If you are looking to create a set for the design of a fairytale, you should look no further than Bruges. This beautiful mediaeval town with its clean, picturesque cobbled streets and lanes and wonderful myriad canals link enchanting market squares lined with architecturally pleasing houses, shops and churches. New buildings are built in sympathy and complement the older properties. The bright sun and blue skies masks the chill winter air, that in the shade cuts through you as the temperature is barely above freezing.
We enjoy a lovely walk around this amazing city before getting in the car and making our way to meet with a good friend in Antwerp. That was the plan but serious congestion on the Antwerp ring-road sees us sitting stationary for almost an hour and having to abandon plans to get into the city. Instead, we go with the only lane of traffic that is moving, in slightly the wrong direction! and make a long detour towards our next port of call, Dordrecht. How dependent we have become on modern technology. My ever reliable Garmin satnav decided, 40 km onto the Continent to misbehave. This faithful navigation tool has guided me several times around Europe, taking me from door-to-door with perfect accuracy. I am hoping to ‘reboot it’ today but failing that it will be consigned to a Dutch dustbin! Returning to that old-fashioned habit of a road atlas and looking at the road signs, we made our way towards Rotterdam with a couple of hours to spare before meeting our good friend Victor. We pottered around the town, found a delightful coffee shop in one of the many squares and enjoyed hot chocolate and some delicious carrot cake, sitting outside until the sun went down and the icy temperatures drove us to walking briskly on.
We found one of the town’s many libraries. For Shirley, who runs the library in Wooler where we live, this was what a library could be if there was investment and appropriate support. This library in Dordrecht was superb; welcoming, all the latest main titles available, hot and cold drinks, internet facilities, exhibitions, displays, a hub of information, audio files, DVDs, newspapers and magazines, study facilities, desks, easy chairs and a really cool place for children and young people to sit and read. As a consequence, it was buzzing with people of all ages. How libraries could and should be at the heart of the community. Sadly you can see the day when most of the libraries, certainly in towns if not cities in Britain are closed, never to return.
We met up with Victor who has endured a torrid time with his health recently. He was in the middle of a course of radiotherapy but met us with his usual warmth, humour and welcoming friendship. We enjoyed conversation over a lovely meal in a Greek restaurant by one of the canals. I first met Victor and other Dutch friends, when they came to the Renovare conference at Bradford Cathedral many years ago. Richard Foster and I had been speaking and he, tired from the day’s commitments and this transatlantic flight retired early to bed, so I joined our Community musicians and we went out to one of the many good Indian restaurants in Bradford with our new-found Dutch friends. Victor was part of that group and immediately our hearts connected and friendship has remained through the ensuing years. He and his wife Tonny pioneered the De Spil centre for spirituality and retreats in the Netherlands. I, along with several other Companions and Friends of the Community have spent many happy times visiting, speaking or sharing there. Victor has since given over the work to others, the centre has moved and like us a few years ago, those who are leading the work now are facing the prospect of finding a new location as the site that they currently occupy, in the grounds of the convent is being sold to property developers.
In talking to Victor we were delighted to hear that the response of the majority of Dutch people to the plight of refugees was one of welcome and support. It is not only in Calais that refugees are living in camps, such settlements are seen all over Europe. What we are picking up here in conversation with people is how pathetic that think our British response is to the refugee crisis. It has made us feel quite ashamed and also angry at how our government and particularly the media is distorting facts and perverting both the course of justice and damaging relationships with our European counterparts. The fact that we are willing to take 20,000 refugees over the course of the next 5 years is derided by those who are shouldering much more of the burden than we are in Britain. In the course of 24 hours, here in the Netherlands we have heard of people acting with compassion, laying aside self-interest and responding to the human crisis that is a world crisis, which, being an island, we can try to run away from, but in so doing we damage relationships and our reputation in the world. Here in the Netherlands, the old De Spil, which Victor founded, is hoping to house asylum seekers. In Amsterdam, the mayor has initiated a policy that has welcomed Syrian refugees. Many of them, highly qualified, and now working as volunteers in care homes, helping practically the poor, vulnerable and marginalised in the city, helping with things like gardening, house maintenance, etc
In Arnhem, the Catholic mayor has decreed that no one should have to sleep as homeless under the bridges and railway arches in the city. The former prison on the outskirts of the city has been turned over into a welcoming reception and ‘community’ centre where refugees are helped, receive training, language classes and other means to help them integrate into their new surroundings. Citizens of Arnhem are involved in a scheme that enables them to have Syrian refugees join them at their homes for a meal. All such measures to help integrate and support people during the most traumatic period of their lives, people who’ve left homes, businesses, their family and friends, fleeing from the horrors of war.
It is heartening to see that there are people right across Europe who have not forgotten that, we are, as the Bible says our brother’s keeper and are called to welcome the stranger…. Be a friend to the widow and orphan. The haunting and challenging words of Jesus in Matthew 25:37-45 Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ “And I, the King, will tell them, ‘When you did it to these my brothers, you were doing it to me!’ Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.’
God have mercy upon us and change the hearts and minds of those who want to play the Little Britain card; it is ruinous, racist and I believe an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.
I am becoming increasingly concerned by the influence of the media in all these matters. News headlines and stories that are nothing more than fabricated lies but that serve the purpose of stirring nationalism, fuelling racism and poisoning attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers. Take for example the headline news stories on the BBC, picked up by everyone but two of our National newspapers on New Year’s day. The headlines declared that refugees had sexually assaulted and raped women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. The truth is beginning to emerge. The facts are these that just three of the fifty three suspects who were arrested in connection with such attacks, were refugees, two Syrians and one Iraqi. Will that be widely reported? Of course not. Let’s not be deluded into believing the lie that we have a “free press”. We have a press in the West it is owned by people who wield power and influence, who are unaccountable, who work not for the betterment of society but for their own ends, who are in league with the major corporations, who buy power and exert pressure upon governments and other agencies in highly undemocratic ways and influence and manipulate public opinion. The truth will rarely be told which contradicts the hysteria caused by the headlines which accused hordes of refugees of masterminding the assault. The damage has been done, a strategy that has been labeled “demagoguery” by the Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth. A strategy that induces hatred and opposition to any moves to welcome refugees and asylum seekers. A strategy being used so successfully by the likes of Nigel Farage, who is given more air time and media coverage than any other Opposition spokesman. Don’t get me started!
We bade our farewell to Victor, hoping very much to see him at Nether Springs at Easter and made our way across to Arnhem in the east of the Netherlands, to the home of our good friends Floor and Ada. It is lovely to be back here with them. Shirley and I have been here and enjoyed their company on several occasions and we are looking forward to being based here for the next three nights.
It is -3C with the prospects of dropping down to -7C during the night. Thanking God for the comfort of a warm and welcoming home here we are mindful and praying for those in the refugee camps.