28 July 2007

stories and pictures from summer at Oudezijds 100

update: you can also watch a video of them (and me) eating herring.

last week we had a group of American young adults here to experience life in community. they were eager, helpful, energetic, and enthusiastic. they did a lot of work around the place - and so now the balcony outside my window is cleaned up, and our common area looks really good - it feels and looks a lot more gezellig (cozy) - the way a living room ought to feel. a write-up of their visit is on the website. as are photos of them fixing things up. (The photos are of them fixing up the balconies, the common room, eating together and having coffee/tea together - since i joined in on the food parts, i'm in a few of them).

and besides bringing with them energy to do work, they also brought with them a desire to learn more and experience God further. they helped us remember the goodness of living in Christian community. there is great joy to be had in shared meals and shared work. there is peace, prayers, and a history of people trying to serve God faithfully, which all provide space to ask questions about what God would have next. there is the duty and joy of worshipping together - whether spontaneously or through planned chapels - and all of us worshipped in ways we weren't always familiar with but could see the beauty of. and there is the love of God, which makes us all immediately family.

yet, one question from the week made me realize that perhaps some of them might have missed out on one part of life in community here. someone asked me something along the lines of "based on the reputation of americans, didn't i feel a bit "put out" about their coming?" certainly, i'd argue that Americans in general have a lack of awareness of (and healthy concern for) the rest of the world, but that hardly makes me disappointed at their presence. community is about making space for others - irrelevant of differences or my own personal opinions and preferences. and by welcoming people in community, i learn better how to share the grace and love of God with others - and am often given an opportunity to see God better because of their presence in my life. i wish i had been able to share that better when i had been originally asked the question but perhaps it is also a lesson that one learns only with time - and the "opportunity" of having people make their differences apparent in ways that are sometimes inconvenient.

20 July 2007

Some Thoughts about the Red Light District and Prostitution

I recently wrote an article for an online journal about living in the Red Light District and some of the things I've learned about prostitution in the past year. It lacks a theological perspective at the moment but this article only reflects the beginning of some of my reflections on this subject.

Red light.
originally published in the June 15, 2007 issue of catapult magazine.

Recently I started filling out a questionnaire related to pornography. The first question asked how often I looked at pornography. When I answered daily, I knew there was a problem. Yet, it wasn't quite the problem that the survey anticipated. My daily exposure to pornography (and prostitution) happens to be an inevitable consequence of living where I live.

For the last year I have been living in a Christian community in Amsterdam's Red Light District. All of us who live in this community are in some way a light to the world around us. But living here also means that we are exposed to much that Christians try to avoid. Porn theatres, second-hand pot smoke, and window prostitutes are impossible to miss if I walk outside my front door—and my exposure to these things has affected how I see the world.

People tend to see prostitutes as either victims or active agents. In other words, either innocent women have been forced into prostitution or some sinful women have actively chosen this means of work. If a woman is there by force, she could be a literal prisoner, or it could be less violent. She might see this as her only choice: either because of a poor understanding of her worth as a female or by perceiving prostitution as the only means to get enough money. If a prostitute has chosen this work, the choice is made primarily on the basis of prostitution being the best way to earn the most money. If I see prostitutes as innocent victims of their circumstances or there through some fault in society, prostitutes' need for help and my desire to do so are a lot greater. But seeing prostitutes as only victims, even if many do not start out working as prostitutes by choice, causes me to ignore the voice of the prostitutes themselves. Most of the prostitutes that I see on a day-to-day basis would argue strongly that they are there by choice and do not need someone like me to come in and 'rescue' them. And if I truly want to be a light to this world around me, then I have to be willing to hear and see what those around me are willing to share—and not just what confirms what I want to believe.

It would be much simpler to avoid the whole situation and dismiss prostitution as evil—whether the prostitutes themselves or the persons who force someone into prostitution. But living in the midst of the Red Light District makes such a dismissal impossible. I am faced daily with the reality that the prostitutes are there—and that prostitutes are real people like me. Outside of working hours, they blend into the scenery as easily as I do. Even when working, they'll appreciate being waved to by a child barely old enough to walk, just like the rest of us will. Being exposed to prostitution on a daily basis makes any simple response to prostitution difficult.

