Army meetings in former home of Night Watch lieutenant

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In the red-light district, the Goodwill Center welcomes all with God’s love.

by Ruud Tinga – 

It is a misty Sunday morning in Amsterdam. At 10:15 a.m. the bells of Saint Nicholas Church across the Central Station invite the inner city people for holy mass. In the red-light district behind the church the first visitors to the Salvation Army meeting take their seats.

I try to imagine life here 350 years ago. Along these canals lived the rich and powerful merchants. The building in which The Salvation Army Goodwill Corps has the Sunday church meetings once belonged to Willem van Ruytenburch. He is the man in yellow on the Night Watch, the most famous painting of Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch painter. A lieutenant, Van Ruytenburch was one of the leaders of the civic guard.

At that time the inner city of Amsterdam was the stage of workmen, and in the canals flat boats transported cargoes of herbs and spices that came from the West Indies. There were no signs of the sex industry, coffee shops and bars, which now dominate the so-called red- light district. Salvation Army Major Wilfred Inge is often present in “De Ruytenburgh,” the name of the building where he has his office. In the entrance hall a cheap copy of the Night Watch can be seen. A more expensive one was stolen a few years ago.

Since April 1962 The Salvation Army Goodwill Center has held its Sunday meetings here. The corps is an important link in the chain of help provided by the Army. Opposite is “De Gastenburgh,” the hostel for homeless men and women. Some of them are regular visitors to the meeting on Sunday. Sometimes they come late or leave early.

Before the meeting starts coffee is served for the homeless who spent the
night on the street. “They do not just come for the coffee,” says Major Inge. “Of course, it is warm here in winter, but I know that they see this corps as their spiritual home. We often discuss what I spoke about the week before.”

It is a mixed company who warm themselves in the easy and relaxed atmosphere. For more than 30 years one man, Rudy, has been a regular visitor. This morning he arrives late and leaves early. Before the service begins everybody is welcomed and there is time for a little chat. The service starts with a song. It is sometimes out of tune, but that does not matter when words come from the heart. There is more singing, even in three languages: Dutch, English and Surinam: “Hij is Heer,” “He is Lord” and “A de Masra.”

Coffee and a blessing

In his sermon Major Inge relates the story of King Hezekiah from the Bible. This king lived and ruled according to God’s commandments. Manasseh, his son and successor, did “everything that God had forbidden.” Major Inge urges his listeners to think about their own lives. After the last song he gives them God’s blessing.
As always, there is coffee and a sandwich. For some there is more than one. These are kept in their coat pockets, for when they are hungry later. Also Rudy has come back for the drinks and the food.

“This cup of coffee brings people together,” relates Inge, “and it is the same with the sandwiches. We stopped giving out bread for a while, but the people did not stay away. The homeless came back every week. That means that they also come for their spiritual food. Everybody is welcome and everybody feels welcome. That is what this corps building, this ‘church’ should radiate. We love everybody, because God loves everybody.”

It is around noon when Major Wilfred Inge locks the door behind him. In the window next door a young woman offers her services to the men walking by. Loud music comes from the bar at the other side of the Army building. Tourists stare at the sex shops. It is much busier now in the red-light district, where so much happens that is against God’s will. That is why The Salvation Army has chosen this area to preach the liberating gospel of Christ and to tell people that life only has a meaning when he is the center of it.

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