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Thursday, 09 October 2014 22:07

Joost Röselaers

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It gives me great pleasure to share a conversation with Joost whose innovative work was brought to my attention by Daphne Thissen, a smart operator for the Netherlands Embassy in London. Joost is the current Minister of the Dutch Church in London and also the Director of the Dutch Centre which is co-located with the Church. We met in the crypt .....

Venu: Joost, tell me where were you born?
Joost: Geneva in Switzerland, my father was a diplomat working for the United Nations.
Venu: So you grew up in Geneva?
Joost: Yes, and after 11 years we moved to Senegal, West Africa, and then my parents returned to Geneva and I went to Holland to study in college in Leiden
Venu: What did you study?
Joost: Theology. I am the first in the family. My parents are Protestant and we lived in an Islamic country, so many of my classmates were Muslims even though the school we attended was Catholic. So much of the time we were discussing religion and religious topics.
Venu: What made you want to study Theology? It's an unlikely topic for young person who has no history of a religious career in the family.
Joost: Yes, it is a fascination with religion, a lot of contact with Muslims and being a member of the only Protestant Church in Senegal, so this raised many questions for me that touched on religion.
Venu: Were your family very religious?
Joost: No, not extraordinarily, now and again. Most of the time before we started a meal we gave thanks, so religion was present but not very present.
Venu: When did you decide that you wanted a career as a Minister?
Joost: First I thought I wanted to become a Diplomat, so I started my studies and during my studies in Leden I studied 6 months in Cape Town. I became fascinated about how religion can do good but also manifest itself badly. From that experience I my interest in the Church grew and it is still here. But maybe this is not something I will do all my life.
Venu: Most people might think that a Minister has some kind of calling.
Joost: Yes.
Venu: That's not quite how you see it.
Joost: No, not a direct calling. I feel responsible for the Church and it is my passion to work for it, so maybe that is a calling....but there was not a voice in the night telling me that I had to be a Minister.
Venu: But you still are ordained?
Joost: Yes. I was very self-conscious that I had to do something for the Church. I still realise how important the Church is.
Venu: How long have you been a Minister?
Joost: 9 years. I started in a village in Holland and after 3 years I went to Amsterdam and after four years there I came to London.
Venu: In the Church do you get posted to places, did you have a choice to come to London.
Joost: Yes, I applied for this opportunity.
Venu: Why did you want to come to London?
Joost: The international setting was attractive. My wife also has experience of being abroad, so there is an attraction to moving, not staying in one place. I also have two small children, so now is a good time for us to live and work abroad. It is four years in London so it should work well.
Venu: Did you know you were coming to this church in the City of London?
Joost: There are only three Dutch churches in other parts of the world. There is Geneva, Paris and London. Paris is a slightly more conservative place, Geneva I had been, so London was a good opportunity to be in a fantastic City.
Venu: Tell me about this particular church.
Joost: It was given to us in 1550 by the young King Edward VI on the advice of his advisor. In this place after Henry VIII left the Catholic Church there was an Augustine Order and they were evicted and this place was empty.
Venu: And why was it given to the Dutch?
Joost: The Dutch were at war with the Catholic Spanish and they were Protestants and had to flee, they fled to London. This is the first Dutch Protestant Church outside Holland.
Venu: Am I right that it was destroyed during World War II?
Joost: Yes, in 1940 and then afterwards it was rebuilt by the Dutch community in London in this new style, with different architecture of the time. It is owned by the independent Dutch Church. The Dutch Government is also very supportive of our presence.
Venu: Tell me what are you doing here apart from giving Church services?
Joost: We do Services, we do visits to people who need us and pastoral work. We have such a beautiful place right in the middle of London and we want to extend the hours which it is open. So the Church Council decided to start a Dutch Centre.
Venu: What is that?
Joost: It is a centre for Dutch culture and reflection. To both promote culture and be a place of reflection for the Dutch and others. It is also a place for people from London and elsewhere to learn about the Dutch.
Venu: You are responsible for both things the Church and the Centre?
Joost: In the Centre there are two of us who are responsible for the programme. a program committee is responsible for the program There is a business manager and I am responsible for the Church as the Minister, but I am also the program coordinator. However, I try to ensure a separation between the Church operations and the Dutch Centre as they are independent organisations and financially independent.
Venu: Were you excited by the fact you were going to programme a Dutch Centre?
Joost: Yes, it was one of the main reasons I applied. I think it is likely to be the future of every Church to have not only culture but reflective events and experiences.
Venu: What sort of events do you have here?
Joost: I have dinners for example. We are in the heart of the City of London and there are thousands of Dutch people working here, so I host a dinner once a month. To sit at this table and eat and reflect. This sort of thing works very well, people may not always attend Church but people and young people still have questions about life that they want to think about. They sometimes have dinner here and then they come for pastoral guidance. The dinners are not a Christian service. I don't evangelise, but they provide more of a reflective space.
We also have films and interesting speakers to talk on topics of the day. There is usually some connection to Holland, for example we have football nights, but we have a speaker (Sam Cooper who writes for the Financial Times) who is Dutch discussing, "Why is Football the new religion?" I hope at some time we might host Louis Van Gaal from Manchester United....we might get him here, not at this moment, but maybe when he resigns! In two weeks we have a Professor from Oxford who is also an economist who will come and talk about the financial crisis and the disparity between rich and the poor. This is highly relevant today and to the way we live our lives, so we try to focus on things that are meaningful in today's context.
