30 June 2013

Weekendje Paris

Although Matthijs and I had both been to Paris before, we'd never been together. And even lthough it's supposed to be such a romantic city, I can't say that I felt a desperate need to go together. But a friend of Matthijs (from America) came through Paris last week, so we met her there. As she was staying in the suburbs in the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend, we decided to see if we could find something nearby. We found a bed and breakfast about 2,5 km away in Saint Cloud. What began as an inconvenience - staying in the suburbs - became one of the best parts of our trip, as the house we stayed in was a 19th century mansion with this beautiful stain-glass window you saw every time you walked into the building. The hosts were also charming - a bit awkward at times - but very friendly and helpful.

Our bed and breakfast

Stained-glass window in the main hall

As for the other best parts of the trip? Well, catching up with Matthijs's friend was really good. Walking around on the streets of Paris and entering churches is also always good (I especially appreciated being in Montmartre again - I had stayed there when I first visited Paris). The museums were also good (a lovely Monet museum on the west side and the Louvre, of course - although there the lighting had problems and the queues for the bathrooms were horrendous).

And the very best part? The food. We lingered over coffee, cake, lunch, and dinner. We ate lots of different things, including finding a Vietnamese place Matthijs had visited 15 years ago! On top of that, I got to share it all with Matthijs. Just thinking about it makes me wonder if I shouldn't be planning already now when we should go back! Who knows?
view of Paris from Saint Cloud

29 June 2013

Not my church

This past Wednesday, Matthijs was appointed as a lector (reader) as part of his training to be a (permanent) deacon in the Catholic Church. This is a fairly minor step in the process of becoming a deacon, and as there were only a few other men being appointed, we were with a small group in the chapel at the Seminary. Before the service started, the deacons-in-training were given instructions about what was expected of them, and the wives were also given the overview of the service (including the fine print of what they had to say and where they had to stand). Despite this hospitality and the warm welcome I received when I arrived, I felt disconcertingly uncomfortable in church. It wasn't my church, despite my being married to Matthijs and my presence there being desired.

During the service I pondered this strange feeling of being not at home there, wondering what it was that led to this feeling. It was not for a lack of welcome, nor is it a lack of familiarity with the Catholic Church as I have gone to various Catholic churches these past few years. I also am fairly familiar with the liturgy used for the Eucharist. And the liturgical smells and bells - like the bishop's hat-things on and off - were also familiar with me. So why the discomfort?

There was simply a strong sense that this was not my church. It was not the church I had grown up in, nor the one I had chosen. The liturgy used is not exactly the same as the one I know from the Nicolaas church or from Oudezijds100, and even though it corresponded closely I still like to have the words in front of me as I find it harder to memorize things in Dutch than English. There was no singing, which I only realized now as I am reflecting on the service, and singing for me is an important way of hearing God and responding to him. The smells and bells, despite my being familiar with them, seemed out-of-place in this small chapel with so few people. Even the ceremony itself - a step in a process but having little meaning of its own - feels a bit odd to me. It is thus not entirely surprising that I did not exactly feel at home in this place.

As I was pondering my disconcerting sense of feeling not at home in a church service, I also had a deep sense that this feeling was good. The Catholic Church, no matter how welcome I might be, is not my church. No matter how much I desire for all churches to be unified, we live in the reality that different church (denominations) express the Christian faith in very different ways. As I am part of an ecumenical community and am regularly exposed to different kinds of church services, it can be easy for me to forget this. Wednesday's deacon-in-training service was thus a good, albeit unepected, reminder of how we can be both welcome and yet uncomfortable amongst other Christians, and yet still all be a valuable and unique part of the body of Christ.

26 June 2013

Welcoming summer

Despite the rather chilly temperatures at the moment (15 celsius), summer has arrived. The end of the season has come, vacations are beginning (Matthijs and I just went to Paris!), and there is time before we need to start thinking much about next season. Life takes on a slightly different rhythm, which I am grateful for. Somethng to be less grateful for is that the cat is shedding. Even though I comb him, there is still cat hair everywhere, including sometimes in food (blech).

As the small details of summer (hot weather, cat hair, organizing vacations) can sometimes overshadow the wonderful possibilities of this season, I found this prayer on Ruth's website to be a helpful way of more prayerfully welcoming in summer. Here below is a small section of the prayer, and I encourage you to go to her website to read/pray the whole prayer:

"Thank you, God, for the feelings of summer:

Help us, gracious and hospitable God,
To use these gifts of summer to bless others.
May we use the freedom we find in our schedules to build relationships with others,
May we extend the expansive feeling, inviting people who are different than us into our lives.
May we have a special openness to others and to what you might do in us and through us.
May we be adventurous--following the Spirit's leading outside of our comfort zone. . . "

19 June 2013

Eating with Prostitutes

Jesus once ate with prostitutes, and so in reaching out to my neighbourhood, it also seems appropriate that I would eat with prostitutes. There are enough organisations reaching out to the women here, and I have been invited to join the women's dinner held by the Salvation Army. Yet, I have chosen not to go, not because I would find it difficult to eat with prostitutes, but simply because I find it difficult to relate to others in a situation where it's so obvious that I'm the one giving help and they are the ones needing it. I tend to picture Jesus' eating with prostitutes to be his inviting them to join his table at home, a guest as welcome as any other.

