Busy doesn’t really begin to cover it! From the moment we set off for De Glind until right now, there has hardly been a moment of rest for the Mission House team as we have continued our ever growing programme of visiting projects, learning about activities and services for various groups at all levels, associations and affiliations in society, picking up new skills and talents as we go. It seems very strange to think that the first of our ten months will end very shortly, and what a month it’s been!
I remember, quite vividly, my Super-Hero Moment at Glasgow International Airport, when I prepared myself for what I knew would be a life-changing trip. Little could I imagine, however, what a serious impact my first step out of my academic shell into the realities of life for real people would have on my own vision and outlook, especially as I explore these difficulties and challenges in the context of the world’s harsh, unfair and often neglectful atmosphere. While this has been, as I expected, exceptionally difficult and has raised many questions about why people must suffer as they do, whether or not the assistance provided is doing any good and also questions about the nature of the approach taken by groups, both inside and outside Church settings, with regards to the care and services offered by them, it has also offered a great sense of hope and reassurance, not just through the acknowledgement that there are some fantastic support systems available for the most vulnerable in society, but also through seeing and hearing the accounts, experiences, skills and talents of those in need of such help.
Visiting each of the projects has been vital in helping our understanding of the issues which people face and the ways in which different groups deal with those issues, but perhaps one of the best examples of this is the “Tweede Mijl” homeless shelter, which we had the privilege of visiting before our seminar in De Glind. From the moment I walked in the door, I realised there was something different about this particular shelter. We were met with the same suspicion with which we had been greeted at other shelters, which is, understandably, very common amongst people who have been exploited, neglected and failed so many times by those who should care and support them, but, unlike the other places, there was a distinct absence of pessimism or loneliness at the Tweede Mijl.
People were evidently feeling down and it was obvious that the group faced just as many, if not more, problems than the others we had visited. However, at the same time, a great sense of warmth filled the place, like everyone knew each other, like everyone was working together to deal with their problems, like a true community of welcome, friendliness, openness and understanding had been created in this most unexpected of places.
As we spoke with staff and mingled with clients, our understanding of homelessness and loneliness in the city of Amsterdam grew in a way which only these interactions could have allowed. The textbook had finished and, although our findings were very different to what we expected and, in some ways, left a sense of despair, our interaction with the realities of life on the streets, rather than simply reading about it or viewing it, showed us that hope is, by no means, lost as a result of hardship and suffering.
This is something, as I say, which all the projects have taught us, but, yet again, the Tweede Mijl manages to stick out. For the Tweede Mijl’s unique and interesting focus allows it to achieve a greater sense of community, I believe, than many of the other projects.
The term “Tweede Mijl” means, literally the “Second Mile”. It is a reference to the account in Matthew 5 where Jesus offers the instruction that if one is forced to travel a mile with someone, they should, instead, travel two miles, “or ten miles with some” as one of the Tweede Mijl’s staff members told us! The idea of the Tweede Mijl is to provide a space where people can seek trustworthy assistance and know that when they are promised companionship, support and assistance for their, often challenging, journey through life, they will receive it. If you want to give up drugs, the Tweede Mijl will work with you and other organisations to help you find a suitable rehabilitation programme. If you are feeling lonely, the Tweede Mijl will work with you and other organisations to find somewhere for you to go, or someone to visit you. It’s not simply a place to seek soup and shelter, but trustworthy help, support and, above all it would seem, LOVE! True brotherly and sisterly love, rooted in Christ.
Christ is not over-mentioned. People are not forced to confess any particular belief. People are not denied service if they continue to remain outside the church or belief in Christ. But Christ is undeniably present and no attempt is made to hide that.
I often feel a little uncomfortable with situations like this, not because I don’t believe that Jesus is good for everyone or that the gospel should not be shared, but rather because I feel that grace is often lost when we hold the image of Christ on the cross before everything else. By this I mean that a lot of the hurt, pain, neglect and failings which fill the lives of those who seek help and support find their origins in the fact that a religious community, their friends or even their own family have rejected or neglected them simply due to the fact that they have not believed what they believe, acted as they have acted or confessed as they have confessed.
