At the helm of a mission crusade

Robert Nowell meets Fr John Wijngaards who is spearheading a mission drive in this country – THE UNIVERSE April 7, 1991, p. 8.

Prayer is one of the best avenues for evangelisation in Britain. That is the view of a Mill Hill Father who has spent almost half his life in Asia but who has since found a rich field of missionary work in London.

“Many people in this country are looking for guidance,’ said Fr John Wijngaards. “Many people say that they believe in God (about 60 to 70 per cent), that they frequently pray, and that they have spiritual experiences.” That is the kind of market he and his colleagues — all returned missionaries – are trying to reach at Housetop, the centre he set up in London to support the Church’s missionary work by providing resources for the apostolate.

“Deliberately we chose to consider England just as much a mission country as any other part of the world,” he added. Setting up Housetop followed the end of his term of office as vicar-general of the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1982. He was unable to get a resident’s visa to go back to the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

He only left India in 1976 to attend the chapter of the Mill Hill Missionaries, but to his surprise he found himself elected his congregation’s vicar general. “A personnel manager’s job really,” he said.

The change was “quite traumatic” because he had to leave behind a number of projects in which he was involved, and in addition he was virtually the only scripture teacher for 180 students.

Housetop’s most successful venture has been the production of videos aimed at the apostolate. These are designed for use by groups to help them reflect on what it means to be a Christian. “Video is not very good at giving information, but it allows you to enter into other people’s life experiences,” explained Fr Wijngaards.

He is now working on a series called Walking on Water which uses stories from all over the world to bring the gospels to life and explain their background. It is an international co­production involving co­operation with similar centres throughout the Catholic world.

What in fact will be the second in a series of seven —My Galilee, My People — interweaves three stories from Columbia with Jesus’s ministry and preaching: a young woman doctor having to cope with the illness caused by the pesticides the local landowner (and sole employer) uses on his rice fields; a writer of school text-books coming to terms with the fact that what he is writing is no use for the poor children down the road; and the inhabitants of a slum threatened with their homes being demolished to make way for a lucrative development.

Another aspect of Housetop’s work is providing advice on sects and cults, ranging from the Hare Krishna movement to Christian Science, and counselling those who have got caught up in them.

Fr Wijngaard’s connection with Asia goes back to his birth. He was born in Surabaya on the island of Java, then the centre of the Dutch East Indies, where his father was principal of two mission schools. When he was five the Japanese invaded; his father was shipped off to Siam to work on building a railway for the Japanese army, and he and his three brothers and his mother were herded into a prison camp. They all survived the war and were reunited as a family to spend some time in the interior of Siam before being repatriated to the Netherlands.

There the young John Wijngaards had to catch up with his education.

In India his main task was teaching scripture at the seminary, but he quickly became caught up in other ventures: setting up a communications centre, helping to organise a “unique partnership” between the mission aid agencies and the eight (now ten) dioceses of Andhra Pradesh.

Many of the 23 books he has published involve expounding the Bible. His latest venture has been a novel – not surprising when you think preaching the gospel involves telling stories, as the Bible itself does.