The Rev. Dr. Han van den Blink
St. Paul’s Church, Troy
When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them, because they
were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
During the War in the Pacific, Bangkong was one of a number of concentration camps in Semarang, a large city on the northern coast of middle Java. It was built as a convent and boarding school for an order of Dutch Roman Catholic nuns, the Franciscan Sisters of Heythuysen, and had been requisitioned to serve as an internment camp for men—and and boys older than ten who were judged to be men when they reached that age.
I was in one of the last group of young boys to be moved to Bangkong before the war suddenly ended. We were basically left to fend for ourselves. One day, soon after the arrival of our group of 10 and 11 year old boys, several of us were crying for our mothers. We tried to be brave, but were terribly homesick and felt abandoned. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a nun appeared. She was not wearing a regular religious habit but enough to let us know that she was a nun.
For in that awful place there was also a small group of about 45 Roman Catholic nuns from different religious orders who had volunteered to be with the fourteen hundred men and boys who were imprisoned there. There was not much they could do to help the sick and starving except to be there with them. It was truly a ministry of presence.
I remember that she put her arms around us and led us to a set of concrete steps where she could sit down and comfort us. She was able in that stressful location to create a bit of a safe place, at least for a short while. I still remember her lilting accent. It was that of a Dutch woman from one of the southern provinces of the Netherlands, either Brabant or Limburg.
She told us stories. I do not remember what she said. All I remember is her presence and the indescribable difference it made. At that moment of feeling alone and abandoned she was for me the face of God.