“F*~! you!” “You’re useless!” “Why are you here? Go back home!” are only a few of the comments which have been thrown our way over the past few months as our respectively full and challenging schedules have taken hold of life in the Mission House.
For myself, it was clear before I even got in the car to travel to Glasgow International Airport on my way to Amsterdam, all that time ago, that the following ten months would stretch, challenge, push and transform me. What remained very much unknown, however, was the seriousness with which my experiences on the ground, with real people, in real situations, were about to violently shake the foundations of my theory-reliant, idealistic world to their very core, particularly my encounters with those clients whose situations, issues and problems have brought them to a place where everything and anything which appears to be, in any way, connected to the establishment, system or, in many cases, Church, becomes a target for upset, anger, hatred, impatience and, occasionally, violence.
Despite the great strain which this has put on me, however, yesterday, as I sat amongst a group of illegal immigrants, currently held in detention awaiting a decision on their right to remain in the Netherlands, playing dominoes, chatting and whiling away what can be tremendously boring and soul-destroying hours for people who have committed no crime other than traveling around and have, in most cases, never even seen a prison, less live in one, a rather flabbergasting, yet very helpful realisation came to me, for it was in the challenging confines of a prison chapel that I was told by a colleague that all of us in the Mission House had, that day, reached the precise half-way point of our year. Immediately, all of the doom and gloom of my negative experiences with difficult clients, the depression of missing home and the slowly growing impatience and annoyance associated with community life lifted from my shoulders as I accepted that, despite these challenges, I had managed to survive in this new and difficult environment for precisely half a year!
This thought cast my mind back a few weeks, when this tremendous achievement was celebrated, albeit a little ahead of schedule, with our Mid-Term Seminar , bringing home just how quickly time has passed for us. Immediately prior to our first Seminar back in September, one of our trainers had a baby. That child is now half a year old! Unbelievable and amazing!!! During our mid-term seminar, we took some time to reflect on our experiences so far, what has been helpful, what has been difficult, what has been shocking, what has been comforting, how do we feel about what we have seen, done and heard during our time in this very beautiful and culturally rich, yet troubled and difficult nation?
During our stay in our well suited and ideally located venue in De Glind, a wonderfully secluded and gorgeous little village, perfect for reflective practice, two questions seemed to come to the fore very quickly. “How do you feel about where you are?” and “What are you going to do about it?”
In all honesty, I don’t believe that I have ever, in my whole 23 years, responded to any reflective question without some hint of positivity, even a simple suggestion that things might get better. For the first time, however, I found myself almost wholly dissatisfied with my progress and, to make things worse, unable to find even a scrap of positivity to complete my answer.
It is without any doubt that the past few months have, indeed, seen a whole range of positive encounters, many of which will remain with me for years to come, particularly when people have shown their appreciation for my work or trusted me enough to tell me a bit about their situation or circumstances. In fact, when I think about it, it seems that the vast majority of my encounters with people who have not simply asked me for cup of tea or coffee have, actually, been very good indeed.
The main problem, however, is that things do not always go so well when you’re working with some of the world’s saddest, angriest, most heartbroken and difficult people. And this isn’t bad in itself. These negative experiences are as much part of our voluntary work as the most positive ones, particularly as it is in those things with which we find most difficulty that we will gain the knowledge and experience we need to move forward. What upsets me and leads me to feel so dissatisfied is the unshakeable feeling, no matter how wrong it may be, that people whose lives are so focussed on Christ should not have the attitudes or reactions which I have been showing over the past weeks.
People have been fast to jump to my defence when I have offered this sentiment, “But you go to your work every day, faithfully!” “You are always open to new experiences!” “You have moved on so much since you came here!” and I acknowledge that they are, indeed, correct to point these things out. It doesn’t matter what they say, though. There are times when I cannot move from my mind the thought that Christ, if working in a homeless shelter, would not storm off into the back to find something do in the kitchen and avoid having to encounter someone who was nasty with him earlier. Neither would He be afraid to speak to someone in-case they didn’t understand his language. We also know, from Gospel accounts, that He was certainly not afraid of turning up at a stranger’s door to visit them, talk with them or even tell them what He thought about them, without holding back!
