Youth worker among the poorest of Antwerp
I grew up in Mechelen in a Catholic home with five brothers and five sisters. As a child I had a strong love for Jesus. As a teenager during the unruly sixties I dropped all of my faith intentions. When I was 27 I met father Jan Cuijle, founder and inspirer of the Club the Grijze Kat (Grey Cat) in Antwerp. He brought me back to my first love, Jesus. That was the beginning of involvement with the neglected and the poor. On a professional level I worked as secretary for different companies but lately in the administration of the Bisdom of Antwerp.
The boys and girls of the Grey Cat are life and passion. These boys and girls are the invisible grey group in our community that are so easily overlooked. But God sees them and that is what I want them to know.
The Grijze Kat started after the bombing of Antwerp at the end of World War II. After a bomb hit a neighborhood, father Jan Cuijle went to see if he could help. That is when he met streetboys who came to see if there was something for them to use or eat. Not only was he touched by their empty stomachs, but even more by their lack of understanding and hardness towards life. Today we are still a youth movement for the children and teenagers in the streets of our Fourth World, the poor among us. The original Christian fervor and ethos which drove our passion has not faded in these sixty five years and that makes us unique in the pluralistic landscape of Antwerp charities and service organizations.
One of my first experience in the club of the Grey Cat was the contact with a father of two children in the club. He walked in during a game and was drunk. He walked to the Cross in our room and started praying 'Our Father.' The children needed to join him because this is what he himself had learned as a member of the Grey Cat. I have often seen him sitting down in the chapel near the cross even if he was drunk. How touched with mercy must be the heart of our Lord when seeing this man in his misery as he reaches out to tell his story and share his grief .
The experience of this man and my own walk of faith have convinced me how important it is for children to know Jesus As a trustworth friend with whom you can share your joy and grief, and the only One who can truly understand you because He loves you. When they get older and are overwhelmed by everthing our world has to offer, there is a great chance they will lose their faith. But when they meet trouble later in life, they have something to fall back on, the experience of a true friend from their childhood years.
A few years ago we camped with a few teens near the city of Reims. After a visit of the impressive cathedral we paused for our picknick. just outside the cathedral. Later that day it came to light that some of the teens had stolen pocket knives at the cathedral shop. When we investigated it further they began to blame and betray each other. They were all involved. Two of our leaders brought the stolen knives back to the shop to give the shop lady the surprise of her life. It was not unusial that things were stolen, but noone ever brought back the stolen goods. Inside the group the atmosphere was totally destroyed. We brought them together for a time of reflection in one of the tents. A long silence, a few words about broken friendships, forgiveness, that Jesus knows our hearts, understands us, about our mistakes. We prayed together and that evening we all came together in a deep forgiveness and friendship.
When I look at our Flemish church community, I am very concerned because I see few young people who believe. There is hardly any systematic religious education, and where this does exist, there is very little connection in the families to the community of faith. We live in a secular world. It makes it very difficult for us to find young leaders willing to take up this challenge because of their faith.
But it does not keep us from sharing the messge of the Glad Tidings. God became human in Jesus. He went around doing good deeds. He died and rose from the grave, freed us from the grip of evil. Jesus went to the poor and the neglected and restored their dignity. They are most open for his offer of love because they have so little of it. So let's just do what Jesus did and share the glad tidings with the poor and oppressed and express this with our lives. I am happy that we can do this in the Grey Cat.
About Atlantic Bridge
Some years ago we had contact with Atlantic Bridge regularly. I think about the weekend we went with some of our grey cats to de Vierslag riding our bikes though the harbour and across the dikes to Kruiningen. And the stepdace group from Zeeland that visited our summer camp to teach us how to stepdance. It is so fine to rebuild our contact because we need each other as groups who keep the identity of the faith in Christ in front. It was so nice to meet the youth of the Heritage Hunt last Sunday. The need among the Antwerp youth is so much greater than we can assume on the outside, if not in the physical poverty than so much more in the spiritual abandonment that spoils the direction of the heart. So, John, come and visit us at Dam 12 with the Dream Team more often and maybe we can also start a Dream Team in Antwerp because we still have many dreams.