The Church of Ocala, Florida welcomes a minister and inspiration from Amsterdam
Rev. Frans van Santen, associate rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Ocala, recently lost his shirt during a prayer meeting at a local manufacturing facility.
Van Santen removed his office collar and shirt at the gathering to reveal a t-shirt proclaiming that Jesus Christ lives in the world.
“He was one of us,” said van Santen.
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He got the t-shirt from the manufacturer Pro Poly of America, who was hosting van Santen that day. About 25 workers at the plant sat in a circle on the manufacturing floor to hear his message.
The workers responded to the relaxed presentation with a few good-natured chuckles and applause.
“Jesus Christ walked the earth just like you and I did. We’re all just people trying to do our best and get along,” he said.
Van Santen asked the workers what they would do and what they would talk about if Jesus Christ had to join the manufacturing crew and be trained in skills like welding or tank making.
“We need to live a life worthy of God and think about it every day,” he said.
From Amsterdam to Ocala: a three-year program
Van Santen, an Amsterdam native, came here in November 2020 as part of a three-year church residency program. The program aims to provide van Santen with a background and training towards leading his own community. He’s hoping that will be in central Florida.
Larry Edwards, a year-long welder with Pro Poly of America, said the weekly talks teach “good morals and work relevance” and how to help others.
The local plant, one of three Pro Poly of America plants nationwide, makes polypropylene plastic water and foam tanks and PolyBilt truck bodies, according to propolyamerica.com.
The water and foam tanks will be sold to fire equipment manufacturers like Emergency One, according to Pro Poly of America employees.
The Good Word of the Day prayer sessions were started about 12 years ago by Tim Dean, local president of Pro Poly of America, and Jonathon French, rector of Grace Episcopal Church.
French and van Santen take turns visiting the factories.
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Jeff Jackson, Nicholas Saldarriaga, husband and wife team Danny and Eveon Martin, Cyndy Durbin, Eric Leslie Thomas Brown, Marion Beville and Daquawn Greene took a break from their work duties to hear the uplifting message.
“(The session) is always inspirational,” Greene said.
Choskey White, who has worked at the facility for 23 years, said the sessions were “very good, great.”
Frans van Santen: a “breath of fresh air” for the municipality
The talk is another example of van Santen taking the Christian message he shares with his congregation to the community. He also led a group from his church that took part in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Ocala in January.
Carman Smith, a member of Grace Episcopal Church, said van Santen was like a “breath of fresh air” to the community.
“(Van Santen) is like an angel that God sent here for us. He’s very easy-going, very likeable, lively and down-to-earth,” she said.
“He walks a lot,” Smith added.
Smith described van Santen’s sermons as “very moving,” and she noted that his wife and two children arrived in the United States — “the land of plenty” — with just 11 suitcases.
Van Santen feels that Ocala people are generally open to his religious and moral messages.
“God is not an issue in Amsterdam. People over there don’t care what you believe about the supernatural, and the church plays a secondary role in society. Ocala is very different in that sense. I remember the YMCA umpire praying in front of my daughter at the soccer game and was amazed that everyone accepted it,” he wrote in an email.
“It’s fairly common (in Ocala) to ask which church you go to, as if going to church is somehow implied. I’m sure my work as a priest will be more appreciated by the entire community in Ocala than it would be in Amsterdam,” he said.
“The US is better at everything. People here think big compared to the Netherlands, which is geographically much smaller and not self-sufficient like the US,” he explained.
Van Santen said the area he grew up in, near Amsterdam, is rural, much like Ocala, and his father, who “never touched a gun (and) never needed one,” is a retired Dutch Reformed minister and his mother, who worked as a nurse, is now an artist.
From business to ministry
Before joining the clergy, van Santen worked in management consulting. By the time he was in his thirties, “his career was going … well, but something was missing (and) I didn’t know what it was.”
In 2013 van Santen began his studies to become an Episcopal Minister and in June 2020 he received his Master of Divinity degree from Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands.
At the age of 42 he was ordained an episcopal priest.
Van Santen met his Florida native wife Erin while he was at a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011. They married in 2012 and Erin van Santen moved to Amsterdam shortly after.
The family currently lives here, just minutes from the church. The couple have two children, Estella, 7, and Moses, 5.
In Ocala, “people actually make time for each other.”
Van Santen discussed some of the differences between Amsterdam and Ocala in an email.
“Amsterdam is like any other big city: busy, hectic, fast-moving and anonymous. Coming to Ocala after living in Amsterdam for 20 years is refreshing because you really make time for each other. Life here is less stressful. I how warm and friendly most people are,” he wrote.
“Another difference is political; the Netherlands has many different political parties and none ever has a majority. That means the parties need to negotiate and work with multiple parties to make it work. Most Dutch people don’t have a strong allegiance to their favorite party at all. What I’ve noticed in the US so far is that politics can create divisions between people and ethnic groups, which is a new phenomenon to me,” he said.
Van Santen explained that the two cities share a common language, with English predominating in Amsterdam. The challenges of homelessness are also shared by Ocala and Amsterdam.
“Both cities have homeless populations, and both cities are blessed to have a Salvation Army. Ocala is privileged to have Interfaith as well, something Amsterdam would benefit enormously from,” van Santen wrote.
Van Santen follows Dutch Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen and, according to graceocala.org, is “passionate about the beautiful message of the gospel and desires that everyone can know and experience God’s love. He enjoys preaching, good beer, classical music, theological discussions, time with his family and Ajax football matches.”
Erin van Santen, whose parents live in Altoona, Florida, shared her thoughts on life in Amsterdam.
“I imagined the Netherlands as a backward country with farms and windmills and easygoing people on bikes, but it is actually a highly educated, professional and committed country with people I have come to understand and love. Dutch culture is very direct and honest, which can come across as rude, especially if you’re from the south,” she wrote.
“That directness and openness is also refreshing because conversations can be more nuanced. The Dutch want to discuss different aspects of an issue, and friends know how to disagree and stay friends. In America people seem quick to try to put you in an either/or box,” Erin van Santen wrote in part.