“May I pray for you?” Mark van Doorn, a member of Navigators Student Association Rotterdam (NSR), puts the question to two students who didn’t know him an hour ago. They frown briefly, look at each other and then shrug their shoulders. “Yes, why not? ” Mark puts his hands together. “Father, I want to dedicate these people to you.”
An hour earlier, Mark – a good talker with ginger hair parted to the right and a hipster beard – gathered together with four other students who belong to the Christian student association NSR in the Tinbergengebouw canteen. They call themselves a ‘mission group’. “The aim of NSR is to get to know Christ and to make Him known to others. We do a lot of getting to know Christ within NSR, but not enough making Him known to others. But I think faith is so amazing that you can’t keep it to yourself!” explains Mark.
The mission group members use a questionnaire when they talk to students on campus – not about everyday things, but about deeper issues. They ask questions like ‘What do you want to achieve in your life? ’ and ‘What do you think is important in life?’ and then, usually later in the conversation, ‘Who do you think Jesus is?’ and ‘What do you think about God?’.
Faith isn’t a package that you post into people
“Students need to talk about these subjects. We often get the comment: ‘This is great – I should talk more about this’,” says Mark with enthusiasm. “Sometimes I speak to lonely international students, or to unhappy students who are very pleased that we’re willing to listen.” Others are focused on their career, the expectations of their parents, or money. “And then I ask: ‘Would you be happy with your life if this was it and tomorrow you were knocked down by a truck?’”
Sometimes people are less enthusiastic, but that doesn’t bother the NSR members. “No hard feelings.” Mark’s mantra is: “We don’t aim to instil faith into people in the way that you deliver a package.” He mimes opening a rubbish bin and pushing something into it while pulling a face: “As if we were on a recruitment drive, trying to get people to sign up or to support a charity. We want to encourage people to think about things.”
Scanning the canteen
Mark leads one of the three NSR mission groups. They go out onto the campus once a fortnight. Traditionally, the group meets together beforehand in the canteen, to find a moment of peace amid the eating, chatting and studying students. They take their Bible (or Bible phone app) and read Matthew 19:16-30, in which a rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Then they pray. They don’t care about bemused glances from tables to the left and right. Mark comments: “I’m fine with ten people laughing at me if I can do something for the eleventh.”
After this, it’s time to spread out. Mark scans the canteen. “Usually, I’m looking for people who aren’t too busy with something, or who are sitting alone and look open to a conversation.” Mark used to go out on the streets for charities, so getting into conversation with total strangers is not a problem for him. “And now it’s on behalf of something I’m passionate about!”
He has some interest. Two international students from Pakistan and India – Harmanan (20) and Atif (21) – who are quietly eating their ratatouille and mushroom soup. He shakes their hands. “Do you have some time to talk through some questions about life with me?” The two look at each other: “Uh, yes, we have five or ten minutes.” Soon they have got into a discussion about life goals. Casually, Mark mentions that he himself is a Christian and asks, after a pleasant conversation lasting twenty minutes, whether he can pray for them.”
“Why are you doing this?”
After the prayer, the two still have questions. Atif asks: “Why are you doing this?” Mark explains about God and what God means to him. In the past he was heavily into drinking beer and smoking cannabis. “Until fellow students asked me: ‘Shall we drink beer and read the Bible?’ Then I started thinking, and the turning point came at a summer camp where I saw that God also works in us.”
A conversation that was supposed to take five to ten minutes ends up being 50 minutes. The mushroom soup has gone cold. “It’s always like that,” laughs Mark. In fact, they are still not finished, but the boys have to go, and so does Mark. He asks: “Do you want to carry on talking about this some other time?” Nobody speaks for a moment. “We do want to talk some more, but we don’t want to fix an appointment. We’ll come and find you some time.” Mark smiles: “OK, we’ll meet each other again.”
Afterwards, the NSR members get together once more to talk things over and conclude with prayer. NSR member Janine Mourik, who has also been talking to people, laughs and jokes: “Somehow I always get talking with international students! Is God trying to say something to me? That I need to improve my English maybe?” They all had interesting conversations and were able to offer a listening ear. And that’s what it’s all about: “listening to another person with genuine interest”.