Fear of the Unknown
1982, Faculty of Civil Engineering
A hallway in a building of armoured concrete. A building that, in all of its peace and quiet, is evidence of the strength and value of this material. This is the building for civil engineering in Delft. Sunlight pours through the windows and displays the construction at its best. A sign on the rough concrete wall proudly states how many kilos each square metre floor can bear.
In the hallway, there is an oak bench. On it sits Ton Meijknecht, alone. Ton is a pastor, appointed by the Bishop of Rotterdam to aid these students. He has become aware of the fact that his position has become untenable. He has been here for a few years now. It is 1982, and he has worked in this profession since 1975. Initially, everything was still very traditional. Students were drawn to his conversational groups because with him, they found what they had found in their parents’ church: a sense of direction in their life. The old pillar was still erect, if only just. Students still had faith in him as an official. But that soon deteriorated. Every year, the interest waned. Each year, he made an even greater effort, with even fancier brochures and catchy titles. To no avail; he is, and will always remain, an outsider.
He waits. It is a bench just outside the office of the Study Association, Practical Study. Inside, the Board has a meeting on a proposal. Two civil engineering students, with whom he has put a proposal together, are in there as well, pleading. Will the Board be willing to accept the proposal?
The proposal is a rather unusual one. In this building, tangible things like concrete and steel are usually highest on the agenda. Here, it is about the power of the water and the strength of the ground. The world is a rational place. In the end, you can calculate anything and everything. Maybe not now, not yet, but ultimately you will be able to. The study association works in this spirit. In a playful manner, students learn the game of the elders. They are busy with students’ interests where their studies are concerned, with internships and excursions with potential employers and with typical student pranks, such as stealing the totem pole of a rival association.
The proposal they are now discussing is new. Will the association cooperate with the plan to make professors talk with the students about their choices? The proposal is: ‘look at your choices from the beginning of a career, from the middle of a career, and from the end of a career’. What do you expect at the beginning of your life as an engineer, and what has come of that at the end? Or, what kind of career would you like to look back on? Why do I do this work or the studies educating me to do this work?
Students adopt the proposal, and a new activity is born. The concept is simple. The professor shares his experiences with the students. Students do not expect him to have any doubts. After all, he made it! How strange it is to discover that this man acknowledges that he is becoming increasingly doubtful as he gets older. Not where his calculations are concerned; he masters that part of his profession. But he does doubt the usefulness of his designs, the political game surrounding them, or worries about the corruption in the building world. This has a deep impact on young people, hearing those things from someone of experience and distinction. It impresses them, more than the words of any pastor could.
Discovery in the night
1997.Campus of Delft Institute of Technology
Night has fallen on the Delft campus. The buildings look deserted in the dark. At this hour, no-one is at work in the labs anymore. The library is closed. Only the street lights are on. It is well past midnight. Through the night rides Renske Oldenboom on her bicycle. She is on her way home, after a long and intensive conversation with a group of architecture students. She does not know exactly what time it is. It is late. But it was worth the effort. She goes home with a feeling of contentment.
This was ‘The Night of the Philosophy’. It was an initiative by students in architecture. They had come up with this plan out of dissatisfaction with the one-sided communication at their faculty. The distance between students and professors is enormous, most education is one way traffic. The master speaks, while the pupil listens. He sometimes speaks in wonderful images, but he is the only one allowed to speak. The others have no role, other than listening. Students felt the need for a more equal and personal conversation.
In the ‘Night of the Philosophy’, the wish for another form of communication found its way. No arrangement like that of a lecture room, with the standard division of roles, but a number of adjacent round tables. At each table, ten students and a renowned architect are seated. There is no set subordination within this format. Each student talks from his or her own anger and dreams. The great man at the round table suddenly turns out to be a human being with his own anger, and dreams of his own as well. A little further ahead in his career, but at his level, clearly occupied with the same questions. What a relief. Students are having a great time.
The idea had stemmed from a meeting of a group of students with an architectural critic. Renske Oldenboom had ended up in this flow. With pleasure, with her own approval, but still, she was overcome by it. On her bicycle on her way home, she tries to think of what was so fascinating about this night, that it kept her up this late. The feeling is good. But how reliable is that feeling?
Coming from a church community, the work among students is a new challenge. When a spot became available in Delft for a Protestant student pastor, and a friend drew her attention to that, she saw it as the opportunity she had been waiting for.
She comes into contact with a group of students in architecture. With them, she feels at home, but at the same time, she senses her limitations. Her skills as a church pastor abandon her. Then, her role was still clearly defined by the tradition and the expectations of the people in her congregation. These students expect something from her as well. What that something is, they could not say. There were clear signs of their appreciation, but that was it. The rest is up to her.
That is what she was doing that night on her bicycle. Figuring out what her role was. Within the group, she has started with something practical and had begun to pour the coffee. Her intuition told her that she had to become part of the group and had to start operating in an ‘embedded’ way. She was no ordinary member. She was clearly older, but could not have been their mother yet, and that wasn’t necessary either. So what was her identity, the strength that would satisfy the other person as well as herself? Not a pastor, like in her old work. No second mother, no fellow student, no famous architecture connoisseur.
Slowly it is beginning to dawn. A light shines in the night. She finds a new role. She discovers that she stands for intimacy and confidentiality in the conversations. Because of her, famous people can show their vulnerability. Students overcome their fear to speak freely. Students, professors and professionals meet at a personal level. They share their doubts, insights, worries and inspiration with each other. She has discovered her new identity: the pastor has become a coach and has at the same time remained a pastor. She is greatly enthused by the idea.
These two stories, illustrating aspects of the philosophy and practice of MoTiv – technology and spirituality in Delft, are taken from the booklet The Steps of MoTiv – chaplaincy as discourse of disclosure, June 2012. They contribute to the discussion about Faith in the Public Sphere.