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A Human in Action: The Reverend Hans Visser of the Pauluskerk in Rotterdam

The city of Rotterdam is home to the world's largest harbor. It is a place of business and trade, noted for its museums and art galleries as well as for its modern architecture, and it is the European Capital of Culture for the year 2001. However, there is another side to Rotterdam; Spangen, the poorest area of The Netherlands, is in the city, and Rotterdam’s population includes three and a half to four and a half thousand drug addicts as well as countless homeless people and illegal immigrants. Manuel Castells describes a deep divide within urban populations throughout the world which he refers to as the “dual city." In the dual city there is one group of people that benefits from the economy of information and technology, and on the sidelines there is another group that cannot or will not fit into this created world. For various reasons these people are at high risk for drug addiction and other social problems. Often, they are left to their own devices, encouraged to solve their own problems and ignored by mainstream social service organizations. Despite this, some individuals remain committed to working in the service of these groups. One such person is the Reverend Hans Visser, who in 1979 returned to his native Holland from Indonesia to lead the Pauluskerk Rotterdam. The Dutch Reformed Church had given him carte blanche to try out a new idea: to create a church that would serve the outcasts of society. Driven by the belief that the church must be a modern and creative institution that adapts to society and time, Visser worked to create a place where people could meet and find comfort in the form of a bed, a meal, a conversation, or even a drug, in a safe and nurturing environment. 

Since the early days of his ministry in Rotterdam, Visser has drawn criticism as well as praise for his innovative and sometimes illegal programs. An online search for information about Visser yields a list of websites devoted to issues as varied as drug policy and the rights of pedophiles. Over the past 20 years, he has become famous throughout The Netherlands for his work with illegal immigrants, drug addicts, prostitutes and poor people, and his church has become a haven for people on the fringes of contemporary Dutch society. To many people, Visser and his church represent a radical example of the Dutch capacity for tolerance. 

For our project, we chose to explore Hans Visser’s work because many of the problems that he has wrestled with are closely related to those we explore through the Humanity in Action program. Drug users, homeless people and illegal immigrants are all minorities in Dutch society. The way that they are treated, both officially by the government and by average citizens, says a great deal about the position of minority groups in the political and social life of The Netherlands today. Visser’s work seeks to humanize and destigmatize the poorest and least powerful people in the city of Rotterdam, to remove the barriers between different parts of society and to encourage a view of human worth that is unconditional. His work is not always popular, nor is it easy. It is often disregarded by members of the mainstream in society, who feel that those who fall through the cracks in the social system are at fault and do not deserve help. In this paper, we will explore the activities of Reverend Visser and the Pauluskerk, and describe some reactions to Visser’s work by the Social Health Service, the Police, and the Church. We will conclude by sharing the stories of several volunteers in the Pauluskerk, whose experiences and perspectives helped us to understand why this work is both compelling and problematic. Rather than judging the Pauluskerk based on our own limited perspectives, we have chosen to present the church as one example of an attempt to address fundamental inequalities and injustices within contemporary western society. 

Platform Zero

Reverend Visser’s work became national news when he founded a project called "Platform Zero." Throughout the mid-1980’s, Rotterdam’s Central Station had been the site of numerous confrontations between travelers, the police, and an increasing number of drug-users and homeless people who spent time at the station. In The Netherlands, drug use of any kind is prohibited, but in practice some drug use is tolerated. Within Dutch law, a distinction is made between “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin (which are illegal), and “soft” drugs, such as marijuana (which can be used with impunity). “Hard” drug use is considered criminal in The Netherlands, but users are not prosecuted as often as they are in the United States, nor are their sentences as long. From the Dutch perspective, “hard” drugs are dangerous because they pose a threat to the user and the public, so many treatment programs focus on drug use as a public health problem rather than as a criminal issue. Visser decided to try to create a program for addicts that would both meet their physical needs and concentrate them around a particular area. 

