Monthly Archives: March 2022

Migrants as missionaries

The Netherlands is preparing for the arrival of at least 50,000 Ukrainians, and possibly even double or multiple that number. Meanwhile, people of other nationalities continue to come to our country, hoping to be recognized as asylum seekers and to get the opportunity to build a new existence here. The movement of large groups of immigrants, and all the challenges associated with this, is a worldwide phenomenon of all ages. In the past the Netherlands had to deal, time and time again, with the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. One of the largest groups that ever had to be accommodated were the Belgians who fled to the Netherlands during the First World War, when their country was at war while The Netherlands had remained neutral. Their number was more than one million, while our country had “only” about five million inhabitants at the time.

Large-scale migration changes the demographics of a region or a country. This has been the case in the Netherlands since the Germanic tribes “invaded” our country via the Rhine two thousand years ago. Over the centuries, all kinds of new groups followed, including significant numbers of Jews and Huguenots. In the last half century, people from the former colonies (Indonesia, Suriname and the Antilles) arrived, along with hundreds of thousands of guest workers from southern Europe. The fact that there are two Polish supermarkets in the place where I presently live indicates that the migration phenomenon has not by-passed my hometown, with a population of about 22,000.

I am currently writing a review of a book in which migration plays a very important role. It emphasizes that, worldwide, migration has been a major factor in shaping the course of history. However, the author (see below) of this fascinating, but rather complicated and detailed, book is mainly concerned with one particular aspect of migration. His thesis is that the spread of Christianity owes more to migration than to the formal mission activities of churches and religious organizations, and to political and military factors. When people–alone or (usually) in groups or as a whole nation–move to another region, they take their religious beliefs with them. In ancient times, it was often Christian slaves or prisoners of war who ensured that the gospel reached places where it had not penetrated before. Constant migration ensured that the Christian faith did not assume the same form everywhere and that theological differences could also spread. Migration, according to this book, therefore had consequences not only for the geographical distribution of the Christian faith, but also for a growing diversity of rites and theological views.

In the Netherlands we have seen how in many places migration has altered the religious landscape of an area. The Bijlmer (South-East Amsterdam) is perhaps the most striking example of this. When Joop den Uyl, as one of the aldermen of Amsterdam, was in charge of planning for this new district, he believed that no land needed to be reserved for church buildings. After all, we were on the eve of a totally secularized world, in which people would no longer go to church. But now, some sixty years later, this part of Amsterdam is the most religious place in the entire country! The immigrants who came mainly from Suriname and the Antilles, but also from Africa and elsewhere, made sure of that.

What religious impact the arrival of large numbers of Ukrainians cannot be predicted. It is possible that this will at least strengthen the Greek Orthodox element in our religiously diverse country. Much will depend on whether many Ukrainians will live among us for the long term or even permanently.

For the worldwide Adventist community, migration is undoubtedly a determining factor. In many countries, members who have come from outside the country’s borders are in the majority. This is particularly the case in the United States, and this trend is likely to continue. In many European countries, the Adventist Church would have declined in membership had it not been for migration. Tp say yhat this has not created any problems would be a denial of the facts, but the arrival of church members from other areas has allowed the church to still grow a little or at least remain stable in terms of its membership. Moreover, this migration has resulted in greater diversity and in many places also in a new vitality of church life. The thesis of the author of the book I am to review, that the spread and the growth of the church owes more to migration than to institutionally directed missionary actions, has, at least for some decades, also been true for Adventismin the Netherlands.

Jehu J. Hanciles, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI (USA): Eerdmans, 2021)

The Happiness Index

For the tenth time, an international group of specialists has analyzed a mass of data and on that basis compiled a “world happiness index”. The recently published report designates the Finns as the happiest people on our globe. In second to fourth place of happiest countries are Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland. The Netherlands comes next in fifth place.

I am writing this blog at my son’s kitchen table in Sweden, which ranks seventh in this happiness index. Canada, to my surprise, comes no higher than the fourteenth spot. The United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, and France are at numbers 17, 19, 20, and 21, respectively. At the very bottom of the list is Afghanistan as the least happy country in the world. Russia does not rise above place No. 74 on the list. (It should be noted that the data were collected before Russia invaded Ukraine.)

