Netherlands: Investing in communities to be “carriers of sustainable diakonia”
Hanne Wilzing shares the story of a repurposed church building in Amsterdam
(LWI) – When church attendance and resources decline as neighborhoods change, there is the temptation to shut down and become withdrawn,” says Mr Hanne Wilzing, General Secretary of the Lutheran Diaconie in Amsterdam, Netherlands. But there are also possibilities to “repurpose and guard the treasures that are entrusted to us,” as demonstrated in the Augustanahof community, a former church building turned into residential apartments.
The story of Augustanahof is one of the stories featured in four new storybooks on conviviality — the art and practice of living together—that The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) launched today, 16 November, as part of its European Diaconal Process. Wilzing, who has contributed to the first booklet on Conviviality and the Diaconal Church, talks about “living with open hands”, “working with cheerfulness and optimism” and “investing in relationships in the neighborhood.”
Mr Hanne Wilzing, presenting the background of Augustanahof at the 2019 “Seeking Conviviality” group meeting in Amsterdam. Photo: Lutheran Diaconie Amsterdam
What is ‘conviviality’ for you?
In my 40 years working with the church, I have learned that diakonia is about relationships: between people together, between people and planet and between people and the Creator.
In conviviality, I recognize this way of living and being church in our neighborhood and environment. It is strongly connected with the Lutheran understanding of living with open hands to receive God’s grace. That everyone can be who they are and discover the power of the other because the one in need has the potential to be the helper. That we are all sinners and beggars, so we should all be aware of our own vulnerability and none should feel more important than the other. In the midst of suffering, we can be reassured that the world is in God’s hands, it does not depend on us. And, I work with cheerfulness and optimism founded in Luther’s “happy exchange” of grace for sin.
How can the convivial approach become part of the church’s diaconal life?
A convivial approach means investing in building communities to be carriers of sustainable diakonia. It helps the church to become liberated from the fear of convulsively turning inward (Acts 2). Diakonia has the expensive duty to seek mercy and justice for the vulnerable, and conviviality may change the way we see ourselves and how we face our own vulnerability and that of our church. It will influence our liturgy.
Diakonia has the expensive duty to seek mercy and justice for the vulnerable, and conviviality may change the way we see ourselves and how we face our own vulnerability and that of our church.It can also give a new vision of dealing with the real estate or entrepreneurship of the church. Congregations are declining, for different reasons, and when some churches become empty, how can we give a new serving destination in the neighborhood and keep the holy places? The question is not how to build conviviality but how to find it.
How does Augustanahof demonstrate conviviality?
When you look at the building, you can say, well, we saved a holy place. The original church Augustanakerk was built in 1957, and it was used by the Lutheran and the Reformed Pniël congregations in western Amsterdam. But as the congregations shrank due to changing neighborhoods the church gave up the building in 2014. We [Lutheran Diaconie in Amsterdam] purchased it with the goal of developing it into a place where people can look after each other and the community in the neighborhood.
The 16 rental apartments are occupied by people from different Christian backgrounds, elders and young people, and one is reserved as a guest house for temporary stays of young refugees. Our oldest resident is 99 years, this used to be her church, now she lives there. The youngest is a couple in their mid-twenties. There is a common room where residents, diaconal workers and people from the neighborhood can meet. Every week 40-50 people, all volunteers, show up for a community meal here. In the coronavirus times we cook ‘meals to go’ or deliver at home. The residents make a commitment to what we call the ‘Rule of the Augustanahof’ that includes volunteer activities, prayer, group dinner once a month, and care for the common rooms. That is a contribution to the city and to the neighborhood.
There are many beautiful stories to share, like that of a young refugee who had stayed in one of the guesthouses for three months before he found his own housing. During the difficult times of COVID-19, he came back, twice a week, but to bring 200 meals for elders and others who needed assistance. He said he wanted to give back to the church. When I hear a senior citizen saying: “Ah, the refugee brings me a meal every week,” then something is changing.
In the end, it is still a holy place with a small chapel. Since February, during the pandemic, we opened it every day, offering a place for reflection, to light a candle and have some silence.
What could other LWF member churches learn from this approach?
Some of the major lessons for me include the importance of investing in relationships in your neighborhoods. Another is the value of projects and programs with attention to the long-term process instead of just the products, such as diaconal entrepreneurship with the real estate of the church. We need to learn to put questions that people struggle with on the agenda, for example liturgy, how do we speak as a church, how do we dialogue? I have seen that it is possible to make safe places for people who are likely to feel excluded —migrants, refugees, LGBTQ+, and to engage with those who are afraid of the stranger. And, everyone can make a contribution, don’t be shy, be faithful in the small.
Participants in the 2019 Seeking Conviviality workshop on the topic “People on the Move - Responding to Growing Diversity,” held in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: PKN/Hanne Wilzing
It was a huge privilege to be part of the Solidarity Group of the European Diaconal Process. We got to know each other as brothers and sisters in other countries, dealing with the same questions, and that is empowering. It helps you to look further than your own community, your own city, your country and Oikumene.
** The Lutheran Diaconie is part of the Lutheran Church in Amsterdam, which is affiliated to the Protestant Church in The Netherlands, a member church of the LWF