Jenna Stephens talks about the impact the arrest of teacher, Curtis Van Dam, had on the Sioux Center community.
Jenna Stephens: People walk into the auditorium in silence or, if they aren’t silent, they whisper. Soft music plays in the dimly lit space. It feels more like a funeral than anything else. Somber, like everyone’s holding their breath. Like they’ve been holding their breath for the entire week since the crime surfaced.
Tara Boer: “The one word that used to describe it, for most of the community, is hurt.”
Stephens: Local churches joined together for a community wide service of lament on Wednesday November 1st. It followed the arrest of a longtime Sioux Center Christian school teacher. Police arrested 35 year old Curtis Van Dam on October 21st. He’s since been charged with 140 counts of inappropriate sexual conduct with students. These incidents happened between August 2013 and October 2017, while he taught fifth grade. The investigation is ongoing, and additional charges are possible if more victims come forward. Sioux Center Police Chief, Paul Adkins, warns that this will be a long process and he encourages an attitude of patience. But for now the community is doing what it can to start healing. Aaron Baart walks onstage to open the service of lament. He’s the dean of Chapel at Dordt College.
Aaron Baart: “Good evening to all of you, and thank you for coming. We are gathered tonight as a community, as a family, as people tied in so many different ways, as parents, as grandparents, as supporters and simply lovers and friends of those at Sioux Center Christian school who are hurting today. But on behalf of this whole community, I want to say to those of you that are hurting the most right now, that you are not alone. And that, if our theology of covenant family tells us anything, it’s that if one of us hurts, we all hurt. You can’t separate and pull apart the body of Christ.”
Stephens: Throughout the service pastors pray and read from the Bible a worship leader strums a guitar and leads the congregation in several songs.
Baart: “These aren’t quick fixes or easy things, but this is where we start. By coming before here. Coming to the alter, it’s our only option. I’m glad you’re here. “
Boer: “Of course I think people need a space, to be able to, to cry, and to be vulnerable with each other, and of course ask for God’s healing and blessing and direction.”
Stephens: That’s Tara Boer. She’s a social work and criminal justice instructor at Dordt. She also serves the community at Atlas in Sioux Center.
Boer: “It hurts families. There’s a lot of trust, when families obviously send their children to school, trusting they will be in a safe place.”
Stephens: These crimes can affect children in many different ways. Each child is unique.
Boer: “It can impact children very differently. Some have bad dreams, some have social-emotional problems afterwards, you know, familial problems, academic problems and some it can last a few days, some it can last the rest of their lives.”
Stephens: Parents face difficult discussions. They must sit down with their children and ask if they ever experienced inappropriate situations at school. It’s a tough conversation but they agree that it’s necessary.
Boer: It’s very messy. You know, I know a few of them too that have had it happen to them and aren’t willing to talk, and that’s very common. Sexual abuse victims sometimes talk right away, sometimes they take 20 years to talk. And we can’t physically make people process things, it’s just not something we can make them do. We have to invite them, reassure them, and support them in every way that they can. But they really have to do and they’re ready.
Stephens: Josh Bower is the head of school at Sioux Center Christian. He released a video statement to the school community called ‘My hope for you’.
Bower: “We have suffered. We have suffered together. We will continue on the road of suffering together. Because we are centered in Christ, and his story, we choose hope and his path of healing.”
Stephens: “Back at the service of lament, everyone stands up for the last song. Some people raise their arms, not just in worship to God but in response to deep pain. It seems like people are able to exhale for the first time since Van Dam’s arrest. This type of thing is not supposed to happen in a largely Christian community, especially in a Christian school. But it did, and these crimes occur more often than we think. Individual cases just go unnoticed until a well-known community member becomes involved.”
Baart: “There is a ministry moment that stands before us. We have an opportunity to become more honest about a whole lot of struggle that exists in this community, particularly related to our sexuality, than we ever have before. One of the most dangerous things we can do is push things away, sweep them under the rug, and miss an opportunity to experience the fullness of healing that is available in Christ Jesus. Sioux County, haven’t always been good at that, but this is our opportunity”
Stephens: For the Dordt Diamond, I’m Jenna Stephens.