Venu: Have you as a community had any reflection on the terrible Malaysian airlines tragedy?
Joost: Yes, this is a good example of how we work well with the Embassy. We first had a remembrance at the Embassy and I spoke there and then on Sunday there was a service here and the Embassy joined. It was completely full. It was beautiful, at these times people somehow find their way to church and it is good to have a place to gather.
Venu: Why do you think such moments bring people to church?
Joost: It is a way to deal with their anger and grief, but they want to share it with fellow nationals who may feel a common sense of loss or grief. The Dutch wanted to meet each other even though they are well integrated into England it was this encounter with fellow Dutch people that was very important. I don't think it was only the Dutch that had services I think some other Embassies did the same.
Venu: What is your programming policy for the Centre?
Joost: There are two directions - it is a meeting place and a place for reflections.
Venu: How do you take the decision on what is included?
Joost: We have a programme committee and everyone can bring their ideas. It has to have some relevance, like the Professor I mentioned on the topic of social injustice and it should be of interest to our constituencies. Another example is that we have a Moroccan Dutch writer coming to speak to us who is in Syria at the moment, so this should be very interesting as it is extremely topical.
Venu: This gives you plenty of scope in this multi-cultural City of London.
Joost: This is a good City where people are living more in harmony than it seems possible in Holland. In Holland for example there are areas where the Dutch live where there is more wealth and where Moroccan workers live, these areas are less good. There is not only an issue with mixing of races but mixing of social stratas. There is more segregation it seems. Here people live more together on all levels. It works.
Venu: Do you like that?
Joost: It gives people a chance to see first-hand actually how the other is, it is very interesting. It works and encourages an openness. In London it is also very easy to meet people and the Dutch who are here are here for a few years and this is important if they are to be integrated. For examples in the dinners and weddings I do here I see several different nationalities, in Holland it is usually only Dutch.
Venu: Is this Church one of the few which is combined with a Centre? And is this why it takes a special kind of Minister to run this?
Joost: Yes I think so. I started this two stranded approach in Amsterdam, which is more secular. In Holland something has to happen as the Church is in decline, we have to search for new ways to reach out for new forums.
Venu: How do other people in the Dutch Church look upon what you have done and what you are doing here in London?
Joost: Well I continue doing what is needed, so I don't change that, I just do additional things.
Venu: How do you find time to do that?
Joost: Well maybe the congregation is less demanding of my time. But the Council and I are very clear that 60% of my time is on Church matters and 40% of my time is on the Centre. They like what I am doing because it breathes life into the Church. The relationship with the Embassy is well established and works well.
Venu: So really you are doing a diplomatic career? And a Ministers career?
Joost: Yes, I suppose I am (chuckles). But I am very committed to working for the Church, even though I have some worries about the future of the Church.
Venu: What are those worries?
Joost: That during my life there will be a drastic decline, well in Holland I think, maybe not here. Even if I want to stay as a Minister, I don't know whether there will be places for all those who want to be Ministers. Unless the church changes her program dramatically and works on her PR.
Venu: Why do you think there is a decline in attendance?
Joost: It seems that you need a special education to understand the language and rituals. The new generation are not educated into this, it all seems new and a bit gobbledegook to them. It doesn't seem that this language is relevant to them. In Holland there is religious education but not Church education directly, it is more comparative religion, but not specifically Christian anymore.
Venu: When you did your Church studies did you do those in Latin.
Joost: Well I studied Latin and Greek but my studies were in Dutch. I do all the services in Dutch, but sometimes what I am doing seems confusing to some people. The ritual, processes...for example you open a service in England with...Grace be to God...etc. etc.. but most people when they hear this it doesn't resonate with them.
Venu: So what do you think the Church should do?
Joost: We need to draw the relevance, for example the word Eucharist for example, which really means meeting up and having a dinner, so I translate this into the dinners, it was a time to share bread and wine and teachings, well this is resonant in our dinners. We discuss what is preoccupying us and keeping us busy. This is what Jesus also did, now I don't drive this home but draw gentle parallels. There is a connection and people can use such moments to ask themselves questions...for example, "What am I doing here?" Questions to do with the larger issues in life and after life?
Venu: Philosophical questions. If the Church may not be there for people to reflect on these questions, what do you think people will do?
Joost: Some people turn to other religions, Buddism for example. People are searching. Which is a good thing. We need to reflect and the programmes we do can assist in their search for answers and for a degree of personal peace, and you can come when you feel you need to come. We have a lot to offer as a place of reflection, we have a good tradition. But I don't think this will always be on a Sunday morning.
Venu: So church will be at a different time?
Joost: Yes, during the week at the end of the day.
Venu: How will the Church view this?
Joost: Well we still have the Sunday and this will continue but we also have to do more. 90% of new people want to come at a different time, many of the Dutch working here travel to the City to work on Monday to Friday so they find it harder to travel in on a Sunday as well.
