NOTE: As I am currently using a Dutch PC, there is no English spell-checking facility. I apologise, then, for any errors.
The recent Assembly of the Council for World Mission (CWM), in Samoa, reminded us all that hope truly is the language of life, and surely one of the most crucial elements of Christianity and, indeed, religion as a whole, must be a constant struggle to build, maintain, shape and share hope in every corner of this vast and varied planet.
As I enjoy the last few precious moments of my experience here in the Mission House, struggling to accept that I have, actually, in reality, served for ten whole months here and that my time here is now over, I recall the centrality of hope as a recurring theme throughout every aspect of my time here, in work, in play, with friends and in traveling around the small, yet vibrant country that is the Netherlands. In our projects, we have shared hope with some of the most vulnerable and needy people in the western world. As we meet with each other and our friends, we share the hope which we see in our projects, hope which we offer to those in need of it and hope that we receive through those who show strong resilience and determination in times of strife. And, as we have explored the length and breadth of this country, with every step have we shared more and more hope as the welcoming, hospitable and caring, if also direct, nature of the Dutch people has shone out in every village, town and city we have visited.
Yet, as many of my reports show, not all of it has been fun and games. There have been many mornings when I have found it difficult to even get out of bed, less go happily to work in some of the most difficult and confrontational environments around.
Over the course of my experience, I have been sworn at, had things thrown at me, branded a fool, called a hypocrite, burned and humiliated. At times, it has been very hard not to allow these experiences to become fuel for anger, impatience, cynicism and suspicion. In a number of negative ways, I have been scarred by these events and I know that it will be a long time before I recover from them, if I ever do. There have, of course, been times when I’ve wanted to give it all up, so much so, in fact, that I’ve had to leave for a short while to calm down, reflect on what’s actually been happening rather than what I think has been happening, refresh myself and prepare to return to thick of it.
In approximately five hours time, I will enjoy what is possibly my most favorite worldly pastime of all when I board a British Airways flight to London. After a most enjoyable flight, with my favorite seat, spending a few more hours in one my favorite airports, I will be back in the air again and will arrive home, knowing that all of the safety, the security, the familiarity, the comfort, will be waiting for me and that I will be able to enjoy all of the things which I have missed. No more arguments with clients or housemates. No more being sworn at by angry drunk people. No more being branded a hypocrite by people who are trying everything in the book to trick you into giving them what they want. My own home, my own space, books, university, essays, my life!!!
The only problem with this seemingly spotless image, is the knowledge, in the back of my mind that in approximately fourteen days time, I will be longing to return here. For amongst the comforts and familiarities which home provides, lies a huge gap.
When I return home, eating at the table with dear friends will stop becoming a daily ritual. I’ll return to solitary TV dinners-for-one. When I return home, bumping into friends in the stairwell when you’ve returned from a busy day will be a distant memory as I return home to a place where my friends are not present. Above all, I believe, when I return home, living in a city centre, in the middle of a courtyard full of charities, organizations and individuals whose lives are focused around the struggle for social justice, peace, understanding, health and reconciliation for all people will be a thing of the past.
It is very important to point out that my experience here has been challenging, for that it most assuredly has been. However, we must never forget the value and insight which challenge offers to us, a value which nothing else can provide and insight which is vital if we are to succeed in the struggle towards the world of peace and justice which we all so eagerly seek.
In short, university, books, essays, thought and theory, all central to my previous life, are great fun. I don’t need to put in any effort into having a good time while engaging with these things. On the other hand, when I wake up to go to work in a homeless shelter, I know things will be rather more difficult and so I must put every effort into keeping myself calm and focused on the work which I will be doing. This takes time and energy which I have never needed to make use of before, when I lived in an environment of pretty much plain-sailing. Despite the appeal which my previous life has, however, my experiences in working with people on the edges of society has revealed much that my previous life simply could not have offered.
I have learned that beyond the rough and tough exterior shown by people who are dealing with drug addiction lie ordinary human beings in need of support. I have seen that the allegedly “poor” person with no home has built a trust in God that I, with all my joys and blessings, will never be able to understand or show. I have learned that it’s ok to take rest when things get too much for you and that this is a sign of one’s humanity rather than a depressive weakness.
And the fact, no matter how difficult it may be to accept or live out, is that no other experience could have offered these valuable lessons.
Hope, it seems, is the realization that your hard work, determination and faith will ensure that you WILL end up somewhere better than you currently are, even if it’s not where you want to be, or feel you should be. This is a lesson that came out of accepting that I could not do everything to help everyone or solve everything, but I can do something and that something matters! I could have read this in a bo0ok, but it wouldn’t have really meant anything. It is only now that I have seen it that it has had a impact on my life.
Hope, then, lives in challenge. It lives in those situations where we must work our hardest and show our strongest determination and faith for it is in these situations, where swearing, shouting, throwing, name-calling, beating, red-tape, beauraucracy, anger, pain, heartache, hopelessness reside, that we find the strength and the willingness to carry on, to struggle to fight, to speak out, to resist, to grow, to develop, to improve, to be calm, to be joyful, to be focused, to be HOPEFUL!!!
Never again will I be able to sit in a university library fully content that I am truly learning the lessons of life unless I am also grounded, firmly, in the life and witness of a local community where I can join in that struggle, that fight against the challenges which the comfort of books and essays do not offer.
This experience has made me uncomfortable, scared, beaten and tired-out, but it has also offered a sense of hope, love, peace and justice which I know I will carry with me for years to come.
As I go to share a last meal with my dear housemates, I do so with sadness that I will be leaving them so soon, but I also do so in the sure and certain hope that I am, at least a little bit, more equipped, prepared and willing to face the challenges which are coming.
Here, as it says on the tin, word and action truly meet and together they offer hope, the most important outcome we could ever ask or hope for.
When I first arrived here I kept saying, “How good it is, how wonderful, to live together in unity.” Still as true as it was when I first heard it so many years ago, and still as challenging, but also still as every but worth it and still as every bit achievable through our faith, love and HOPE!!!!!!