Few people are prepared to make the effort to really understand others.
During his seven years in Wageningen Reverend Hinne Wagenaar built up a lot, both for and with international students of different religious and cultural backgrounds: church services, financial and religious advice and the discussion forum Crossroads. Last Sunday was his farewell service and party: It is easy to speak of the beauty of different cultures and languages, but let's be honest: they can be pretty inconvenient.
The Chaplaincy for international students in Wageningen is a busy place. There are always new people to welcome at the worship services, held twice a month in De Wereld. Newcomers introduce themselves: who they are, where they come from. Departing students usually ask for a photo of themselves together with Wagenaar. After seven years as chaplain to international students in Wageningen it's now Wagenaar's turn to leave, to go and teach theology at a seminary in Cameroon
Wagenaar knows what it is like to study in a foreign country. In 1988 he spent a year at Union Seminary in New York, an international centre for theology. At the age of 28 he became chaplain to international students for the Netherlands Reformed Church, challenging but hard work as an increasing number of universities and colleges offer courses in English. It would be impossible for one person to build up something with and for the international students in all the different locations. There were two places that I visited regularly: Wageningen and Enschede; other places I only went to occasionally, recounts Wagenaar. Because I worked in several places and most students only spend a short amount of time in the Netherlands, it was difficult to build up much contact with most students. Wagenaar found his lack of time frustrating. I had to spread myself too thinly, and usually I ducked out of parties. I was already working a 60 hour week, so I had little time over: a shame, as parties are often where you hear more about people's news and problems. I usually chose instead to use the time to talk to someone with pressing problems.
The chaplains for Dutch students were pleased with Wagenaar's arrival. His predecessor had spent little time in Wageningen, coming only for services, according to Chaplain Marianne Schulte-Kemna. The chaplains for Dutch students had wanted to organise something for the growing number of international students, but had too little time. Wagenaar's position was financed by the Board of Mission of the Netherlands Reformed Church. The same Board also has relations with Cameroon and asked Reverend Wagenaar to go there to give a course in systematic theology. Wagenaar himself is particularly interested in the relation between culture and evangelism, for example the relation between gods in traditional African religions and the god in Christianity
Wagenaar has already been to Africa twice. He spent six weeks in Ghana and Burkina Faso, and the same amount of time in Ethiopia and Eritrea, visiting people who had studied in Wageningen. I knew someone in every town I went to, and I learnt a lot from my travels. You see people in their own setting: where they live and work, and how they worship. That made me realise how much someone's position can change. There is little hierarchy in Dutch society, but it can be difficult for international students who come as a humble student, while back home they may have had an important government position.
In his farewell service on Sunday January 18, attended by some 200 people, Wagenaar's sermon was about the story of the Tower of Babel. In this story from the Bible the inhabitants of Babel want to build a tower which reaches up to heaven, but God punishes them for their arrogance by rendering the builders incapable of communicating with each other through the fact that all start speaking different languages. Seven years ago I didn't want to hear about this aspect of punishment. I saw Babel as a blessing. I still believe that today, but now there is more disillusion and pain in my heart. I have worked with people from all over the world, with many religions, cultures, languages and traditions. I have enjoyed this and seen the blessings, but I have also been confronted with divisions, suspicion, alienation, sometimes hatred and simply the misunderstandings and non-communication.
Later, at home amidst the packing cases for his impending move, he continues: Sometimes the disagreements are unpleasant. Sometimes people have said to me: the way you behave is not Christian, and certainly not how a minister should act. Tolerance can be a scarce commodity, but few people are prepared to make a real effort to understand others. This is a painful issue with which one is confronted, especially here in Wageningen if you want to try and build up something with people from all over the world.
Wagenaar set up Crossroads together with the Catholic pastor for Dutch students, Marianne Schulte-Kemna. He refers to this discussion forum for people of all religions as his special baby. I have always enjoyed the discussions, and participation was usually high, he recalls
Dejene Tezera came from Ethiopia to do the MSc course in Biotechnology, and found work here afterwards. He is a member of the Crossroads support group. There are not many places for international students to meet people from different backgrounds and discuss religion, culture and their experiences. In Wageningen there are people from so many different countries it would be a shame not to make use of the opportunity for dialogue, tells Tezera. The Crossroads meetings provide a forum for people to talk about their countries, and topics ranging from ethnic conflicts, religion to environmental problems. These are not new subjects, but you can learn a lot from listening to other people's opinions.
Tezera, an orthodox Christian, also sees Crossroads as a place to meet Dutch students. During course work you only talk about your study, and there's usually no chance to talk about religious matters with others on your corridor. Dutch PhD student Arnout van Delden sums up Wagenaar's role in Crossroads: Hinne's knowledge of different cultures and religions helped to bridge the gap.
MSc poster prize
MSc students will have the opportunity to present their graduation research in the form of a poster during the graduation ceremony on Friday January 23 this week. The best poster will receive a prize, which will be presented at the same time as the Van der Plas Award for the best MSc thesis, after the graduation ceremony
We are using this occasion to give students an opportunity to learn how to put together a poster like this, explains Dick Legger, course director for the MSc in Environmental Sciences. Now they can still take advantage of supervision and help on offer. Legger reckons the students have enough time to make a poster, as there is a period of fourteen days between when they had to deliver their final grades and the graduation date. According to Legger there are about twenty boards available for presenting the posters, although he only expects about ten students to actually make use of the opportunity
There are six entries for the Van der Plas Award. The author of the best thesis receives a prize of 1,500 guilders. The award was introduced by former Rector Magnificus Professor Henk van der Plas, and was presented last year for the first time. A thesis must have received a grade of at least 9 in order to be eligible for the prize