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By the age of 25, Willem had already been a bookseller, an art dealer, a language teacher, and unsuccessfully in love. But more than all the paintings and all the words and all the women, Willem wanted to devote himself to the service of God and his fellow man.
With a burning evangelistic zeal, he became a clergyman and in 1879 was sent to minister to poor miners in the coal fields of southern Belgium. “He was humble and seemed to truly care about us,” said one of the black faced men who had toiled for half a century in the mines.”
That year the Borinage community suffered a tragedy when the mine collapsed, wounding many and trapping many others. “No one did more than Brother Willem to save them,” reported a Belgian woman widowed by the disaster.
The young preacher worked around the clock; nursing the wounded, feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, and scraping the slag heaps in order to provide fuel for the people of the town.
After the rubble was cleared and the dead were buried, the community turned to the transplanted Dutchman who had healed their wounds. Ministering to them in both body and soul, Willem had become a little Christ to them, the “Christ of the Coal Mines.”
The tiny brick church was packed every Sunday. Miners and farmers and milkmaids and lap-babies clamored to find seats in order to hear the young man preach the Word of God.
He preached as though the Bible was a divine oracle rather than merely an antiquarian product of barely literate nomads. He proclaimed a Living Christ for a dying world. But then lightning struck.
One of the ecclesiastical officials who was making his rounds decided to drop in and see how things were fairing in Borinage. There had been rumors of fanaticism; of religion turned into something unconstrained by four walls and half-mumbled prayers.
The church official was aghast to find Willem living in a meager hut, dressed in an old soldier’s coat and britches made of old flour sacks. Appalled at his poverty, the elder minister asked what had happened to the salary they provided him. Willem answered simply, “I gave it to the miners.”
“There’s such a thing as taking religion too seriously,” the older man chided. “You’ve now saddled the other clergy with the burden of your own behavior. This kind of nonsense will set the church back decades.” Willem was fired on the spot.
Weeks of despair followed the failed minister. All he had ever wanted was to proclaim the gospel of Christ, and show a bit of the Lord’s own kindness to tired and broken souls.
After a few months had passed, Willem was sitting outside a shop at lunch when he noticed an old miner struggling beneath a sack of coal. William again felt a desperation in his heart pulsing like a wound that could not be mollified. He knew that these people would always live there, deep down.
Willem fumbled through his pockets and found the stub of a pencil and a wadded up envelope. He pushed his dinner aside and began sketching the figure of the old man who had moved him so.
His sketch was unflattering and crude. So he tried again and again. When he made it home, he lit a lantern and sat for hours. Drawing the cumbersome sack, the wrinkled face and the heaving shoulders. As he labored into the night, the etching improved, and with it the ache in his soul.
Though he was no longer allowed to teach these people, he believed that he could still reach them. To capture their hardships and their struggles. If not in the church then on a canvas.
He immortalized them, and in turn, they immortalized him. Because that young minister who wasn’t meant to be, became the artist the whole world would know as Vincent Willem Van Gogh.