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Curses, Blessings, Lessons and Hope

thumbnail Curses, Blessings, Lessons and Hope

No matter how brave we may be, no matter how open our minds may be or adrenaline-filled we may find ourselves, it is undeniable that humans are beings of comfort. All of us have lines, barriers and limitations, inside which we feel safe and secure. Here, in our comfort zone, we know our surroundings well, we know what the routine is, we feel content and happy.

Are we creatures of comfort…

 It takes a tremendous amount of courage and effort, then, regardless of wherever or whatever our comfort zone may consist of, to make the huge step of leaving it, not least if that involves spending a long time away from home, perhaps longer than you’ve ever done before, in a strange city, with unknown people. Even more when you do these all at once…

On this website, you’ll find a lot of good, reliable and useful information about the practicalities of living and working in the ten-month Mission House programme, which will always provide a comfortable home for volunteers along with a sense of real, friendly, warm and welcoming community as well as the best imaginable wellbeing, advice and support system a volunteer could ask for as you embark on the amazing, yet challenging task of working in projects around the city catering for the needs of people living on the edges of society.

But what does it actually feel like to be a volunteer in the programme? What do you really have to do? Why should you sacrifice time and energy to travel all the way to Amsterdam just for this one project in an ocean of so many to choose from?

These questions are a little more difficult to answer, not least because every day in the Mission House is a brand new experience for everyone involved in the project. No-one can predict what will happen and nothing can be taken for granted. In fact, in the course of a week’s work as a volunteer in the Mission House programme, the only thing that can be guaranteed at all is diversity.

A opportunity to ‘encounter’ and experience in De Kloof

During my own ten month stint, I worked regularly with people living on the streets, people facing addiction, people dealing with learning difficulties, people living in the Netherlands illegally and children living in difficult circumstances. Within this plethora of groups and projects lay a sea of individuals, not one the same, each with their own story to tell, their own challenges to tackle and their own thoughts about life, the world, religion and God to share, bringing a whole myriad of pastoral issues to the fore, requiring a huge amount of sensitivity, patience and diplomacy.

The aim of the Mission House is to offer participants the opportunity to ‘encounter’ and experience what life is like on the edges of society and to use one’s findings to grow and develop, both physically and spiritually. At first, this sounds very simple. However, Miroslav Volf reminds us that by their very nature, real ‘encounters” must challenge, inspire and change all parties involved, with no escape from this process of transformation. If the encounter does not change everyone involved within it, then it is not an encounter. Change is new. Change is challenging. Change is scary.

To say that this experience was difficult would be to entirely underestimate the level of pressure and stress which ensued at the very prospect of having to live with, not simply witness, such huge issues and challenges, less deal with them calmly, professionally and effectively, in a way which kept clients at the heart of my work and offered benefit to them.

I don’t believe that there were many days when I could honestly say that I was happy about walking into projects where I knew that, at some point, during the day, I would be met with upset, anger, shouting, swearing, abuse and, sometimes, even violence. In fact, my worries were often so great that I wondered, at several moments during my ten-month tenure, if God did, indeed, plan to achieve anything through my presence in Amsterdam, during this most difficult part of my life, when it seemed impossible to come up with the right words to comfort or reassure someone who held the Church, as a whole, in such high contempt, or the right way to encourage someone whose whole life had been ripped apart and who could see no prospect of it being rebuilt again. I often felt useless and unable to offer anything of value. “What,” I would ask, “is the point of being here.”

I also don’t believe, however, that there were many days when I could honestly say that I did not, in the course of a day’s progression, come to realise, in some way, precisely why it was that God had called me to go to discomfort, uncertainty and insecurity of this often risky and sometimes dangerous place, for it did not take long residing on the edges of society to understand why we find that Christ spent so much of His earthly time with the outcasts and “sinners” of society. I found on the streets of one of Europe’s most vibrant and exciting, yet lonely and trouble-stricken cities, that Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his argument that the materialistically poor of this world have a power to understand the Gospel in ways that many materialistically rich people will almost never be able to, was absolutely right.

