Walking home through Amsterdam’s historic centre on Saturday evening, my wife and I encountered the strange sight of green lights where previously red lights had indicated prostitutes at work. Had something changed during our three-month absence from the city?
We knew that the Covid-19 lockdown had forced brothels to close down exactly a year ago, at least until last summer when restrictions were partially relaxed until the next lockdown. Many of Amsterdam’s 7000 sex-workers had been forced to return home to eastern Europe and South America and still can not travel back to the Netherlands.
We also had heard that, suddenly finding themselves without income, some women had been helped by various Christian ministries to find food and shelter. Among them were those who saw the chance to escape from the sex trade and were being retrained for new jobs. Still others were taking first steps in a new faith walk.
We were also aware of efforts by Amsterdam city elders to attract the ‘right sort’ of visitors for culture and history, rather than those coming for sex and drugs. The failure of the legalisation of prostitution in 2000 to protect sex workers from organised crime had become increasingly obvious more than a decade ago. Amsterdam’s present mayor, Femke Halsema, was leading the battle to clean-up the infamous red-light district, to combat human trafficking and to rejuvenate the inner city for its residents.
Not everyone wanted change, least of all those profiting from the reputed €1 billion a year sex-and-drug industry attracting gangsters from Turkey, Russia, Serbia, Albania, Sicily, Columbia and even China. It has taken the corona pandemic to trigger major disruption and make Halsema’s plans more realistic.
Red lights have been the hallmark of the inner city for centuries, initiated by members of the Oude Kerk (Old Church) to protect their wives and daughters from randy sailors.
But green lights? Who instigated these?
An internet search led us to www.greenlightdistrict.nu where we read:
Something big is about to happen in the historic city center. The oldest part of the city, including the “Red Light District”, will be renamed the “Green Light District”. We will work with you to make Amsterdam’s old city center more sustainable and give it a green make-over. Will you join?
We are going to transform this densely populated and most visited square kilometer in Europe into a future-proof, sustainable and iconic part of Amsterdam.
With our bottom-up approach, we will work with you in all kinds of ways! We are starting projects with which we will, among other things, get rid of natural gas in monumental buildings, insulate houses and generate sustainable energy. We will also ensure that the Green Light District also literally becomes green by greening the pavements and roofs. We support sustainable initiatives of residents and entrepreneurs from the neighbourhood, we organize events and help them to grow further. In this way we ensure a positive impact and change together!
It is precisely by starting in this difficult place, the monumental city center, where the challenges are greatest and the urgency highest, that we can make an important contribution to making Amsterdam more sustainable. We want to set an example for the rest of the Netherlands or even the world, because if it is possible here, it can be done anywhere!
Clearly this is not a thinly-disguised Christian faith-based project. But can we perhaps see God’s common grace at work here? that is, God’s continuing care for his creation, his restraining human society from becoming altogether intolerable and ungovernable, his making it possible for mankind to live together in a generally orderly and cooperative manner, and maintaining humanity’s conscious sense of basic right and wrong behavior.
What a great concept, to replace the negative associations of ‘Red Light District’ with the creation-friendly associations of ‘Green Light District’! Not being ‘against’ but being ‘for’. Could this in some way be an answer to prayers for ‘God’s kingdom to come’ in Amsterdam, in the Red Light District? Could God’s will be for his creatures to care for his creation? Of course – even if the project is not ‘Christian-initiated’!
Following web-links led me to a (Dutch only) virtual city walk by storytellers telling about various landmarks and promoting community in the inner city. These secular city-dwellers probably have never heard of Jeremiah’s instructions to the Jews in exile to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ – but that is precisely what they are doing.
Isn’t this what missiologist Alan Roxburgh means by ‘joining God in the neighbourhood’, recognising where he is already at work, even outside of our Christian institutions?
P.S. Learn more about this intriguing city on an English-language tour of Amsterdam with YWAM Amsterdam base leader Simon Wood.
Till next week,