The home of the Navigators Student Association Rotterdam (NSR) is a heritage building on Eendrachtsplein, right in the heart of Rotterdam. The building is in a rough shape, so a portable toilet is right outside the door. On this warm summer evening, a group of students is chatting outside. On the programme is the Beta course, a Bible study evening for people from outside the association. This will be followed by the association’s weekly drinks.
One of the participants is Onno (Econometrics), a member of SSR, another student association, who was brought to the NSR by Bart Wilschut, the External Assessor. “I met Bart on a night out at Vrienden Van”, Onno explains. “I was actually just there to get drunk, but we started talking.” The pair have talked a lot since then, and have become friends. Bart told him about NSR’s Alpha course, an introduction to the Christian faith. Onno says, “I was christened and raised as a Catholic, but I’ve never had much to do with it since.” Beta is the follow-up course to Alpha, taking a more in-depth look at the Bible.
Before the Bibles are opened, it’s time to eat. On fine evenings, participants eat outside in the square, at a long table. Marilyn (23, Medicine) says, “This season, we’ve been really lucky to have a committee that cooks. This is the best food I’ve ever eaten.” Dana (23, Sociology) agrees: “They’re really committed.” Dana is religious, but not a member of any church. “I’m from Rotterdam, so why would I want to join a student association?” But the words on the Alpha poster resonated with her: ‘Is there more between heaven and exams?’. “Talking about faith with other young people was completely new for me.” Marilyn says, “The great thing about the Alpha course is that there’s a place for everyone: Christians, non-Christians, Muslims, people from all different backgrounds. They’re all looking for good conversation.”
Meanwhile, the vegetarian lasagne is ready. Everyone goes inside to get a piece. There’s a short prayer and a collective ‘amen’. The high expectations are met: the food is delicious. Sophie (23, Medicine) suggests that a homeless man walking past should be given a plate. A short time later, he’s sitting on a nearby bench eating lasagne. Sophie is a member of the SSR. “What I like about the NSR is that everyone is so open. There’s none of this, ‘You look nice, so I’m going to talk to you’.”
24 hours together in a lift
Every now and then, NSR members take the conversation in a deeper direction by presenting a dilemma, such as: who would you want to spend 24 hours in a lift with? Joas (19, Fiscal Economics) thinks for a moment. “Kierkegaard, or Karl Jung. I could have interesting conversations with them.” Is he perhaps doing the wrong degree? “I sometimes wonder that too, but it’s the safe choice. And it’s interesting too, you know.”
After long consideration (Putin: pointless, Jesus: too cliché), Marilyn ends up choosing theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “I’ve just been reading his biography”, says Joas. He likes the fact that these kinds of conversations take place at NSR gatherings, including over drinks. Marilyn says, “I sometimes hear from other students that the atmosphere at other club nights can get a bit grim, late in the night. That doesn’t happen here.” Binge drinking is not appreciated, nor is getting drunk.
A bizarre story
After a dessert of vanilla ice cream, Oreos and coffee, everyone takes a seat in a room behind the bar and the Beta course begins. “Let’s sing first”, suggests Marilyn, picking up a guitar. She chooses the song 10.000 Reasons (Bless the Lord). Everyone brings up the words on their phones. The singing is rather restrained, but the atmosphere is special.
Marilyn then gives an introductory speech on the purpose of Beta. “In this course, you’ll learn more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. About the word of God, and what you can do with it.” Former member Maurice (23, Psychology) gave the talk this evening. “The central question is: what was God trying to tell us through the story of Jonah?” He says he personally finds the story of Jonah, who at one point spent three days inside a fish, ‘bizarre’. “But we believe other things that seem bizarre. Like the resurrection of Jesus, which is supported by reliable historical evidence. If you believe that, it’s reason enough to believe that this story happened too.”
He proceeds to give us a detailed analysis of the story, what it means and the parallels between Jonah and Jesus. It seems to go down reasonably well, although interactions with the audience are a bit awkward. The participants only really start to loosen up during circle time, when we break into small groups to delve deeper into the subject.
The discussion follows a set format: what does this story say about God, about people and about you, and how can you spread this message? I join a group that includes Louise (19, Medicine, ‘I’m very excited about God’) and Madeleine (23, Sociology, ‘Alpha deepened my spiritual life’).
Friendship and forgiveness
Sitting in a circle, with an assortment of snacks (chocolate biscuits and crisps) in the centre, we end up talking, not about Jonah, but about the story of the prodigal son. It’s a fascinating, deep, almost therapeutic conversation about friendship and forgiveness. It’s cathartic to be able to speak your mind and reflect on your own shortcomings, while everyone contributes their thoughts. By the time we wrap up, the other circle has been at the bar for a while. Joas prays: “Lord, we thank you for the fantastic evening we’re going to have. Amen.”
At the bar, drinks are in full swing. Some members of SSR are also there. Now that the Bibles have been put away, the NSR is just like any other student association. Bart is curious to hear how I’ve found the experience. I explain that I’m quite sensitive to the moral contemplations in the Bible study, the idea of love as a starting point and letting go of resentment. I ask, “On the whole, God is probably happy with that too right, without me being a Christian?” He looks dubious. “Unfortunately, that’s not how it works”, he explains. “The only way we can get to God is by believing in Jesus. Only with His help is it possible to resist temptation, for example.” The place is teeming with bright young people, laughing and drinking. It’s a sweltering evening. I wave goodbye. As I’m cycling home, I hum ‘10,000 Reasons’. I can’t get it out of my head.
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