The compilers looked, among other things, at average life expectancy, the quality of health care, the average income of citizens, their sense of security, and further at a range of data distilled from the use of the social media. In each country, a representative group of several thousand people was surveyed. Thus, the results largely reflect what the citizens of each country themselves think of their own happiness (or lack thereof).

This project leaves me with a lot of questions. Are the Swedes really a bit less happy than the Dutch? And are our Belgian neighbors really that much worse off than the Dutch? Are people perhaps less optimistic in certain countries than in other, neighboring countries? During the Corona era, I regularly filled out questionnaires from the RIVM–the organization that kept track of all the data on the pandemic. Some of the questions repeatedly addressed how I was feeling. Was I less happy than before the pandemic? Did I often feel lonely, worried, or even anxious? What grade did I give myself when it comes to my over-all happiness? How does one answer questions like that?

The index informs us that there are only relatively few people on earth who, on average, are happier than the Dutch. However, if you follow the talkshows on TV and listen to the comments of people in the street, you don’t get the impression that the Dutch are such an extremely happy and contented people. In the recent municipal elections, almost half of the Dutch population did not bother to come to the polling station. Asked why people did not vote, one mostly heard comments like: It doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t vote, the politicians do what they want to do anyway. They are in it for the money, and only have their own interests at heart. Politics is corrupt through and through.

People accuse the government of not addressing several of the major problems in society. When you hear what people are saying, you would sometimes think that the vast majority of the population lives pretty much near the poverty line. How do you reconcile those sentiments with being at place five on the list of happiest countries?

Of course, there is a big difference between collective happiness and the happiness of individuals. Collective happiness is mostly a matter of statistics. Despite all the complaining and dissatisfaction, most Dutch people realize that society in their homeland is much rosier than in a very large part of the rest of the world. At the same time, we should not forget that a sizeable group of people has every right to complain. Those who have to live on a small allowance, or only on their state pension, have a hard time, especially in these times of sky-high energy bills.

The question remains: How do you define happiness? Health and a reasonable degree of prosperity certainly contribute to our happiness. But there are also a lot of people who describe themselves as happy, even if they are not all that healthy, and even if they have to turn over every euro several times before spending it. Happiness certainly also has to do with good relationships with family, friends and other people who are part of our social network. Yet not all people who have no family or few friends are unhappy. People of faith, as a rule, will say that their faith is important to them and contributes to their happiness. However, there are also masses of unbelieving people who consider themselves quite happy.

So, what is happiness? Whether you are happy or not is a question you can ultimately only answer yourself. For most of us, aspects such as experiencing love and inner peace, having valuable relationships, contentment and gratitude, play an important role. For many, the deeper meaning of life is also of great – perhaps of decisive – importance. With many others I find this meaning in the Christian faith.

Perhaps the creation of a “happiness index” is not entirely meaningless. We certainly don’t live in a country where everything is perfect and the government doesn’t make any mistakes. But if we compare our society with that in most other countries we can consider ourselves “happy” with our fifth place.


On many occasions one discovers how much one does not know. Even though I have studied Dutch church history for decades, I knew nothing about the role of the North Holland village of Lutjebroek in the history of Dutch Catholicism.

Lutjebroek is a name that sounds familiar to many Dutch people. The name has become a metaphor for a super boring place, where an average Dutchman has no reason to go. Quite a few of my compatriots even think it is an imaginary place that does not really exist. But Lutjebroek does exist. It is a village in the northern part of North Holland (the region above Amsterdam) with about 2200 inhabitants, which is now part of the municipality of Stede Broeck, between the historic cities of Hoorn and Enkhuizen. I lived in my youth about 25 kilometers away from Lutjebroek.

In the village of Lutjebroek stands a large neo-gothic church, which was built in 1876-1877, after a design by the famous architect Pierre Cuypers, who has many Roman Catholic buildings to his name. [He was also the architect of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.] The Nicolaas Church is still used for Catholic worship services, and a look at the parish website indicates that there is still plenty of life in this Catholic community.

