It was my first trip to Amsterdam, having landed at the Schiphol airport after an all-night flight from New York. Boarding an early-morning train to the Rai convention center, I was already tired, though it would be many hours before I would have the opportunity to sleep. It was Amsterdam 2000, a conference for evangelists hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Some 10,000 evangelists and Christian workers were there from more than 100 nations. We would spend more than a week learning about ministry and recommitting ourselves to Christ’s Great Commission. I was one of the few American attendees who had opted to lodge at Jaarbeurs, rather than in one of the expensive hotels in downtown Amsterdam. Signing up months prior, it wasn’t hard to choose to stay at this much-more-economical place.
At the end of my first day, hundreds packed into trains for a 40-minute ride out of the city of Amsterdam to our place of lodging. I anticipated getting a shower and lying down for my first real sleep in more than 24 hours. The trains were jammed with men who didn’t look, sound or smell like anything I was used to. Though they were fellow ministers—brothers in Christ, for sure—culture shock was creeping up on me.
Shock fully set in when I arrived at Jaarbeurs, part heavy-equipment warehouse and a sort of steel behemoth that doubled as an exhibition hall. It was so large inside you could barely see from one end to the other, with a floor partly paved and partly dirt. It had been fitted with nearly 8,000 steel cots to accommodate the most basic sleep needs of evangelists from every corner of the globe. There were 400 temporary showers, very spartan, and with long lines of men waiting. I did not get to bathe until my third day! By that time, a shower was indeed a resurrection of sorts.
I reflected on the surreal experience of seeing one humble servant shed tears of gratitude for bread, cheese, water and a cot—living arrangements that were “unacceptable” to me.
The Jaarbeurs warehouse had become the largest men’s dorm in Amsterdam, complete with all the noises, odors and lack of decorum you might imagine. The only thing scarcer than privacy was hot water—and I was going to spend 10 days there. Following a map on the long walk to my sleeping area, I discovered my “room” to be a steel cot, adjacent to countless others. Lying atop its wafer-thin mattress was a small loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and several bottles of water. Exhausted, unshaven and wondering where to store my luggage, I thought, “Why didn’t I spring for a hotel?”
Not far away was a sloped, trough-type device approximately 80 feet long with water dribbling into one end from a suspended tube. This was a “lavatory.” As the wait for a shower would be hours-long, I joined others at the makeshift sink who were brushing teeth, scraping tongues, gargling and spitting. Wanting to score a mouthful of water to rinse with, I leaned over toward a dangling spigot. Inches below my face, the trough conveyed a river of saliva, toothpaste foam and grey-brown backwash that gently oozed by. My mouth accidently gulped its aroma and I fought back nausea. What really made my stomach churn was that one confused conference attendee—clothed in rags and coming from who-knows-where—bent down and washed his face in the trough’s gooey “water.”
Then and there I resolved to return to Amsterdam and rent myself an actual hotel room, no matter the cost. But arriving back at my cot, I was stopped in my tracks. At the bed next to mine stood a short, bearded man, wrapped shoulders-to-ankles in a type of toga that stopped about 6 inches above his sandaled feet. He was holding his loaf of bread with outstretched arms, staring at it. The man slowly picked up the block of cheese from his bed and gazed down at it. He rotated it around, staring at the cheese the way a careful jeweler might examine a diamond. Bottles of water were knocked to the floor as the man suddenly fell against the cot, weeping. Though his language contained only bits of English, through this man’s sobbing I could hear the words, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you!” He almost panted, “Jesus, I praise You for this … bounty.”
Conviction fell over me. I backed away quietly. Turning around, I came upon a conference assistant who kindly offered to help me find where I was supposed to go. We quietly talked about the scene I had just witnessed. He explained, “Most of these men are Christian workers who’ve come from developing nations, third-world countries or regions of terrorism and civil war.” I reflected on the surreal experience of seeing one humble servant shed tears of gratitude for bread, cheese, water and a cot—living arrangements that were “unacceptable” to me. The man said, “Alex, for many of these brothers, the accommodations here will be some of the best they will experience for their entire life.”
I never left for a hotel. Instead, I felt unworthy to bunk among these holy men of God. While I groused about having to brush my teeth over a trough, these men were bursting with joy to have a week of Bible training—for many, the only formal theological training they would ever receive.
So, what might this have to do with Thanksgiving 2017?
The rigors of Amsterdam 2000 were one of the first times my sense of American entitlement was stunted by exposure to other cultures. It certainly wouldn’t be the last. Since then I have been to other parts of the world that would make that Netherland warehouse look like a fine hotel. But here is my point: In America, we have it good.
Our infrastructure is reliable, our gasoline is cheap, our food is affordable, and the choices endless. We should be thankful that America is a nation whose backbone was¾and largely still is¾the family.
Americans enjoy amenities that people from other eras would have fainted over—hot water on demand, the ability to maintain personal hygiene, smartphones, paved roads, hospitals and backyards not roaming with dangerous animals. We are blessed to be a nation of over 300,000 churches, and we still enjoy the ability to freely broadcast Christian content via the airwaves and online. America was founded on Christian principles. In our country, problems may be addressed with peaceful elections without violent revolutions.
Regarding the proliferation of churches throughout the colonies, Thomas Paine in 1776 said, “Where, say some is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, He reigns above!” As God has uniquely blessed America, it is only prudent to consider how to keep America in this position. We do not deserve God’s hand of blessing. But this Thanksgiving season, let’s be grateful for it and humble enough to pray, realizing that the sins of this nation are causing His hand of blessing to be removed.