The motivation for writing a history grew from several seeds. One seed was a growing feeling among some community members that many of us have little idea of our heritage. Despite the astounding fact that this organization has met continuously since 1870, there have been profound changes to the organization’s theology, governance, and values. Many who gather today to enjoy our inclusive spiritual community have no idea, for example, that our roots lie in the conservative Reformed Church in America.
Another seed was a desire to examine parts of our fairly recent history that many community members may not know, but that may still affect us. As recently as two decades ago, this community was experiencing a period of unprecedented growth. It was a time of radio programs, visiting international authors and theologians, a new name, establishment of community social services, a growing staff, large budgets, and a swelling congregation. Along with this growth was an unforeseen organizational metamorphosis that spanned several decades. We experienced scandal, heresy accusations, near bankruptcy, and angry public letters.
A final, important seed, was a desire to learn from our history. We can only learn from our past if we are mindful of it and draw from it when faced with important decisions. From a clear and well-traveled nineteenth-century theological and organizational path, we are now explorers, finding a new path by relying on common values and committed people. We learned that placing all the power and spiritual thinking in one individual is potentially corruptive. Our Community is stronger now because we distribute power, draw on the thinking of many teachers, and rely on the Community rather an anointed few to create our organization.
Thus, a C3 History Team was formed to sort through Organizational documents and archived newspapers, interview community members, and otherwise research our remarkable past. This story connects us all to our shared past, regardless of our age or length of membership.
We own it all. For the first time in our long history, we have no permanent home, few rituals, no orthodoxy, and as of this time, no formal leader. Yet we are thriving. Our story is a reminder that we have at times been on the edge of dissolution but we’re still here. This part of our story has much to teach us and our posterity.
We are smaller and less wealthy than we were in the past, but we are debt free once again. From this firmer footing, it will be up to future members to sustain C3 at a time when fundamentalism is playing a larger part in our politics even as traditional religious institutions are declining.
History is institutional memory, and if we forget our history, we erase where we have been , how we got here, and the knowledge created—often at a high price—along the way. For all these reasons, our history is an important institutional asset that frequently needs to be dusted off and retold even as new chapters are written and added to our chronicle.
The History Team 2017
THE HISTORY OF C3
What in the world is C3, West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection? Is this a church or not? Where did it come from? And who runs this place?
When you come to C3 on Sunday, you see that we are in a public building. There are no choirs or hymns, no standard liturgy. Instead, you hear artists performing mostly original music and Community members actively sharing the stage.
You hear no religious dogma, but rather values-based teachings that help us think about how to live fully, with a commitment to compassionate action and social justice.
We invite you to walk with us back to 1870, the founding year of our evolving Community, through the story of our evolution and back to the present.
Some members and friends of our C3 Community have been with us since childhood and even babyhood. Others are newly seeking a spiritual alternative that is caring, compassionate and creative, that welcomes all people, and values justice for all.
So, here is our history, our triumphs and challenges, the telling of which we hope will be a step toward grounding us all in the same soil.
Origin and Tradition: First Reformed Church of Spring Lake, 1870 to 1970
In 1870, the Village of Spring Lake was recently incorporated and had vibrant lumber and farming businesses. At first, some of the residents of Dutch heritage attended the First Reformed Church across the Grand River in Grand Haven, but boat travel could be treacherous. They remedied this situation by joining together to organize our parent church, the First Reformed Church of Spring Lake, under the Muskegon Classis of the RCA.
I’ve been going to C3 all my life in one form or another. I was baptized at First Reformed Church of Spring Lake, and I was married there, and expected to be buried here. My great-great-grandparents were charter members within six months of the church opening in 1870—this includes both my mother’s and father’s side of the family.
The church went through phases: the first was a conservative Dutch Reformed church that emphasized theology. Then when Dick Rhem came back, we emphasized Grace. With the arrival of Ian Lawton, we became a more caring Community, like it is right now. The people are really genuine here. We can talk about our problems, be listened to, and accepted as we are. They really care and watch out for one another. This is the best era.
