The Rev. Dr. Han van den Blink doesn’t use social media. He’s never blogged before, and you certainly won’t find him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr or any other networking sites. So it’s a real gift to the Diocese of Bethlehem that you can read his thoughts and reflections as part of the diocese’s pilgrimage blog during the first half of Epiphany.
He intentionally has avoided social media in the past, saying, “I have a real reticence to being exposed, because being exposed is dangerous.”
He knows of which he speaks.
Van den Blink, who serves as priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Troy, was born of Dutch missionary parents in 1934 in Java, Indonesia, where, from ages nine through 11, he was interred in Japanese concentration camps. From there he was moved into an Indonesian concentration camp (better than the Japanese camps for food; worse for fear of being the victim of a massacre, he says) before finally being released as part of a prisoner of war exchange.
“In the camps, you didn’t want to be exposed,” he says. “You didn’t want to be noticed”
Reflecting on his time in the camps, Van den Blink says, “One of the hardest things for me is that we really believed, looking back at the time after the Second World War, that something so horrible couldn’t happen again, and here it is happening again and again and again.”
Van den Blink’s parents were teachers in Holland at a time when the Dutch were looking for teachers to go to Indonesia. His father thought that might be a good way to get ahead in his teaching career, so they moved. Van den Blink was born in a village where his father was head of school.
“The Dutch government was atrociously blind to the Indonesians’ need to be independent,” Van den Blink says. “Up until the time that the Japanese overran everything, the Dutch refused repeated requests for more self-government.
“My father was put in a POW camp and then all Dutch were imprisoned. When I was 10, I was taken away from my mother and put in the men’s camp. In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the war ended abruptly. The Indonesians thought this was a time to get rid of the Dutch, and I don’t blame them. I was 11. Then I was in an Indonesian camp and later exchanged for POWs. That exchange was a traumatic one for me.”
What he refers to as trauma reactivation (rather than flashback) became a major interest for van den Blink. The topic of trauma will be included in his blog.
“In the early 90’s I got a message from my father about a reunion of the last concentration camp survivors from the Japanese boys’ camp where I had been, he says. “The message that my father sent included an invitation to a reunion of survivors of Bangkong and a photo of a statue of a young boy that was placed on the cemetery where those who died in that camp were buried. I didn’t understand the whole backlash thing at that point. And that whole experience got me interested in understanding trauma better.”
Van den Blink later described the photo “of a statue of an emaciated teenager, clad only in a loincloth and carrying a pickaxe and hoe. Most boys who were physically able were required to work in nearby fields.” He wrote about the moment he saw the photo this way: “My reaction was immediate and extraordinary. I felt as if I had been physically hit. It was as if the scab of some deeply hidden wound had been ripped off. I burst into tears and wept and wept as I kept looking at the picture and that article. I could not stop crying. I was vaguely aware that my eyes widened, as in fright, and that the sound I was making was not that of a then 54-year-old man but that of a much younger person, a boy.”
That moment helped him identify what he had suffered from for so many years.
“When I was at Yale Divinity School, I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t concentrate; I was distracted. I didn’t know what it was until I was a psychologist and realized it was PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).”
After the war van de Blink and his younger brother, mother and father, a pastor of the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (Reformed), returned to the Netherlands where van den Blink completed high school and was awarded a Rotary exchange scholarship to the United States. He graduated in 1955 with a B.A. in political science from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and returned to Holland. He then immigrated to the United States in 1956 and, after completing his degree in theology from Yale University Divinity School, began a career that focused on being a pastoral counselor and later, a psychologist, specializing in family therapy. During his first job as a hospital chaplain in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was ordained in what was then called the United Presbyterian Church. He went on to obtain his Ph.D. in pastoral theology in 1972 from Princeton Theological Seminary and spent several years as a psychologist in private practice.
In 1985, he was invited to teach pastoral care courses at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York, and it was there he fell in love with the Episcopal Church. Colgate was then in partnership with Bexley Hall Seminary, where van den Blink attended daily offices and the Eucharist. “The Eucharist converted me,” he says. He was ordained a priest in 1994 in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester and joined the Bexley faculty. He retired from Bexley in 2003.
Today van de Blink lives in his hometown of Elmira, New York with his wife, Nelson, and near his children and grandchildren. He is a licensed psychologist and a certified flight instructor of sailplanes, though he says “most of my flying these days is restricted to commercial airliners.”
Included in Van den Blink’s blog, which runs January 7–23, will be reflections on a few past and more present experiences of his life, including trauma, spiritual formation and praying with icons, all from the perspective of the energies of God, the many little epiphanies that happen regularly in times good and bad.