But what if that really would happen? What if a prostitute really joined us for dinner? A guest comes to the table whose background we do not know - something that happens often enough at the dinner table in the community. And as there is time before the food is ready and numerous new people, everyone is invited to introduce themselves. And she says she is a prostitute, in bad English, but clear enough that at least a few people understand. And what happens then? Do you stop the introductions and tell her how welcome she is? Do you stare her to see if she's real (after all, she looks like everybody else)? Do you ask about her work in an attempt to relate to her as much as you can? Do you ignore her and continue with your own conversations, unsure what to say and hoping that her presence won't make everybody uncomfortable? Do you hope that your laughter and comraderie shows a picture of people who have become a family even though we're from so many different places? And in so doing, hope that the Holy Spirit might work in them a desire to be more part of God's own family?

It is absurd to think that a woman working in prostitution would come as a guest to dinner - and yet God has done stranger things. After all, women leaving prostitution have come to live with us for awhile, struggling to put their lives together just like so many others who have joined the community for awhile. And strangely enough their presence at the dinner table has always been normal: whatever their background, they are welcome to be part of this crazy family for as long as they want to be. That is, after all, the loving welcome that I expect Jesus extended when he invited prostitutes and tax-collectors to join him, and I am deeply thankful that I have found a way to follow his example.

18 June 2013

Do Introverts fit into Community Life?

I've been thinking about being an introvert for a long time. This is despite the fact that I haven't always identified myself as such, seeing as I do really enjoy other people. Yet, at the same time I've always needed alone time, whether it be a book or hours behind the computer. This clearly puzzled my family, but they learned to live with it, and I found my own way, as well. 

In recent years the focus on introverts has seemed to increase. My living in community and being married has also made me feel that my need to understand my introvertedness has increased. After all, community is about being with other people (as is marriage, to some degree), isn't it? Do introverts really fit into community life, and if so, how?

And I would the answer the question with yes, of course, they fit! I know that I am accepted and appreciated in the community I live in, even if they sometimes (like my family) don't entirely get my lack of desire to be more social. Yet, how exactly I fit is still a question. Spending all my time doing research/administraation is not the answer, as I love to see how what I am doing actually makes a difference in people's lives.

Perhaps an article online - "How to avoid a People Hangover" is also part of the answer, and one that I need to spend time thinking about as Matthijs and I prepare to go on retreat with the community in a few weeks. Mealtimes (2x a day) with 25 people + meetings for ~6 hours per day with 12 people will put a demand of my social quota, and I'd rather not come home with a people/community hangover :)

10 June 2013

How much does supply and demand affect prostitution?

Supply and demand is one of the key concepts I learned in the economics class I once took. Assuming there were no significant outside factors (like subsidies), the cost and ease of production would affect the supply of the product, and the demand for the product would affect the price and the quantity produced. Yet, when I look at the situation in the Red Light District and talk to the women there, it feels like something has gone horribly wrong with the economics here. These are the details for someone working in Amsterdam (i.e. the math):

The costs are: 
- Room is 100-150 euros per day (more in the evening); paid in cash.
- Housing is likely 1500 euros per month, as you're not eligible for any rent-controller housing and rent prices in Amsterdam are extremely high. It could possibly be cheaper, but then you're living outside of Amsterdam and paying extra travelling costs.
- Per customer, you give out about 5 euros on supplies
- Health/insurance costs: 200+ euros per month (being self-employed, these costs are higher than average);
- No vacation or sick leave because of the loss of income and the high risk of losing your window;
- Taxes are relatively high, especially since it is, for tax reasons, financially better for the person renting you the room to give you as few receipts for the room as possible, and so you can't declare your rent half the time. Complain, and you run the risk of losing your room to the next woman/pimp looking for a room. 
- Emotional and physical costs, as well as potential theft and abuse.

Thus, simply in order to make ends meet, you need to earn about 200 euros per day. If you charge 50 euros per customer (the standard rate), that means 4 customers in a 10 hour workday; 5 customers if you work the night-shift when the rooms are more expensive. For every person that pays more or every extra customer, that's extra income. But that also assumes every women is using the standard rate. But if you're only getting 3 customers per day at 50 euros, then it makes sense to lower the rate to 40 so that you get 4 or even 5. The cost per customer to the woman is low enough, that the appeal of lowering the rate is pretty high - the appeal only increases if there's a pimp threatening to beat you if you don't make several hundred euros extra per shift. But if everyone starts lowering, then everyone starts making less, and woman lower even further to 30 euros or by doing unsafe things. That means a lot of customers simply to make ends meet, let alone earn extra for food, smokes, pimp, money for home, savings and so on.

Many of the women work 7 days a week, 10 hours a day: crappy hours and a lousy job where you are often treated poorly and seen negatively. Because of that, you would expect that supply of women wanting the job would decrease - and less windows would be rented and the rent would have to go down because of the lack of demand. But there are an endless supply of women, new women arriving constantly. And this is where the economics has gone horribly wrong. There have been too many stories of easy money, too many others pushing women into the business, too many women believing they have no skills, too many countries where poverty is so high that even this bad is better than there.And those who are working in these conditions - barely making ends meet, let alone earning a decent wage - do not leave, even though every economic principle says they should. Is not any other job better? But most stay, as there are no other jobs, little hope of something better, and also, I believe, because the world of prostitution has a (spiritually) dark side that is stronger than the economic rules of supply and demand.