These constantly returning feelings of failure and uselessness can lead, very easily, to a strong sense of regret and over analysis. Questions including “What if I had done this? Or said that? Why did I make that stupid mistake? What use am I to anyone?” become etched, seemingly irremovably, in my mind, sinking their ever enquiring claws into every last little action, thought, word and deed, weighing me down and preventing me moving forward.
I must say that, despite my strong commitment to avoiding placing judgement on people, the very last place I expected to find an answer to my ever increasing doubts, surrounding my own abilities and talents and how these relate to God’s plan fort my life, was in the home of a drug addict. This week was, however, to prove very different.
Now and again, when the recipient lives near the Mission House, I will be asked to deliver the flowers from the Drugspastoraat church service, on Sunday, to someone who is in great need of them. Perhaps someone who has been ill, or is celebrating their birthday, or, in a lot of cases, grieving the loss of a loved one. From the outside, this sounds like a very simple, yet powerful task, as it reminds the person, in their moment of need, that there is always someone thinking about them, praying for them and supporting them through the times when they feel like the world is their oyster, as well as those when they feel like it is resting on their shoulders, while requiring the deliverer merely to knock the door and hand them over.
In reality, however, this activity has become a source of great nervousness. You never know what will meet you behind a closed door. There might be a vulnerable, scared and lonely soul who longs for you to come in and share some tea with her. There might also be a large, angry, confused, stoned person, prepared to destroy this potential threat who has had the nerve to disturb their nerve-troubled sleep. This has caused a feeling of great dread to come over me each time I have tied the wrapped flowers to my handle bars, ready to transport them to their unknown destination.
This feeling was very much in attendance as I approached the Salvation Army sheltered housing building round the corner earlier this week and knocked the door of a person whom I only had three facts about. She was a woman, I knew her name and I knew that she had just moved in.
After realising that I was a volunteer from the church, she invited me, very graciously, into her very small and humble, yet lovely new little flat. Our conversations unfurled her status as an artist and I was able to see some of her brilliantly expressive paintings, showing both the glory and the pain of loving and serving God. These were breath-taking images which could only have come from someone who had experienced both the tremendous highs and depressing lows that our varied and ever-changing human life has to offer.
Then came what I thought was a familiar moment in every conversation I have here in the Netherlands. “So,” she asked, “why did you decide to come to the Netherlands in the first place?” “Well,” I began my well-practiced reply, “I am thinking of becoming a Minister and need to build up my practical experience.” There are usually two responses to this statement, either very much in the affirmative, confirming how “lovely” or “fantastic” it is that someone wants to serve God in such a way, or very much in the negative, with questions such as “Are you nuts?” and “Why on earth would you want to do something like that?” It took all of fifteen seconds, however, for this small, frail-looking, recovering heroin addict, not only to destroy this well rehearsed script, but to launch my thoughts regarding my voluntary year, regarding my abilities, regarding my life, into a completely different realm.
“Aha!” she smiled, “Well,” she said, “If you want to become a Minister you will need to concentrate constantly on the moment you are in, otherwise your mind will wander and think about stupid things that don’t matter!”
These are words which I have read, said and written literally thousands of times. They are present, in various forms, throughout my entire academic portfolio and are reflected in almost every other piece of work, action or speech I have conceived. Yet is was not in some great lecture theatre, or museum, or library that the full extent of these words hit me. It was sitting on a second-hand sofa, in the middle of a complex full of people whose lives you would never want to even imagine, less encounter, in your own journey.
It became clear, at that moment, that I have entered into a pattern in which, despite tremendous difficulties, I feel fantastic at work in my projects, where I truly encounter the people of God and His work through them, whilst, at the same time, despite the great comfort of having my dear friends around me, I feel awful when sitting alone in my room at the Mission House, where, as opposed to engaging with the world around me, I reflect and analyse the happenings of the day, allowing all the benefits of my encounters to leak slowly away, piece by piece.
In other words, I feel fantastic when I’m working and terrible when I’m not, and this, I believe, is no accident.
