I was not part of the deal.
This is true, because in those days a sixth child in the minister’s house was either an enforced adoption that went wrong, or a mistake. Apparently, my mom, while in hospital with my older sister’s birth, had the job done. According to Dr Olaf Smith, this new method was 100% fail safe.
One morning, not even three months after my older sister had been born, my mom felt nauseous. She though it was the previous evening’s chicken that might have been a bit off, but when she felt the same the next morning she knew something was wrong. After feeling the same way six times one doesn’t argue with a woman. You just don’t. My dad still wanted to say something, but quickly realised he should keep his mouth shut, since he had played quite an important part in the proceedings, and off they went in the Beetle to see the doctor. And yes, it was so. My dad, standing with cap in hand, didn’t know what to say, but still managed to thank the doctor for the news. From that day onwards the Van der Merwes never again received a bill from that doctor.
I have always been a good swimmer.
With five children already having had to be named, most names they could think of had already been used, and with this announcement they had nine months to think of a name. My dad never told me what they would have called me if I had been a girl, but looking at my name I’d rather not know.
This is a long story, so sit back and relax.
My dad’s brother was Boerneef (a well-known Afrikaans poet). When my dad went to university he decided to get himself a pseudonym as well. He took the “ger” of his first name Gert and the “jo” of his second name Johannes and came up with Gerjo. It wasn’t long before his friends started calling him Gerjo. But obviously nine months are too long a time to think of a name, because my name doesn’t stop here.
I wonder whether my dad was trying to make up for his part in the proceedings.
In those nine months my dad was reminded of a headmaster friend after whom he promised to name his third son if he ever had one. (I wonder whether there had been a Dros or Akker on Stellenbosch in those years?) And there you have it – I was named Gerjo Ben van der Merwe. Please note, without a hyphen and I am called by both my first names. No form ever has enough blocks for putting my name and surname next to one another! Just wait and see how quickly I can draw a little block when there aren’t enough. On a form.
In the business world I introduce myself as Ben, because for some reason English speakers find it difficult to pronounce the g and the j in one word. I obviously respond to anything from George, Gerrie, Jo up to Gerry. Jis, Ghirdjo, how are you? Oh, hey. You talking to me?! Yes, no fine.
As the youngest of six the other members of the family still claim that I had been spoilt. This was definitely not so. You be the judge. Before I even got my first school uniform (hand-me-downs every year) I had broken my arm three times. Once playing open the gate on the front lawn. My dad was just leaving for a funeral and my mom was busy with an ACVV women’s meeting of some sort. I was too small to remember who helped me, but I remember with the third one that Dr Olaf was putting stitches in my mom’s head after she had fallen on the stoep when he told her that as soon as he had finished with her he would have to put my arm in plaster again. And that was the case! I was visiting friends on the farm Lourensford when I got totally fed up with the cicadas. Climbing up to them I stepped onto a dry branch in the willow tree en plunged to the ground. On my way down I first hit my head on a wooden table causing concussion and then broke my arm in the fall.
I was definitely not good a climbing trees, but certainly a good swimmer.
Getting back to my family who believes I was spoilt: more proof. My older brothers made their own arrows by tying a pin between four matches and fixing a small piece of cardboard at the back. What better moving target had they than their fat little brother? I can still recall the fear I felt as I tottered along at full speed never knowing when one of those small arrows would pierce my heels. I think popular opinion would be on my side in this case.
I still suffer from claustrophobia today, and cannot even cover myself completely with a duvet simply because it gave them so much pleasure to push a pillow over my face just before I started crying. (What do the judges say now?
Once we were playing with swords on the garage roof when I stepped back into space falling on my head. (Who’s your daddy now, what would the judges say?) Well, maybe I should be honest here, because I did not fall from the roof, but my eldest brother did. O man, it’s such a good story and I would have loved to have been the main character! But the rest is really true – even though it sounds worse than it was.
Maybe I can understand the “not part of the deal” thing better when I realise that I was the only man left in the house after my dad and one brother died within three months of one another and my other brother was in the army, while I was still only in Standard six. Maybe God had a long-term plan. But I did not always play the role of man of the house well. A number of times I was so fed up with the whole lot of women that I packed my clothes, dog and some food, and got on my motorbike to drive away. Fortunately, my older sister then had some words of wisdom for me: What are you going to eat when the food in your bag is finished? Then I usually got off my bike, put everything pack in its place, and went to play with the dog.
Certainly I caused my mom some grey hairs. Just one example of the cause of one grey hair (or maybe a couple): Clicks opened in town and for the first time we five teenage men saw a packet of those things that my dad did not wear when I was created. It was very funny and I can’t even remember all the things that went through our heads at the time. When we got outside we saw that one of the guys had pushed three of those things into his pocket. First I wanted to send him back, but alas, that thought did not last long. We blew one up and walked around town with it, like a toddler coming out of the Spur. The other one we filled with water in the restroom at the movies. Have you ever seen how much water can go into that thing? This was so much fun, but my best friend, Heinrich, was not with us because he had extra Maths class and I took one home to show him.
