When I first met Gerda Hesselink she was in her 80s, but there was nothing old about her. With clear, bright eyes and an easy smile, she was always ready for worthwhile conversation. Keen to listen to and encourage others, Gerda also had her own story to tell.
Like many young couples in post-war Holland, Gerda and her husband John dreamed of making a better life. They longed to farm. After much prayer and consideration, they felt the Lord leading them to Canada. Along with their two little boys, Bert (two years) and Ab (eight months), they immigrated in 1951.
John began working for a farmer in Mount Forest, Ontario. For three months the family waited for their belongings to arrive from Holland. They looked forward to church every week – for the worship, of course, but also for the chance to speak Dutch with other newcomers. Gerda grew homesick and often asked John, “Are you still sure we had to come to Canada?”
Their shipping container finally arrived and Gerda eagerly unpacked their precious things. Now it would feel like their home.
Suddenly the farmer’s wife burst through the door. “O, Gerda! John has had a bad fall in the barn!”
Gerda found her husband sprawled on the floor, in so much pain he thought he would die. “Gerda,” he told her, “You must take the boys back to Holland. You cannot stay here alone.”
Support in a new country
For a full year after the accident the boys lived with their grandmother and Gerda stayed in Toronto to be near John. Through it all the couple continued as they always had – praying to the Lord, trusting him for everything they needed, waiting for his leading in their lives. He did not fail them. Gerda marveled at how the least detail was taken care of and she was deeply grateful for the support they received from so many people in their new country.Support in a new country
The local hospital transferred John to Toronto. Just two weeks earlier a man from the church had advised the Hesselinks to apply for health coverage. Little did they know how important that counsel would be.
After John was released from the hospital the family settled in Drayton. The Reformed Church in America loaned them $2,000 to buy a small house. They started a little store in one room, selling imported dry goods to the many Dutch immigrants in the area. The business flourished. Soon they repaid their debt and bought a bigger home across the street. Eventually they became the town’s grocers.
God’s love through it all
John was never free from pain and he could only walk with crutches. He spent much of his time in a wheelchair. Gerda’s life centred on taking care of her husband and children and managing the family business. But whenever she spoke of those difficult years, it was always with profound thankfulness. She didn’t use the words “providence” or “sovereignty,” but those were the gleaming motifs in her life story.
Reflecting on their life together, Gerda wrote: “Een mens wikt, maar God beschict.” [A rhyming paraphrase of Proverbs 16:9.] God’s ways are not our ways. Often we don’t receive what we pray for. Later we see that God meant it for our best. We prayed for healing, but it did not come. But we felt God’s love for us through it all.
John went home to the Lord in 1994. Gerda joined him just a few months ago, at the age of 93.
Theirs is a legacy of faith, love and courage – a lasting testimony to the God who still holds them close.
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