looking back on the past year

Over a year ago, in February 2011, I set out on a great adventure: for 6 months I was going to work and live in the Shelter, a Christian youth hostel in Amsterdam, and afterwards I would work and travel in the Americas for 6 months. It’s been over three months since it all ended, and I would like to share something about how I look back on my trip, and what I’ve learned during the past year. These are personal insights, but perhaps you can take something from them.

Highlights
Since my return, many people have asked: what was the most memorable part of your trip? Though I’ve seen many beautiful places, still the experiences that had the deepest impact were related to people. One of the most striking examples was the Twelve Tribes communities, who live like those that believed in Jesus Christ in the first century, as is described in the Bible. Their radical way of life has inspired me in many ways. Another example was being able to visit friends along the way. Like a Brazilian who had become a Christian in the Shelter, and who I found doing well and still being enthusiastic about his faith. Or friends that I had worked and lived with in the Shelter, with whom I could finish up my trip in California – a perfect ending. Finally, working with missionaries that I knew in Brazil and Colombia was certainly memorable. Especially the project in Colombia, in a slum in Medellin, has left a lasting impression on me. It was devastating to see in what conditions the people are living there, yet it was encouraging to see how other people are devoted to helping them out, and to see the gratitude with which this help is met (even if it’s help for a mere two weeks, like in my case).

Living 200%
Travelling around for 6 months is something else! One of my travel companions once said: travelling long-term is like living 200%. I can wholeheartedly agree with that statement. It was a wonderful time, but also a long time that didn’t come without its troubles. Although I was kept safe from accidents, (severe) disease and danger, there were quite a few ‘not-so-great’ moments. There was homesickness; at some point I was dearly missing the Netherlands and the people there. But I came across places and people that helped me recover. There was weariness from travelling; after a few months I’d had it with long bus rides, being ‘homeless’, and constantly adapting to new environments. But I found some places where I could stay longer and where I could feel at home. There were other personal struggles; the things inside of you that you normally struggle with are still present when you are travelling, sometimes even more strongly, because you have no ‘home base’. But I was encouraged in different ways, by people and through books, often giving me the right message at the right time.
I believe that God played a big part in all of that, that he took care of me, not by taking away my struggles, but by helping me get through them, so I could grow as a person.

The Netherlands is not such a bad place after all.. or is it?
Because of my journey through different countries and cultures, I’ve learned to appreciate the Netherlands much more! I noticed that I am indeed shaped by the country I grew up in, and that I do feel most at home there. In Dutch we have an expression: “zoals het klokje thuis tikt, tikt het nergens” (literally: there’s no place where the clock ticks, like it ticks at home – meaning there’s no place like home).
We are living in incredible abundance here, in general things are much better organized, and one can easily move around by bike :-). Yet we are dealing with other issues here, that are less prevalent in (especially Latin) America, such as individualism, consumerism and materialism. I think these kind of issues have to do with our prosperity, and that’s something that’s hard to deal with after you’ve stayed in poorer places for a longer time.  For how can I, especially if I call myself a Christian, continue living on this high, Western standard, if I have seen with my own eyes the terrible conditions that some people in this world are living in? What a great dilemma. I’m trying to find a way in this, but it sure is difficult not to get caught up again in our consumerist society and pretend there’s nothing wrong.