Venu: Yes that is a very good point. Why do you think that people think of you as being courageous?
Joost: Because I dare to speak out and say things. For example in a major Dutch newspaper I wrote an article, based on the place of Christianity in the Dutch society, "Christianity is an Antique Religion." For example in a key service we as a nation may choose to reflect but I may not have any overtly religious content. In England this would not happen, the State services have Christian resonance. If there is a service about the First World War for example there will always be Christian overtones, it is part of the national identity. This is not the case in Holland, therefore in Holland we, the Church, Christianity is considered 'antique'.
Venu: This is interesting in itself, particularly given the multicultural nature of our population here.
Joost: Yes, and even though only a small percentage of the population here, like Holland, actually attend Church, still it has a resonance.
Venu: But people go to Church for many reasons, for example I go to Church because I like the spectacle or the experience, even though I may not go there to pray.
Joost: Yes, I understand that.
Venu: Maybe in times past people felt the need to gather in a way they don't today, Church was a social space, they may meet each other at the market or at church, but when they were hard at work there may have only been a few places to meet others.
Joost: Exactly
Venu: Maybe we have to find the right reasons for people to gather. Maybe you have hit upon something, as you say people are searching, where do I look if I am searching? Well, maybe I look in a church so I can reflect with others.
Joost: Therefore we should offer such opportunities for reflection and sharing, it makes it easier to go to a church.
Venu: So because you dare to say it, what was the reaction?
Joost: Many were very cross. But I was also very clear that the Church still has things to offer; a good way to explore the mysteries of life and death and ways in which we can deal with the issues we all face today that may need attention. In church we can examine the social questions, we are a place that can make space for attention to be paid. The social part of church is very important.
Venu: How do you feel when your colleagues get cross? Do you feel you have hit a raw nerve, as we might say in England?
Joost: Yes. The Church needs to be open to criticism otherwise we will not change or adapt for the better. It is not nice to hear this but it is necessary. This is sometimes hard for people to accept.
Venu: So what do you think is your next step?
Joost: I have no idea. I would like to return to Holland as a Minister, maybe in a village, maybe where they are open for new ideas. Maybe where there is more emphasis on the social idea of looking after the community. In London the community is quite transient, you have to start again. It would be different dynamic in a village where people stay for a long time.
Venu: In my conversation with you it is apparent that you are open to learning new things. Can you say something about that quality in yourself?
Joost: I have noticed this in myself - I have an enthusiasm for learning. Maybe I have an openness that some others around me don't have. Perhaps this is due to my international background. Maybe I consider that my own view is never the final and only view, that I am open to hearing other points of view and searching for new perspectives. Christianity may not be the final message, the total whole, maybe some other religions have something to contribute, to reveal. It also depends where you were born.
Venu: That is very open minded, I expect some people in the Church may not like that view.
Joost: Yes, although people in London because it is so cosmopolitan are confronting all the time that there is more than their own life and their own point of view. Maybe if you are more isolated, say in a village it would be different. Here people are open minded.
Venu: Do you think it is essential to keep learning?
Joost: Yes, you know you will never know everything, there will always be questions, and we need ways to find answers, ways to think about the big questions.
Venu: Philosophers? Do you have an interest in a particular philosopher?
Joost: The French philosopher, Levinas.
Venu: Why?
Joost: He examines the nature of what happens when you become reflective by looking at the other, the neighbour. He is very directly ethical and practical, examining real life questions and situations. For example, if there are 3000 homeless people on the street, I might feel overwhelmed, but if I see one and I react then he says that god is in that action or contact.
Venu: So how might you translate that to different countries, where the problems are vast? I have just come back from India where there are so many homeless people, I couldn't possibly help them all. Do I help one person or do I help nobody?
Joost: Yes exactly...
Venu: So when you are doing religious studies, do you study philosophy alongside?
Joost: Yes, that was my choice, Theology and Philosophy. This encourages you to think about yourself too. For example, at Christmas there may be some lonely people that I might invite to my home, but I also should make space for my family. Then I also have to have time for myself. These other subjects and thoughts help me to find a balance.
Venu: Where do you live in London.
Joost: Surrey. This is also good because it puts some distance between myself and my home life.
Venu: Is there something you would like to say that I haven't asked you?
Joost: What I have seen from the English context is that the Church of England is quite conservative but quite powerful, they comment on Government ideas. This is a completely different story, rather than doing just baptisms or weddings. Ministers in Holland may make a comment but it is not taken as seriously as it is here, we have to find new ways of communicating and to make the Church relevant. In Holland Christianity is an Antique, you never hear of Minster making a keynote point on a political policy. We use electronic fora like twitter and facebook to get our message across and to stimulate discussion but we have to try very hard. For example, when I write something on twitter people react. I have communicated with Dutch people in London on Twitter whom I have never met, but I am their Minister.
Venu: Would you describe yourself as a Modernist? Or a Reformist?
Joost: Reformist is good. This Church is a reformed Church but we remain faithful to the Gospels.
Venu: That sits well with you?
Joost: Yes.
Venu: Thank you very much for your time.

