In a troubled corner of one Dutch city, people are discovering true community – and the gospel, writes Berdine van den Toren Lekkerkerker
A young family with two children. A man, also with two young children but which are not his own, and yet cares for them with great love and commitment since their mother struggles with addiction.
A single mother who is rebuilding her life after addiction. A young couple. A widow who works at a primary school, and is always ready to help others. A single mother with six incredibly well-educated and fun children.
These are just a few of the people who are part of our community, Het Pand (which could be translated “The House”), here in Groningen in the Netherlands.
In one of the neighbourhoods of our city, one with a reputation for problematic behaviour, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, this community is growing and becoming known as a safe place, a home where the love of God is central.
My husband Benno and I have the privilege to be part of a team of six people, committed to this community. Every Sunday we get together for lunch and celebration.
At the beginning we light a Christ candle, reminding ourselves of the presence of Christ within our midst. We then eat together – a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches – and end with the celebration, listening to God’s word, sometimes a short talk or an activity, a conversation, a video clip, music or a game, and always with prayer, and a blessing.
Somewhere to belong
We also always have time to listen to each other’s stories, sharing the joys and worries of our lives. If someone has a job that cannot be fixed alone, and we discuss how we can help, who will do it and when.
Once a month, a group of women get together and we cook a meal. Some of the women also come to the Sunday lunch and celebration while others don’t. At the beginning, this was organised by members of the team but now it is fully organised by other members of the community and we just join in. The same is true with a group that goes for a regular walk.
More and more people who are linked to the community are creating moments and new ways to spend time together, to be active together and, where needed, to support each other.
From the outside it may seem that Benno and I are very different from some of the people in this community, working at the university, travelling the world and living in a house that we were able to buy. We are members of the team that leads this community.
And yet we are welcomed by this community; we too belong. What counts is our joint humanity, the ability to share our lives, sometimes joyfully but sometimes in pain and brokenness.
They care about us, we care about them. This is a community where the gospel is encountered and lived, where we are fed as we enter a new week and re-enter a world of success and competition.
God of the unexpected
We regularly pray for God to work in this community, for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives, and at the moment we have the feeling that he is working in truly unexpected ways, and that the community is developing much faster than we could ever imagine.
When this community was started in 2014, the team was asked to write a vision statement, about their dream for what the community could look like in five years’ time. One of the things written was this: “In five years’ time, a single mother is able to ask about the possibility of baptism for her child.”
In fact, it was only three years later that we found ourselves in conversation with a father who wanted to baptise his two children. We had to travel a long road with them for several reasons – and some of these very painful. But next week, they will be baptised, along with another boy.
Baptised – to our surprise
But these are not the first baptisms this year. One Sunday in January, we had the joy of baptising Samantha, a young mother of two who joined our community only last year.
We had been talking with some other parents in the community who had been wondering if they should baptise their children. Samantha picked up on this and to our surprise asked if she herself could be baptised.
In some really tough periods during her childhood, she had heard about God but only through stories of the Old Testament.
During her teenage years, she encountered some Christians and decided that she also wanted to be a Christian, without really knowing what it meant.
Then, three years ago, a friend of hers told her about Jesus. She wanted to know more but sadly she did not discover what she was looking for.
However, one day when visiting the play area where we also have our weekly lunch and celebration, Samantha was invited to come in. She said that it felt like coming home, a safe place, a place of love and care.
It was here where she met Jesus and saw people sharing their life because of the love of Christ. This was why she wanted to get baptised.
On that Sunday she told me, with tears in her eyes, that she was so happy that she had made the choice: “From now on, life can never be taken away from me any more!”