Perhaps you expected ‘Thank you Liz’ this week, following on from last week’s ‘Thank you Gorbi’. But there’s no shortage of media tributes to Britain’s truly exceptional monarch. So here’s another story which spanned over half her long reign.
Last week closed a forty-year chapter which began with a meeting with squatters occupying an old people’s home in the town of Epe.
‘Licht in Duuster’ (‘light in darkness’, in local dialect) was the original name of the home which no longer met government standards. Located in a dark lane called Duisterstraat (dark street), and owned and operated by a church foundation, the home greeted residents and visitors alike with the encouraging words from Zechariah 14:7 neatly inscribed on the wall: ‘ten tijde van de avond zal er licht wezen’ (at evening time it shall be light.)
Those words greeted my wife and me one day in 1982, when we sat down with some of the squatters who had moved in after the last elderly residents had left. We were leading the YWAM Heidebeek training centre five kilometres away, and needed more housing for staff and students.
In those days in Holland, squatters claimed the high moral ground against landlords who kept properties empty to raise rental prices. While it was illegal simply to move in to an empty building, it was illegal to throw squatters out. They had ‘squatters rights’. With their drugs and anti-social behaviour, however, they presented a problem for the owners and neighbours, as well as the town council. The owners could do nothing with their property except watch it deteriorate. Rafters were being removed for fires in the garden where on occasion they danced naked.
So the owners were delighted when we proposed to rent the whole property, paying for each room which we were able to occupy. Contract in hand, we then met with the squatters, asking them politely to move out in six weeks. This unleashed a flood of derision and colourful Dutch words.
“So,” one of them eventually said once the dust settled, “what are you going to do now?”
“Wait” I answered.
“And pray!” they spat back.
Which is what we did. We learned the names of each of the squatters and began to pray for each of them.
At one stage we walked around the building in a rather unsubtle ‘Jericho’ march, provoking the squatters to open their windows to blast rock music back as us.
When the six weeks were up, the squatters recruited fellow squatters from around the country to help defend ‘their’ building. They were advised that it was impossible to defend with its long frontage and two wings in a ‘L’ shape. The fire department had allowed them to stay in the building on the condition they stayed within a certain wing, blocked off with a brick wall.
The deadline fell on a Sunday, which we decided was not a good day to occupy the part of the building the police and fire department allocated to us. By the time we turned up the next day, all the extra defenders had returned to their home cities. When the squatters saw we were moving in to part of the building, they threatened to call the police. The plain-clothes policemen with us calmly responded: “We are the police!”
So began an ‘interesting’ eighteen months of co-existence in the same building separated by the brick wall. The anti-social behaviour continued but life went on relatively peacefully. We continued to pray for each of them.
One day a young man came to visit his squatter friend, but by mistake came to the YWAM entrance. He was intrigued and wanted to find out more. Soon he had enrolled for a Discipleship Training Programme, where he was to meet his future wife. Later Peter and Leonora went together as missionaries to India where they have served for decades working among prostitutes of Kolkata.
Eventually the mayor of Epe decided to take decisive action and sent the Mobile Riot Squad to evict the squatters. The national television evening news showed footage of police carrying squatters out of the building over their shoulders.
Years later, on an open day at Heidebeek, a girl working for a local radio station made herself known to Romkje as having been one of the squatters. She had in the meantime become a believer.
Literally thousands of YWAM staff and students have lived in the building over four decades, each with their own stories to tell. Many met their life partners there.
Last week, YWAM staff vacated the facility, moving into the new building recently completed on the Heidebeek property, housing up to 100 people.
The town council of Epe now rent Licht in Duuster to house the first of 80 Ukrainian refugees who have moved in. Two YWAM families remain there to manage the facility, opening a new chapter in the story of a place where many have encountered God’s light in times of personal darkness.
May that also be true for the new occupants.
Till next week,