I believe, very strongly, that the appropriate response to one who is who not a Christian is not to “move on to the next one” as a few people have told me, but rather to continue to share in fellowship and love with ALL of God’s people, as He instructs us to do, regardless of their belief, background, physical, emotional, psychological or social status. However, this has often meant that I have felt much better with groups and projects which barely mention Christ in their work, as this seems to demonstrate to the most vulnerable that no expectation is being out upon them to believe anything in particular.
The Tweede Mijl offers a fascinating alternative however, by holding Christ firmly at the centre of what they do, making it clear that it is not about the Tweede Mijl saving souls for Jesus at all costs, but rather that it is through the presence and power of Christ that staff and volunteers feel equipped to love and care for ALL those who come through the door.
Jesus is not forced on people. He’s simply there, being with people chatting with people, walking with people along life’s journey, just as He asks it to be, helping them in ways we cannot even begin to imagine or explain, because members of the Tweede Mijl Team allow Him, through their actions as His body, to love people with grace, mercy and compassion. This was wonderful to see and something I know I want to be a part of.
Although not as strong, perhaps, this sense was also identifiable on the Immigration Detention Boat which is, for all intents and purposes, a prison (although, strictly speaking, it should not be referred to as such) for people who have been caught entering or living in the Netherlands illegally.
This is the last place one would expect to find any type of happiness or hope and, indeed, the very sight of the place is enough to dampen the spirits of even the most positive person. However, behind the maze of locked doors, keys, security checks, passes, guards and the sheer boredom of having to sit in confinement with nothing to do, lies a group of people who are, for the most part, just like you and me. They are not hard-core criminals. They haven’t done anything to harm anyone. They haven’t stolen anything or damaged someone’s property. They’ve just tried to make their lives a bit better, whether that is by earning some more money to feed their family, or escaping prejudice and torture in their homeland. The only issue with that is that they don’t have the correct forms, or have avoided the main channels of entry due to fear of rejection, have now been caught and must be dealt with by an authority who, like pretty much all authorities across the world at the current moment, doesn’t really have a clue what to do with them. The only thing that can be done, it seems, is to keep them in confinement while their details are confirmed and, where possible, transport out of the Netherlands can be arranged. Some will never be identified for certain. They will be kept in confinement for the maximum period allowed, then released for thirty days with an order to leave the country, which they won’t and then find themselves back in confinement again. On and on it goes and goes and goes…
The fact that they are so like you and me might lead us to think that they must be void of all positivity in their lives, ready to give-up, ready to slip away into non-existence. However, it is this very fact that provides them with the strength and hope they need to deal with their issues, provided the appropriate support systems are in place for them.
For they know the predicament they are in and they know the issues that face them but they also know that despite racial, cultural, religious, language and other difference, each of them is facing the same situation, the same cycle, the same life. And so they can use their time in confinement to grow together as a community, understanding more and more about each other and the various countries and cultures each comes from. This sense of solidarity can help them to grow in their sense of optimism for they can share stories, texts, quotes, customs and many other things which offer meaning and purpose to the concepts of life, suffering and struggle.
This can only happen, however, with very good support systems. Unfortunately, these can be very hard to create and maintain in this very strict and serious environment. The guards do their best, trying to talk to people, play some games with them, but they can’t really do much more without risking their position in the superstructure of the Justice system.
There does exist, however, a Chaplaincy Centre. This Centre focuses its energies on reminding people that they are still valued and cared for, even in this place of almost certain gloom. The Centre aims to build connections between people, helping them to understand one another and to interact in ways that can help members of the community, as well as the community as a whole, to grow and develop in ways that are healthy and prosperous.