How did my attention suddenly get drawn to the parish of St. Nicolaas in Lutjebroek? It was because a few days ago I attended a lecture during the annual meeting of the Society for Dutch Church History on the Dutch Zouaves. The Zouaves were members of an international military corps that supported the Pope in his last desperate (but vain) attempts in the years 1860-1870 to save from the Italians what was left of the Church State. The corps of the Zouaves consisted of about 12,000 idealists, who manifested an enormous loyalty to the “holy father,” and who were prepared to seal their loyalty to Pope Pius IX with their lives. The Netherlands contributed no fewer than three thousand Zouaves to the papal army. A significant number of them came from a few Catholic villages in North Holland. No less than 22 came from the small village of Lutjebroek. One of them, Pieter Jong, actually died on the Italian battle field and became the hero of Lutjebroek. The street where the large church is located is named after him. Furthermore, the memory of the Zouaves in Lutjebroek is kept alive by the local soccer club, which still bears the name de Zouaven.

The lecture about the Zouaves was held in a meeting room of the small Zouave Museum in Oudenbosch in Brabant (the predominantly Catholic southern part of the Netherlands). The “skyline” of this small historic town is dominated by the dome of the basilica, which is a copy of St. Peter’s in Rome. The Dutch Zouaves gathered in this little town, after which they coninued to Italy via Brussels. I hardly knew anything about this footnote in church history, but that gap in my knowledge has now been somewhat filled.

Incidentally, it is significant that the predominantly Protestant North of the Netherlands (including North Holland) has a number of traditionally Catholic enclaves. The tourist trap of Volendam is one of these. I lived as a child in North Holland in a village called Schermerhorn, where the majority was Protestant, but the adjacent village of Ursem was 99% Catholic. A similar situation occurs in some other regions of the country. The reason goes back to the Reformation and the period thereafter. In the Netherlands, the measures of the Protestants against Catholics were usually less aggressive than in other European countries, with the result that, here and there, significant Catholic enclaves remained unscathed. When, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholics again regained full freedom to organize and manifest themselves, a host of church building projects followed almost immediately. The construction of the St. Nicolaas Church in the 1870s in Lutjebroek fits seamlessly into that development.

How courageous would I be?

The first systematic persecution of Christians took place during the short rule of the Roman Emperor Decius (249-251). All Christians were required to bring sacrifices to the state gods, or face martyrdom. Many refused and had to pay for this with their life. They were referred to as confessors. But many others lacked that courage and decided that under the circumstances they would sacrifice to the pagan gods. Those who did so were labeled sacrificati, or thurificati, in case they had only burned some incense. There was also a significant group, the so-called libellatici, who managed to obtain a certificate (from a friendly administrator or through bribery) indicating that they had sacrificed, while in reality they had not. When the persecution subsided, church leaders were faced with the disciplinary question of how to treat the men and women who had not been brave enough to disobey the emperor’s order. Could these people resume normal participation in church life? And if so, on what terms? The question was not answered everywhere in the same way, which led to controversies and even church splits.

A few days ago, I consulted a book while writing an article, which referred to this episode in church history. It got me thinking: What would I have done? Would I have been a sacrificatus or thurificatus rather than a confessor? Or would I have had the courage to put my life on the line. Over the centuries, millions of believers were willing to do this, and even today there are countries in the world where it is literally a matter of life or death to be a follower of Christ. What would I do if I lived in such a country and I had to make the choice between staying true to my faith or becoming a martyr?

In the last two weeks we have been confronted with the determination of a large part of the Ukrainian people to fight against their Russian enemy. Many say that they will fight as long as it takes, and that they are willing to give their lives if necessary. The example of President Zelensky is impressive. He wants to stay with the people, whatever the costs, and he has firmly rejected the American offer to be taken with his family to safety. I am happy to live in a free and democratic country and would give much to preserve my democratic freedom. But would I be willing to die for my country? Suppose Putin can realize his dream and advance further towards the West. Wouldn’t I then rather be “red” than “dead”?