Platform Zero opened on the March 31,1987 in a building next to the Central Station. It was a place where addicts and indigent people could meet friends and social workers and have a meal, a cup of coffee, or a conversation. In addition, hard and soft drugs were available. Volunteers from many backgrounds and nationalities ran the project. In the beginning about 70 to 100 people would gather there each day, but over the years it became well known, and by 1994, there were up to 1000 visitors per day at Platform Zero. Mr. Geelof, a press spokesman from the Department of Communication and Press of the Rotterdam Police Force, recalls that the number of people at Platform Zero created many problems for the police. As the project gained notoriety, it became a dumping ground for miscreants, and Reverend Visser remembers police from all over The Netherlands suggesting to particularly problematic addicts and troublemakers in their areas that they "go to Rotterdam platform zero, don’t stay here any longer." This led to an unanticipated sharp increase in the number of visitors, and the sheer size of the crowds became unmanageable. Platform Zero became known as a dangerous place for travelers and visitors as incidents of pick pocketing and robbery increased. 

Around the Central Station, tension grew between taxi drivers, who wanted to pick up their passengers in peace, and the visitors to Platform Zero. In the summer of 1993 the situation between these visitors and the taxi drivers got out of control, and the drivers led a riot through Platform Zero, screaming phrases like "Heil Hitler" and "Hang Visser and his Junks" (Visser, Perron Nul, 48). The situation stabilized somewhat after this event, but gradually it became clear that an alternative had to be found. Especially after an attack on Platform Zero by the Marines, who ran through the area beating people and breaking things on June 22, 1992, it became clear to Reverend Visser that public opinion was not in his favor: "the people in Rotterdam were very happy with the behavior of the Dutch Marines, so it was clear to me that there was no sympathy in the city for the program." He began to consider other solutions, and some new programs were established at the Pauluskerk to help drug users there after Platform Zero closed in December 1994. 

The Pauluskerk

The Pauluskerk’s mission statement explains that the church “stands in the tradition of Jesus Christ who gave his life for others” and that it “presents itself in three ways” to its community: “The Church is a place of reflection for those who are searching for the meaning of life. The Church is a shelter for those who are seeking protection. The Church lends a voice to those who are not being heard.” These tenets are understood in a very literal way at Pauluskerk, where the worth and dignity of every visitor is stressed, regardless of his or her current behavior or history. This is a place where heroin and cocaine addicts are offered clean “rooms of tolerance” where they are free to take their drugs in a safe and sanitary environment, and where an “acceptance model” of treatment is followed. From Visser's perspective, the drug addicts need the drugs, it is a fact that cannot be changed; "therefore they can use drugs in the church and there are dealers who can sell the drugs here. It doesn't mean that I am very happy with the dealers here, but it is an emergency solution." Social workers and deaconal workers try to help visitors to the Pauluskerk by responding humanely to their needs and by accepting them as they are rather than trying to change them. In the United States and in most European countries, drug use has been heavily criminalized, and drug users (in particular those who use what are considered “hard drugs”) are stigmatized for their addiction. For Reverend Visser, addiction is a limit to freedom, an active form of oppression that many struggle to overcome. From this perspective, demanding that someone change his behavior is not only counterproductive, in that it is potentially alienating, but it also suggests that the person is only worthy of care if he is willing or able to change. Visser challenges this conditionality with his view that “one must always begin where the people are.” At the Pauluskerk, all people must be respected fundamentally, as human beings, regardless of their behavior. 

The acceptance model does not imply a passive acquiescence to the poor behavior or attitude of others, however. The Pauluskerk is at the forefront of work to prevent drug use, and many of its programs are directed at helping drug addicts live productive lives. To accept someone does not necessarily mean enabling them to hurt themselves or others, and in our interview with him, Reverend Visser made clear that the church has rules. “Violence, intimidation and discrimination” are not allowed under any circumstances, and individuals who cross these boundaries will be asked to leave the Pauluskerk. Visser also made clear that the acceptance model can help to open channels of communication between social workers and clients, allowing everyone involved to be both honest and open about their feelings and thoughts: 

[This] model means I accept your addiction; it is a problem [but] I accept your disease. I accept your behavior, but we can speak about the consequences of your behavior or your addiction. If it is a nuisance, it is a problem. It you disturb relationships with other people, it is also a problem. We can speak about it…we live together in a society, and I am dependent on you and you on me, and it means that we must make a good agreement [to follow rules, to work together so that we can live together].

