(The following is based on an article I wrote for ISN Insiders magazine entitled “Meeting God in Amsterdam”. If you have already read this article, you may wish to only read the poem)
I often visit the red light district, in Amsterdam’s city centre. Here I walk past windows luridly lit with red lights, where prostitutes display themselves. A man (who appears to be acting as a pimp) yells “girls, sex for free”. Across the street a “coffee shop” sells cannabis to curious tourists. Just across from another such shop, and right in front of a row of red-lit windows, is my destination, “De Oude Kerk”, the oldest church in Amsterdam.
Visiting De Oude Kerk is a deeply spiritual experience. I am a Christian, brought up as such in a conservative Afrikaans home in South Africa. Faced with the almost laughable contrast of the beautiful church (which still has services every Sunday) and its debauched surroundings, I cannot but contemplate the nature of humanity, and of faith. Such contemplation has been the hallmark of my experience in Amsterdam.
The Netherlands is very secular with a declining religious population. One reads in the newspapers of Churches being sold and used for other purposes because they no longer have congregations. I do not think any Christian can hear this and visit De Oude Kerk without mourning. The Good News should be spreading, not retreating. In fact, not long after first visiting De Oude Kerk I wrote a poem about it.
how can you invite me? when I stand in front of those walls (you see them, you must, through the lurid glass) that for 700 years have condemned it that should condemn it still oh dear God, are you still there? do you laugh at the old church coffee shop’s mockery? the church that is the neighbour of prostitutes and dopers calling by its very presence them to enter and so many do, and look and gawp and awe and marvel but look not on God God is the juggler in the plein a few coins in his hat and no hearts
The feelings of this poem are true. I do not think they are wrong. But they are not the whole story either. It is tempting to dismiss Amsterdam as an immoral city, now Godless. This would be a mistake. Amsterdam is no more immoral than any other major city. It is just more open. Underlying Dutch culture seems to be the belief that people should have the freedom to make decisions about religion, lifestyle, sex, orientation, and so on. There is no judgement here.
The red light district and the coffee shops are a testament to this attitude. But so is the church right in its heart and other Christian organisations that have placed themselves there. In many areas of the city you can see Muslim women wearing their Hijabs. I am glad to be in a country where people are free to express their deepest beliefs, free to explore, free both to find and to reject God. (It is worrisome to me that an anti-immigration and anti-Islam political movement has recently gained some footing, polluting this atmosphere).
Amsterdam is not a Godless city. God is present in the passionate community of Christians that still live here (the Christians I have met have been very passionate). He is present in the many beautiful churches that abound in the city. He is present in me.
Amsterdam is definitely a place to grow spiritually. There are enough English-speaking Christian denominations that any Christian can find a home. However, in this cosmopolitan city you can easily surround yourself with people with viewpoints that differ radically from your own. Be willing to listen. Your preconceived notions will be challenged – do not hold to them too tightly. You may hear about the differences in the practice of Islam in Iran and in other Arab countries. You may speak to vegans and reconsider what you eat. You are certain to meet plenty of atheists.
Like me, you may well often find yourself the only Christian in a group of students, many of whom are curious to hear about your faith. When you have to explain your beliefs to others, it is no longer possible to take them for granted. You may find yourself meeting God anew, or even for the first time.