Lessons
There are a number of things that have kept coming up during the past year, first while I was at the Shelter, and then during my trip as well.
> First, the power of (Christian) community. In the Shelter, I lived together with people from different countries for six months. During my trip I visited a number of (intentional) communities, and shared my thoughts on community living with several people. So what have I learned from this? For me personally, I noticed that I ‘function’ better as a human being while being in a community. I am more motivated to have a serving attitude and to put the needs of others before my own needs. There are more opportunities to share with others (both in a spiritual and in a material sense) and to encourage each other to serve God and one another and to not conform to ‘society’. There’s a verse in the Bible which describes it well: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers (and sisters) live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
> Often coinciding with the above was learning about other ways of “being” a church. A few examples: in the Twelve Tribes communities, services were held two times a day, consisting of singing and dancing, room for everyone to share something, and a concluding prayer. With a Dutch missionary I talked about house churches, in which the church looks more like a large family, which meets regularly at someone’s home. In Amsterdam and Los Angeles I visited churches that gather at unconventional places, such as a cinema, an art gallery and a cafe. In Brazil I came across a group that meets on Saturday for Bible study, after which they go out to eat together, and then on Sunday morning they play football together. In Costa Rica, I met Christians who gather on Friday for the Sabbath, and also celebrate the Jewish feasts. Because of these experiences I started to question the traditional church, especially the way it is in the West. Questions emerged like: Why is the church so different today than the way it is described in the New Testament of the Bible? Why do we run our church services the way we do, did we consciously choose for this ourselves, or is it out of habit? Why do we let churches grow so big, resulting in more anonymity? Why does organization seem to be more important than Gods guidance? I haven’t really found answers to all these questions yet, but either way I was encouraged to look beyond traditions (without forgetting them).
> A third lesson that I learned is to focus more on following my heart, and the desires in it. Of course I mean only virtuous desires. I want to use these as a guide as I’m looking how to spend my life, instead of following the path of Western society, and to focus on financial and material security. I was on this path, and went to college, got my diploma and then started working. Now I realize that this has not made me happy, and neither has it made people around me happy, at least not truly. And God? Perhaps, to some extent, because I can serve him in everything I do. But there are certain desires in my heart for a reason, so should I not pay more attention to those? What those desires are, has become more clear because of the different volunteer projects I’ve taken part in throughout the year. Still I could take this in many directions, so it will also be a matter of ‘trial-and-error’. But in short I would say it is: serving people, and helping them in their spiritual and physical/mental need. For example, I would like to keep working for an organization like the Shelter, because these aspects could be combined there perfectly.

And then..
So, what now? After some thorough thinking I decided to move back to Amsterdam. The main reasons behind this: I see more opportunities for the things I want to do, concerning places to live (in a community) and to work (serving people in need). In addition, the city itself keeps attracting me, both her beautiful and her dark side (in which I hope to bring some light). Maybe, secretly, it also has to do with a continuing longing for adventure 🙂
Meanwhile I have found a place to live in a ‘religious’ community, religious in a sense that people with different backgrounds are living here, but all share an interest in (the Christian) religion. The community consists of nine people, sometimes we eat together and we have a monthly gathering, in which we read from the Bible and other religious writings, and sing songs such as Psalms and Taizé. Besides that, the community is quite ‘loose’ in the sense that everyone has their own occupations, but for now I am really glad to live here.
Concerning work, I have found a part-time job as a website developer/programmer, to make a living during this time of transition. Also, I got a paid job at the Shelter as a backup manager and nightman!
Now that I’m getting settled a bit in Amsterdam, I’m trying to figure out what I can do here to make a positive impact on this city. The first possibilities have already turned up, time will tell what will come out of it.
The adventure continues…

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2 Responses to “looking back on the past year”

  1. Li@ Says:

    Edwin bedankt voor jouw openhartig verslag; dit geeft ook mij meer inzicht in jouw handel en wandel.
    Mooi te lezen hoe je gezocht hebt naar het doel van je bestaan en het ook voor nu gevonden hebt. Ook bij Tim heb ik dit ontdekt maar dan op een andere manier. Maar je hart volgen en ervoor gaan……..dat maakt je gelukkig en je leven zinvol!
    En: jullie worden er zulke prachtige mensen van!!!
    Ik wens je veel zegen toe in alles wat je doet en blijf vooral je hart volgen.
    Warme groetjes van ‘powerslibmom’ 🙂

  2. Anja Gielen Says:

    Mooi om te lezen Edwin. We zijn het mooist als we authentiek zijn. Zoals jij naar je hart luistert en je weg zoekt: prachtig! Authentieker kun je niet zijn 🙂
    Bedankt voor het delen van je ‘reflectie’.

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