Netherlands: Investing in parishes in order to be “responsible for sustainable diaconia”

Hanne Wilzing tells the story of a converted church building in Amsterdam

(LWI) – When church attendance and resources decline, when neighborhoods change, there is a temptation to shut down and withdraw, ”says Hanne Wilzing, general secretary of Lutheran Diakonie in Amsterdam, Netherlands. But there are also opportunities to “reuse and preserve the treasures entrusted to us”, as the Augustanahof parish, a former church building that has been converted into residential apartments, shows.

The story of the Augustanahof is one of the stories presented in four new picture books about conviviality – the art and practice of living together – that the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) launched today, November 16, as part of its European Diaconal Process . Wilzing, who contributed to the first brochure on the subject of sociability and the diaconal church, speaks of “living with open hands”, “working with happiness and optimism” and “investing in relationships in the neighborhood”.

Mr. Hanne Wilzing, presents the background of the Augustanahof at the group meeting “Seeking Conviviality” 2019 in Amsterdam. Photo: Lutheran Diakonie Amsterdam

What is “sociability” for you?

In my 40 years of work in the church I have learned that diakonia is about relationships: between people with one another, between people and the planet, and between people and the Creator.

In socializing I recognize this way of living and being a church in our neighborhood and surroundings. It is closely related to the Lutheran understanding to live with open hands to receive God’s grace. That everyone can be who they are and discover the strength of the other because the needy 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 neither should feel more important than the other. In the midst of suffering, we can rest assured that the world is in God’s hands, it does not depend on us. And I work with happiness and optimism, based on Luther’s “happy exchange” of grace against sin.

How can the gregarious approach become part of the diaconal life of the church?

A sociable approach means investing in community building to be a sustainable diakonia provider. It helps the Church free herself from fear of turning convulsively inward (Acts 2). Diakonia has a dear duty to seek mercy and justice for the weak, and sociability can change the way we see ourselves and deal with our own vulnerability and that of our Church. It will affect our liturgy.

Diakonia has a dear duty to seek mercy and justice for the weak, and sociability can change the way we see ourselves and deal with our own vulnerability and that of our Church.

Mr. Hanne Wilzing, General Secretary of the Lutheran Diakonie in Amsterdam

There may also be a new vision of dealing with the Church’s real estate or entrepreneurship. The number of congregations is declining for various reasons, and if some churches become empty, how can we relocate the neighborhood and preserve the holy places? The question is not how to create conviviality, but how to find it.

How does the Augustanahof show sociability?

If you look at the building you can say we saved a sacred place. The original Augustanakerk church was built in 1957 and used by the Pniël Lutheran and Reformed congregations in west Amsterdam. But when the parishes shrank due to the changing neighborhoods, the church abandoned the building in 2014 [Lutheran Diaconie in Amsterdam] bought it with the aim of developing it into a place where people can take care of each other and the community in the neighborhood.

The 16 rental apartments are inhabited by people of different Christian origins, the elderly and young people, one is reserved as a guest house for temporary stays by young refugees. Our oldest resident is 99 years old, that 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, come here for a meal together. In times of the coronavirus, we cook ‘takeaway’ or deliver at home. The residents commit to the so-called “Augustanahof Rule”, which includes voluntary work, prayer, once a month dinner together and the care of the common rooms. That is a contribution to the city and the neighborhood.

There are many beautiful stories to tell, like that of a young refugee who lived in one of the guest houses for three months before he found his own apartment. During the troubled times of COVID-19, he came back twice a week but to bring 200 meals for elders and others in need. He said he wanted to give something back to the church. When I hear a senior citizen say: “Ah, the refugee brings me something to eat every week”, then something changes.

In the end, it’s still a sacred place with a small chapel. Since February, during the pandemic, we have opened it every day, offering a place to reflect, light a candle and be silent.

What could other LWF member churches learn from this approach?

One of the most important lessons for me is the importance of investing in relationships in your neighborhood. Another is the value of projects and programs that look at the long term process, not just the products, such as diaconal entrepreneurship with Church real estate. We have 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 conduct the dialogue? I have seen that it is possible to create safe spaces for people who are likely to feel marginalized – migrants, refugees, LGBTQ +, and to work with those who fear the foreign. And everyone can make their contribution, not be shy, be faithful in the small things.

    PKN / Hanne Wilzing

Participant of the Seeking Conviviality 2019 workshop on “People on the Move – Responding to Growing Diversity” in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: PKN / Hanne Wilzing

It was a great privilege to be part of the solidarity group of the European Diaconal Process. We have met as brothers and sisters in other countries who have preoccupied us with the same issues, and that is empowering. It helps you look beyond your own community, city, country, and Oikumene.

Sociability – Stories about diaconal life in diversity from the European regions of the LWF

** The Lutheran Diakonie is part of the Lutheran Church in Amsterdam, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Church in the Netherlands, a member church of the LWF

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