From a rebellious young man to an Air Force chaplain, Ren Vandesteeg ‘63 thanks God for instilling in him a solid spiritual foundation through Ontario Christian.
During the heat of the First Gulf War, Ren Vandesteeg, senior chaplain for the Air Force base he was assigned to, was suddenly stopped while walking on the flight line at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. He received an urgent command: “The boss needs to see you. Now.”
Vandesteeg was brought to the commander whose face was ashen. “Ren, we just lost one,” the commander said, explaining to him that several B-52 bombers had been shot and one went down.
Although two helicopters rushed to rescue the pilots and aircrew, the results were dismal; three were picked up from the ocean alive, one died, and two were never found.
Vandesteeg calmed the command staff. Then, working alongside the doctors, he prayed and talked with the survivors.
But Vandesteeg could not stop thinking about the Catholic lieutenant who died. He had come to ask for a blessing the previous afternoon before heading off on the bombing sortie. “Our lives are in the Lord’s hand,” Vandesteeg says. “Death is so real. Here I was praying with him in the afternoon. The next morning I was looking at his dead body.”
Such was the life of Colonel Ren Vandesteeg, who served for 31 years served in the U.S. Air Force, 25 as a chaplain. He served as a pastor, an instructor on faculty at the Air Force Chaplain School, chief of personnel for the Air Force Chaplain Corps and as deputy command chaplain of two major commands.
He taught his apprentices to always carry a chaplain kit that contained Bibles, pamphlets, plastic grape juice jars and wafers in a plastic tube for communion, a large white cloth, and a brass cross. He instructed them how to set up a communion altar on any flat surface: a tree stump, the tailgate of a pick up, or a box underneath the wing of an aircraft. Vandesteeg found himself in Guam, leading 120 troops in worship in the shade of the wing of a B-52 on the flight line ramp prior to takeoff for the first Iraq War in August, 1990. During the Iraq War, the Bosnian War in 1997, and Kosovo War in 1999, he conducted weekly Bible studies and counseling for enlisted troops a
nd officers in tents or any convenient place he could find. He learned to carry out his duty wherever he was
“During hostilities, ministry got serious very quickly,” he says. “At the Chaplain School I’d tell my students, ‘You need to know the Lord yourself. You need to live with a personal faith in Jesus from your heart. You read the Bible, talk to Him, and get as much Bible in your brain as possible, so you’ll be a strong man of God. You are in the middle of hell, but you can minister to people because Jesus is in you. You can minister anywhere you are. The better you know the Bible, the more effective you will be with your troops, because you won’t have time to look up verses when your troops need them. Battles and war don’t wait.’”
He didn’t aspire to become a chaplain at all. Born in the Netherlands in 1945, he and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 2. Sponsored by a relative in Bellflower, the Vandesteegs chose California as their new hometown and plugged themselves right into the Dutch dairy community. The family eventually relocated to Chino, where Ren entered Ontario Christian as a 7th grader. He recalls being the smallest in his class and was consequently called “Skinny Rinny” by some of his classmates.
Now, as he looks back, he is amazed by the way God prepared him for a life in ministry through Ontario Christian. Although he was raised in a Christian family, he did not believe in Christ in his own heart. Restless and directionless after high school, he worked as a cow washer and milker, while he took college classes at Mt. SAC and Chaffey majoring in physical education. He coached middle school basketball and baseball at OC from 1966 to 1967. But God had a different plan for him.
Harry Sonke ’64 was his varsity baseball teammate and had been continually witnessing to Ren. In the summer of 1967, Harry led him to the Lord, and this conversion profoundly changed Vandesteeg’s life.
e had just led OC to middle school league basketball and baseball championships when he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. In a short time he lost interest in becoming a basketball coach. He still loved sports but he wanted to tell people about Jesus. He went to Calvin College, where he majored in religion and theology with a minor in physical education.
Then he attended Calvin Seminary, graduating in 1974. He remembers this experience: “I was little. I stuttered a lot as a kid. I was scared of people. But when I felt the Lord’s call to the ministry, God took my fears away, and now I love telling people about Jesus.”
And so he told people about God for the next 40 years. He still does. After seminary, he pastored two Christian Reformed churches before going to the Army to become a chaplain in 1979. He served one tour in the Army and later transferred to the Air Force chaplaincy. His Air Force assignments took him to California, Kansas, Virginia, Alabama, North Dakota and Texas. His overseas assignments took him to Okinawa, Japan; the Middle East; Indian Ocean Territory; and Germany. He served on faculty at the Air Force Chaplain School from 1992 to 1995. During the early portion of the Bosnian War, he was deputy command chaplain at the U.S. European Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. His office was in charge of overseeing all of the U.S. chaplains in Europe.
Life after his retirement from the Air Force in 2004 has been active. He and his wife, Carol, live in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as a director for prison ministries in his county, he pastored for seven years and then as a hospice chaplain. Ren and Carol co-authored a book called “Surface to Air Christianity — Applying Principles of War to Christian Living.” Besides his teaching and speaking engagements, he logs onto Skype to pray for America every Friday with a group of like-minded prayer warriors throughout the United States.
He thanks God and his parents for putting him in a Christian school. He sees now what he did not realize then, that his teachers — Henry Bode, Will Byker, Gary Senti, Ed Talen, Bill Ryskamkp, Ms. DeJong and others — taught him to find God in science classes, sports, chapel time — and nothing has been wasted. “I’m grateful for my upbringing and training years at OC because it served as a foundation for what God had planned for my life. God had it planned all along. God is good!”