Some days I just try to ignore it. I dodge the men looking in the windows as I pass by without acknowledging the prostitutes, knowing that I will be ignored by them for I have no place in their work. Knowing that if I look like I belong here, I won't be asked whether I'm interested in whatever drug is currently being offered to the tourists. For even after living here a year, I still don't have a great answer for those offering me drugs. Nor do I know a good way of acknowledging the prostitutes.

Some days I am filled with sadness. The work of a prostitute requires distancing oneself from one's feelings and the need to function amidst logical inconsistencies. The brokenness that results from this work (a reality few deny) seems too large a price to pay for the monetary benefits received from it.

Some days I am filled with annoyance. I am annoyed that I live in a world and place where prostitution can be the best choice for some. I am angered that prostitutes are looked down upon while those who visit them are considered to be doing something normal. And I am frustrated with the many tourists who come to explore and implicitly affirm what is happening here.

And some days I am overwhelmed with compassion. And so I've been reading as much as I can about this strange world around me. I've contacted people who minister to the prostitutes to see how I might be able to help out.

The world around me daily proclaims that money, drugs, and sex really do bring true happiness. The hope is that I might be part of painting a picture of what true hope and joy and community are and that by exposing our neighbours to a better picture of what God intended for people, we might be a light to the world around us.

end of article

I had received a response to the article but I wasn't sure how to respond, so I delayed in posting this article. I have now responded - and this discussion can be found on the culture is not optional forums.

19 July 2007

back home in Amsterdam

the best things about coming home are the feeling of belonging and the comfort of returning to the familiar.

on the day i returned,
- the electricity was out in 2/3 of the house for half the day;
- i had to navigate around the extra furniture in the hallway and in my room to get my stuff into my room;
- one of our regular homeless visitors got into a fight with social worker and was asked to leave;
- i discovered my bike had a flat (and fixed it mostly by myself the next day - i try to time it right so that there's someone competent around who can help me out);
- i attended chapel services twice;
- i ate supper with 20 people or so, including a group of young adults from Florida who are visiting this week (and i got to wash dishes again);
- communication was a mixture of dutch and english - and not always the right language to the right person;
- i was warmly welcomed back by many, including a 2-year old who made me her favourite person for the evening.

and well, overall, i'd have to say that it's wonderful to return to a place where i feel like i belong. and the first day convinced me that things are the same here as they always are, which means that each day is full of unexpected surprises :)

and now a couple of days later, i've been warmly welcomed by even more people, have caught up on news, have been practicing my dutch (and it's going okay), have biked to school, have bought groceries, am leading chapel tonight (and have started figuring out how i can help out with the work around here), and have started working on my thesis again.

it's good to be back.

11 July 2007


Probably the best description of the time i've spent in North America these last couple of months is fragmented. My summer has consisted of connecting with a lot of different people – and spending a lot of time in different places, and having a lot of different experiences. these experiences have been generally a blessing. I have loved being able to connect with different people and join people in their every-day life. but all the experiences and changes have left me feeling somewhat disordered. I have had a hard time ordering all these fragments of experiences together – and finding a way to sort through all of my thoughts and get work done for my studies.

i had always thought that i never needed a lot of structure in my life (and that i thrived on interruptions and fragments). this summer has proved that this to be both true and untrue. the fragments have been great for getting different perspectives on things and getting new ideas. the fragments have not been so great for writing a thesis. as much as i can read anywhere – and even study from books in most places, i now realize that i cannot, however, write anywhere. reading is something i love and do naturally. writing is not. as such, i'm once again (still?) behind in my studies. and i'm disappointed about that.

And i am learning. learning more about me and how i do things well. learning what i can expect of myself (like for trips i should be doing a lot more reading than writing). learning how to create structure to be able to do work and remain in contact with others (purchasing a laptop has helped). the hope is that as i continue to live a life that is filled with many different fragments that this is more of a blessing than a hindrance to my being able to serve God in my whole life – studies, relationships, and everything in between. i don't really want to give up the opportunity to be in different places and have different experiences. such opportunities allow me to be challenged by people from different countries and by those who've had different experiences than me – who open my eyes to seeing things about the world around me and myself that i would most likely miss if i stayed in one place. and moving around lets me get to be present with others in their everyday lives – and since so much of showing love is a willingness to be with someone, i don't want to give up these chances to spend ordinary time with people.

for now, though, i still have many fragments of thoughts to continue to sort through – hopefully some of which i'll share sooner rather than later.