We couldn’t wait to get home after school the next day. I can’t remember, but I suspect we did not even wait until the last period. To be honest, I suspect it must have been shortly after first break that we had to leave school.
Immediately when I opened the door and saw my bed made up, no clothes on the floor, and even every book back in the bookcase, I should have known. Red alarms started going off in my head, a light sweat broke out on my forehead, but still I hoped. Hope against hope, I thought, never before having understood the meaning. I rushed to my desk and opened the drawer. My heart was thumping in my chest. Whup, whup and again whup. My friend started to say something, but clearly saw by the look on my face that this wasn’t the time to say anything. Slowly I pulled open the drawer, which for the first time in its life was clean and neat, and lifted the brown paper. Nothing!
Wildly I opened the next drawer. Maybe I hid it there? And the next one … until I got to the last one. All neatly straightened. And the thing? Gone! We looked everywhere. Even cleared out the dustbin. But nothing.
When my mom came home later, Heinrich left quickly. My mom silently came into my room. Man, she was a petite and graceful lady who after Matric in Lutzville first went to finishing school in Wellington. What could she do? This dainty little lady against the big Standard 8 bull calf?
She knelt and Bennie knelt next to her and she prayed and prayed and prayed.
O, looking back now I get tears in my eyes. How can I ever forget?
Another time at church on Sunday my mom thanked Auntie Boadecia Bredell for having me stay over Friday night with Albert on the farm. No, said Auntie Boadecia, she’s got a milk tart in the car to thank my mom for having had Albert stay over with us in town. That Friday night!
But actually we were watching videos at my girlfriend’s house till late that night. Nothing happened (I promise!), but after Sunday school my mom and I knelt again.
It was a miracle I made it through Matric, because studying was never my best subject. My mom spent the year on her knees. As a Matie student, studies basically had the same importance, which is to say it was last in line. Look, don’t misunderstand me, I worked very hard, but this did not involve studies at all. I was a bus driver for Oom Johan Ferreira of InterKaap. I can still remember driving more than 43 000 km one December holiday, only by bus and only at night. Do you know how far that is? I also worked at Bobby McGees, an upmarket restaurant. When I walked in at 18:00, the owner Ben walked out. Then I was on till duty and grill duty, and had to see that the waitresses kept the clients happy. Obviously, grand people came to eat there, expecting the manager to look in on each and every one to hear about the children or grandchildren gallivanting around overseas. Later, after everybody had gone, it was just me restocking the kitchen and the bar. Normally it was after 02:00 when I tiredly stumbled out and slowly walked back to my flat in the Laan – alone, OK. What was the chance that I would be proudly attending an 08:00 class? Later I had my own business, Sproeikor, but this only started when I was at the theological seminary. Because I worked so hard, I had to cram my three-year BA degree into five years. Amongst others, this was due to academic studies, because I do have a Masters’ in Greek 2 and Hebrew 2: I studied hard for three years before they took pity on me and passed me!
Eventually I ended up at the theological seminary. The first day my mom even went with me and all the professors greeted her in a dignified manner and I was glad I had my dad’s names. But with my long hair and earring and bike I was a bit unusual. I didn’t know, but my pals told me later that my wife had said that if she had met me at Stellenbosch, I wouldn’t have had a chance! Instead, she would have offered up prayers on my behalf that evening!
Studies were still not a priority. And in one of my first classes Sproeikor was born. Wow, I made a lot of money. You must realise at that time I earned R50 per day for the enormous responsibility of driving a bus load of people from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth every night and back the next. That was a lot of money in those days. Or R100 a night at Bobbies with something to eat and drink thrown in – after everybody had left. But it was different with Sproeikor. There were three noughts before the comma when I finished one installation!
It was not so easy to keep everything going, because if you missed a class in the seminary, your chances of becoming a minister one day were as poor as having seven fine days in a row in the Cape. (They say the Cape is like a baby: if it doesn’t have wind, it’s wet.)
This took a lot of innovative thinking. Therefore, I picked up the workers at Lwandle, close to Somerset West, before 6 in the morning and dug ditches with them until just after 7. At 8 I was in class with the (other) guys and one woman (with a couple of drops of sweat on my upper lip), but soon after I would re-join the labourers in a garden in Somerset West. Fortunately, the seminary has large windows! The problem was that our courses were presented in modules, which meant we had the same professor for the whole day. Therefore, I was back in my seat (with some bigger drops of sweat on the upper lip) for my last class, 12:20 to 13:00. Then the Prof thought he had made a mistake if at some time during the morning he had missed me in class. Just after one I was back in the garden with the men. Then I started putting in the pipes and installed the sprinklers. After dropping off the workers I would go back to connect the computer and “keching-keching”, the garden would wet itself and I would walk off with a big fat profit in my pocket! Unbelievable!
