A post in The New York Times caught my eye: “Amsterdam Has a Deal for Alcoholics: Work Paid in Beer.”(1) One of the most emailed columns that week, the article detailed the creative and controversial work of The Rainbow Group Foundation, an NGO helping to prevent social isolation for people without caring networks of community like the homeless, the poor, drug users, and those with psychiatric problems. The organization seeks to create vital connections that foster community and enable these socially exiled individuals to participate in society in more healthy ways.
Their latest project, however, has provoked both public ire and praise. Hiring alcoholics as street cleaners and paying them with beer is not a traditional form of compensation, nor does it appear to deal with the problem of addiction. Yet, one of the unlikely supporters of the Rainbow Foundation’s efforts is the Muslim district mayor of Eastern Amsterdam, where there is a large percentage of these marginalized persons. As a practicing Muslim, the district mayor personally disapproves of alcohol but says she believes that alcoholics “cannot be just ostracized” and told to shape up. “It is better,” she said “to give them something to do and restrict their drinking.” Indeed, Hans Wijnands, the director of the Rainbow Foundation, explained: “You have to give people an alternative, to show them a path other than just sitting in the park and drinking themselves to death.”
One of the participants in this program has struggled with alcoholism since the 1970s after he found his wife, who was pregnant with twins, dead in their home from a drug overdose. He has since spent time in a clinic and tried other ways to quit but has never managed to entirely break his addiction. “I’m not proud of being an alcoholic, but I am proud to have a job again,” he said. Once a construction worker, he was out of work for more than a decade because of a back injury and his chronic alcoholism. Finally landing this job sponsored by the Rainbow Foundation, he now gets up at 5:30 in the morning, walks his dog, and heads out ready to clean litter from the streets of eastern Amsterdam. While he has found a new sense of purpose he still acknowledges how difficult life can be. “Every day is a struggle,” he said during a lunch break with his work mates. “You may see these guys hanging around here, chatting, making jokes. But I can assure you, every man you see here carries a little backpack with their own misery in it.”
As I read this article, I couldn’t help but hear the traditional Advent hymn in the back of my mind:
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
The haunting tune of this hymn provides a musical illustration of this modern-day exile: solitary individuals, homeless on cold, wintry streets in Amsterdam, living in a world where most consider them a nuisance at best. Gaining access to that which enslaves them as payment for cleaning the streets, they exist in a form of exile. These individuals wander in their own wilderness of addiction, exiled from themselves, from others, and likely feeling far, far away from the presence of God.
This notion of exile, of being exiled from ourselves, others, and from God, is an overarching theme in the Bible. Indeed, it is often the mournful story of God’s people who traverse its pages as captives, wanderers, and exiles. First captives in the land of Egypt, the children of Israel are freed from their bondage only to spend the next forty years wandering around in what is now the Sinai Peninsula. Brought into the land of promise, their years of freedom were relatively short-lived before they were again exiles; first, conquered by the armies of Assyria, then conquered by the armies of the Babylonians, the people of Judah ‘wept by the rivers of Babylon’ for their home. Even when they returned to their land, they were now under the thumb of the Roman Empire as captives, wanderers, and exiles.
As I thought about the juxtaposition of biblical exile with more modern-day examples of exile, I couldn’t help but recognize the story of exile as a story of human nature. We find ourselves in exile for a variety of reasons. Some are pilgrims who choose to walk a road less traveled and are isolated for it; some wander off the path and become lost without anyone looking for them. Some, like the Israelites, long to return to places of enslavement, mistaking them as places of comfort and solace. The story of Israel’s exile is our human story: how we wander, how often we get lost, and how we are exiled from ourselves, one another, and our Creator. For many, we are exiled for so long we no longer remember our homes or the way back home.
O come, O come Emmanuel is a cry that resounds in a world of exiles. The word Emmanuel means “God with us.” Yet the Christian narrative marks the arrival of that God in an unexpected manner. He is not a conquering hero like other myths and legends, but a God who steps into human exile in the weakness and vulnerability of a baby. But that baby, Jesus of Nazareth, would declare at the beginning of his public ministry that he would “preach the gospel to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(2) The God who comes near does not bruise the damaged reed or blow out the nearly extinguished wick. Instead, he welcomed the exiles to eat and drink with him, inviting them home.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Andrew Higgins, “Amsterdam Has a Deal for Alcoholics: Work Paid in Beer,” The New York Times, December 4, 2013.
(2) Luke 4:14-19.