The delivery truck has arrived, and the driver is opening the back to reveal a day’s worth of grocery store supplies. It’s still dark out, and snowing, and I know that the other two members of my team - young men born and raised in Morocco and Suriname respectively - really don’t like this North Sea weather. There’s a brief silence between us and then, pulling on my gloves, I volunteer to be the outside guy, pushing the heavy carts off the truck lift gate, onto the street and then into the store’s small loading bay.
I’m in the heart of Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter, the store itself situated on the Jodenbreestraat (‘Jewish Broad Street’), the main street of the neighbourhood. The Portuguese synagogue is a proverbial stone’s throw away, as is the birthplace of its most (in)famous son (depending on your reading of history) the great philosopher Spinoza. Not a hundred meters in the other direction is the former home of Rembrandt, a contemporary of Spinoza’s at the beginning of Holland’s golden age.
So how did I end up here, a ‘worker priest’ stocking grocery store shelves, a mere six years after having left the Lower Mainland for a stint as Head of Multi Faith Chaplaincy at Heathrow Airport in London, UK?
The five-year project at Heathrow was nearing completion when COVID arrived and brought abrupt and massive changes to the airline industry. The last unfinished business of my project, a total refit of Heathrow’s 13 Multi Faith Prayer Rooms, had been approved and budgeted by the airport authority, and had architectural plans drawn up. COVID - and airport revenues heading deeply into the red - put the kibosh on all development projects, mine included.
My wife Renata, who trained as an educator in the Netherlands, wanted to be teaching at ‘home’ again, so I bowed out of Heathrow on good terms and we moved to Amsterdam. At first, we rented our daughter’s apartment. She had just left for the UK for her ordination training with the Church of England (she will be ‘priested’ in July). But a year ago we moved to the centre of Amsterdam, renting a flat from a community organization that buys up historic buildings in disrepair, renovates them and rents out the new apartments to members. Our house, now consisting of four apartments, was first built in 1660, but is better known for being the home of the Allegro family, Sephardic Jews who ran a pickling company, who - all but one - were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. If our walls could speak.
I applied for several positions with the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe only to discover that the English patronage society who have rights of appointment in almost all their local parishes are rather conservative and take a dim view of my ‘liberal’ position on LGBTQ+ issues. After three tries I came to see this was never going to work, for them or for me.
So, what to do? Why not try an experiment to see if an inclusive and affirming Anglican service has any tread on it? Surely, in Amsterdam, one of the world’s most liberal and progressive cities, filling up with many thousands of young English-speaking professionals, there might be a niche that the established CofE parish could not fill?
I took the idea to the Reverend Mpho Tutu van Furth, daughter of the late Archbishop Tutu, who lives locally and is also excluded from Church of England ministry because she is same-sex married. Together we have started All Saints Amsterdam (allsaintsamsterdam.com) which meets once a month in the parish church of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, a Church which is in full communion with the Anglican Communion.
But how to pay for it, without an established congregation? There is rent for the use of the church and hall, plus costs for musicians and clergy, printing, etc. The grocery store! Two days a week I am stocking shelves in the Jodenbreestraat, the proceeds going to cover the financial needs of this fledgling worship community.
Last month two young women showed up and at the after-worship ‘borrel’ (a Dutch word for drinks and appies) I asked if they were a couple. “Yes, we are,” they replied, “and we cannot tell you how wonderful it is to finally find a place where we can just be ourselves and worship God. What you are doing here is totally unique in Amsterdam; please keep it going!”
The Reverend Mpho and I are beginning talks with The Episcopal Church, their Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, with their bishop and cathedral in Paris, to see if we might join them as a mission initiative. It’s early days, but signs are hopeful.
And I remain proudly canonically resident in the Diocese of New Westminster. Bishop John has been kept up to date throughout and has been tremendously helpful and supportive. I also ran into Archbishop Melissa Skelton while visiting Paris on a Sunday when she was preaching there, and our brief encounter greatly smoothed the introductions to the Convocation’s bishop, the Right Reverend Mark Edington.
Please pray for us. And if you have any encouragement for us, be in touch!