Everyone celebrates Christmas. Everyone celebrates Eid. Everyone celebrates Diwali. All because everyone knows, or wants to know, what each of these different festivals, from different theological traditions, is about and knows that they can join together with others in celebration without fear of rejection or ridicule. They are forced to be one community, which can be very daunting and draining, but also engaging and revitalising at the same time.
The Chaplaincy is small and can only allow us in once a week to provide some fellowship and fun for people, but this is most certainly better than nothing and so, once again, I know this is something I want to be a part of.
It is scary enough to think that the end of the month is approaching. It is even more daunting to think that, as soon as Friday, I could be working in one of the five projects which I have chosen, talking to real people in the Tweede Mijl, serving tea and coffee at the Drugspastoraat, listening to stories at the Seaman’s Mission, playing table tennis at the Detention Boat or feeding patients at the Flevohuis Elderly and Aids Care Home.
The textbook really is done. And I’m scared. But I’m also very excited as well.
For the most important thing about out training in De Glind was not, in fact, anything that we were told by leaders, trainers or professionals, but the sheer energy and determination of the group of young volunteers who gathered there, some who had just left school!
This is, perhaps, best summed up in an activity we were challenged to accomplish during our Conference. We all agreed that the best way to understand a person or situation is to understand the reasons behind their beliefs and activities, not simply judge them from what we see on the outside. We all sat, drinking tea, nodding and smiling at one another saying how great this sounded and how we had found the answer to many of the world’s (and, indeed, the Church’s) issues, which are often steeped in judgemental attitudes and pre-conceived ideas.
“That’s great folks!” said the trainer, “Now off you go into the town and start talking to people. See what Dutch life is like for yourself. Don’t judge it blindly!” My heart sank. Talking to strangers about personal issues. Brilliant (sarcasm, in case you didn’t notice). What if we offend someone, or someone doesn’t want to talk to us, or someone is suspicious of us… My list of questions and doubts went on. I believed in the principle, but now had to live it out!
Off we went, nevertheless, into a bustling Amersfoort for what would prove to be a life-changing day.
It wasn’t the fact that people did, indeed, want to talk to us, or enjoyed talking to us or that we found out many interesting things about the Netherlands in the process, that will stay in my heart, but the sheer energy, enthusiasm and determination of the others in the group.
“Yes, it’s scary. Yes, we’ll make mistakes. Yes, someone will refuse to talk to us and might even swear at us. But we’re young, we’re full of energy, we want to learn stuff and we CAN do it!”
This is precisely the attitude needed for Missionary work. It’s not like the textbook, it’s not about personal performance, it’s not about getting a good grade, but it is about faith. It is about commitment. It is about love for others. It is about trying. It is about sacrifice. It is about truly being prepared to get your hands dirty in living out the principles that shape and guide your life so that everyone, and not just yourself, can benefit from them.
I’m aware that this post is rather long, given the gap that has existed between posts recently, and so I will leave you with one last item.
While at De Glind, I celebrated my 23rd birthday. I didn’t expect anything special to happen that day. I was prepared to enjoy the rest of the training and to think a little more about Mission and Ministry in the Netherlands. While we did, indeed, continue our work, the group were not prepared to allow the day to go by without celebration.
In short, a group of people, whom I barely know, took the time and energy to make the most beautiful card for me. Everyone made a section and stuck them all together into a montage of prayers and wishes, each expressing their gratitude for the gifts and talents which, in their eyes, I had brought to the group.
This group of wonderful, energetic, committed young people care deeply for one another and for the work that we each do, both individually and collectively. Whenever we feel down or lost or uncertain, we will be able to look to this group for reassurance and guidance. We are all, truly, brothers and sisters in Christ, gifted to one another by Christ, to achieve His work for us this day and throughout our year.
An uncertain path lies ahead, but the Lord has truly gifted me with faith, fellowship and friends to keep me going along the way. Praise be to His name as meals, wheels, fears and cheers continue to simultaneously and equally curse and, very importantly, bless my life.