by ANGELA PYKE
Travelling overseas is exciting. It is filled with new experiences, people, customs, religions, languages, food and time zones. This can be overwhelming, and travel is generally more likely to be a success if flexibility and adaptability take precedence over routine.
The downside is that some important routines, such as those relating to faith, are at risk of being neglected. This is the case particularly for travellers who are trying to fit as much as possible into their trip and are continually on the move.
Although we each have the ability to exercise discipline in our personal prayer life, it is sometimes beneficial to have a community with whom we can share our faith journey as well as our travel stories.
I was fortunate to find this in the form of The Shelter Christian youth hostels in The Netherlands. There are two in Amsterdam — The Shelter City, between the city’s central train station and the Red Light District, and The Shelter Jordaan, near the house of Anne Frank. They are part of an international network of Christian youth hostels.
The ministry of The Shelter started in 1971, and was initiated by Christian association Tot Heil des Volks (For the Salvation of the People), a registered charity in Amsterdam. Since 1855, this non-denominational organisation has been doing missionary work in Amsterdam and other parts of the Netherlands.
I arrived at The Shelter Jordaan for what was supposed to be my final night in The Netherlands. Impressed by the welcoming atmosphere of the hostel, the immediate clarity of its Christian character, the variety of faith-nurturing opportunities on offer, and the way in which the staff lived the Gospel, I decided I would prolong my stay in the nation’s capital by applying to be a volunteer at The Shelter.
Not long after an interview, I was signing my contract and preparing to start work in exchange for hostel accommodation and food. Although the basic maintenance tasks were not unlike those I had performed in similar positions around Europe, there were some significant differences.
At the same time every morning, staff and volunteers would stop work to participate in 30 minutes of “Devotion”. This began with a Scripture reading, which was followed by a discussion and the opportunity to contribute further thoughts or questions, topical or more general.
During my stay, a typical Devotion would involve a group of between four and eight people — staff, volunteers and guests — from countries as varied as France, Iran and Korea. Their faith backgrounds were just as diverse, including Muslim, no religion, and Christian, both raised and convert. This set the foundation for quality sharing and learning characterised by generosity, respect and openness.
Every evening after dinner, which was prepared by volunteers, Bible study was offered. This followed a similar format to the morning Devotion. Later on there was the option to take part in evening prayer and sometimes there was a movie screening or musical worship session. Every Sunday afternoon guests could join staff and volunteers for a service at the nearby church. Other activities offered by The Shelter include city walks, creative nights and open microphone nights.
Manager, Monique Oostdam, said she felt honoured to work in a place which consists “not to make money but to share the love of God”.
“Like Amsterdam, The Shelter attracts people from many different nationalities. People come from all over the world to discover life and themselves, how they think about things and what they believe,” she said.
“Our volunteers also come from around the globe. They love God, and the reason they stay is to pass this love forward. They do not work to make money — they serve out of love. Guests see and feel this, and it gives the hostel a very warm atmosphere.”
Aleksandra Chytroszek, a volunteer from Poland, admired the way that the staff “take care of the guests and try to get to know them, going out of their way to be helpful”.
American volunteer, Anna Shane, reflected this, observing that, “Above everything it is the goal of staff and volunteers to focus on the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of each person”.
“We don’t just see bodies to fill the beds, but souls in need of love. We do not want to force Jesus on people, instead seeking to create a safe place for others to find God,” she said.
Miss Oostdam made it clear that there is also a place for those who do not believe in God.
“Around 20 per cent of our guests are Christian. For the remaining 80 per cent The Shelter is a place to explore faith and God, or simply enjoy the welcoming atmosphere and hospitality. Our voluntary cleaning team, who stay for a maximum of one month, do not have to be believers either,” she said.
“We enjoy sharing our faith with people who do not believe in Christ, or who have never given it much thought. If they want to know more about Jesus, then we encourage them to talk with us or come to a Bible discussion or prayer time. If they wish we can also pray for them, but there is no obligation. Everyone is welcome here.”
In many ways The Shelter is no different from other youth hostels. Staff and volunteers want to give their guests a positive and memorable experience of their hostel and city.
Dormitory life encourages guests to learn about other people and cultures. It also comes with wake up calls from guests leaving their alarm clocks on “snooze” while in the shower, groups who want to reminisce about their evening at 3am, and the dawn zip symphony from those packing for early morning flights.
The differences are evident in the check-in procedure, during which guests are given a booklet welcoming them to the hostel and elaborating on its Christian character, in the faith-based resources on display, in the table centrepieces that always include a Bible, in the Christian music playing in the common areas, but most of all, in the sincere interest of the staff and volunteers in the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of guests and each other.
• All rooms are single-sex so couples need to book beds in different rooms. For stays up to one month, there is the option of volunteering as a cleaner. For longer stays, volunteers can serve at reception or the cafeteria. The two latter positions also involve organising hostel activities.
More information on volunteering at The Shelter is available on the website: www.shelterhostelamsterdam.com
by ANGELA PYKE