How far should we go in our allegiance to our faith and to fundamental moral principles? Let us first of all note that we can only answer that question for ourselves. And we can only really do so when we find ourselves in a concrete situation in which we must make such a choice. In such circumstances it is possible that some people, who sounded very tough, will, after all, opt for a safe way out, while others who did not seem so courageous may display true heroism.

Let us be slow in our judgment of others. I admire the men and women who want to defend their country, but I can also understand the Ukrainians who desperately want to survive this conflict and therefore flee from the violence. We, who live in the relatively safety of the Netherlands [and this applies to readers elsewhere], must offer support and shelter to as many victims of war and violence as we possibly can (and not only to people from Ukraine!). Let us not complain too easily when life becomes a few percent more expensive, because for most of us this may be annoying but is not a really big deal. And as we provide support, it remains important that we continue to pray for those in need, but also ask the Lord to give us true courage if we should ever find ourselves in circumstances where very difficult choices have to be made.

Along the Nile

Since several months I am a member of a reading club. When we last met, we selected an extraordinarily fascinating book. The plan is to read it and then discuss it when we meet again. That explains why I have currently arrived in the middle of the book by a Norwegian historian and geographer. It is called: The Nile—Biography of a River. It presents quite a challenge, as it has over 500 rather densely printed pages. But it is downright fascinating to learn more about the enormous significance this river has had throughout history-and still has-for the fourteen countries that depend to a considerable extent on the White Nile and the Blue Nile, and their tributaries, for their water supply (and thus for their development and economy).

Books always take on a special meaning when, as a reader, you have been to the places that are described. In the last four years of my period in Africa for the Adventist Church, I visited almost two-thirds of all the African countries. A few years later, I returned a few times to Egypt and Sudan because those countries at the time were under the supervision of the regional church office (TED) of the Adventist Church, where I served as the executive secretary. After that I was for a short time the director of ADRA-Netherlands, and that took me to East Africa again.

The book I am currently reading follows the course of the Nile from the North to the South. From Egypt the author takes his readers to Sudan and the new republic of South Sudan and then to Uganda. In the process, the lakes region of East Africa then comes into extensive focus, with special attention for the immense Lake Victoria. With its surface of 70,000 square kilometers, this is the second largest freshwater reservoir on earth. We hardly ever stop to think today that it was only about 150 years ago that this area was properly mapped and Western explorers determined that this lake is the origin of the White Nile, which merges with the Blue Nile in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

The first time I saw Lake Victoria was after a 350-plus km drive from Nairobi to the Kendu Bay, in the northwestern part of Lake Victoria. My destination was the Adventist publishing/printing house (the Africa Herald Publishing House) located there, in the immediate vicinity of the Kendu Adventist Hospital. I had rented a car in Nairobi and remember very vividly three aspects of the trip: the vast tea fields in all shades of green in the Kericho area, the herd of thousands of zebras that crossed the road somewhere halfway through the trip, and the hefty fine for a speeding ticket somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In my ADRA days I was involved in the construction of an elementary school (of 8 classes) on Buvuma, one of the islands in Lake Victoria. It was a wonderful project-urgently needed on this island where the poor population lives primarily on fishing, and where at the time a frighteningly high percentage of both men and women were HIV-infected. Representatives of ADRA-Uganda brought me to the island in a motor sloop, where we stayed so long that I missed my flight home from the Entebbe airport.

Several years into my retirement, I taught for a month at Bugema University in Uganda. This Adventist university, which now has about 5,000 students, is located along a largely unpaved road about 65 km north of the Ugandan capital Kampala. During a day off, the administrators treated me to a touristic excursion. We drove to the spot on the north shore of Lake Victoria where the Nile has its origin. In a small boat, we sailed a short distance from the shore, where we could clearly see how currents in the water form the start of the river that here begins its course to the North.

The following chapters in the book discuss the role of the Nile for Kenya and Tanzania and a number of other countries in that region. This will no doubt also bring back memories of visits I paid there. It was a privilege for which I am still grateful. [And it is nice to think for a few moments of something pleasant in the midst of the atrocities in Ukraine which currently dominate the news.]