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I remember Don and Andrew, two schoolboys from Belfast. They spent their summer of 1983 with us, leaving the violence of Northern Ireland behind them for a couple of weeks. The trip had been organized by a number of local churches in the north of the Netherlands. I remember the Interchurch Peace Council and our protests against NATO nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the badges we made with our group for uninterested passers-by (‘One flash and you’re ash’). I remember the contacts we had as a church in Leeuwarden with a befriended congregation in East Germany and the illegal carbon copies I helped to make, calling people to join in the peace prayers in the city churches.
Sometimes I miss the church of my childhood. I miss the willingness to act and the theology in which deed and word were so closely entwined. I miss the awareness and the belief that we must act and the determined action that followed. Where is the voice of the Church today? Has it been silenced? Or do I just need to listen more?
An Armenian family had to find shelter in a church in order to stay safe from the government actually responsible for protecting them. From 26 October until the end of January, a 24-hour non-stop church service was held. My two-hour contribution to the service in the Bethel Chapel in The Hague was my small way of helping create a wall of protection.
We sang hymn number 837, “All seek you, young and old.” The line “sooner or later, you find us, thirsting for love and mercy” suddenly took on a meaning for me that I hadn't seen coming. As so often happens when God is involved, things turned out differently there in the Hague to what I’d expected. I thought I was there to make a contribution, and maybe I did, but the roles got reversed; I got to see something of the church at its best, an open house for a diversity of people who just had to be here. After my two hours of word and prayer, we were invited to stay for dinner. I sat next to a neighbour that had brought along a sack of potatoes and who immediately told me that he was an absolute non-believer. That’s fine, I thought, though I didn’t really believe him. People arrived for a Taizé prayer, and friends of the Tamrazyan family joined us at the table. The next minister announced his arrival and was first to be served, and the volunteers keeping things going there in The Hague made phone calls and opened doors. And for just a little while, I was back in the church I knew in the 1980s. I could feel the energy of the silent revolution and the realization that I could be a part of it.
I would so love to be more radical in my actions. I would so like to not be so decent and instead shout at the top of my voice how terrible I think it is that the world we call the Kingdom of God seems to be so far away. But with the neighbour’s potatoes and the custardy dessert, the words of hymn 837 hit me like a brick: “Lord, your kingdom is near, open my eyes and ears!” For a moment, I felt I’d been found. Why hadn’t I seen it before? That God and that kingdom…they’d been there all the time.