The Pauluskerk is a clearly diverse community of drug users and non-drug users, of illegal immigrants and Dutch nationals, and a part of accepting every member of the community is agreeing to respect other people. Knowing that one is accepted, that nothing must be hidden or secret, can allow an individual to acknowledge her own behavior in a deep way, and to begin to take responsibility for her actions and relationships. Rather than allowing visitors to the Pauluskerk to justify their bad behavior, ideally, the acceptance model helps them see in themselves the potential for better behavior as they become part of a dynamic and complex community. As Visser says, "we [at the Pauluskerk] live together in a society and it means that we must make a good agreement with each other, because whether we like it or not we are interdependent." 

An important aspect of the acceptance model is that it helps to break down barriers between people that are socially created and reinforced. In his latest book, Creativity, Guidance and Service: The Role of the Church in the Post-Industrial City (Zoetermeer, 2000), Hans Visser argues: “The church, as a creative community, must declare the Torah to be the guideline for the community as a whole. This Torah teaches that a responsible society will not have outcasts.” Working toward an inclusive society is a major part of the Pauluskerk’s mission, and the communities it serves are those most often passed over by other groups and organizations. The Pauluskerk does not seek to solve all of the problems faced by the people it serves, but rather to alleviate suffering by establishing human connections with individuals from all walks of life. As one of their leaflets states: “Most of our visitors have already met too many social workers. They just want somebody to listen to them, not from the angle of a therapeutic goal, but out of interest.” By creating a network of individuals who are committed to this kind of openness, the Pauluskerk hopes to engage many of Rotterdam’s communities and to encourage the participation of all citizens in seeking solutions to social problems. 

The Pauluskerk’s position on addiction is heavily pragmatic – those who are addicted should not be stigmatized or demonized but should receive help in managing their addiction so that they can function in the world. The social workers at Pauluskerk regulate the finances of some visitors, providing them with a regular allowance. Many receive assistance in managing their social security or other income to ensure that they are able to stay healthy and relatively comfortable while maintaining their addiction. A part of this understanding of addiction as a way of life is the belief that addicts are capable of interacting with society in a productive way. The Pauluskerk is part of an extensive network of projects that work together to offer addicts opportunities for jobs, creative pursuits like acting and graphic arts, and other regular activities that can help to stabilize and routinize the addict’s life. 

One example of an effective program is Via Kunst, an art gallery and “creative workshop” that offers addicts the opportunity to express themselves through artwork. It is run by one of Pauluskerk’s social workers who is himself an artist, and by the request of the people who work there it is a drug-free facility. An adjoining gallery displays work of Via Kunst artists, with many pieces for sale. The artist receives a portion of the proceeds when one of his paintings is sold. Another successful program is the Straat (Street) Magazine, which has a circulation of 25,000 and is sold by illegal immigrants, homeless people and drug users all over Rotterdam. Because selling the magazine involves regular work hours as well as interaction with the general public, it can be a step on the way to a ‘normal’ life, helping the sellers regain a sense of pride and self-worth as well as giving them an opportunity to make money. Other programs, from Straat Telemarketing (a project which gives addicts jobs doing market research) to Sanford and Such (a workshop for making and repairing furniture) help to bring structure and regularity to the lives of the addicts involved. By focusing on the quality of life of addicts rather than working on eradication of drug use, the Pauluskerk has been able to devise innovative, addict-centered care that seeks to solve the problems that arise around drug use (such as homelessness, violence, petty theft, and illness) rather than drug use itself. This approach can be extremely effective for some addicts, since it addresses the problems drug users face on many levels.