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Venu Dhupa

Venu Dhupa has just completed nearly three years work with Creative Scotland as Director of Creative Development as part of the senior start-up team. Her responsibilities included the Arts, a number of Investment Programmes and International Strategy and Engagement. Prior to working at Creative Scotland she was working as a consultant and had her own publishing company.

Former employment has been: World-wide Director of Arts for the British Council where she led and completed the first international consultation/review in 25 years on the Council's global arts strategy; Director of Creative Innovation at the Southbank Centre, London (Europe's largest cultural centre). The Creative Innovation unit was imagined as a tool for introducing new partners to the organisation as well as an organisational development tool; Fellowship Director at The UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) where she managed a portfolio valued at £13million; Chief Executive at the Nottingham Playhouse; and Producer (Mobile Touring) at the Royal National Theatre.
She was the inaugural Chair of the East Midlands Cultural Consortium appointed by the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture Media and Sport. Her career history has always balanced creative exploration and strategy with implementation and delivery. This has been an important balance in developing a judgement for accountability with risk. Her motivation remains good customer service, good value and positive social change and these continue to drive her as an activist.

She is or has been a Trustee of the Theatres Trust, a Member of University College London's Heritage Committee, the external examiner for UEA MA in Creative Entrepreneurship; a Governor of Guildford Conservatoire, a Council Member of Loughborough University, a Member of the Institute of Ideas and a Member of the European Cultural Parliament. She is a patron of the Asha Foundation. She has been awarded the prestigious National Asian Woman of Achievement Award for her contribution to the Arts and Culture.


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