It seems that, no matter how hard it is, no matter how nervous it may make me, no matter how much I may wish to avoid it, there is something inexplicably pulling and pushing me, each day, further and further into the work of each of my projects, for my projects have, and always will, offer something which my beloved personal reflection and meditation cannot, the chance to truly ENCOUNTER God’s people and, through them, to recognise, first hand, His presence in the creation which surrounds me.
Reflecting on all that has passed is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is vital that we each take time to analyse our lives and to gain a wider perspective of all that we have done which will, in turn, assist us to recognise the value of our experiences and to acknowledge the advantage which they have brought to us and our development. But a simple fact will always remain, namely that it is when we engage with the subject of our reflection that we truly experience more of what it actually is, as opposed to what we believe it is through our reflective practice.
This is why the most important lesson of all our time here in the Netherlands, a lesson which will remain with us throughout our lives, is, without doubt, to live each day as it comes with the courage and faith to simply get on with it. For it is in getting on with it that we can truly ENCOUNTER all that surrounds us.
Sitting amongst immigrants in detention can be a very daunting experience. There is always a jovial atmosphere among the residents, but it doesn’t take much to realise that there is a tension in the air. People are scared of the authorities, angry about the way they have been treated, frustrated at being locked up when they have brought no harm to anyone and, together, these feelings cause people to give the impression that they are rude, abrupt and ungrateful. It wasn’t until I had a proper conversation with them, however, that I understood that far from being aggressive and confrontational, these people are ordinary human beings pushed to their absolute limits. In light of the fact that someone has spent six months spending most of the day in confinement with only a pack of cards and a notepad for entertainment, following a life in a country where torture, violence and death are common fare, the shortness of their request for, “Orange Juice, NOW!” seems rather insignificant.
It is in through our encounters that we gain and learn the most. This is why we must spend as much time as we can in the moment where God has placed us, rather than constantly seek to be in another place or worrying about where will be in future.
There still remains, however, the question of Christ’s apparent ability to simply “get on with it” and how this should shape our response to the plan God has for each of us.
It strikes me that there are two things, ultimately, apart from His status as Son of God Lord and Saviour of humanity, that we can claim of Christ. He was a very faithful young boy, committed in His service to God and He was also a very faithful man, prepared to sacrifice His own life in the service of His Father. When it comes to the part in between these points, however, we have virtually no idea what happened. What did the teenage Jesus think about the world around Him? When he was 24, like me, how was he responding to poverty, injustice and sectarianism? We just don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that, even as an adult, ordained at His baptism into the Ministry in which He engaged, He changed and grew as a result of His experiences. The woman who touched his cloak, turning the tables in the Temple, that moment in the Garden when He prayed for the cup to be taken away from Him are all moments where we see the humanity of Jesus, the frailty of Him and, most importantly, how he responded to that human weakness.
He didn’t want to heal the woman who touched Him, but her faith and theology made Him realise that it was the Father’s will that He should do. He went into the Temple in a rage, but only set authorities further against Him. We read of no similar activities and exceptionally few other negative responses from Him. Perhaps he realised that this anger would not help, but that peaceful work towards justice and peace for all would have a greater effect. In the garden, he asked that if it were possible for someone else to die in His place, that they would. God said no to this request and Jesus carried on, despite the fact that it was not His own will.
Jesus was human, just like us. He made mistakes, just like us. He changed, grew, evolved, learned, experienced, ENCOUTERED, just like us. And when these everyday human frailties took their toll, He took the lessons which they taught Him and applied them to His work, Ministry and life, allowing Him to root Himself firmly in God and to develop in the light of His service and love.
In a few weeks, I know, I will be asked, once again, to deliver the flowers. I won’t want to do it. I’ll be very nervous about it. I’ll try to think of excuses as to why I couldn’t possibly do it. But that’s not the point. The point is that I will take those flowers. The point is that I will wrap them, tie them to my handle bars and transport them to their destination. The person might be very happy to see me and welcome me in for tea and cookies, or they may be scared and nervous and tell me precisely where to go, but the point is that I will do it. I will visit them and I will tell them in words and actions how much Jesus, the Church and myself love them and wish them well because I know that, whatever the outcome, I will encounter all that God wishes me to encounter in the place, in the moment and with the people, He has placed there.