At a small square with a tree and a green border peacefully lies a brickstone house. Ringing at the doorbell of the Lawsons, one could easily oversee the function of the building, a church. But the funny thing is, it has been the other way around. The former Minister of the Scots International Church in Rotterdam hadn’t lived in this built-on home for 20 years but when Derek Lawson became the minister in 2016, he and his wife Moira, and their dog, moved into the Manse. “Welcome,” says Derek in a very Scots accent while opening the door, “please enter.”
From lawyer to reverend
In the tiny study directly to the left, Derek starts his story. He tells that he had been a lawyer for 25 years and then decided to train as a minister of the Church of Scotland. Although he retired in 2011 and was living peacefully in the countryside in France, he came out of retirement to fill the long-lasting vacancy at the church in Rotterdam in July 2016. The couple had visited Rotterdam once already when Derek served as Locum Minister in 2014. “We kind of felt at home in Rotterdam.” Derek says, explaining the choice for Rotterdam. “We like the city and its variety of architecture. The fact that the center literally had been rebuilt. Besides, everyone seemed to speak English.” He laughs: “Basically, I’m the only one who doesn’t speak Dutch!”
We kind of felt at home in Rotterdam.
Sticking 30 nationalities together
The variety in buildings is also reflected in the congregation. The Church members have over 30 nationalities. And on Sundays many students and many tourists visit the service. “Totally different to congregations in Scotland. That group is very homogeneous: they are generally Scots people. Here the group is very international and diverse.” People of the same background tend to stick together. “But, I always encourage them to share their stories with each other. They all have something to offer to the other.” Besides the cultural differences, Derek notes also differences in what they exactly believe. For example, children taking communion wasn’t appreciated by all members. Derek questioned, listened and explained the different views. After which they came to an agreement. He smiles and says in a firm optimistic tone: “We need the will to agree to differ.”
We need the will to agree to differ.
Scots and Dutch trading
Derek hands over a booklet with the history of the Scots Church in Rotterdam. The history extends over 375 years. Although the first important settlement had already occurred in 1444 when Mary Stuart married Wolfert VI van Borselen, stadhouder of Holland. Scots sailors and tradesmen were granted many privileges by Van Borselen and Rotterdam became a market for their goods. “Lots of dikes have been built by Scots.” Derek remarks. A few ages later, when religious persecutions were taking place in Britain, Scots and English Protestants became exiles in Holland and many joined the Dutch Kirk. As easy it was to settle abroad in those years, nowadays it’s more insecure with Brexit. For Derek and his wife it makes their future in Rotterdam uncertain as they want to return to live in France after his definite retirement. The minister of the Scots Church is waiting for the outcome! “It’s horribly complicated.”
Lots of dikes have been built by Scots.
Suggesting he might stay in Rotterdam wasn’t a problem for Derek. “The positive side of this house is the location. Conveniently close to shops and transportation. But the downside is the location as well. We have graffiti on the walls, which is very expensive to remove. And the nights can be very noisy.” He tells about last night when huge fireworks went on for over ten minutes and totally scared the dog. A quiet surrounding and better weather are to be found in Mid-France. Meanwhile, the Manse is a pleasant home. It contains normal sized rooms with built-in cabinets, a kitchen reachable via the hallway or the living room and four bedrooms with a bathroom on the upper floor. “Now, I would have changed the floorplan into three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I think it was probably a luxury house in the immediate post-war days in the Netherlands when it was built but…” Derek is gesticulating with his arms, “..in Scotland Manses often were enormous.” The proportions of the house accompany the size of the church, which has a convenient indoor connection. Derek shows the way.
The positive side of this house is the location. But the downside is the location as well.
Sanctuary in the sky
On the ground floor lies the modest Lower Hall. Derek smiles: “I’ve never understood why they call it the Lower Hall. It’s the only hall!” The hall has a gentle slope where chairs can be placed in rows in front of the higher platform. “It must have been quite modern in its day, but now it’s probably a bit dated.” Derek comments: “The hall is used for different purposes: as a polling station, for meetings, gatherings or even parties.”
The entrance of the church is light but quite low and has been decorated with lots of Scots crosses in windows or doorframe woodcarving and on the painted pillars. The marble stairs with its typical post-war railings made of slender steelwork with a wooden handgrip lead the visitor past the stained glass windows to the sanctuary above. “It is an unusual lay-out to build the hall downstairs and the sanctuary above.”
I think it was probably a luxury house in the immediate post-war days in the Netherlands when it was built but in Scotland Manses often were enormous.
Sauna or steamship?
The sanctuary is light, cosy and warm. Derek sighs: “Heating is difficult in this building. In the winter it costs a lot to heat everything as there is no insulation. We have ‘cityheating’ and the chamber in the cellar where all the pipes enter the building looks like the engine room of a steamship!” He continues: “In the summer it can be very hot. There is no ventilation besides a few small windows.” And with a regular 100 to 150 people visiting Derek’s services it can get muggy and warm on a sunny Sunday. He explains that the lack of opening windows may be because of the houses next to the church: to avoid nuisance of noise. In the case of the Congolese church which worships after the Scots on Sundays, this measure isn’t for nothing. Derek says: “Where in the bible did they read God was deaf? They amplify everything!”
In the summer it can be very hot. There is no ventilation besides a few small windows.
Refugees in verger house
Throughout the conversation it appears that the church is being used for many different purposes and for people with various backgrounds. In what was the koster house, at the back of the church, they even hosted refugees for several years. “About six people lived there for years. The accommodation was very basic. Everything went well, but at a certain point the municipality didn’t allow it anymore.” Also the church has been the distribution point for the food bank in the center of Rotterdam for the past year. The history of the building is paved by the hosting of all those various people and communities. Open for everyone to share a story or receive shelter. As Derek would say: “Welcome, please enter!“