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Calvin chaplain Dale Cooper describes his mission in life as such: "I want my life to model Jesus for all the world to see."
That simple statement underlies a busy, complicated ministry. Since coming to Calvin in 1976, Cooperknown to legions as "Coop"has taught classes, preached sermons and started programs. He's also counseled countless students and led Interim trips to Gethsemani, Kentuckythe monastery that was famously home to Thomas Mertonand Taize, France. He spent last spring in England, working on a book about the Puritans, which he can't finish right now because of another book on the worship habits of college students. Oh, and he turned 60 last year.
That richness of experience may be why an interview with Chaplain Cooper quickly turns episodic, a series of stories that veer off into other stories. He's been part of the story of spiritual life at Calvin College for over 20 years nowthat much history does not naturally fall into an orderly pattern. In my conversation with him, though, a theme arose.
Cooper said, "I'm not called upon to do anything. I believe Jesus calls me to be somebody; he calls me to be a saint," he said, quoting a monk he met at Gethsemani. And Cooper means it.
This idea, of being rather than doing, is reflected in the kinds of statements made about Cooper, which focus on his character rather than his accomplishments. Neal Plantinga, Dean of Calvin Seminary, noted that "Coop is one of the finest Christians I know." President Gaylen Byker called him "a great role model."
And it's an idea he's passed on to some of the students with whom he's had contact. Pam Henshell, a 2000 Calvin graduate who is studying at Western Seminary, said: "He gave a presentation once that really affected me. He was talking about being a saint rather than [pursuing] a works-based sanctificationnot about doing so much as being," she said. "That statement was a catalyst for the jump I took in exploring seminary."
Cooper has made such a mark on Calvin that if the college ever had a "Trivial Pursuit" game, a definition of "Coop" would have two correct answers. For alumni prior to 1975, a "coop" is a an off-campus house for women students. For alumni of the last 25 years, there's no question: "Coop" is the college chaplain, Dale Cooper.
Calvin senior Kari Sieplinga, of Decatur, Ill., was first introduced to Coop before she officially became a student here.
"I first met Coop on a tour of Calvin College when I was a senior in high school," she said. "My guide waved and said, 'Hey, Coop!' and told me about how wonderful Coop was to talk with.
"My next encounter with Coop was sitting in his religion class during the first semester of my freshman year. That first semester was a difficult transition for me and I found myself in his office one day crying and sharing my struggles in my classes with him. After listening to my babbling, his first words to me were not instant possible solutions, or suggestions to just pull myself together, but rather, Coop said with great gentleness in his voice, 'Miss Sieplinga, for paying $17,000 a year, you certainly deserve a tissue.' The impact of his care for me as a student will last much beyond that eight o'clock class."
As a senior now, Sieplinga has maintained a strong bond with Cooper. "Coop is not only a great teacher of mine, but he is my role model, my encourager and I daresay my friend," she said.
People have always been at the heart of Cooper's ministry. He was made chaplain in 1979, after three years of teaching in the religion department. "The college encouraged me to apply for it. One of my goals as a teacher back then was always to keep an open door for students. God has not called me to be a scholar, or a student of books or whatever," said Cooper. "So I've always kind of tried to keep in mind that people are more important, at least for me ... And so they said 'Well, we'd like you to consider becoming chaplain."
Over those 25 years, Cooper has attended and spoke at numerous memorial and funeral services. He has spent long nights waiting with students and families in hospital rooms and has spent many hours talking with students who are grieving over the death of a parent or sibling or friend or may be facing death themselves.
"First of all, let me say that too oftenevery time is once too oftenI've seen people at Calvin thrown into deep sadness and distress," said Cooper. "During my years as chaplain, there's scarcely been a year in which we haven't lost a student, faculty member, service-building workerall of them equally precious members of our college community. I am reminded each time that this is a 'sad world,' as the catechism says, and that we belong to a community of sorrow and are acquainted with grief.
"On the other handquite paradoxically, perhapsI must also say that the moments I've been allowed to spend with people amid their crises of grief and trouble have been among the richest and most blessed I shall ever experience in life. Put simply, nothing has blessed me morenor encouraged my hope and trust in the Gospelthan seeing their responses to crises in their lives. I have seen so many of them, through copious tears and staggering questionscling to the promises of God and put their trust in him."