Sometimes I felt rather bad. In a way I knew I was not 100% committed to my studies, but I kept on. I couldn’t do anything else. I know God was with me on the road, even if it was just to keep me with my long hair, earring and bike on the right road.
James and I shared a flat in the Laan, where I also acted as caretaker – another bit of income. One day Cornie ran into our flat with the Landbouweekblad open at the Opsitkers. With a big cartoon: Almost minister and theological student looking for a wife! The descriptions made us realise that this could only be James and myself. A week later the letters started pouring in. According to my sister, who at that stage was working at the Landbouweekblad, said it was an “all-time record”, because normally a guy would get two, or if he was extremely lucky, three letters per advert. We received around 50! And there were good ones, you hear, with a couple of farms thrown into the bargain as well. But one letter I still remember very well: Boys, the auntie wrote, you shouldn’t look for a wife in Opsitkers, but on your knees! We wrote back to tell her it was actually James’s sister and her friend who had played a trick on us.
Back at the seminary the profs heard about new didactic methods and gave us periods off to work in groups. For us theological students that meant all the lovely coffee shops in town. However, our little group of four, Eds, Aukie, Cobi and I, felt more at home on the stoep of the Akker or Dros. This was before the Dros had branches all over the country. But on these two stoeps our group quickly solved the church’s problems of the day and right back into the previous century.
I still remember it was here that Auki said that he was going to visit Linda in Malawi and then and there I decided to go along. I went directly to Standard Bank and increased my student loan. It was so much fun in Malawi and we toured through the whole country. I missed a week or so of classes and had to read a book as punishment, but Auki’s punishment was much worse. He returned a couple of days after me and had to do an oral exam on four books! I had mercy on my side.
Again with a miracle, many repeat exams and a couple of oral exams later I received my degree within the designated period. Each member of my family was astounded at this and I was a hero, because it was a first for our family.
It was very traumatic to move from student to working person. Not that I was afraid of work. No, I could work quite hard, but to do this every day at the same time for five days in a row was pretty bad. So Jaco and I took over an old bankrupt nursery – he designed and built gardens and I put in irrigation systems. We worked like donkeys, but in the two years we had the nursery I took R1 000 home twice. Later I found out one of the employees had had his hands in the till!
During this time my better half appeared on the horizon. My mom phoned to tell me about this girl who had worked overseas as an au pair for a year. Apparently she also got rid of her boyfriend over there and was looking for someone to accompany her to all the weddings in December. At that stage of your life you get invited to a wedding nearly every weekend. I have to phone her to meet her. No, said I, she can phone me. I’m too busy at the nursery.
A month or so went by and my mom phoned again to remind me about the date. I was still too busy, but not long after there came a call. “When can we meet before the wedding, because I won’t go to a wedding on a blind date?!” But this is the way I got to know Renata through the years; don’t make her wait, because then she’ll do it herself.
That evening when she opened the door I could hardly believe my eyes and simply smiled. I think I got up the next day with that same smile still on my face. But that evening I told her this was the start of something big and the next evening I asked her to marry me. Just like that. And if her younger sister had not been getting married within three months, we would have married even sooner.
That first evening went on quite late and we only went home after twelve. After another two hours drinking coffee and talking we eventually went to bed. When Renata walked past her parents’ room, she saw the light was still on. Surprised she went in and asked why they were still up. “No,” her father said, “we are worried about you and this new guy staying out so late at night.” “But, Dad,” said Renata indignantly, “he studied theology.” “Yes, my girl,” her father said calmly, “I was a Matie as well and I know they are the wildest devils at Stellenbosch!” Now that I’ve learnt some wisdom I don’t think he was far off the mark!
We had a wonderful wedding. The two days before the wedding all I had to do was go and pick arum lilies with my brother-in-law to be, Alex. More than 700 of them, but I must say the Stellenbosch town hall looked lovely.
Soon after the honeymoon and having dumped nearly all the money we got at the wedding into the nursery, the no contribution to the marriage funds started bothering me. Well, in the evenings I did earn a couple of rands acting as manager at the Spur in the Strand, which was owned by my brother, Johan, and even though I took the responsibility of being the breadwinner quite seriously, it was not good to just bring a take away pizza home. Fortunately, Albert (yes, the same one who watched videos with me) came to me at that time asking if we wanted to come and stay with them on the farm. There was a vacant house. It was that December that Allies hurt his back so badly that he had to undergo an operation, as a result of which he had to lie flat on his back for three months. Therefore, he asked me to help with the harvest. Which I did: seven years long! From him and his father, Oom Koos, I learnt everything there is to know about vineyards, people and the wine industry. What an unbelievably rewarding job, because during the year you work very hard and also when harvesting, but soon after you can start tasting your hard work. I was a different man after my time on the farm.
