Get the Spirit!

May 12, 2008

Christians in Amsterdam this year are grasping Pentecost as an occasion to reach out across cultural and religious borders, as they seek the welfare of the city. Under the motto ‘Get the Spirit’, they have initiated a nine-day city-wide festival of music and art, dance and debate, encounters and excursions, barbeques and workbees, concerts and church services.

Gabriël Jansen, the festival leader, explained that the church life of the city had changed enormously in recent years. While church attendance had fallen off among traditional church goers, a new, many-sided, multicultural church community had emerged. The city had 350 church fellowships, half of which were migrant churches. The majority of church-goers on Sundays were ‘new Amsterdammers’ from the five continents.  

While they shared the same God and the same Bible, Jansen questioned if they understood each other, with their different expressions of faith and cultural background. The Pentecost Feast, he explained, was an opportunity to discover the Church in Amsterdam of 2008. When do Friesians speak with Copts? he asked. Or Ghanaians with the Filipinos? How often do liberals speak with evangelicals? Or Catholics with Eastern Orthodox?. 


All church communities, including migrant, international and mainstream churches, had been invited to create events, exhibitions or excursions to introduce their constituency to others. A broad spectrum of churches, from eastern orthodox to pentecostal, had responded postively to the festival proposal to offer cultural exchanges among the many streams of churches, as well as with those of other faiths, including Judaism and Islam.

The organisers also wanted to encourage the churches to engage more actively with the city life, and to connect the non-churched with the cultural riches of the city’s old and new Christian fellowships. All Amsterdammers, they hoped, would be encouraged by the festival to seek the best for their city. 

Mirror image 
Mayor Job Cohen opened the festival on Friday evening in the Noorderkerk, one of the city’s oldest churches (see photo). Cohen, himself a secular Jew, told the 250 people present that Pentecost was the mirror image of Babel’s confusion of tongues. When men had tried to build their own tower to heaven, God had confused and scattered them. But Pentecost had ended the confusion and division, he said, implying that this feast was an appropriate occasion to celebrate the unity and diversity of the many communities found in the city.  

Dance and music from various cultural communities was interspersed between talks and interviews during the opening event. University of Amsterdam professor, Dr. James Kennedy, spoke about the special contribution churches had made and can make to the life of the city.

On Pentecost Sunday, a two-hour walking tour introduced participants to Amsterdam’s colourful religious heritage, including migrant churches of refugees who arrived in the city four centuries ago. The tour highlighted many historic buildings still displaying gevelstenen (engraved stones on the facades of houses) with biblical themes, and streets whose names revealed the strong spiritual influence in the city’s past.

The tour ended at a central city church in time for an international service, reflecting a variety of worship traditions from medieval Gregorian chants to swinging black gospel.

Throughout the coming week, daily activities will promote interaction, dialogue and social contact between members of different faith communities. A dialogue between leading Christians and Muslims will encourage discussion about how churches and other religious centres can promote social cohesion in Holland’s ‘vulnerable yet precious’ capital.

Social cohesion
A programme called Serve the City will create opportunities for volunteers to get to know others by working together on social projects. Barbeques in various venues including the grounds of a mosque, streettheatre presentations, lunch concerts, films and spiritual workshops in a Catholic retreat house, are some of the many activities that will fill out the festive week’s programme.  

The city belongs to us all, says Jansen. We live and work there, play and study there. How can we feel at home in a city that is always changing, he asks, without getting to know each other better and learning to value each other?               

Jansen’s hope is that the festival will strengthen mutual understanding and the social cohesion of the city, aiding the emancipation and integration of immigrants. He expects it to contribute to an historical and cultural appreciation for the city and therefore to the quality of life for Amsterdammers.

In short, he says, the festival ‘will help us be good Amsterdammers’.   

Till next week,

Photo © Luiz Maximiano.  Other photos and videos of festival events can be viewed on

Till next week,

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