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Rev. Gerry Koning on Clean Water and God’s Creation

The everyday life of a pastor:  Parishioner meetings, sermon writing, cleaning up fast-food wrappers, and studying water samples with a local biologist.

Not your pastor’s typical day?  

Meet Rev. Gerry Koning, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  A self-described “tree hugger,” Rev. Koning sees the world and his ministry through a slightly different lens than the average faith leader.    

Rev. Koning has an immediate disarming quality, from the moment he speaks.  An easy-going open-hearted sweetness that sneaks up in conversation, making one feel both important and eminently safe.  

This may be one of the reasons he is able to sometimes take unexpected turns in his sermons.  Recently, Rev. Koning gave a series of messages on the sanctity of life, a common and comfortable topic for modern Christians. Less common was the sermon in the series entitled ‘The Perfect Place’ in which he speaks about the gift of God’s creation. Most importantly, he teaches how Scripture calls the church to care for that Creation.

It’s one thing to preach it, it’s another to do it, and Rev. Koning and his congregation have become leaders in their local community and around the world in a movement sweeping through evangelical circles called ‘Creation Care.’ 

As with most trending topics in a highly polarized world, the climate change discussion has been largely over-politicized and is often viewed through a strictly secular lens. Rev. Koning and other faith leaders involved in the Creation Care movement are reframing the narrative to what the Bible tells believers about being proper stewards over the Earth.

For Rev. Koning and his congregation, it started with something very simple: picking up McDonald’s burger wrappers.

“We live around the corner from a McDonald’s,” he says. “And as you walk away from McDonald’s, there are scatterings of McDonald’s meals and all this stuff all the way down the road. So we thought, let’s clean that up.”

From there the work grew, focusing especially on a stretch of Rush Creek that flows through the church grounds, with the development of the Stream Team. The Stream Team focuses on clean water in the local water table.  Rev. Koning even brought in a local biologist to teach his congregation how to take water samples and be part of macroinvertebrate studies to better understand the balance of the life living in the local environment.

Rev. Koning explains his view on Creation Care through the lens of a river: “I have learned something about God over the last several years; when He is going to bring a new life-giving initiative, He does so with a river—a pure, clear beautiful river.”  He goes on to cite three Bible passages spanning the Garden of Eden to Christ’s own words, ending his message with a simple statement that could quite well sum up Gerry Koning in just a few words, “I try to take care of rivers like our lives depend on it.”

So it should come as no surprise that caring for his community’s water table has become his main focus by which to care for the environment. Reaching out to other local faith leaders to recruit them into this service is another way Rev. Koning serves the local community, impressing upon his fellow leaders the simple importance of clean water for a “healthy physical and spiritual body.”

It is this leadership that garnered the attention of the Au Sable Institute which awarded him the Creation Care Pastoral Leadership Award in 2019. The award is given to a person ‘committed to serving, protecting, and restoring God’s earth’ in their community. In addition, Trinity Reformed Church was the first non-secular group to receive a grant from the Michigan Clean Water Corps to support their work, and Rev. Koning spoke about the church’s role in environmental issues at Michigan State University.

Rev. Koning is a pastor with big ideas and bigger goals, so I asked him to take me through a typical day in his life as a self-described ‘hippie’ preacher.

He tells me his morning is usually filled with planning.

It’s all about “what the next Sunday is trying to bring about? Sermon work and some sermon planning.”

Lunch on the deck by the creek is typical, and here Rev. Koning muses about fish and a resident blue heron and one gets the sense that this is his natural state, in awe of creation.

Afternoons are typically reserved for visitations, as is typical for most pastors, but Rev. Koning takes a beat to include his penchant for working the church’s garden, “pulling weeds mostly,” and one gets the sense that this is relaxation activity as much as it is faithful garden maintenance.

Some afternoons, after a local high school commences for the day, Rev. Koning can be found meeting with the AP biology class for a sort of after school club devoted to studying Rush Creek.

Between six to eight students gather together with Rev. Koning to “turn over stones, looking for caddisflies…we try and find as many muscles as we can because muscles are a huge indicator of the quality of our watershed.”

Then he continues, “I take my waders off, hang them in the church, and go home to spend time with my wife, relaxing.”

He laughs and finishes his thought, “Probably watching birds or something.”

One final time in the conversation, one gets the sense that this is exactly where Gerry Koning is supposed to be: in nature, surrounded by a creation he deeply cares for, filled with a biblically-mandated purpose to be a good steward of the gift of the planet Earth.

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