In the Shelter of
THE Most High A HOSTEL MINISTRY WHERE CHRIST OPENS THE DOOR TO STRANGERS
BY STEPHANIE S. SMITH
If the 2-foot tall “JESUS” sign on the wall didn’t
Shelter Jordan hostel is tucked between charming canals in the scenic Jordan district, near the historic Anne Frank House. Shelter City sits right at the edge of the red-light district, a peculiar neighborhood where each day guests walk between prostitution alleys and Scripture murals, traversing the range of human wreckage and redemption. At check-in guests are informed that staff members are two things: believers and volunteers.This immediately sparks questions.What do these Christians really live like? What could possibly cause them to travel from all over the globe to work at a hostel without pay? Suddenly guests are curious. And the Christ-followers have an audience. The mission of the hostel ministry is articulated in Experiencing God’s Shelter:The Story of the Shelter Youth Hostels (edited by Hans Frinsel, Oogstpublicaties, 2000): “It is our prayer that the lives of our staff show such a Christ-like faith,
already give it away, the smell of fried bananas and jingle of a tambourine might tip you off that the Shelter City hostel is not your typical red-light district joint. It is Open-Mic Night at the hostel. While half a block away tourists wander Amsterdam’s streets under the red glow of brothel windows, the hostel guests enjoy an evening of quality entertainment: slightly off-key Beatles covers, ping-pong matches, and harmonica numbers. The café is bright with candlelight, and its walls are lined with people; a troupe of Scottish Girl Scouts sits at one table and Somali refugees at another. It doesn’t matter what language performers speak, because everyone can enjoy the music. Shelter City is one of two Christian youth hostels in the heart of Amsterdam run by the Youth Hostel Ministry, which hosts over 30,000 people from 130 countries every year.The
THE HEART OF HOSPITALITY
so others will be drawn to this contagious faith, ask questions, and want what we have found to be The Way,The Truth, and The Life.” Hostel guests travel to Amsterdam for different reasons, whether students backpacking through Europe, refugees fleeing injustice in their home country, or tourists pursuing sex and drugs.There are guests like Jason, an Australian who makes his living working on organic strawberry farms across Europe; Megan, a film graduate from NYU traveling solo through Europe fresh after her commencement; and Sarah, running from an abusive relationship back home in Italy. Humanity in all its glorious diversity finds a home at the Shelter City hostel. The shelter ministry arose in the early 1970s to meet the needs of nomadic hippies passing through Amsterdam. In this iconic city of tolerance, visited by many for its legalized prostitution, loose drug regulations, and homosexual embrace, the shelter positioned itself to be a light. But the ministry was more of an outflow than a strategy. Guests were offered a warm bed and a free breakfast served by Christian volunteer staff who began every shift praying together for Christ to shine through their actions. Their vision was hospitality: offering travelers a safe place to rest and be renewed in their physical journeys as well as their spiritual journeys.
In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes,“If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.” More than domestic duty or entertainment, hospitality is the practical outworking of a deep theological undercurrent in Scripture: God’s heart for the stranger. Regarded in the same group as the fatherless and the widow, the stranger receives God’s special protection as one in need (Ps. 146:9, Deut. 10:18). Salvation itself is an expression of divine hospitality, as estranged sinners are welcomed into the Father’s generous grace.Translated into ministry context, hospitality is the creation of “a free and fearless space,” as Nouwen says, where strangers are received as friends and where redemption may transpire. The shelter hostels are designed to encourage restful lingering, encountering others, and conversing. The café is open all day for guests to snack, play board games, or read a book from the shelter library. Guests play the piano next to the traditional door-sized Dutch window or sit with their coffee under the shade of the grapevine trellis in the courtyard.The ambiance is unassuming and offers a level of homey comfort that makes it possible for guests to share their stories. It is a rare environment in which a simple question such as, “So what brings you to Amsterdam?” may result in a two-hour conversation between strangers.