Being available to families and students is something that Cooper makes a high priority, according to Cindy de Jong, who as coordinator of worship at Calvin has worked closely with the chaplain for almost ten years.
"When students are in the hospital, he'll stay there all night with them," she said. "He spends a lot of one-on-one time with students," she said. "He makes time for them."
Eric Hobbes '82, now an attorney in Milwaukee, Wis., made this observation about Cooper: "Whenever Coop's door was open, he'd wave and welcome you in," he said. "But if his door was closed, it was obvious that the person in Coop's office had his riveted attention."
In 1997, four Calvin studentsBrian DeWall, Matt Remein, Lori Powell and Moni Anderswere tragically involved in a car accident in which DeWall was killed and Remein and Powell were both seriously injured.
"Our daughter Sarah, a Calvin student at the time, was the first family member to arrive at the hospital in Kalamazoo after the accident," said Mary Remein, Matt's mother.
"Chaplain Cooper was already there. He came almost every day in the coming weeks as we kept a vigil in the waiting room of the Intensive Care Unit. I particularly remember Sunday, February 2, about a week after the accident. We were still very uncertain if Matthew and Lori would survive. They were both experiencing life threatening pressure on the brain. We were with the Powell family in the ICU waiting room and we decided to conduct a church service right there. We began with singing. After singing and prayer, we wondered who would provide the sermon. Just at that moment, Chaplain Cooper walked into the waiting room. We knew that God had provided His messenger.
"Chaplain Cooper quoted Psalm 27 from memory. 'The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?' He reminded us with the words of Psalm 27 that it was unwavering trust in God that would see us through this terrible time. He told us that a faithful person organizes his life around trust rather than fear. It was a simple but powerful message, just the right words we needed to hear at that time when we were so fearful because of the uncertainty of the next minute, the next hour, the next day.
"During Matthew's long recovery at home, Chaplain Cooper called regularly to check on him. We loved hearing his cheerful voice, 'How's my friend Matt doing?' His reference to Matt as a 'friend' gave us insight into his attitude towards the students in his care at Calvin. One hot August day, Chaplain Cooper dropped by to visit Matt. He said, 'I just have to see my friend Matt.' It was right before fall classes were to begin and it's a ten hour drive from Calvin to our home in Maryland. He arrived around 4 p.m., had supper and visited with Matthew, observed physical therapy and drove back to Grand Rapids the next day. That is an indication of Chaplain Cooper's love for and dedication to the students.
"We look back on a very difficult time in our lives and realize that God's truth, goodness, and love were demonstrated to us through the actions of His servant Dale Cooper."
Constant, impressive activity has never been a goal of Cooper's ministry. "I don't think that the good Lord calls me ... to go out and build a big church, go out and build a big college chapel service." But large changes have been made in the structure of group spiritual life at Calvin since the beginning of Cooper's time as chaplain in 1979. One of the more popular is the L.O.F.T. Sunday night worship service, begun in 1996 when the college's older Knollcrest worship service, which Cooper described as a "replication of the CRC worship service," was cancelled.
"I asked Gregg DeMey and Greg Kett, who were conducting a young peoples' worship service down at LaGrave Avenue (CRC), whether they'd be willing to do something like this at Calvin College," he said. "Not just the idea of a contemporary worship service, but what I termed it back then was, a contemporary worship service with a sense of history to itpaying attention to what it meant to have a Reformed concept of a big God, a big divine worship, but incorporating all manner of musical instruments and whatever."
L.O.F.T. has proven one of Cooper's more controversial contributions; some students dismiss it as "happy-clappy" and theologically lightweight. "If it is clap-happy and purely so, then it stands properly criticized," Cooper said. "I must say that every week when we get together on Wednesdays and review those worship services, we try to view them in terms of the integrity of the music, as well as the preaching and a whole series of things. ... Ron tries to pay pretty careful attention to the theological integrity of the text that's sung."
Another change in the structure of Calvin's worship has had to do with a change in the makeup of Calvin's student bodya change for which Cooper is grateful. "I was here in the mid-'60s as a student," he said. "If you were white, if you were Christian Reformed, if you had gone to Christian schools, if you had gone to a Christian high school in western Michigan, if you had optimally gone to Grand Rapids Christian High, if you were middle class, you would fit in very, very well.
