A Light in the Darkness

During my time as a Jesuit novice I was sent to a placement in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. There I met and lost someone who was very important to me. This article was first published on Manresa Amigos. Today, on All Souls’ Day 2018, I wanted to publish it again in memory of her. 

As a general rule, the first year Jesuit novices are sent on an experiment (a placement aimed to test the authenticity of the novice’s vocation) somewhere in their home province. As a member of the Dutch province, this meant that I was sent to live, work and pray with an ecumenical community in the heart of Amsterdam. Oudezijds 100 is a community based on the principles of New Monasticism right in the middle of the Dutch capital. They own eleven properties spread out over the Red Light District, called de Wallen. They are a happy group of idealists made up out of Catholics, Protestants and other followers of Christ.

A view of the Amsterdam Red Light District. On the left you can see sex theatre ‘Casa Rosso’ and right next to it some of the properties of the Oudezijds community

Oudezijds 100 was founded in the 1950’s by a married couple: Rolf and Georgine Boiten-Du Rieu (both of them preachers), who were inspired by a similar project called Foyer protestant d’Aubervilliers in the working class areas of Paris. While visiting Taize, prior Roger Schütz advised Oudezijds to found an ecumenical community with members who would dedicate themselves to the project indefinitely. This community came to be known as Spe Gaudentes and it still constitutes the stable core of Oudezijds 100 until this day. Its members take vows for life. However, unlike in Catholic religious orders, this vow does not include celibacy. Most of them are married with children, and as such family is considered to be the primary vocation. Many children who live at Oudezijds are born and raised within the community.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal on a sunny spring day

Aside from a community where people live and work, the beating heart of Oudezijds is a chapel which is dedicated to Saint George and opens its doors on street level, right between the one-room cabins which are rented out to prostitutes. There are daily prayer services in the morning and evening, and Mass every Tuesday. They also have a medical post that provides uninsured people with basic healthcare. This includes a dentist, dermatologist, psychologist, neurologist, etcetera. They also own a soup restaurant named The Wedding at Kana at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 95, which (aside from its delicious soups and coffees) provides people who are reintegrating into society with a place to get some work experience. Their most impressive project, however, is called OpStap (roughly translated: StepUp). This project provides people with addiction problems, financial trouble, or sometimes people who are simply going through a rough patch in life, with temporary housing and psycho-social care. If needed, this is done in cooperation with social workers, who provide them with practical, pastoral and emotional support.

Eating soup at Kana

All of those facilities sound very nice of course, but the reality of it is much more impressive. The core community, the volunteers and the people who are provided aid are literally living together, sharing the same space, and living their lives with each other. This means that Oudezijds does not have an institutional character; instead it is first of all a home to everyone who lives there and because of that everyone treats it as such. Because of this it is a very mixed community with Christians and non-Christians alike, men and women, young adults, parents, teenagers, toddlers, babies, elderly, black, brown and white people, big and small, funny and smart, and all of them talented and unique. Because Oudezijds is a home, and not just an institution, people feel like they are part of a community. I’ve witnessed firsthand how they look after each other and how they feel responsible for a good atmosphere. Great effort is made to make everybody feel at home and to give everyone the opportunity to contribute in his or her own way. This is what impressed me the most: At Oudezijds people are not merely being helped to become “productive members of society”, instead they are reminded that life is worth living and that love and friendship are the only things that make it worthwhile.

Celebrating carnival with the community

There is a Dutch proverb that says: Goed nieuws is geen nieuws, or ‘Good news is no news.’ This is true of course. The Good News isn’t new anymore, after all it’s over 2000 years old, but every day when we open the newspaper it’s the same old story: there is injustice and hatred everywhere, people are killing each other and the world is falling apart. The evidence of our sinfulness is right there in black and white. Yet we often forget that there is also a lot of good in the world. Normal people like you and me, selflessly helping each other, changing lives for the better without any recognition or applause. There is no glamour to it, no fame, and it doesn’t make any headlines. It is hidden and yet it makes the world a different place. Never have I found such a shining example of this truth as in Oudezijds. There I rediscovered the ‘newness’ of the Good News. The change, the metanoia, the revolution that can take place in a person’s heart. For the rest of the world, it isn’t news that someone’s life was turned around because he or she got another chance, and yet this is part of everyday reality at Oudezijds. These changes were more real to me than all the news I read in the papers. All of this is made possible by a small group of people who put their lives in service of Christ. I sometimes thought to myself: “If only more people knew about this community, they would see that there is still reason for optimism.” There is still good in the world, there is truth and salvation, but no newspaper will publish it. In the end, if we want to hear some good news, we have to turn to the Gospel. But for me, to see it put into practice so concretely, to see it lived out, and transform lives, that was more powerful than any written word I’ve ever read.

Right from the start I was warmly welcomed by everyone living there. I enjoyed the friendship, the work, the prayer services, and everything else that was part of this strange little cosmos. I did not have any expectations when I was send off on this experiment, but the last thing I expected was to find a place I would want to call home. In the midst of all the hedonism, decadence and selfishness of modern life, I found this pearl of great price. In the dark heart of Amsterdam, I found a bright light. After 6 wonderful weeks, I returned to Birmingham with sorrow at the loss of such a beautiful place, but, at the same time, I felt gratitude for the amazing experience I got to enjoy. Deo gratias!

– In loving memory of Janine Halmans –
21 November 1985 – 2 Febuary 2018