Within six months, a white church building with a tall steeple could be seen on Summit Street. It was expanded several years later. Within a few years, the new church was free of debt. The first Minister, Reverend James J. DuPree, served for ten years.
Rooted in the theology of John Calvin, the First Reformed Church of Spring Lake was devout and conservative. A larger church was built on Exchange Street in 1938, and was paid off in seven years. (The church on Exchange Street is still there, with several subsequent additions).
The Church made regular contributions to Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, institutions which shared their Dutch ancestry and Calvinist theology. They also made contributions to Near East Relief and the Anti-Saloon League. A musical program was added, along with a Christian Endeavor Society for young people. Seventeen ministers served over the first 100 years, some for only a year or two and others for a decade or more.
In 1960, a young Pastor, Richard Rhem came to the First Reformed Church of Spring Lake. In a recent radio interview, Rev. Rhem said that he found a more liberal group than he expected. This connection, when renewed in 1971, was to shape the evolution of the First Reformed Church of Spring Lake for the next 33 years.
Growth and Grace: Christ Community Church, 1971 to 2004
Rhem returned to the First Reformed Church of Spring Lake in 1971, after first pastoring another church in New Jersey, and then studying in the Netherlands under
Hendrikus Berkhof. From Berkhof, Rhem gained a non-dogmatic view of Jesus, and a wider view of God’s Grace.
The arrival of Dick Rhem in the late 60s, soon brought big changes. We changed our name and our orientation and invested in the Community. Now called Christ Community Church, we went outside the normal church bounds and invited divorced people, Alcoholics Anonymous, and other disenfranchised groups to join our Community. It also prompted the Classis to take notice. Looking inward, we started breaking down the typical church structures like communion and began welcoming everyone at the communion table, including children. During the mid-80s, Dick Rehm starting writing and speaking more boldly, declaring the Christian model of salvation was part of a religiously exclusive power structure. In the 90s we did the same thing regarding sexual orientation and that was when Classis started pressing us further, eventually ending with our separation from the Reformed Church of America.
Early in his tenure, Rhem and several church members travelled to California for a training session with Robert Schuller, a nationally known preacher who began the “Hour of Power” television program in 1970. Like Rhem, Schuller was a graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary.
Shortly after their training, and 100 years after its founding, the leadership and the congregation changed the name of the church to Christ Community Church, reflecting the intent to serve a broader community. At a time when divorce rates were increasing and the AIDS crisis brought gay and lesbian issues into the open, the newly renamed Church risked open discussion of social challenges and theological questions that most other churches ignored.
Rhem started a radio program, “Directions,” on a local station that ran for 16 years. By 1977, staff of Christ Community Church (CCC) had grown to 16, including a four person ministerial team. The membership had grown to 1,650 people. Three Sunday services were held (as well as a traditional evening service) to accommodate the growing congregation. Large loans were secured and a large new Sanctuary opened in 1978.
CCC purchased nearby buildings to start the Red House for adult day care, and the People Center to provide emergency food, clothing and transitional shelter. A local branch of Camp Bluebird Cancer Retreats was another element of this ministry. Some members of CCC traveled to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to work with members of the Oglala-Lakota tribal groups. CCC collaborated with The Interfaith Alliance and Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance to address local and regional diversity issues and peace initiatives. There was an intentional effort to engage with local, regional, national and global issues beginning in the late 1980s to the present time.
The Center for Religion and Life was another significant initiative developed in the mid 1990’s. Rhem and other local figures created this program which brought in nationally and internationally known authors and speakers to Christ Community Church, including Marcus Borg, Jon Dominic Crosson, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Elaine Pagels and Walter Wink. These guest speakers challenged many traditional Christian teachings, and hosted discussions of theology, science and interfaith dialog.
“Children in Worship” was developed to meet the needs of a growing children’s program within a theology of Grace. There was also a dynamic program for youth. The music ministry included interpretive dance, a children’s choir, a chancel choir, a bell choir and guest musicians, all supported by the powerful organ in the new sanctuary.
