Dr. Robert Swierenga of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute at Hope College has written two recently published books that examine the history and legacy of the Dutch and their descendants in Illinois and Iowa.
Swierenga is the author of "Elim: A Chicago Christian School and Life Training Center for the Disabled" and editor of "Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier." Both books have been published by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. of Grand Rapids through the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America edited by Dr. Donald J. Bruggink.
Elim Christian Services, which operates the only Reformed residential school in North America for special needs children, began in 1948 at Second Christian Reformed Church in Englewood, Ill. From seven Chicago-area students in the church's basement in the beginning, the school now serves hundreds from around the nation on a 34-acre campus in Palos Heights, Ill. In addition to serving school-aged children on-site, Elim works with 15 mainstream Christian schools to assist them in their work with special-needs children, and also operates Oasis Enterprises, a workshop that provides occupational training and employment for nearly 200 adults each year. Elim is named after the oasis in the Sinai Desert where the Israelites camped after leaving bondage in Egypt, as told in Exodus 15.
The discussion of Elim's history, Swierenga noted, includes the emergence of academic programs in special education, and exploration of the impact of the shift in the 1970s from church contributions and individual gifts to government funding and correspondingly greater regulation. In addition to examining Elim's history, the volume features nearly 200 photographs and illustrations and focuses on the program's students and their achievements.
As a child growing up in the Chicago area, Swierenga was a part of the broader Christian Reformed Church community that supported the school. Peter Huizenga, who with his mother Elizabeth Huizenga provided the initial funding for the A.C. Van Raalte Institute, is president of Elim's Foundation, and Huizenga's wife Heidi is past president of Elim's board. Swierenga had previously examined the Chicago area's Dutch heritage in the 2002 book "Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City."
"Elim: A Chicago Christian School and Life Training Center for the Disabled" premiered on Thursday, May 19, during "Fine Arts Night" at the school.
"Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier" features correspondence between the 19th century Dutch immigrants to Pella, Iowa, and their families back in the Netherlands. Like Holland, Pella was founded in 1847 by settlers seeking both religious liberty and economic opportunity in the young United States. As Holland's colonists were led by the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte, Pella's were led by the Rev. Hendrik Pieter Scholte.
The book expands and translates "Amsterdamse Emigranten" ("Amsterdam Emigrants"), published in Dutch in 1976 and edited by Johan Stellingwerff, who was director of the library at the Free University of Amsterdam. The translation was by Walter Lagerwey, who is professor emeritus of Dutch language, literature and culture at Calvin College. The project received funding through a challenge grant from the Peter H. and E. Lucille Gaass Kuyper Foundation, which is a foundation of the family behind the Pella window corporation, and matching support from the Dutch American Historical Commission, which is a consortium of Calvin and Hope colleges and the Calvin and Western seminaries.
The book features 215 letters written from the 1840s to the 1870s. In many, the Pella settlers encourage relatives to join the colonists. Some are critical of Scholte. Others reveal regrets - like the disappointed immigrant who ultimately moved back to the Netherlands. Beyond sharing family and church news, economic and political conditions, and the joys and sorrows of everyday life, Swierenga noted, the letters portray the inner feelings and faith struggles of the devout Netherlanders as they sought to understand God's will in the face of their experiences.
Swierenga has conducted research and written concerning Dutch immigration and related topics since the 1960s. He has written or edited 23 books, and has written numerous journal articles and lectured widely on issues related to the Dutch in America.
In June of 2000, he was named by Queen Beatrix a "Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion" for his many contributions to Dutch-American scholarship. The knighthood was conferred during an all-day Dutch-American history conference held at Hope in his honor.
Swierenga has been at Hope since 1996. He had previously been a member of the history faculty at Kent State, where he served from 1968 until retiring in 1996.
He holds his bachelor's degree from Calvin College, where he was an assistant professor from 1965 to 1968, and his master's from Northwestern University and his doctorate from the University of Iowa.