A lonely and trouble-stricken city…..the materialistically poor of this world have a power to understand the Gospel in ways that many materialistically rich people will almost never be able to, was absolutely right.

In each of my projects, amongst the expected and completely understandable pain and sorrow experienced by clients, was an identifiable sense of community and solidarity, enhanced, it would seem, through the process of mutual pastoral care which was present in a number of the projects, in which both clients and service providers, showing a great level of sensitivity and care towards each other, shared their deepest concerns, in a discreet and confidential environment, with people who listened carefully, genuinely caring about what the other person way saying and, although rarely able to come up with solutions to the large and wide questions, issues and concerns raised, such as why God allows suffering or permitted an individual’s situation to get as bad as it has, were able to ensure that, most of the time, people were able to leave encounters with each other feeling comforted, reassured and hopeful, not because an answer had been found, but rather because their deepest emotions, thoughts and reactions had been acknowledged, respected, welcomed and accepted in a non-patronising, genuine and, above all, loving environment.

It became very clear to me very quickly that this was not simply about me offering help to those less fortunate than myself, but also keeping myself always open to receiving valuable lessons about life and faith by acknowledging that the “poor” who do not have what I have can often be very rich in values or qualities which I lack of find difficulty in understanding. In this way, professional boundaries withstanding, client and service-provider stand on equal ground, sharing together and assisting each other through their own individual roles and identities. This realisation opened me up even further to learning more and more about the thoughts, feelings, reactions, responses and needs of real people, in real situations, facing real challenges. As the days moved on, I became more and more confident in approaching and working with broken people, people facing hardship, bereavement, sickness, homelessness, addiction. Pain that I had never experienced, but was able to offer support for by providing a safe and secure environment in which people could share openly and be affirmed in their identity without feeling constrained by over-regulation or over-professionalism, or patronised by someone who was not really genuinely interested in them or their situation.

As if these revelations did not offer enough value to my trip, the fact that I was able to make sense of these lessons and experiences in community with fellow volunteers from across Europe, who started off as strangers, grew to be housemates and exceptionally quickly became friends, made the experience absolutely worthwhile. Without the others in the group, I wouldn’t have been able to learn half of what I did, simply because we were able to share our findings with each other, growing and developing together, not simply as individuals, not even as a group, but as a true family, such is the sense of community which Mission House volunteers build as they live together, cook together and share together.

These experiences were a source of transformation and growth physically, mentally, emotionally, emotionally and spiritually, which deepened my faith and helped me to transform it from a purely theoretical exercise, no matter how well intended it may have been, into the active core of my life upon which I can now operate with sensitivity, love and compassion, rather than simply talking about it, just as we are called by Christ.

The question, then, is not how clever you are, or how strong, or how brave, but rather how willing you are to work hard, how committed you are to standing up for what is right, how much you want to grow and develop your own identity, character and faith alongside others, in community, as well as on your own?

Picture by Kilian Zsuzsanna

Life in the Mission House is not fun and games all the time, but there won’t be a moment of your experience which you will be able to look back on, from the second you arrive, without acknowledging, in some way, the role it played in making you the person you are when you leave.

I encourage you, then, not to shy away from this fantastic opportunity, but to dive-in, ready to meet the challenges, but to do so with a real community of friends around you. I encourage you not to ignore this great chance, but to go forth, ready to face fears and anxieties, but to leave with strength, comfort and reassurance. I encourage you not to remain within the comfort of your own zone, where nothing can change or develop, but to enter into a world where nothing is certain, doubt is rife and change is inevitable, but where you will, without any doubt, have the chance to feel truly alive as you learn, grow and develop into a stronger, wiser and, ultimately, better person.

Simon Peters

Volunteer 2011-12