At first glance, Amsterdam may seem like a strange place to train 10,000 evangelists. As one journalist here noted, so many of the liberal local policies are at odds with biblical teachings. Prostitution, soft drugs, and euthanasia are legal. The city prides itself as "the gay capital of Europe." The city's red-light district, where scantily clad women beckon from picture windows and marijuana smoke rolls out of coffeeshops, is one of its biggest tourist attractions. But the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which organized the Amsterdam 2000 conference for preaching evangelists, thinks it's the perfect place for such a conference."Sin is universal," says Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. "The problems [in Amsterdam] are in every country. It's in every city."Nevertheless, it was to the red-light district that several of the evangelists traveled yesterday when given the morning and afternoon off. ("We're just touring," a group of evangelists sporting Amsterdam 2000 nametags and backpacks eagerly assured Christianity Today.)Other evangelists spread throughout the city's parken and pleinen [parks and squares] to engage in evangelism in several different forms, though these were all individually initiated. Amsterdam 2000 actually encouraged the evangelists to rest."We realize fully that evangelism in this country is not a one-shot deal," says Arnold van Heusden, director of the Evangelical Alliance of the Netherlands. "It's for the long haul. And to go in and do something very quickly and superficially might actually damage things. We've noticed that before."That's not to say that anyone who goes with a warm heart into the streets and contacts other people isn't doing the right thing because naturally that is very welcome."
Witness to the windows
Ministers at The Cleft, right across from the city's Oude Kerk (Old Church) epicenter of the red-light district, know about evangelism over the long haul. For 20 years the canal house has served as a base for several ministries to the disfranchised, including one of the most hard-to-reach groups, the women in the windows."If you're very evangelistic, and get your encouragement from results and conversions, this is not a job for you," says Jeanette Nooteboom, one of several women in Shining Lights, a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) ministry. Three times a week, the women of Shining Lights pair up to take coffee and tea to the more than 10,000 women who work behind the city's famous full-length windows. Though most of the lingerie-clad ladies are receptive and friendly, "it takes a year before they trust you," Nooteboom says. Shining Lights also takes birthday cakes to the windows, and recently sponsored a beauty party."We asked what their felt needs were, and realized that they're all interested in how they look," Nooteboom says. The ministry brought in several Christian beauticians for the half-dozen women who showed up. Marietha Scheepers was one of the women who launched Shining Lights in 1978 (the women simply walked through the streets in prayer for a year before any evangelism started). She has worked in other ministries since then, but she has returned to her passion."When I started out, I asked God how I could possibly relate to these women," she says. "I can't identify with their needs, but I can identify with them as women. That's why we don't call them prostitutes, but as women or ladies in the windows."Many of the women are forced into selling their bodies, says Nooteboom. Some women from Latin American and African countries are prostituting themselves to raise money for their families back home. Others who are denied political asylum are drawn in by pimps offering a chance to stay in the Netherlands. Many African women who might want to leave a life of sexual labor have had their families threatened. But Dutch women are subject to a particularly crafty trap. Predators known as loverboys seek out 16-year-old girls who are insecure and from broken homes. The loverboys lavish gifts and affection on the girls while isolating them from friends and family members. About the time the girls turn 18, the loverboys claim to be in financial trouble. They beg the women to work behind the windows--just for a week, they promise--to help make ends meet."They're manipulated into the life and end up isolated … and confused," Nooteboom says. "They've been mistreated so often they don't even realize it."The women behind the windows universally have low self-esteem, say the Shining Lights workers, so the evangelism rarely focuses directly on convincing them that prostitution is wrong."It doesn't help to say, 'Hey, you're sinning,' " says Scheepers. "You're preaching to the air."As for presenting the Christian gospel of salvation, she says, "God uses you according to your gifts. So some of us are more direct. … [But] the gospel is in what we're all doing. We try to present it in a creative form."There are only "a few glory stories among all the tragic stories we have," Scheepers says lightly, but she remains hopeful. "I love what I do. God gave me a promise that revival would take place here. And I might not be here to see it, but there will come a day when the windows will be empty more and more and more."
Shining Lights isn't the only ministry to the women in the windows. A few blocks away, the Scarlet Cord runs a similar ministry (the two groups often work together, and local churches send volunteers to both). It is run by Tot Heil des Volks (For the Salvation of the People), a 145-year-old evangelistic ministry focusing on drug addicts, sex workers, homosexuals, and--perhaps the most surprising group--young tourists. The Shelter, one of the organization's youth hostels (a smaller one sits in the Jordaan area on the west side of the city), is also in the heart of the red-light district. But The Shelter prides itself on being an island in the storm of everything happening around it."People see this place as so different from the other hostels," says Marije Oudman, who volunteers at the hostel. "There's a real peace here."The idea, as the Tot Heil des Volks Web site explains, is that "many young people traveling through Europe [are] looking for adventure, but also for some meaning in life." Volunteers who check backpackers in and out of the hostel also distribute tracts and Bibles, and half a dozen or so guests come to the hostel's Bible studies, which are offered every evening. But the best evangelism, says Oudman, comes simply by befriending the guests."Most of the time it's the guest who starts talking about God," she says. And, like the women of Shining Lights, she insists that real friendship evangelism has to start with real friendship."I learn from them, too," she says. "You don't just talk to share the gospel."Wednesday evening, as Amsterdam 2000's free day ended and evangelists from 209 countries and territories filed back into the massive RAI Center on the south end of the city, evangelists with YWAM Amsterdam and Tot Heil des Volks continued their work. There may be 10,287 attendees of Amsterdam 2000, but, as the conference has been reminded, the number of evangelists in the city this week is greater.
:The Web site for YWAM Amsterdam offers information about Shining Lights , The Cleft , and the organization's other evangelistic ministries.The Tot Heil des Volks Web site, which is in English, offers a history of the organization and information about its youth hostels, the Scarlet Cord, and its other ministries. The Shelter also has a site.Our earlier coverage of Amsterdam 2000 includes:Amsterdam 2000 Called the Most Multinational Event Ever | 10,287 evangelists and other participants represent 209 nations and territories. (Aug. 2, 2000) Drilling the Evangelists on the Evangel | Doctrinal training takes center stage at Amsterdam 2000, while staffers work against theological controversy. (Aug. 1, 2000) Billy Graham a No-Show at Amsterdam 2000 | Evangelist, watching from Minnesota, bows out of satellite address, will probably forgo later remarks as well. (July 31, 2000) Billy Graham Too Ill For Amsterdam 2000 | Evangelist will deliver address via satellite. (July 21, 2000) Graham Unveils Evangelism Conference (Nov. 16, 1998)
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