Although still part of the Reformed Church in America, CCC was flourishing as an increasingly liberal religious community. It enjoyed a large membership, a loosening of religious piety and conservatism, social justice programs, and opportunities for adult learning and spiritual growth. Governance changed from a Consistory of Deacons and Elders, to a Board of Trustees. Rhem was both the CEO of the Church, and the President of the Board of Trustees.
The history of CCC now turns to some problems lurking beneath the surface. One problem developed, ironically, out of one of Rhem’s most pronounced strengths – his charisma. As a strong and charismatic leader, Rhem tended to be a top-down leader. This meant that there was little structure for self-governance norms to develop. When serious problems developed later, the organization was ill-equipped to handle them.
In 1994, a spiritual group of gay and lesbian people was searching for a place to meet. With permission of the CCC leadership, the group was given access to the Christ Community Church Chapel. This small act of acceptance, hospitality and grace was reported as a human-interest story in the Muskegon Chronicle. The Muskegon Classis took notice, and an official investigation was begun the following year.
Now that Rhem was on their radar, other questions about Rhem’s theology came to the attention of the Classis. The first question they addressed was the acceptance of homosexuality without judgment. A second point of contention that soon emerged was Rhem’s belief that Jesus Christ was not the only path to salvation. A third point of concern to the Classis was that Rhem challenged traditional views of scripture. These items taken together triggered the possibility of a heresy trial for Rhem and two other ordained members of CCC’s ministerial team.
Conflicts in practice and belief between Rhem and the more conservative theology of the Reformed Church in America brought a wrenching time for the church community with people on both sides. The Muskegon Classis was on the verge of removing Reverend Rhem’s Reformed Church of America credentials.
In 1997, with strong support for Rhem, the church Community took action to separate Christ Community Church from the Reformed Church in America, based on a congregational vote, under supervision from the Classis. The vote was 87% yea, and 13% nay. Agreements were drawn up by the Classis and CCC for an amicable separation, with no transfers of funds and retention by CCC of church buildings other assets.
The executive committee of the RCA’s Classis of Muskegon Thursday resolved that, unless the Rev. Richard Rhem publicly recants his progressive theology, he and the classis should “purposely move towards a peaceful separation.”
Rhem said he’s confident his congregation will follow him out of the reformed church. A resolution passed by CCC leaders a month ago reads, “We stand in solidarity with him and are committed to continuing our positive ministry together.” Rhem won a standing ovation from his congregation when the statement was read.
Then, when events were already tumultuous, a turn for the worse ensued. Allegations of “gross sexual misconduct” interrupted this process of separation. They were leveled against Rhem by a church employee and reported in the Grand Haven Tribune and in Classis documents. The Classis held an investigation of these charges in private session, records of which were sealed. Following this investigation, CCC was informed that it would be required to pay $400,000 to complete the severance.
This period was extremely painful for the Community. The Board of Trustees acted to protect Rhem, and thereby hoped to protect the Community. There was denial of the allegations and anger at the person who accused Rhem of sexual misconduct in loyalty to the leader. The result was a changed Community, deeply in debt from legal fees, severance fees, mortgage and cost overruns. Membership was declining. One part of the debt that was not disclosed at the time was for substantial legal costs related specifically to the sexual misconduct allegations by the original complainant and others.
Christ Community Church was not on firm financial footings when Dick Rhem’s time ended. His successor didn’t receive a debt-free and financially sound organization. Some of it wasn’t obvious until you looked at the details. For instance, for several years Christ Community Church would come to the end of the year showing a deficit. Dick would get on the telephone with some special people and get two or three six-figure donations and everything balanced. Dick’s special relationship with these people of course ended when he left the church. Sure enough when he was gone—and actually a couple of those people died—that well was dry, and we were struggling immediately.
