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“How are you enjoying Holland?”

Here’s my September column for the Holland Sentinel…

“How are you enjoying Holland?” my dentist wanted to know last week at my annual checkup.

I had been a new patient only a year ago, so the question was an appropriate one. However, with his fingers exploring my mouth, I couldn’t do much more than nod and give a thumbs up. I want to give a fuller answer here: I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you for asking.

What I was thinking, as I sat in the dentist’s chair, was that I had moved to Holland at a just the right time in its history. I grew up in western Michigan and have returned to vacation most summers along Lake Michigan, but I hadn’t lived in the area for more than 40 years. The area I returned to was entirely different from what I remember.

Okay, not entirely different. Holland still looks much like the Dutch settlement along Lake Macatawa that I remember from childhood. Its politics are still conservative and (largely) Republican. There is still a church on every corner—and now in every shopping center, middle school gymnasium, and local arts council. So, the town still retains a good deal of what I remember.

But Holland is also thriving. For example, according to the Sentinel, Ottawa County is currently the fastest growing county in the state. Holland and the surrounding areas also appear to be growing economically. Home values are increasing, new homes are being built, and the downtown—I mean, have you seen the downtown lately? I remember when everyone was concerned about development outside of town, along U.S. 31, and its effect on the downtown. Now it’s the malls that are struggling to survive.

James and Deborah Fallows, in their recent book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, featured Holland as an example of resurgence in small-town life across the United States. A bit breathlessly, James Fallows writes that “most parts of America have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans imagine.”

The argument that the Fallows make, though, seems just right to me. In much of the news we read about the hollowing out of rural America, the closing of factories, the opioid epidemic, and an aging population, with young people increasingly moving to cities to find work. In his 2017 inaugural address, the newly sworn-in president referred to “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” He even coined the phrase “American carnage,” which sadly has found its way into the political lexicon.

But in many places, as the Fallows make clear, this is simply not the case. From Burlington, Vermont (thank you, Bernie Sanders), to Greenville, South Carolina, small towns at both ends of the political spectrum seem to be doing better than most people would have imagined. They have become pleasant places to live and work, a compelling alternative to big-city life.

Of course there is no single reason that small towns are thriving. In Holland, for example, the Fallows argue that economic prosperity is due in large part to successful business owners who live and invest locally, but other towns point to other factors. Brewpubs, to give one example, seem to be both a reason for growth and a result.

While the growth, prosperity, and vitality in Holland are all attractive qualities to me, I recognize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Long-time residents, like my dentist, are not so happy about how “busy” Holland has become. Having lived for long stretches in places like Chicago and south Florida, I hardly notice the traffic congestion, but long-time residents see it and are not happy about it. Getting home from work in the late afternoon now means long waits at traffic signals and other inconveniences that Holland residents never had to endure.

My enthusiasm for Holland hasn’t blinded me to some of its challenges. Every time I drive into Holland, I drive over the Unity Bridge which crosses Macatawa River and unites the northern and southern sides of the community. At the bridge I always enjoy seeing Cyril Lixenberg’s sculpture called “Uniting Sun.” And then, with somewhat less enthusiasm, I see the sign which proclaims “Celebrating our Diversity.”

Holland is more diverse than I remember it, no doubt, but I wonder if celebration is in order just yet. On Sunday mornings, in many of our churches, I see little diversity (and no celebration of the little there is). Racial and ethnic groups keep mainly to themselves and seem not to be aware that other groups exist, sometimes just down the street.

As a newcomer, one who nevertheless happens to have deep roots in this community, I hope to do what I can to encourage the vitality and diversity that I see and enjoy. I also hope I can convince my dentist.

Douglas Brouwer is the author of How To Become A Multicultural Church. He lives in Park Township and can be reached at

Pboto: Having nothing at all to do with my column, but one of the most photographed bridges in the world, the Kapellbrücke in Luzern, Switzerland, where I happen to be living until Christmas.

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The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

Here’s my August column for the Holland Sentinel:

“Paper or plastic?” the person at the grocery cash register asked, without looking up (or saying hello).

“I brought my own bags,” I said, proudly, holding them up for her to see. And with that, of course, she looked up—to get a good look at the tree-hugging Green Panther standing in front of her.

I’ll never know if I fit her image of an environmentalist, because she quickly looked down again and began to scan my items before placing them in my reusable bags.

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Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

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Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

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Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

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My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

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Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

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A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

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Called To Be a Loser

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

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

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My Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2018

Dear family and friends,

On January 28 I preached what will probably be my last sermon at the Eglise réformée française in Zürich, Switzerland, where the International Protestant Church offers Sunday morning worship and where we shared space with a French-speaking congregation.

I retired that day after nearly 40 years of ministry. Continue Reading →

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