"Truth of the matter is, while it was relatively easier to form a community back then, the community wasn't really founded as a Christian community so much as it was a colony," Cooper said. With the influx of students from different denominations, races, classes and traditions, corporate worship at Calvin has had to change as well.
"God," said Cooper, "is so big that no single theological tradition can ever reflect all his splendor. And so we need to learn and to listen to one another." And the college should always be reforming, he said: "We could have, should have, and must do more, and we always have to be paying attention."
Hobbes spoke of Cooper's willingness to be welcoming to all faith traditions. "He is a teacher in so many ways," he said. "He was able to teach Reformed Doctrine with such love and openness that a Baptist kid like me who knew nothing about it felt accepted and drawn in."
Another part of the ministry in which Cooper participates is the one-on-one interaction fostered by the Calvin mentoring program, of which Cooper said, "I've found it to be the single most fulfilling thing of which I've had a part in terms of programs" during his time at Calvin.
"Two things I asked myself: Dale, to the degree you've got any faith in your bones, where'd you get it? And secondly, Dale, depending upon God, what are you doing to transmit it to the next generation?" Upon reflection, Cooper said, he realized that he "got it" from a long stream of heroes: "My father and my mother did this for me. My high school teacher, Hero Bratt, did this for me. Henry Stob, my seminary teacher, did this for me. [Calvin president emeritus] William Spoelhof does that for me. Catherine Bratt, my first grade teacher, did that for me. These people breathed this stuff into me just by who they were."
And not just paid teachers: "Some custodians, I've met some students, I've met some administrators, I've met some administrative assistants," he said. "Quote-unquote common ordinary people ... but it's extraordinary how extraordinary ordinary humans really are.
"In an academic community everybody teaches everybody," he said, quoting former Calvin philosophy professor Nicholas Wolterstorff.
As Cooper pondered these questionswhere had his faith come from, and how was he passing it on"Almost simultaneously, my friend Ralph Honderd and I came to know each other as more than colleagues, and we became soul friends. And he expressed an interest in having something like this start," Cooper said. "We said maybe we can get 15 mentors and 15 students, and that's kind of where it started.
"We said to the mentors, 'Your goal is not to make little clones of yourself. Rather ask your mentee how you can help that person to become what she thinks God is calling her to become?'" Cooper and Honderd told mentors to "share your story in a way that's authentic." After several years, the program has 120 students and 120 mentors.
The desire to pass on a vital part of one's faith journey also animated one of Cooper's less-known endeavors, Nil Nisi Verum (Latin for "Nothing but the truth). On Tuesday nights, Coop meets with a group consisting of three students from each class (freshman, sophomore, ) to read through Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. The whole thing. In four years. "The little format, that we've used for years, is this: we come together, we begin a with word of prayer, we study for an hour, we talk about whatever occasions for praise or petition there are, then one of us concludes in prayer, and finally, we sing an evening hymn."
Really knowing Calvin's Institutes is important to Cooperjust as knowing the catechism and the Scriptures are.
Committing both the Heidelberg Catechism and large portions of scripture to memory have shaped the way Cooper talks to students and others.
"I use the catechism again and again in my conversations with students as I speak with them about issues," he said, "not that I cite them, of course. But boy, that confession of faith has certainly guided what I say to them."
And in any conversation with Cooper, portions of biblical text are just part of the dialogue.
"Coop has more scripture committed to memory that anyone else I know," said
de Jong. "This enables him to recall an appropriate text for nearly any situation, whether one needs words of comfort, rebuke, instruction, encouragement or celebration."
Cooper's memorization practice started about 20 years ago while out for his usual morning run.
"I thought it might be possible to do two things at once," he said. "So I printed up 3x5 cards with a Heidelberg Catechism question printed on each. It's pretty dark at 5:30 in the morning, but each time I got to a streetlight, I'd review the next line. Usually by the time I got home after those six miles, I'd have one question and answer mastered."
It took Cooper a year and half, but eventually he had the entire catechism committed to memory.
"And when I got to the 129th'What does the little word "Amen" express?'well, having gotten that one down (and all the rest, too), I sang the doxology on the spot!" he said.
Cooper went on to add several of the Psalms and other texts, one verse at a time.