Rhem announced his retirement in 2003. A replacement pastor was sought without putting in place an interim leader. The Reverend John Shelby Spong had met a young Anglican cleric in Australia and strongly recommended him to follow Rhem as leader of Christ Community Church.
Progressive Community: C3 Exchange, 2004 to 2014
Reverend Ian Lawton came with his family from Australia in 2004. His beginning at CCC was rocky. Rhem, and an active group of people still loyal to him, interfered with the congregation’s adjustment to and acceptance of a new leader. In addition, Lawton was not advised at his hiring of the large debt carried by CCC and the reasons for that debt.
I had some very emotional years after Ian came to what was then Christ Community. We were getting a little stale before Ian came, and I looked forward to the change—but there was an awful lot of turmoil. Some of it was to be expected after a leader of 30-plus years is followed by someone untried and new. But I think some huge bumps in the road might have been avoided by a more seasoned leader. What bothered me most was we were losing members. At the same time, it was exciting and a lot of new things were happening: the dynamism of a new leader, new members, people who thought way outside the box—not just outside the evangelical box, which we had done for years—outside of the religious box, even outside the God box. Now, there is no spiritual community I could love like I love C3.
Ian, as he was generally called, persevered. He was a deep thinker, an avid learner, and a person who respected many spiritual journeys. He was engaging and intellectually rigorous as a speaker. Over time, and in consultation with the Board of Trustees and members of the congregation, many traditional elements of the protestant service disappeared, including hymns, organ music, exclusively liturgical readings, and the following of the liturgical calendar. The new motto became “come as you are.” The invitation to attend was extended to those of any religion or no religion. Christ Community Church took on the nickname of C3.
In 2008, Lawton and the Board of Trustees proposed and —after extensive discussion and consideration by the C3 Community—decided that the cross outside the sanctuary should be removed because it no longer reflected the practice or mission of C3. With much local attention and notoriety, the cross was taken down and was respectfully given to another church. This change attracted new people to the C3 Community, and sent away others who felt less at home. The Community decided to change its name to C3 Exchange to clarify our new theological position.
Financial pressures stemming from the Rhem years continued to weigh on the Community and led to the decision to walk away from the church building. (The other buildings had already been sold.) C3 regrouped at the Grand Haven Community Center for Sunday mornings and rented office space during the week, an arrangement that continues to this day.
Ian’s theology and thinking were progressive. In 2013, Ian shared with the Community that he was an atheist. This revelation shocked some and was welcomed by others, again resulting in some members leaving while attracting others.
Values about being our best selves were addressed in Ian’s teachings. During his tenure, C3 Exchange became increasingly Community-centered, with Community members taking on compassionate care, event planning, and outreach activities. Social media were used to share and build upon ideas. The Community became more able to govern itself from the ground up.
After some disappointing earlier attempts to get involved, I found my voice when Ian was being attacked for changing the status quo. I felt we needed to give him some time. So, I started speaking up. As people started leaving the church, I started volunteering again. And as soon as you’re in charge of something, people think of you as a leader. I wasn’t looking for a leadership role at all. It was kind of like it is now: If I don’t do it, who will?
Because nothing bad happened to me when I stood up for Ian, I got a little bit more courageous, and I did more. A lot of volunteers and staff were gone, so because I really still valued what we were doing, I wanted to keep it going. I really love the people here, and I didn’t want to let anybody down. I never looked at myself as a leader. I always felt like one of those people who, if you wanted to say something, then you better back it up with action and do it.
When Ian and his family returned to Australia at the end of 2014, C3 Exchange had begun an effort to clarify its mission, vision and values. Barbara Lee, with impressive skills to help manage change, was hired as interim leader and served nearly 18 months. During this period, with Barbara’s leadership and collaboration, the Community created a membership process, formed a Sunday Gathering Team, established democratic procedures for elections, and took part in safe community/safe kids training. Barbara was our Speaker/Teacher twice monthly, with guest speakers on the alternate Sundays. This pattern continues today. Although originally driven by financial concerns, Community members have come to enjoy the variety of teachings the other speakers offer.