Relationships: The context for redemption If you were to meet Jon today, you would notice his tattoos — the Greek letters Alpha and Omega on each wrist representing a passage from Revelation 21: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment … and I will be his God and he will be my son.” But when Jon first came to the shelter, he protested morning devotions. A university student from Ireland, Jon was a cleaner, a guest who can stay free for up to one month in exchange for hostel chores.Yet the cleaning arrangement is more than chores; it is an intentional ministry to share the love of Christ. Cleaners are often travelers looking for a cheap place to stay or who have run out of money on the road. And since they eat, work, rest, and participate in devotions with staff members, they quickly become part of the shelter family. Jon had many friends among the shelter staff but did not accept their spiritual beliefs. But after a few weeks of spending time with Christians, his interest in the gospel seemed to grow. The character of John the Baptist fascinated him, and he resonated with the fierce edge of Christ’s holi-
At Shelter City’s Open-Mic Night, guests enjoy a wide range of talents and languages.
ness as he smashed moneychangers’ tables in the temple. Jon had a spiritual perceptiveness that was striking in one who openly rejected Jesus. One night, while out sailing with friends from the shelter, Jon decided he could live no longer without Christ as his Savior. Before leaving Amsterdam, Jon was baptized at his request in the North Sea, then returned to Dublin where he now leads a Christian group at his university. “These people did not just fly thousands of miles from all over the globe to serve fries or pancakes,” Jon says about the shelter volunteers. “They came because of love. They came because they love people, not because they want to force their beliefs on you, but because they want to serve you.That’s part of what makes this place so special.”
SHELTER FOR THE STRANGER In addition to homeless people, victims of domestic abuse, and prostituted women, the shelter hostels also have a special ministry to refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. These guests are sponsored by charity organizations to stay in the hostels until they can attend a hearing with the Dutch government to determine if they can stay in the Netherlands. Lori Hansell, 22, is a current staff member at Shelter Jordan who has a burden for the refugee guests. “Each one carries such heavy stories; many of them are fleeing for their lives,” she explains, “One guest from Afghanistan had his brother killed by the Taliban, and then they were after him. One Iraqi guest was almost killed five times by the Mafia before he escaped. Most of these people are around my age.” Because the refugee guests are waiting for word of their hearing, they spend most of their time at the hostel, where staff members can get to know them. The language barrier inspires creativity in relationship-building, so staff members and guests play cards together, share a pot of tea, or make crafts. The hostel also hosts an extensive collection of Bibles in many different languages, and guests are always excited to find their home language in a foreign place. “I have spent a lot of time this past month with one Iranian couple, Amir and Rasa,”* Hansell says, describing a couple who had to cut ties with their family in Iran for their family’s safety. “Amir and Rasa attended the Bible discussions at the hostel, started reading the Persian Bible we have in the café, went to church with us and got involved in an Iranian small group,” Hansell says. One night, moved by the truth of the gospel and the lives of staff around them who demonstrated it, they decided to give their lives to Christ. The very next day, the couple was notified that the charity organization would no longer cover their expenses to stay at the hostel.“I am reminded that coming to Christ doesn’t make
Hostel guests find good food for the body and the soul.
life easy,” Hansell says, “but in him we have hope that goes deeper than things of this world.”
USHERING THE WORLD INTO GOD’S PRESENCE In Practicing Theology, theologian Reinhard Hütter charges the church to practice “both a reflection and an extension of God’s own hospitality — God’s sharing of the love of the triune life with those who are dust.” Not only has Creator God, the Ultimate Host, provided mankind with all things necessary for life, but he has invited humanity into the majesty of his presence. And the shelter team is committed to inviting guests into the same experience they have been given. With its unique ministry to travelers, the shelter hosts a sacred intersection where the presence of the Savior converges with the world that walks through its doors every day. N Visit YouthHostelMinistry.org to learn more. Stephanie S. Smith is a freelance writer and publicist for Moody Publishers. Having served a summer at the Shelter City hostel for her senior internship at Moody Bible Institute, she enjoys exploring the relationship between hospitality and theology. *Names changed for security reasons