It’s a cold and drizzly day in October as I pull into the parking lot of the Schmidt, Berg Business Park in Surrey, British Columbia. I’m here to talk with Marten Vanhuizen about the interplay between his faith and his work. After finding the right door in the complex, I go up the stairs to the offices of Field and Marten. There is a small seating area immediately in front of you as you enter the main door, a large conference room with a glass wall is to your right, and Marten’s office to the left.
“What I am doing is a sort of a discovery,” Marten begins when asked to briefly talk about his work.
“When my kids used to have to describe what their father did for school exercises, they used to ask me, “What do you do, Dad?” I used to answer, “I’m not sure!” That is to say, I am considered to be a Real Estate Developer, but that’s not completely accurate.”
Field and Marten itself, the company which Marten helped found, provides real estate development, business consulting, and project management services. At one point Marten considered going to seminary to be a pastor, but as he explored where his gifts were and what gave him a sense of purpose he recognised that God wasn’t calling him in that direction. He took to heart the message that we can serve God wherever he calls us.
“There are multiple ways of serving that don’t necessarily require a pastorate, so use your gifts for the benefit of others."
His training was initially in urban planning, which was sparked from his work in construction during the summer while going to university, and his training in geography and economics.
“Swinging a hammer and a pickaxe and shovel were okay for the summer. It was great exercise, but it wasn’t where my heart was. I could see a lot of opportunity in terms of being creative. I kind of stumbled onto it as I was studying geography and economics."
He saw rather quickly an opportunity to have a hand in shaping great places for people to live. This caused him to think deeply about what it means to be a part of a community, and what kinds of spaces help contribute to that sense of community.
“One of the reasons I went into planning was to take the scarce resource we have, and use it effectively and responsibly. Because the Real Estate business, by and large, has not a very good reputation because it attracts a lot of people who are only interested in profit over society. The challenge of doing developments is how do we do that responsibly, and what’s the Christian response to how to do it.”
As a Christian, Marten sees his faith shaping not only the moral aspect of his business; always ensuring fair dealings with his clients. He also sees it shaping how they go about planning the developments and including considerations about more than profit.
“As we plan we think about different kinds of questions. Is this a ‘good’ outcome? Will it make a good neighbourhood? I am being fair in pricing? How do we build the infrastructure? Where is the green space? Where are the pathways? We tend to want to say, “Let’s maximize the profit.” But you can do so at significant long term harm to the community.”
This emphasis on creating community flows out of a recognition that humans are made for connections. As a Christian, he sees the need for a connection with God through Jesus as primary. He also sees a need for the ability to connect in very real ways as human beings as well. Part of the damage of sin in our world is our social isolation with one another and this can be mitigated through good real estate planning. In this way, Marten sees the work he does as reflecting a part of the providential nature of God. Through his work, God is providing a space for people to develop connections with each other.
This desire for creating spaces where community can develop also highlights a unique glimpse of the brokenness that exists in the world.
“The real estate market is extremely non-affordable. And in any one of those environments where there is competition for housing and prices are going up, there is a significant segment of our society that loses out as a result of it. You just need to drive into Walley on 135a St. There is a length of two blocks on that street that is solid tents. In the pouring rain people are living there. You see it in people’s selfishness, people wanting what they want for themselves at the expense of others.”
At the same time, Marten’s work gives him a unique glimpse into the beauty of God’s work in the world. He sees lots of people and organisations seeking to make a difference and help heal this damage.
“We see it with churches that have significant assets that are seeking to use those assets to help. We see it from individual people as well. When we actually sit down with people and challenge them on taking a step forward, a responsible step forward. They also will fund a project. When we did Sonshine Centre in Calgary, the people who we thought that would help us raise the money we needed to buy a couple of apartment buildings were not the ones that came forward. It was the everyday family that said, “Yeah, I think we should do this.” They would even use their home as a means of leveraging to make it happen. To this day that society is a huge counselling service in the city of Calgary, serving Alberta in a very meaningful way."
The work that Marten does has given him a unique insight into the selfishness of humanity, but also its altruism. Sometimes it is easy to become discouraged, but those glimpses of God at work help keep him going.
“It’s on both sides, whether it comes from people with a faith commitment or not. It’s incredible, the philanthropy that is out there when you tap it. And that keeps you going.”
Marten expressed deep appreciation for the way in which our church family has blessed and helped him. This showed up especially during his illness 5 years ago, but also through the way others helped him accomplish projects like Elim, and Surrey Christian School.
“We don’t do it perfectly, but there are incredible people doing things that no one would ever know about. It’s so affirming that I’ve been able to experience that.”
Marten’s experience of Christian community, and his belief that he is called to help build genuine community obviously shapes the work he does. I left his office with a new appreciation for the way urban planning can help create spaces which are conducive to creating community. As I walked out to my car, I noticed the physical layout of the buildings in a whole new way. The buildings are built in a square, placed around a central courtyard. Benches, trees, and other plants are scattered around the courtyard, and it looks like a nice place to hang out in the summer.