While the Pauluskerk has become infamous for its unusual drug policy, the church does not only deal with addiction and drug use issues. Groups and services are available for a range of communities, and social workers have office hours regularly. Housing is available both upstairs in the church as well as in local houses for up to four weeks for immigrants who have been denied refugee status or an immigration permit. These people can use their time in the Pauluskerk to make arrangements to go to other countries or return home. They are given a small amount of money to help them during this period. 

Often, a person will come to the Pauluskerk seeking food or shelter or drugs, and in order to get them, they first have to see one of the social workers or guards onsite who will assess their needs. The visitor is then issued an ID card with some information about his eligibility for services and his medical and mental health history. Roughly 800 people currently have Pauluskerk ID cards, but not all of these people visit the church regularly. Reverend Visser estimates that anywhere from 150-250 people come through the Pauluskerk each day, and a wide variety of programs and services are offered to meet the needs of these visitors. Programs at the Pauluskerk that draw large numbers of people include the Diner, which serves meals at cost every night during the week, and the Night Shelter, which is open from 10pm to 7am daily and which has an average of 60 visitors per night. In addition, the church holds a popular “Open Huis”(open house) every afternoon and on Friday nights. During the “open huis”, tea and coffee are served, and visitors are welcome to play games, read, talk, or enjoy some peace and quiet. 

International solidarity is built through associations between the Pauluskerk and churches and shelters in Eastern Europe and Africa. The Pauluskerk is involved in working toward better living conditions in many parts of the developing world. It offers support to organizations that encourage people to stay in their home countries rather than traveling to Western Europe only to face the often dangerous and ultimately disappointing immigration process. Reverend Visser described a program that focuses on development in Eastern Europe: “we have adopted 170 families in the Caucases who are living in a kind of shelter/hotel. And we have said to them, don’t come to Western Europe, it is hopeless. We will help you here…every year some [volunteers] go to that hotel and give food and help for agricultural activities and trade.” In addition, a partnership exists between Beit Shahour, a Lutheran school in the West Bank attended primarily by Palestinian children, and the Pauluskerk, which sends workers and some money to the school regularly. The ‘Foundation for Peace in the Middle East,’ which was founded by a Jew, a Palestinian (Muslim) and a Christian, has its office in the Pauluskerk. 

The Pauluskerk and the Social Health Service (GGD)

The official policy of The Netherlands on drug use is that drug addiction is a public health issue. According to Mr. Harold van Driel of the GGD in Rotterdam, in the recent past the main objective of the “drugs-aid” institutions and organizations was to get people to stop using drugs. Now there is a tendency to help drug addicts to regulate their use of drugs rather than to stop using entirely. They help where they can, providing care and a place for addicts to stay. Reverend Visser’s aim in providing health care to people who come to the Pauluskerk is to help them manage their addictions: “I cannot create ideal people, it is not possible. But there is a way to regulate the behavior without too much nuisance for other people.” This regulation can also lead to better health for addicts, who are less likely to contract blood-borne diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis when clean needles are available. Visser’s use of particular dealers on the premises of the church ensures that there is some accountability for the quality of the drugs there, which also protects the health of users. 

An official institution like the GGD is bound by rules and regulations, but the church has more freedom to blur the edges of the law. From Van Driel’s perspective, Reverend Visser’s work is very good, because he is able to continue helping people even beyond the point where the officials have to stop because they have to follow the law. The relationship between the GGD and the Pauluskerk is very good. As Mr. Van Driel said: "there is a weekly meeting between my boss and Reverend Visser, this indicates how closely we co-operate." The GGD of Rotterdam provides a doctor and three mental health nurses to the Pauluskerk, as well as medication and supplies like needles and condoms. Four days a week, several Doctors and Nurses are available to treat illegal immigrants and ex-refugees. The doctors at the Pauluskerk do pre-natal care, dress wounds, and prescribe antibiotics, and they refer patients when necessary to other medical services. As Mr. Van Driel explains: "our main task is the social health care of the city of Rotterdam, so when people are sick we cure them." This also includes illegal people, who by law are not entitled to receive medical health care, though because of funding issues, the GGD often makes arrangements with outside organizations to treat illegals. Like any public organization, the GGD is restricted to a budget, and can only serve people as far as their budget allows. 