The Community also selected and voted on a new name, C3, West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection.
Caring Creative Community: C3, West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection, 2016 to 2017
Our interim period ended with a successful search for our new leader. Jennifer Atlee-Loudon began early in 2016, after a Community vote and affirmation. Jennifer and her husband Tom had recently returned from 30 years of work supporting social justice and environmental rights activists in Central America. She has a Masters in Divinity, and a close connection to Liberation Theology. She was attracted to our Community-led, consensus building structure, a structure that has evolved from our history and fits our values and who we are.
Although we dearly wished Jenny to have a long tenure as our leader, this was not to be. In her own words, Jenny struggled to exist in two worlds, that of the human rights and earth rights defenders in Central America, and the world of C3. As she said in her resignation letter, “I am not able to hold all of this and to be effectively present to both of these important responsibilities.”
This Community is a gift, a reason I can stay in this country at this time and continue to work for human and earth rights. I hope I can come back and share the journey along the way as we continue to shift paradigms, show up for and lend our weight to the Great Turning towards a culture of Gratitude, Reciprocity and Care of our Earth Home, which is the Challenge of our Time.
Jenny strengthened our Community by extending our global understanding of social justice; she raised our awareness of indigenous people’s fight all over the world, and especially in Central America, to protect their water and their way of life. She taught us to sustain hope in difficult times and how to seek light even in darkness. We learned about the incredible courage of people Jenny worked with and accompanied in Honduras and Nicaragua. We learned that it is important to show up: to live our values and to embrace hope.
Jenny reinforced our core values—Common Humanity, Diversity, Open Inquiry, Compassionate Action, Environmental Sustainability and Well-Being—as she became a member as well as the leader of C3. She connected the gems from the teachings of our guest speakers, guest musicians, meditations and readings.
Our connection to Muskegon Heights became a strong interest for Jenny as well. When our C3 member and model activist Doris Rucks died, Jenny, with sensitivity to the many communities to which Doris was connected, helped create a memorial that beautifully fit the woman to whom we were saying goodbye. In our difficult year of loss, Jenny led us through loving, grieving, and loving more deeply.
We say goodbye to Jenny who is turning her attention more fully toward social and environmental justice accompaniment and activism, and wish her well.
Our Present and Our Future
As this goes to press, we will be starting a new leader search with confidence and hope. As our Board of Trustees President, Richard Kamischke, wrote in a letter to the C3 Community, “While we will miss Jenny’s insights and experiences, the state of the Community is strong and our organizational design is well suited to be without a formal leader for a time.”
We have an elected Board of Trustees and two committees chaired by board members. These are the Community Life Committee and the Outreach Committee, organizational structures that parallel our Vision Statement. We have over 250 members, and a Sunday Gathering attendance of about 100 people.
C3 is a member of the International Charter for Compassion, and creates events that promote compassion and peace in our local area. Every third Sunday (Week 3 at
C3) a project is selected to which Community members can contribute.
C3 has built a bridge that takes many in our Community to Muskegon Heights for mentoring in schools, volunteering in school libraries, supporting the Muskegon Heights Branch Library, and being open to opportunities to help.
C3 continues to build relationships with other progressive churches, with communities in need, and with organizations that can advance agendas of social justice in West Michigan.
We hold each other in an embrace of warmth and caring. We share our stories, hopes and losses, and learn together what it means to be our best selves and live a good life.
CONTRIBUTORS AND RESOURCES
Researched and written by the History Team:
Assistance provided by
Bill & Kathy Klouw
This is not the last word. Many members and friends of C3 may have unique aspects of their experience not reflected in this document. We did our best to use public records and member testimony to present a factual account. We expect annual or biannual updates to be made by future History Teams.
Copyright 2017 by C3, West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection
All rights reserved
Including the right to reproduction in whole or in part in any form
Published by C3
950 Taylor Street
Grand Haven, Michigan 49417