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Hans Vanderwerff: Calling and Comfort
The Toronto’s newspapers debated Messianic Judaism. Protestors demonstrated. There were bomb threats. Nevertheless, their congregation nearly doubled.

Nearly 30 years ago, Hans Vanderwerff and his wife Vonnie paved the way for the growth of the Messianic Jewish movement in Canada by leading Melech Yisrael in Toronto, the first Messianic Jewish congregation, and by supporting fledgling Canadian Messianic groups.

Pioneer ministry couple, Hans and Vonnie Vanderwerff were not only congregational leaders, but also bold ambassadors for the Messianic Jewish movement to the Church in Canada.

"As a pioneer in Canada, the first name that comes to my mind is Hans," said Rabbi Frank Lowinger of B'rith Hadoshah in Buffalo. "He is a man of lots of experience, with a real heart for God and a genuine love for the Jewish people." Lowinger said he hadn't been aware of a larger Messianic movement before he met Vanderwerff. "I really didn't know what was going on outside, and here comes a gentleman at a time when we were looking for leadership and guidance. He provided that spark for us."

Vanderwerff's leadership extended beyond Canada when Melech Yisrael joined other congregations to launch the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations in the late 1970s, where he served as vice president and conference chairman from 1981 to 1987. "As a founding member of the UMJC, he was a key to our success in those early years," said Rabbi Dan Juster, who served as UMJC president from 1981 to 1986. "He brought life in his teaching, and was the key in coordinating our gatherings."

Vanderwerff was also a bold ambassador of the Messianic Jewish movement to the Canadian Church through a teaching ministry called Comfort Ye My People, which the couple started in 1982, according to Rabbi Cal Goldberg of Beth Shechinah in Calgary, Alberta.

"In the early years, very few people knew what Messianic congregations were, so Hans broke a lot of ground to help the Church understand their Jewish roots, the relationship between the Church and Israel, and the Church's responsibility toward Israel. He was one of the first voices in Canada to do that," added Goldberg.

The couple received their call to ministry in November 1977, when Hans worked for Boeing, near Ottawa. After 15 years of service, his boss offered him a $1,000 bonus check, but Vanderwerff refused. "It was then I heard the Lord say to me in my spirit, Resign. Don't accept that check," Hans said. "My boss was just flabbergasted. And immediately after I said it, I was flabbergasted too."

Taking the money would have denied God's call to ministry, Hans explains. When the company president learned the reason for Vanderwerff's resignation, he allowed Vanderwerff to keep the bonus check and contributed a desk, desk light, chair, and 12 folding chairs to the cause.

As Hans drove home, he prayed that God would prepare Vonnie for the news that he would be unemployed as of February 1st. She had news of her own: their landlady was selling their home, and they had to move as of February 1st.

In the last week of January, the Vanderwerffs packed a moving truck and headed to Toronto, where they started Erev Shabbat services for about a dozen Jewish believers, and called the group Beth Mashiach.

That summer, Melech Yisrael contacted Vanderwerff to discuss merging the two fellowships. Hans told them he would consider it only if both groups would "dissolve before the Lord and then come together as a new congregation. What would remain the same would be the name, Melech Yisrael and its constitution." In 1979, they incorporated as Melech Yisrael of Toronto.

The new congregation grew steadily. In December, the congregation placed a small ad in the Canadian Jewish News wishing Chanukah blessings to Toronto's Jewish community. It unleashed months of persecution by various Jewish groups, including the Jewish Defense League. The authenticity of Messianic Judaism was debated in Toronto's Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers. Protestors demonstrated outside services, concerts and the Vanderwerff home with picket signs that included, "666. Jews and Jesus don't mix." There were also bomb threats. Nevertheless, the congregation nearly doubled. Vanderwerff said the opposition and media attention "put the congregation on the map."

While dealing with their challenges in Toronto, Hans and Vonnie offered support to other Messianic fellowships and congregations in Canada and western New York that needed guidance. Seven groups accepted.

Goldberg said Vanderwerff served as a spiritual advisor for him when he planted Beit Mashiach in Edmonton, Alberta in 1984."He really helped us when we first started our congregation. I could go to him for assistance and advice on problems we were having," said Goldberg, who moved to Calgary, Alberta in 1994 to launch Beth Shechinah.

On September 9, 1992, Vanderwerff stepped down as spiritual leader of Melech Yisrael to accommodate the congregation's wishes for a Jewish rabbi, he said. Non-Jewish leaders were hotly debated issues in the Messianic world at that time, according to Lowinger.

Retired from Melech Yisrael since 1992, the Vanderwerffs travel throughout Canada including Newfoundland, speaking in churches and fighting anti-Semitism through a website which documents the horrors of the Holocaust.

They now give their full attention to Comfort Ye My People. Even though they are no longer actively involved in the Messianic movement, Vanderwerff says, "My heart is still 100 percent with them."

Originally published in Messianic Times, July/August 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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