The Police and the Pauluskerk

Because the Pauluskerk is a church, it has relative freedom in relation to the official laws of The Netherlands. As we have mentioned, drug dealing and use is permitted within the church. Drug users can hand in used needles and get clean ones, which are provided by the GGD of Rotterdam, and Reverend Visser has made agreements with several drug dealers to sell various kinds of drugs inside the church itself. He organizes the dealing to ensure that the drugs are of good quality and that they are sold for a reasonable price. The drug policies of The Netherlands are built around the concept that the damage of drugs must be limited as much as possible. The borderline between what can be tolerated and what is seen as criminal has to be maintained, however, and the selling of drugs in the Pauluskerk is one example of the line between criminality and legality being blurred. The Pauluskerk works closely with the police to ensure that the definition of what is legal is shared between both sides and that there is a forum for voicing concerns. When problems occur, the police and the local officials discuss them with Reverend Visser in meetings: 

The relationship with the police station is good - yeah, sometimes we have conflicts…[for example,] at this moment there are too few policemen in the city and it gives troubles because drug users are free to make nuisance for the citizens, which is a pity. It means that they disturb the public area and I think the church is also responsible for the public area around the church here in the inner city - so it is a problem at this time. But there are always problems, from year to year. But okay, every problem is a kind of challenge, and you have to answer the challenges.

From the perspective of the police, Reverend Visser's work can be helpful in solving certain kinds of problems. The "tolerance room" gives addicts a place to use their drugs safely without disturbing the public order. Similarly, the collection of dirty needles keeps the streets clean, and protects the public health. At the same time, the area around the Pauluskerk can become disruptive, and the police then have to deal with a "disturbance of the public order" as many addicts and drug dealers gather near the Pauluskerk. The police interfere when things get out of control. As Mr. Geelof explained, "especially the brides-shop [a shop next to the church] suffers from junkies who sit in front of the store or on the entrance-steps. Customers do not like this. This happens in particular when the weather is bad and the church is not open. Otherwise the junkies tend to sit along the water across the street from the Pauluskerk." When asked whether the police could assign a special police officer for the Pauluskerk, Mr. Geelof said that the police simply cannot give that much priority to the Pauluskerk: "If we would do that it means that we should have three full-time police officers, because of the time schedule of the opening hours of the church." The church does rely on the police to a certain extent, as the police are called in when the Pauluskerk’s own security people face a situation they can’t handle. 

The drug scene in Rotterdam tends to concentrate around the Pauluskerk, which alleviates some of the problems in other areas of the city. However, the problems that do occur in other areas are sometimes exacerbated by the fact that the Pauluskerk asks people to leave the premises if they are not willing to follow basic rules. The people who have had the most behavior problems are therefore not serviced by the Pauluskerk, and these are the people who are most likely to spread around in the city. In certain neighborhoods in Rotterdam, like the Millinxbuurt, Kruiskade, Rotterdam West, and Spangen, there are major problems related to drug addicts. The police have a limited amount of resources, and must divide their time based on priorities which sometimes do not correspond to those of Reverend Visser: "there are drug users who can make terror in the city and I think it is not necessary, the police [should] interfere. [The police argue] ‘Ah, we have no people, they are sick, there is a football match.’ There are priorities. It's a pity." Reverend Visser feels that the police are sometimes too weak and should invest more officer-hours in patrolling the inner city to limit the public nuisance caused by drug users and dealers. 

