Welcome at the blog of Dini Commandeur. I've written quite a lot of columns for various magazines. I also write short stories every now and then. These columns and stories are available for everybody at this blog. I'll release new columns and stories periodically.


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« Collecting | Home | An afternoon in the t… »

Comfort from Above

Sunday 24 April 2011 Most of my correspondence friends behind bars are very religious. I correspond with Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, and much is written about their religion. Reason enough for me to think about an article about religion while in detention. Many Dutch detainees attend church services and receive spiritual support from the pastor, the reverend, the humanitarian counselor, or the imam, when desired. “Could you tell me about the spiritual life of the detainees?” I ask a pastor. He has a better idea than to respond directly and invites me to attend a few services myself. These services are held on Saturdays. One week they are Catholic masses, the other week Protestant services, and the pastor and reverend work together with volunteers. They’re not only there to set out the chairs and distribute the missals and liturgy books, but especially to partake in the service together with the detainees and afterwards have a cup of coffee and talk things over with the men.
So, one Saturday afternoon, I go to a service, assist in arranging the chairs, and chat with the other volunteers. When the detainees enter the room they courteously introduce themselves to me, look for a seat, then the service starts and there is prayer and song. Readings are done by one of the detainees and one of the volunteers. In the back of the hall are a few guards, partly hidden behind some large plants. The atmosphere is relaxed, the pastor chants Gregorian, and two young detainees play guitar and sing a beautiful song. There are many good singers among the attendants. I sit between two men with such wonderful voices that, after the service has ended, I recommend they start a choir with some other people. This is natural talent and those talent shows on TV better pack it in right now. Let the producers come to this jailhouse and look for talent here – they will find it, no doubt. In his sermon, the pastor talks about the ways we may experience God and how that can be different for everyone. That one can see God as a father figure, but also, for example, one can find God in nature, in a budding flower, or in the laughter of a child, or in love…The congregation listens attentively, there is even a short discussion, and after the sermon there is more song and prayer. As a non-church going person I can truly say that it is a beautiful service, which is confirmed by a young Surinam guy who sits down beside me after the service has ended. He doesn’t want coffee yet and would prefer to talk a bit first. He tells me that he attends every church service that is held in jail. He loves them. There are various churches and also a mosque in the Surinam town he came from. All those houses of God, of all different religions, are centered in one street and all believers live together in peace, he says. Better yet: When repairs are needed to one of the houses of God, all believers, regardless of their particular religion, collect money for it. I am impressed. That is quite different than “my belief is the only true one” idea that many people cherish. “You’d wish that things would be that respectful everywhere,” I say. “Wouldn’t the world be a better place?” That’s exactly what he thinks, the guy responds, and then he goes to get himself a cup of coffee. Another guy stands by the lectern holding the book in which everyone may write a message. I walk over to him. He stands there somewhat forlorn, and thumbs through the book. He asks if he may write something in it, too. Of course, that’s what the book is for. He asks if I would please wait for him a while and then writes something down. Then he wants me to read it. I read a name, a boy’s name, and a date. It’s today’s date but another year. Then the boy tells me that that is the name of a dear friend, who died from a drug overdose. The sixth friend the boy has lost to drugs. “And drug use is my problem, too,” he says. I am speechless. That boy, at the age of my own sons… What life does he lead? What past does he look back on? What will the future bring him? The boy tells me about his friends and how their loss affects him. It is an extraordinary talk. We speak about loss, but also about friendship and love. It is a beautiful conversation, but I also feel saddened and powerless because I realize that the “serial killer” that is drugs claims so many victims.
It is busy in the hall: People are drinking coffee, there is talk and laughter, but in this area it is quiet and we are disturbed not once during our conversation. When we finish our talk, we say goodbye and the boy wanders off. I browse the book in which he wrote the name of his late friend. The boy certainly isn’t the only one who wrote in the book. A beautiful thing, such a book in which you can express your feelings and thoughts. I, too, take hold of the pen, and, with the pastor’s sermon still in my head, I write: “How can one experience God?” As an agnostic, I can’t clearly answer that, but I do know what God means to many thousands of people in jails all over the world: “God is comfort,” I write in the book. Comfort is something many of the men in this jail sure can use. If you have lost so much: Your family, your health, your extended family, your job, and your friends… and there is so much uncertainty about the future… then, for many, there still is the support of religion and the comfort from above.

Translation: Maria O’Neill

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