STERLING – Tragedy introduced Cheryl Robinson to “one of the most compassionate, dedicated men” she has ever known.
With tears in her eyes and a trembling voice, the 50-year-old Morrison woman thanked the Rev. Ken Zuithoff, 34-year pastor of Bethel Reformed Church in Sterling, at his retirement potluck last month.
A police chaplain, Zuithoff came to Robinson when her 19-year-old son, Patrick Robinson, committed suicide in June 2005.
“He listened without judgment; he prayed with words that comforted my heart. It wasn’t long before he became a trusted friend. …
There are some people who run from tragedy, but not Ken. It was in my darkest hour that I remember his presence, and I will be forever grateful for his courage and commitment to help others in times of need.”
Robinson was one of many people from the community and the 200-member congregation who expressed gratitude to the 67-year-old Sterling man at his open house on Oct. 7.
Years ago, Zuithoff felt a divine calling to ministry, he said. He earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1967 from Hope College, and his master of divinity in 1971 from Western Theological Seminary, both in Holland, Mich.
Zuithoff pastored a small church for more than 7 years in upstate New York. There, he received a letter from Bethel, and accepted the position in Sterling. A Chicago native, Zuithoff wanted to live near his parents in the suburbs.
During Zuithoff’s ministry, the church completed an estimated $800,000 building project that added classrooms, offices, restrooms, a kitchen and spacious community room. The room serves as a waiting area in the event of a disaster that would lock down nearby CGH Medical Center or cause the evacuation of Sterling High School.
Students, teachers, police officers, counselors and pastors have used the room for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Zuithoff and Robinson are certified trainers with LivingWorks, a suicide prevention organization. Zuithoff will continue this ministry in Sterling and surrounding communities.
Organizations such as United Way and Relay for Life also have used the community room for events.
Zuithoff says the Bethel congregation has “a heart for the community” and each other.
“I think they minister well to each other in times of need – you know, very caring. From what I hear from when new people come, it’s a friendly church.”
Zuithoff also cares for the community. He has been a police chaplain for 14 years; and a hospital chaplain at CGH for about 34 years. As a police chaplain, Zuithoff went to Ground Zero after 9/11 to pray with New Yorkers.
Zuithoff’s favorite memories involve “moments with people at special times in their lives, whether it was celebrations or in painful times.”
At his final service, the emotional pastor sang “He’s Always Been Faithful to Me” as a photo slide show played.
“I thought, for sure, I’m never going to get through this.”
With God’s help, he did, Zuithoff said.
Zuithoff also announced that – after 8 years – the building project is paid off thanks to a generous donation.
As usual, Zuithoff invited children to come forward for a message. This time, he also invited adults who came forward when they were children – including Zuithoff’s 33-year-old son, Jeff (Carrie) of Milwaukee.
Zuithoff and his wife, Sally, also have sons, Mark (Jen) of Sterling and Craig (Becky) of Pella, Iowa; and several grandchildren.
Zuithoff will continue to live in Sterling and serve as a police and hospital chaplain, but he will stay away from the church until a new pastor has been chosen and gets established.
The congregation will miss him. Larry Hinders, 69, of Sterling, has attended Bethel since 1967. He described Ken as a friendly man with a great sense of humor, who always takes time to pray with people and help them grow spiritually.
Hinders will miss Zuithoff’s biblical preaching, he said.
“His caring and belief in God helped me and everyone in the congregation.”
Zuithoff will miss the people of Bethel. He occasionally will preach at churches in between pastors; but it won’t be the same as ministering to his longtime friends, he said.
He is, however, looking forward to less stress and more flexibility in his schedule.
“I have plans to build a cedar-strip canoe and catch up on projects around the house,” he said.
Zuithoff has no regrets about his decision to minister in Sterling.
“Sometimes people say, ‘How did you manage to stay at the church for 34 years?’ and I say, ‘God’s grace, really, and the grace of his people.’”