Do the police see a way to legalize drugs? From Mr. Geelof’s perspective, it would never be possible, primarily due to European and international laws. He believes that the legalization of drugs in The Netherlands would never be accepted internationally, and trying to legalize drugs only in Holland would lead to logistical problems in relation to other countries. In addition, Geelof suggested that it is very unlikely that crime would decrease if drugs were legalized, since “criminal behavior cannot be banned from a society, no matter what. Criminal activity would simply transfer to something else.” In our interview, he joked that "there are some people involved in drugs-related criminal activities, who probably have a plan already waiting, in case the drugs are legalized." 

The Church and Reverend Visser

Due to the fact that Reverend Visser is such a unique minister, and because his church and its activities have been controversial in The Netherlands, we wanted to explore the official reaction of the church to his ministry. The Pauluskerk Rotterdam is a Presbyterian church, and is part of the Dutch Reformed Church. While some of the Pauluskerk’s rules are in violation of Dutch law, none of what it does goes against the official laws of the Dutch Reformed Church. Reverend Visser himself is considered a “Minister for special activities” because his work is not carried out by a specific congregation. Roughly 50% of the Pauluskerk’s funding comes from the Dutch Reformed Church. 

While there are “right-wing” members of the church, both laity as well as ministers, who disagree with the activities of the Pauluskerk, we were not able to find anyone with this viewpoint to talk with us on the record. These people may disagree with the “tolerance” policy of the Pauluskerk because it breaks the laws of The Netherlands, or they may find Reverend Visser’s unorthodox views on drug use and prostitution immoral or un-Christian. On the other side, there are individuals (from the volunteers at the Pauluskerk to other ministers whose congregations regularly send donations to the church) who are supportive of Visser, and who see the community he has built as an exciting example of how engaged a church can be in actively changing the world. Officially what we found was perhaps a characteristically Dutch response to Visser’s work, one which was neither wholeheartedly positive nor particularly negative. The church teaches that it is imperative for a minister to work within his community, and some see Visser’s work as a courageous attempt to deliver the gospel to a particularly difficult community. From this perspective, the “uniqueness” of Visser’s ministry is tailored to the specific needs of his parishioners in a deep and significant way. Others within the church suggest that Visser may not need to be a minister at all to do the work he is doing, and they argue that what goes on in the Pauluskerk is more social work than religious work. 

The most common response to Reverend Visser within the church seems to be one of vague interest coupled with indifference. According to Klaas van der Kamp of the Uniting Protestant Churches in The Netherlands, under Dutch Reform Church law, a minister is supposed to be engaged in his local community “totally. Article VIII…states that the church has to function in the world, and that the church has the duty to spread the Gospel and to work in order to bring the Gospel into the lives of the nation.” This involvement can take many forms, however, because there is no official mandate about what it means to “function in the world.” It is clear that Reverend Visser’s ministry is very different from those pursued by most other ministers in The Netherlands; for one thing, the majority of the Pauluskerk community is not particularly involved with the religious aspects of the church. Van der Kamp noted: “In reality…most ministers work among church members, while Mr. Visser mostly works among people who do not belong to a church.”  

For Visser himself, the fact that he runs a church rather than a social services agency is clearly of great importance. He draws strength and inspiration from the life of Jesus Christ and is committed to a ministry that draws on Christian values and teachings as its core. In our interview, Visser lamented the dearth of Christians among the Pauluskerk’s volunteers, many of whom identify as “post-Christian.” When asked what was the most difficult aspect of his ministry, he stated that it was the lack of a Christian base within the supporters of the Pauluskerk: 

It is for me [a difficult question]: how can we make more broad or deep the base? The base is important, because there must be a base that is sharing the church, because we are hundreds of drug users, addicts, refugees and many volunteers, but a majority of volunteers are not Christian [and I must work to make them understand that] God is the basis of the church, the care of God for people is important, the life of Jesus Christ [is important]. It is a difficult thing. 