After this I got a job on Wolwedans, just outside Stellenbosch, with Pietman. You can believe me if I tell you this is the best vineyard in the world! The best slopes, the best soil. As the tractor turns the red soil, it looks good enough to eat. It makes me cry! Crossroads was born on Wolwedans. When I got up early in the mornings I could be quiet while looking over the beautiful vineyards and mountains and experience a piece of God.
It was here that Marius approached me to join his business. But I had one big problem: I was afraid that I would get to heaven one day and then Peter would stop me in the foyer already and show me an empty pulpit on earth and say it was mine. A lost flock without a shepherd.
Therefore, in some way I had to make peace with making a long-term commitment to the business world. One morning I woke up at 4 o’ clock (I know it was God waking me up!). Uncertain about the next paradigm shift in my life, I knelt on the carpet in my study. I prayed, then I thought about the business. Then I fell asleep, woke up again and prayed again, needless to say without progressing much. At one stage I noticed a book by Jack Deer “Surprised by the Voice of God” (unbelievable book!) and opened it at the part describing how not to read the Bible. He says that we often read the Bible without the expectation that something will really happen and therefore nothing happens indeed! Jack continues by saying: “the Bible is a guide to dynamic encounters with God, who works wonders.” The Bible was given to us so that we can hear God’s voice and can respond to it with “life changing” faith.
With the expectation that God still speaks through His Word today, and the expectation that God would help me specifically with some important decisions, I read 1 Corinthians.
And God spoke to me!
12… We work hard with our own hands …
And I was reminded of the seventy-year old man whose hands grasped mine strongly in greeting just the day before. He does woodwork to keep himself busy. His hand rough, full of marks, old, but strong. On the go.
And I see in my mind Paul’s rough hands, pockmarked where the needle that he used for stitching tents had slipped through. The man of God was in a tentmaker ministry, where on the one hand he had to work to earn a living to, on the other hand, enable him to do God’s work.
And the peace that surpasses all understanding came over me!
And it became clear as daylight: God was not calling on me to sell up and go struggle somewhere in the wilderness to witness for Him. No, you be a tentmaker. Earn your living in the business and also do My work. That is what I command you to do!
And I became very excited!
Even today God speaks to us through His Word!
And so I joined Betcrete WP – we manufacture polycrete window and doorframes and balustrades. Not everything goes smoothly all the time and we also suffer from the normal problems with cash flow, labour and suppliers. But God walks with us. Again and again when it looks as if we’re heading for a disaster God averts it or brings more work.
The Van der Merwe family stays in Stellenbosch. Renata has an executive function together with Gerjo Ben. Her daily tasks involve dealing with e-mails about issues of faith; writing the radio messages that are broadcast on various radio stations and circulated via WhatsApp; coordinating the Crossroad prayer ministry; editing all publications; as well as managing all book sales and doing marriage counselling with Gerjo Ben. Alet-Mari (21) studies at BHC in Cape Town. She assists with various IT matters in the Crossroad ministry. Mia (19) is studying for a Speech, Language and Hearing Therapy degree at SU. She manages the logistics for the Crossroad books. Benno is in Gr 11 and is happy to help wherever he can to support his parents in their calling.
And what about Crossroads?
Up to the age of 40 I struggled to find a way of doing Bible study that would mean something to me. Many different books suggested many different methods, but time and again I would find myself drifting off to sleep. I could not become still before God. My thoughts would drift off and before long I would be involved in solving some or other problem at the factory. Then I got the idea (that must have come from God) to write it down. Write down the Scripture and what you understand about it.
Not long after that Pieter from the neighbouring farm, Asara, said to me that he was also struggling with Bible study. I said I would rewrite my ideas and send them on to him. So, for about three years, I would send three PDF files to about 70 of my friends every Sunday evening.
I think the Lord was testing me to make sure I would be faithful. One morning in the shower I realised that the Lord wanted me to start sending out Crossroads again. I sent it to 300 people and God started using it and it started growing. Friends and family recommended it to other people. And it became so big that eventually we had to buy special programs to assist with the sending.
Together with the new Crossroads God persuaded us to start a prayer action. This was Renata’s calling. Quickly it became too big for her alone and soon there were three more people helping with prayer. And now another three groups (in Somerset West, Stil Bay, Mossel Bay and Pretoria) helps with prayer every week.
And I stand surprised that God can use such a bent stick to hit such a straight blow. All honour to God!
Early in the morning it is me and the Lord. Just me and Him and His Word. It is such an enormous privilege to use some of my talents to create Crossroads, and at the end of the day all I can say again is all honour and praise be to God!