Over the past decade the Netherlands has been at the center
of intense and emotional debates about Islamic immigration and integration in
secular Europe. Long held to be one the most progressive and tolerant nations
in the world the Netherlands has quickly become home to some of the most vocal
anti-Islamic movements on the continent. As tensions between Dutch secularists
and Islamic immigrants rise groups of Christians have taken some creative steps
to demonstrate Christ’s hospitality, justice, and grace. This is the second, of
three separate pieces where Kaemingk examines particularly inventive and
Sewing in the Clash
The city of Rotterdam, one of the busiest seaports in the
world, is home to the largest Islamic population in the Netherlands. It is also
home to some of the country’s fiercest debates about Islam. Many of the Dutch
bemoan that their city has been over run with immigrants, fundamentalism,
patriarchy, conservatism, poverty, and crime. Many Muslims complain about
employment discrimination, media demonization, political marginalization, and
religious bigotry. Trust is low on both sides.
Into the fray steps a small group of old, conservative,
Calvinist women. They do not stage a protest. They do not run for office. They
do not propose a grand dialogue or joint statement between Muslims and
Christians in the Netherlands. They sew.
Every month these women gather together in a Muslim
neighborhood to sew and every month Muslim women join them. As they measure,
cut, fold, and stitch they talk about their work, their husbands, and their
children. Ever so slowly over pillows, quilts, and blankets trust builds,
barriers crumble, and bonds begin to form. They begin to see their own hopes
and struggles, fears and aspirations in the women across from them.
The Christian women are better able to see that Muslims are
not what they see on the news and likewise, Muslim women are able to see that
Christians are not what they see in the Red Light District. Understanding
slowly turns to empathy. They begin to see that they all care deeply for their
families, they are concerned about the futures of their children, they worry
about the secularity, immortality, hardness, and over-sexed state of Dutch
culture. They long to be faithful, virtuous, and true.
Hearing the Muslim women’s stories of the struggles of
immigration and integration, the Christian women report that they now see how
the Netherlands has ignored, abused, and made Muslim immigrants feel like
outsiders. “We don’t like that,” one Christian woman announces, “I want to make
them feel at home.”
Originally the group was formed for direct inter-religious
dialogue between Christian and Muslim women in the neighborhood. That effort
largely failed due to lack of interest. Jumping directly into an in depth
theological discussion with complete strangers was not something either group
was interested in.
Sewing proved to be an excellent kinesthetic way to begin
and sustain deep dialogue. It provides a safe, neutral topic to discuss, it
keeps the hands busy during awkward silences, and when a question is
uncomfortable or simply does not have an answer it can provide critical
conversational relief through the simple act of inquiring about a particular
color or pattern. Some Muslim women who come to sew speak little or no Dutch; sewing
gives them a way to participate and encounter Dutch women without having to
When asked why the groups of women return month after month
they respond that at first they came because they loved the sewing but now they
come for the gezelligheid. Gezelligheid might be the best word in
the Dutch dictionary to describe the sewing phenomenon. And while the Dutch are
fond of claiming that it has no English equivalent—and they are right—the best
approximation I can make is a mental, physical, and social state of coziness,
conviviality, trust, and community.
When I asked the Christian women what the ultimate goal was
they clearly and unapologetically stated that their hope was to share the love
of Christ with their Muslim friends. But, they hastened to add, “that is a long road.” It is not one that
can be rushed or forced. “Only God saves people,” they insisted. Their calling
was to show Christian hospitality and cultivate gezelligheid. God alone sews the seeds of salvation; they simply
“remove the stones” of misunderstanding and mistrust one stitch at a time.
Matthew Kaemingk is a doctoral student in Theology at the Free University in Amsterdam and Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.