at every window on the street the neat white curtain.”

For most of my life I have admired my ancestors, but in equal amounts I have been troubled by them. I have inherited enough of the separatist spirit, for example, to believe I am right about most doctrinal matters. And like my ancestors I often prefer being right to getting along.

But along with this stubbornness, there is also a compelling humility, a realization that all I have and all I am is the result of something beyond myself. One of my ancestors, an important figure in Holland history, wrote a brief autobiography toward the end of his life and concluded with these words: “The Lord has greatly favored me, an unworthy sinful man. I cannot account for His goodness … but humbly bow before Him believing that He is an all–wise God.”

I suppose I could say the same about myself.

(Photo: My grandmother, Minnie Glerum, was five years old when she arrived along with her family, on the SS Potsdam—shown above—at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, on September 3, 1907.)

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It’s good to be home

(Note: I started a new and lucrative career this month as a “community columnist” for the Holland Sentinel, the local newspaper. My first column is below. Look for my florid prose on the editorial page on the first Friday of every month. For those who’ve read excerpts on the blog from my new book, I’m happy to report that The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren will be out next month from Wipf & Stock, a fine publisher based in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve seen the page proofs, and it looks great! Lots of photos and a Brouwer family tree dating to the 1700s, or about as far back as I have looked so far.) Continue Reading →

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James A. Brouwer and the Electric Car

Here’s another chapter – and most likely the last one you will see here – from my new book, now titled The Truth About Who We Are: A Letter to My Grandchildren.

To this point I’ve written mostly about ancestors who came to the United States and, against tall odds, not only survived, but thrived, making me proud to be descended from them. That was meant to be an inspiring story for you, as it has been for me. But the story is more complicated than that, as you must have recognized by this point. 

The separatist spirit that brought Dutch immigrants to the United States was sincere enough, but it could also be stubborn, rigid, and intolerant. Continue Reading →

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My Only Comfort in Life

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.

In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well. Continue Reading →

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My name is Brouwer

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

Where I grew up there was nothing at all unusual about the name Brouwer. Nearly everyone I knew – neighbors, classmates, teachers, even my pastor and dentist – had a distinctively Dutch last name, and so no one was ever puzzled by my name or had to ask me how to spell or pronounce it. Continue Reading →

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Those Embarrassing Names


(For a few months now I have been reading about and researching my ancestors, the women and men who came before me and passed down to me my name, my ethnic identity, my DNA, and of course my faith. Here’s a sample chapter from the new book which I’m – tentatively – calling “Letter to My Grandchildren.”)

Many of the people I knew when I was growing up had odd-sounding names. Not distinguished sounding at all, like I wanted them to be. The names were slightly embarrassing, I thought, as though in a previous life I had grown up with much better people, maybe in a much higher social class.

There wasn’t a Henry David Thoreau in the bunch. Or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Those names and a lot of others like them always sounded remarkable to me, like you’d want to know them and read their books and be like them. Continue Reading →

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Turns out I’m not Dutch after all

Here’s the latest on the search for my identity: I’m British! No kidding. Take a look.

To bring you up to speed, I bought one of those DNA testing kits, spit in a glass tube, and sent the package off for testing. I declined the medical results, as I mentioned in a previous post, and I also decided that I didn’t need to know about “surprise relatives,” thinking that the ones I know are surprising enough.

But the results were – how should I put this? – still surprising. Continue Reading →

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Remembering who I am

A few months before I retired, a dear friend, someone I have known since college days, asked me what I planned to do in retirement, and to my surprise – to hers as well – I said, “I plan to remember who I am.”

These were words I hadn’t planned on saying. I blurted them out and then wondered what they meant. After three months of retirement, I think I know a little better what I had in mind that day. Continue Reading →

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Facebook and me

Was it just me, or was Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress this week less than reassuring? I wanted to feel better than I do about Facebook.

I deactivated my account several weeks ago (before Zuckerberg’s testimony) and haven’t missed it … much. Continue Reading →

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How I learned to shut up and be quiet

It’s been nearly two months since I retired (and longer than that since I posted anything here).

At first I traveled a bit – to Morocco and Iceland, two countries which could not be more different from each other and which, believe me, required some careful packing. But mostly, since arriving back in the U.S., I have tried to shut up and be quiet.

After 40 years of talking – blah, blah, blah – I was weary with the sound of my own voice. But turning off the noise and easing into a world with little talk has been surprisingly difficult. Continue Reading →

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