"Gradually through the years I've built up a collection of Psalms which are in my memory, and how these prayers have enriched me!" he said. "I've found that they're a lot better prayers to offer to God than anything I could come up with."
The reason behind the memorization is simple, according to Cooper. "I need it to grow," he said. "I have a theory that all of growth in Christian life begins with God's wordhis word memorized, studied and meditated upon. It can become food to be turned into energy amid my life's circumstances.
"I often use the analogy of my Pacific Coast bicycle trip that my son, Dan, and I took four years ago. We did 1,800 miles in 25 daysVancouver to Tijuana. Cycling under those grueling conditions we needed immense amounts of energy. Thus, we ended up eating four times per daytwo breakfasts, a full lunch and a hearty dinner. During those 25 days, I lost 15 pounds! Why? Well, food was being turned into energy for the journey.
"The analogy, I hope, is clear. Scripture is food which, when memorized and meditated on, can become energy for obedience day after day," he said.
Chaplain Cooper talks, as the reader will have gathered, in stories: narratives of specific people at specific times, full of "I said " and "She said " His office is full of memorabilia: several model trucks on top of a filing cabinet, given to him over the years by friends and students; old John Deere tractor gear. "Every one of these semis," he said, pointing to them, "has a story to it." They remind him, he said, "of how good God has been to me through people."
In talking with him one gets the impression of a life lived, very consciously, as part of various stories-the story of Calvin College, for more than 20 years, but also the story of his years teaching high school, of his time in seminary, of the people he met as a truck driver. In our interview, of all the people he mentioned, there were two whose stories he most wanted to tell: his parents. This story relates to the pictures of, books about, and models based on John Deere tractors that decorate parts of his office.
"I have a fond preference for John Deeres because my dad liked John Deeres," he said. "And my father is my hero."
When Cooper was three years old, his mother was struck with polio, he said. "In the space of four days she became totally paralyzed from the neck down. On Sunday, November 4, 1945, she and my dad went from Holland to Blodgett Hospital in an ambulance, and they put her in an iron lung." His father had finished that day's chores at their Holland, Mich., farm, so, according to Cooper, elected to stay at the hospital. "He stayed for two and a half weeks," Cooper said.
After this time, she was still comatose. "They put a cap and gown on my dad; they put a mask on him, and they said, 'You may go into your wife's room and say good-bye to her,'" Cooper said. "He put his hand on her and said 'It's gonna be OK, kiddo.' And she kind of looked up. And the doctor saw that, and said, 'John' (Cooper's father's name), something's going on here. You can come in here whenever you want.
"So my little eighth-grade educated dad, in 1945, had the run of the polio ward," Cooper said. He stayed with her for two years, sleeping sometimes in her room, sometimes at home, but always present during the day. "He stayed there for four years in the hospital, and when she could come home in the iron lung, he came home with her, and for the next 35 years and ten months my dad cared for my mother full time."
"And then on August 29, 1985, she died. Forty years," Cooper said. "My dad was right there and I shut the iron lung off and my dad said, 'She was a wonderful wife.'"
"The other side of it is my mother," said Cooper. "My mother literally, in all my 40 years of living with her, never complained. She was totally paralyzed from the neck down, but she was life affirming, she was full of joy, she reveled in the excitement of being human.
"I've seen trouble and tears, but I've also seen Divine grace shown in my own family's life. And the way my mom and dad responded to it has allowed me to both see it for myself and also to use this in my ministry to others. All of this was something of a training ground for when I would eventually become the college's chaplain.
"But neversimply neverwhen I came to Calvin College in the mid-70s could I have begun to dream of how rich and full my life would become through this Christian academic community," he added. "The privilege of coming to know so many people and of being allowed to enter the sacred arena of their lives amid so many diverse circumstances has been wholly mine. I look upon the people at this college as accomplices of God to me. I am grateful to God for them beyond words."
Last year, while Chaplain Dale Cooper was on sabbatical in England, he issued a challenge to students, faculty and staff to join him in his regular scripture memorization efforts.
Each week a scripture verse along with Coop's insight on the verse was emailed to anyone interested in taking up the challenge.
Close to 150 people became active participants in Coop's challenge, memorizing or at least attempting to memorize 16 passages during the semester.
Cooper has arranged for his Scripture Memory Challenge once again this year. If you would like to join the challenge and receive Coop's weekly insights, email email@example.com.