The Surinamese-Dutch minister Orlando Bottenbley (70) studied theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and in thirty years transformed a small Baptist church in Drachten into a mega-church.
We met in the church De Verbinding in Amsterdam where he has been minister for several years, to talk about his vocation, how he sees the coronavirus crisis as a sign of the end of days and why his brother’s murder forced him to forgive.
Was it always your dream to become a minister?
„No, not at all. Actually, with my background in high-level sports, I wanted to become a PE teacher; a respected and well-paid job at the time. I grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Paramaribo. There was a lot of drug use, police raids and prostitution. Our family wasn’t criminal, but had to live there for financial reasons. My father had had a stroke and he was at home all day. My mother, brothers and sisters took care of him and the remaining money was invested in me and my education.
„On a Wednesday morning in 1973, everything changed. I get up at half past five every morning, kneel down to read the Bible and pray to God about the day ahead. That morning I read Isaiah 6, which is about the calling of the prophet Isaiah. This states: ‘whom shall I send? See, here I am, send me’. The moment I read that I heard a voice say: ‘You are that man’. I thought: what on earth is going on? Am I imagining that voice? I quickly closed the Bible and walked out of my room in a daze.
„I stayed away from the church for three months, I didn’t pray anymore and didn’t want to have anything to do with God."
„A few days later, on Sunday, I was sitting in our local church when the minister started the service and said: ‘Today I want to read from Isaiah 6 with you’. I sat frozen on the church pew. It was as if someone was constantly speaking to me individually during the sermon. After the service a sister came to me and said: Orlando, maybe it seems crazy, but during the sermon God kept on saying that you’re that man’."
„When an American missionary took me home, he asked if I was sure I wanted to go into education. Perhaps it would be better to devote my life to God. I burst into tears and told him everything that had happened that week. I then ended up in a crisis. I stayed away from the church for three months, I didn’t pray anymore and didn’t want to have anything to do with God. I knew that if I said ‘yes’, I’d have to leave Suriname to study theology. I didn’t want that. What would my parents think? In the end, I felt I had no choice but to capitulate. I said to God: ‘I want to obey, but all the consequences are for You’. That American missionary then raised the funds for my journey and study and, travelling via Brussels, I eventually arrived in Amsterdam."
You then studied Greek and Latin for two years at Vrije Universiteit, followed by theology. What memories do you have of your student years?
„For me, choosing theology was a conscious choice; I wanted to do God’s work. During the study programme I got to know students who had no idea what they wanted to do. The flat I lived in together with my wife was full of other Vrije Universiteit students and we had discussions about faith in the communal room every Friday and Saturday evening. What does faith mean? Why do you believe or why don’t you? That taught me that I wanted my faith to be so firm that it could withstand the test of time."
Under your leadership, the Baptist church in Drachten expanded from 60 to 4,500 members. What’s your secret?
„The strength was the combination of a joyful experience with music and song and a sound message. The service is well-planned, but it touches you, you recognise yourself and it gives you tools you can use every day. People from Reformed churches find it difficult to talk about their faith. It’s considered to be something private. Evangelists on the other hand want to talk about it. I’m familiar with both sides. I understand the culture and thinking of the Reformed Church, but have always functioned within the Evangelical. This created a mix for me."
You see the coronavirus crisis as a sign of the end of days. Can you tell us something about this?
„Two years ago, at the start of the crisis, I went in search of answers. I analysed Matthew 24 word for word and translated this to the time in which we live now. In Matthew 24, Christ says you can watch for various signs to see how close we are to the end of days and one of the things he mentions are infectious diseases. He compares these with contractions. These come at the end of pregnancy before something fantastic happens; the birth of a child. It also means that the contractions will get more severe. I expect the return of Christ within now and 14 years."
Does that mean you’re against vaccination?
‘No. It doesn’t mean I’m going to just let everything happen to me and refuse any medical interventions. I don’t see that as cause and effect. I’m very much for vaccination, and I actually encourage people to do it. At the same time, I reject all kinds of conspiracy theories, which are mainly driven by fear.
So you take the entire Bible literally, including the Story of Creation. How do you view the idea that this is at odds with science?
„I don’t believe in a form of cherry picking. It’s all or nothing. Otherwise, what does that mean for how you interpret the rest of the Bible? And what consequences does that have for your faith if you start interpreting everything in your own way? I know people who wanted to make a distinction and some later lost their faith."
„However, most people denounce their faith when they experience disappointment. They then have the tendency to blame God for this; their disappointment is so huge that they say goodbye to Him."
„In the initial days after his birth I blamed God so much; I was so angry with him."
Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
„I was on the verge of losing my faith several times. Our first son was born deaf and blind, has a heart defect and is spastic. In the initial days after his birth I blamed God so much; I was so angry with him. I immediately stopped working and didn’t want to see anyone. Until one day when I was sitting at home feeling depressed, I heard that voice again from nowhere telling me: ‘You won’t understand, but it is through love that I have entrusted you with this child’. From that day I embraced my son and have a truly special bond with him."
„Years later, my faith was tested yet again. We were at home and the telephone rang. It was one of my brothers in Suriname who told me that our other brother had been murdered. My world collapsed. A common thief had tried to rob him, and had then shot him. A few days later I was on a flight to Suriname. I was furious and devised a plan to kill that boy. Through various sources, I found out which cell he was in and lied to the prison director that I needed to speak to him for the family. It was as though I’d firmly closed that door to God."
„That’s how Jesus taught me what forgiveness means."
„When I entered the cell, I became the devil. I started screaming and had to be restrained by the guards. Why had he killed my brother? And then the boy started talking. About his murdered father, and about his mother who then had to work as a prostitute in their home. He later ended up in gangs and robbed people."
„It was as though someone flipped a switch. I felt the hate and anger melt away and felt only pity for him. I gave him a Bible before I left Suriname. He’s still in prison and will never be released. I go back to Suriname twice a year and I always visit him in prison. That’s how Jesus taught me what forgiveness means."