Opponents of Visser’s work within the church have noted this lack of a religious “base” within the church community, but it remains something that the Reverend is very open about wanting to change at Pauluskerk. While many of the people with whom he works might not consider themselves religious, Visser’s own motivation to do his work comes out of his belief that “Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, he was in the world for poor people. The church is the body of Jesus Christ, this means that the body is also there for the marginalized people in the world.” The Pauluskerk continues to function as a church, and it offers Eritrean Orthodox services as well as services in English, Molloccan and Dutch several times weekly. 

Visiting the Pauluskerk

Spending time at the Pauluskerk is like being in the midst of a huge extended family. So much goes on there each day, as people come and go, sleep and work, and yet whenever we arrived, nearly everyone (both visitors and volunteers) took the time to smile and say hello. There is a lack of artifice at the Pauluskerk – some people are wearing clean clothes while others wear things that are tattered and dirty – but everyone is open to other people regardless of their appearance. On our second visit to the church, we received a hearty welcome from Rita, an Indonesian-Surinamese volunteer who has worked at the Pauluskerk since 1995. She is trained in Psychiatric Social Work, and she came to the Pauluskerk after her children grew up and went to school. Because she had been out of the workforce for so long, Rita would have needed additional training in counseling in order to get a job, so she chose to volunteer instead. She told us that while the work is very hard, it is also very rewarding. She loves to work with the people at Pauluskerk because they are so open and honest about what is going on in their lives. She said that everyone has problems, but those who have nice houses can hide what goes on in them: “We can’t tell what goes on in the lives of people [who appear prosperous]…those are the ones who scare me, you can’t tell what their story is…the people here are straightforward, it is written on their faces what their lives have been like.” 

She also spoke about the way many people treat addicts, and explained to us that her family was not supportive of her work, because they didn’t understand why someone would want to work with “those people.” She talked about the assumptions that many people make about addicts, and explained that, on a basic level, everyone at the Pauluskerk is a person deserving of respect and care. Rita sometimes spends time with people from the Pauluskerk outside of the church, and recalled an experience she had while having dinner with an addict. A Red Cross worker came around to each table soliciting donations, but when she came to their table, seeing someone in shabby clothes, the worker passed over Rita and her friend and moved on to another table. Rita’s friend was deeply hurt – he had some money, and actually would have been glad to donate some of it to the Red Cross. Even someone who is doing good humanitarian work may hold on to prejudices like this against certain members of society. Rita emphasized the fact that others have treated many of the people at the Pauluskerk unjustly: “but these are human beings…they are people, just like us…sometimes they cry, you know? They are people.”

Not all of the volunteers at Pauluskerk have training in social work. They range from local police officers to WAOers (people who receive disability payments from the government). Some are university educated. Another volunteer who agreed to be interviewed was named Sonja. She has worked at the Pauluskerk for 6 years, and she was making sandwiches in the Tolerance Room when we met her. She told us that although she received disability, she wanted to be able to do some work, and that she enjoyed volunteering at the Pauluskerk. People come to work at the church for a range of reasons, from older people with time on their hands to those who have been inspired by Reverend Visser’s books. Some people just come for the day and end up volunteering regularly. It is an environment that is both painful and uplifting, joyful and hopeful and sad. A sign outside the front door states “room for everyone,” and that was the feeling we got from being there: a sense of comfort in community with other people, regardless of circumstance. Many of the people we talked with stressed the reciprocity of the relationships at the Pauluskerk, where people who have very little often share a great deal. Although it is not a place of happy endings, it can be the catalyst for new beginnings. 


