On a Sunday morning, just when most Wageningen students are rolling over to go back to sleep, a few dozen of their fellow students are gathering for an English-language church service under the auspices of the International Christian Fellowship (ICF). This church congregation gives them a chance to affirm their faith and to meet others.
Photos: Guy Ackermans and Ton van den Born
International students are more likely to be religious than Dutch students are. ‘In Africa especially, the question is not whether you are religious but which religion you subscribe to,’ says Caroline van der Kolk, a deacon with the International Christian Fellowship (ICF), the largest international church in Wageningen.
ICF is interdenominational, which means it is open to all the different Christian denominations. It is also the only Wageningen church that holds an English-language service every Sunday. The service is held in the organization’s building at 328 Hollandseweg. Carolien van der Kolk says the service attracts 100 to 150 people a week.
The roots of the current ICF go back to the 1970s when Bible study evenings were held in the former IAC, now the Hof van Wageningen on the Lawickse Allee. The ICF was a student society at the time. Van der Kolk joined as a student in 2000. ‘I felt at home from the start.’ At the time it was a small group of 10 to 15 people but with the growth and internationalization of the university, the fellowship grew to become a real church, with services and the organization needed to run them.
‘What connects the people who go there – not just foreigners but Dutch people too – is that they are looking for Jesus,’ says Van der Kolk. ‘It is very nice to meet people from all over the world there. For me it’s a little piece of heaven on earth. And seeing all the different ways in which people experience and express their faith can help you to grow in your own faith.’
It is not just for religious reasons that students attend the ICF church services and take part in its activities. As well as a place to practise their faith, the students are looking for connection and social support, say Craig MacKenzie, Seyi Alalade and Aaron Noronha. To this end the ICF runs seven ‘connect groups’ which meet for Bible study. And there is a monthly ‘international friends café’ run jointly with the Christian student societies, as well as cultural evenings a few times a year, at which people are invited to share their skills in dancing, cookery or music. Lastly, the ICF also organizes interaction with Dutch Christian families.
‘In Africa everyone believes in something’
‘Before I came here from Nigeria I googled churches in Wageningen and found the International Christian Fellowship. I then got in touch with the elders’, says Seyi Alalade (26), who is a Baptist. She came here in 2013 and has just completed her MSc in Biotechnology. She has a job in Nijmegen but still lives in Wageningen. ‘The ICF is very open,’ says Seyi. And its doctrines match those of her church back in Nigeria. She believes that everything comes from God and that it is her duty as a human being to serve her fellow human beings. Not necessarily by becoming a famous scientist. ‘My parents are my heroes. They inspired me to follow my own path and take responsibility for my life.’ Seyi is amazed that many Dutch people have no religious faith. ‘In Africa everyone believes in something.’
‘Holding on to your faith can be difficult’
‘I believe God led me here,’ says Craig McKenzie (22). He comes from Scotland, with a Protestant background in the Church of Scotland. He did his Bachelor’s degree at Aberdeen and arrived in Wageningen in August 2015 to do an MSc in Plant Sciences. ‘I might have been homesick for a couple of days but then I made a friend, who is a Christian too. That was supportive.’ And he joined the ICF, where he has attended services ever since. There Craig found warmth and hospitality and made friends with a Dutch family. ‘The social side is very important to my faith,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you can feel discouraged and then it is good to get together.’ Going to church doesn’t make you a better person, in Craig’s view, ‘but it is very important for reinforcing your faith, because it can be quite difficult at times to hold on to that. In the past year, though, my prayers I have found many answers to my prayers.’
‘It’s lovely when the whole church sings’
‘I learned to play the guitar because I wanted to perform in the church,’ says Aaron Noronha (24), who is working on an MSc in Biotechnology. He comes from India and is a Roman Catholic. He plays the guitar at the ICF church services. ‘It’s lovely when the whole church sings, everyone with their hands in the air. And the ICF is a very nice way to learn a bit about other cultures.’ Aaron’s impression of the Netherlands is that people here are somehow adrift. ‘It astonishes me that they say, “I don’t believe in God anymore”. The Dutch are very direct, as well, and not always diplomatic. On the other hand, they are very independent. In India you are always wondering, “what will people around me think of this?” The Dutch don’t seem to worry about that.’ Aaron is proud to be a Christian. ‘I have my moments of doubt sometimes, but at such times you can ask fellow students in the connect group to pray for you. We feel a strong bond between us.’
What else is going on?
Spectrum Student Platform & Chaplaincy: Aims to provide Wageningen students from home and abroad with a meeting place for religious and philosophical exploration and discussion. spectrum-wageningen.com
International Catholic Community: organizes a Catholic service twice a month in the John the Baptist church in Wageningen. iccwageningen.nl
Amazing Grace Parish: holds services in the Vredehorst church, especially popular with African students. On Facebook.
International Student Church: an ecumenical Christian congregation that collaborates with Spectrum SP&C and organizes English-language services twice a month in the Arboretum church. scwageningen.wix.com/scwageningen