On November 30, 2015, the Lord took home to glory Dr. Richard J. Venema at the age of 93. He served many churches in multiple federations and was well-known within the Reformed community as a forthright defender of God’s truth.
Writing a memorial piece always carries the danger of either idolizing or idealizing a man, but Richard Venema’s frankness was apparent to all who knew him. At the funeral service held in Sheldon, IA, on December 15, his son Dr. Cornelis P. Venema read from a message sent by his brother Rick: “For all my life, I thought of Dad as a good father, even though he was hard to get along with sometimes—” at which point, murmurs of amusement rippled through the gathered family and friends. Everyone, it seemed, understood that about Richard Venema, but also knew him as a passionate man of God.
Noting that his father would not want a eulogy, Dr. Cornel Venema said he’d like to share one thing: “He had not only many years of life, but they were full of work and labor for the Lord.” He added, “He, together with my mother, served a number of churches in a variety of circumstances and places. Dad proved to be a blessing to many.”
Some of the ways he blessed many were evident in a continuing stream of communication to the family. Some people expressed not only sympathy, but also how Richard J. Venema influenced their lives.
On the Helena funeral home’s website, Sally Apokedak (who now lives in Georgia but attended the OPC in Wasilla, AK, while Richard Venema served there) wrote about how his booming voice frightened her children, but they always ran to hug him after the service or when he visited.
“Richard Venema was a pastor at heart,” she says. “I was struggling in a certain situation, and I’ll never forget him standing over me and yelling, ‘You forgive, you forgive, you look at Jesus on that cross and you forgive.’ And what could I do but obey? I could easily have gone a whole different direction at that critical moment. He shouted at me because he loved me and he invested much time and energy into my family. Pastor Venema was seventy-nine years old by the time I met him, and serving as pulpit supply, but he wasn’t coasting. He was working while it was yet day. I trust he’s hearing a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ right about now.”
At the Sheldon funeral service, Rev. G.I. Williamson, an ordained OPC minister and associate member of Cornerstone URC in Sanborn, noted that Richard Venema had examined him when he came to New Zealand in 1963, but that he examined Richard in 1994 when Dr. Venema became affiliated with the OPC.
Preaching from John 14, according to Richard Venema’s expressed instructions, Rev. Williamson stressed the resurrection of the body. He noted that being born again, the first resurrection, is good. Departing from the body to be with the Lord is better. But the bodily resurrection on the day of the Lord is best. He said, “When Christ returns, Richard J. Venema will be seen again.”
At an earlier service held December 4 at Emmanuel Chapel in Helena, MT, Pastor Jonah Barnes also preached on John 14. He prefaced his message by saying, “When I visited Richard in the hospital…he made sure that I would not spend my time…speaking highly of him. He told me, ‘Keep it short,’ and…I am not here to direct you to Richard, but to the King who has conquered death and lives to die no more.”
He said, “Christ lived the perfect life. Richard did not, neither can you, or I. But Christ has come as the way, the truth, and the life….’” The text of his entire message can be found at: jonahmb.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/richard-now-triumphant
Richard James Venema was born on April 15, 1922, near Hospers, IA. He and Carrie Van Surksum were married in 1944. He initially resisted the call to ministry, successfully raising turkeys with his father and farming for some years. But in 1947, he followed the Spirit’s leading to pursue college and seminary training in Grand Rapids. He was one of the Calvin students who became known as the “sacred seven” for taking a stand against liberal teaching.
Nevertheless, he faithfully served the CRCNA for most of his ministerial career. He graduated from Calvin College in 1951, from Calvin Seminary in 1954, and was ordained that same year in Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, IA.
Under the direction of the CRC Board of World Missions, he was on loan to the fledgling Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) from 1958-1963. Upon returning to the States, he served the Harderwyk CRC in Holland, MI, from 1964-1966. The CRC’s Board of Home Missions then called him to the Friendship House, a ministry for Native American Indians in the San Francisco Bay area (1966-1970).
He served a series of First CRCs during ensuing years: Pella, IA (1970-1975), South Holland, IL (1975-1980), and Chino, CA (1980-1989). In 1981, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, IL.
While serving First Chino, Dr. Venema decided to retire. In 1989, he and Carrie moved to northwest Iowa to be near her failing parents. Only two weeks after their move into their newly-built dream home, Carrie was diagnosed with cancer.
Treatments granted a reprieve. The couple traveled extensively interspersed with Richard’s stints as interim pastor at Calvary CRC in Orange City, First CRC in Sheldon, Calvin CRC in Rock Valley, Ireton CRC, Doon CRC, Sanborn CRC, and the CRC in Salem, OR. He served some of these congregations more than once and also ministered to the newly-established independent Reformed church in Salem for several months.
As Carrie’s health declined, she and Richard discussed his ecclesiastical future. He was convinced that retirement did not free him from his Form of Subscription pledge to uphold the truth. He was examined and received as a minister in the OPC in 1994. A couple of months later, Carrie passed away.
He made a commitment to serve a newly-organized OPC in Anchorage, AK, beginning in May of 1995, but first returned to New Zealand to serve the North Shore Reformed Church for two months. In 1996, he married Mary Hogan in Anchorage. She passed away only ten months later, while the couple traveled in Europe.
In subsequent years, Dr. Venema preached in Anchorage and Wasilla as well as many locations in the contiguous US: Pella, Sioux Center, Salem, Walnut Creek (CA), Boise (ID), and three months at Covenant OPC in Orland Park (IL).
He married Nijole Liubaviciute in 1999. For several months, he flew to Alaska to preach for two Sundays before returning to their home in Tinley Park. The couple then moved to Alaska, but he soon was called to serve as Stated Supply in Helena, MT. For several months he flew there once a month to preach for two subsequent Sundays. In 2003, he and Nijole moved to Helena, where he served until that church was discontinued in 2009. They moved to Chino, CA, and affiliated with the congregation he had previously pastored. After being received by the URCNA in 2010, he finally and fully retired from active ministry.
In 2013, Richard and Nijole moved back to Helena and attended Emmanuel Chapel, a congregation associated with the CREC (Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches). He passed away on November 30, 2015, after a brief illness.
He is survived by his wife, Nijole; his children Gerard A. (Patricia) Venema of Grand Rapids, MI, Richard C. (Virginia) Venema of Augusta, GA, Cornelis P. (Nancy) Venema of Dyer, IN, Laura (Peter) Janoschek of Aalen, Germany; son-in-law Ed De Young (late Karen) of Lethbridge, AB; step-daughter Ieva; 14 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren; sisters Theresa (Peters) and Melvina (Marlowe Pranger) Vander Linde; sisters-in-law Audrey (late Henry) Venema and Norma (late Alvin) Venema.
I’ve seen some great pictures of Dr. Richard J. Venema, from the one of Montana’s governor recognizing him for 50 years of ministry to the leonine profile on his online obituary. But my favorite remains the one of escaped kittens playing around his feet while he performed the outdoor marriage ceremony for my husband and me.
Because I, too, am one of those people whose lives were changed by his gruff and passionate love for me and the Lord.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 16-17 of the January 13, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.