Reverend Visser’s concepts about caring for people at all levels of society remain relatively revolutionary 20 years after his work at the Pauluskerk began. While we started this project with the understanding that being at the church might be difficult, as we spent time at the Pauluskerk and learned more about Visser’s philosophy, we found ourselves questioning some of our basic attitudes toward the meaning of human rights. The acceptance model challenges us all to rethink our assumptions about what kinds of behavior mark a person as a social outcaste. Visser’s own threshold for acceptance incorporates “sexual minorities,” a classification that for him includes paedophiles. For some of us, this may push the boundary too far, but taking the time to consider our own limitations and barriers to unconditional acceptance and empathy can allow us to gain insight into the way societal norms and values are reproduced. In the process of creating norms of acceptability, abnormal behavior is defined and rejected - sometimes for arguably good reasons – but the individuals whose behavior (or appearance or ability) does not fit the norms are understood to be fundamentally less valuable than those within the mainstream. This leads to the kind of desensitisation that most middle-class westerners suffer from, which allows us to ignore beggars on the street on our way to lunch even as we discuss historical human rights abuses. Visser’s philosophy is challenging because he delegitimizes the process of dehumanization by rejecting the way judgements are made altogether. He suggests that the larger human rights violations we see in the world may in fact come from the same impulses that we all act upon, in small ways, every day. At the same time, he maintains a belief in standards of conduct that are loving and helpful to all persons, and is clear with himself and others about this boundary. In this way, the acceptance model does not have to become a way to justify inappropriate or hurtful behavior.  

Spending time at the Pauluskerk and observing the interactions between the volunteers and the visitors was a moving experience for both of us. It enabled us to see the way that concepts about human rights can be lived in a real way in the world. The volunteers that we met considered themselves to be ordinary people, yet they were engaged in work that was incredibly challenging. For most of us, the problems of hard drug users, homeless people, psychiatric patients and illegal immigrants are easily disregarded. It is socially acceptable to see them as outcastes and to live separately from them, feeling little emotional responsibility for their well being. Whether one agrees with the methods used at the Pauluskerk or not, the work of Reverend Visser and the volunteers at the Pauluskerk helps us to see that the universality of human rights must not be understood in an abstract way. Each one of us can make connections with other people, even if their lives are very different from our own. By breaking the cycle of indifference, we can begin to forge a more whole society in which there is a place for everyone, and in which the humanity of each person is of paramount importance.



Drs. Hans Visser, Reverend of the Pauluskerk in Rotterdam

Drs. Geelof, Police Rotterdam, department "Communicatie/ Persvoorlichting"

Drs. Harold van Driel, GGD Rotterdam, department "Zorg"

drs. ing. Klaas van der Kamp, Head of the Communication Department of the Uniting Protestant Churches in The Netherlands

Rita, volunteer in the Pauluskerk

Sonja, volunteer in the Pauluskerk

Robbie, volunteer in the Pauluskerk, security guard

"Revo", visitor to the Pauluskerk

Sam, visitor to the Pauluskerk

Marco, visitor to the Pauluskerk

Articles, Books and Websites

Cohen, Peter, Heroin Maintenance in The Netherlands: The Case of the Reverend Visser in Rotterdam. Il Manifesto, Fuoriluogo, January 27, 1998. www.frw.uva.nl/cedro/lib/cohen.heroin.html

Lap, Mario, Dealers, Dice and Dope. The International Foundation on Drug Policy and Human Rights, www.drugtext.nl

Visser, Hans, Creativiteit, wegwijzing en dienstverlening: de rol van de kerk in de postindustriële stad. (Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, Zoetermeer, 2000)

Visser, Hans, De Kerk als markt- Over de ontwikkeling van het Pauluskerkmodel in Rotterdam. (Stichting Kerkelijk Sociale Arbeid, Rotterdam, 1992(?)) 

Visser, Hans, KSA 50 jaar: 1947-1997: 50 jaar Kerkelijke Sociale Arbeid in Rotterdam (Stichting Kerkelijke Sociale Arbeid, Rotterdam, 1997)

Visser, Hans, Op drift-De dagboeken van Hans Visser (Uitgeverij Balans, Amsterdam, 1990)

Visser, Hans (red.), Perron Nul:Opgang en Ondergang (Meinema, Zoetermeer, 1996)

Pauluskerk website: www.xs4all.nl/~ksa

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2001


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