Hans Schepers, the village pastor, has changed. Two years ago, he came to this sleepy farming community straight out of seminary, thinking he would educate the townspeople about the dangers of nuclear weapons.
The townspeople, in fact, educated him.
``I was, and still am, opposed to the missiles,'' he said recently, referring to the 48 United States cruise missiles due to be deployed at an Air Force base on the outskirts of Woensdrecht. ``But I soon learned that the issue had already caused great disharmony here. And it didn't need me to create more.''
``The role of the church is to help bring people together, not divide them,'' he said. ``And so I've tried to do that, refusing to take sides in the debate, even though it is often difficult for me personally to do so.''
Tomorrow, at a Cabinet meeting in The Hague, the Dutch government is expected to give the go-ahead to deployment of the missiles as part of a NATO-sponsored arms modernization program aimed at countering the Soviet Union's military buildup.
The Netherlands is the last of five NATO countries to ratify a 1979 decision to station the intermediate-range missiles.
More than a year ago, the Dutch parliament decided that Nov. 1, 1985, would be its deadline for making a final decision on whether or not to station the missiles. As a basis for its decision, parliament said the Netherlands would accept cruise missiles by 1988 if the Soviet Union continued to install medium-range SS-20 missiles aimed at Western Europe.
At that time, the Soviets had 378 SS-20s in place. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently said that the number of SS-20 missiles on ``standby alert'' had been reduced to 243. But most Dutch politicians accept the latest NATO figure of 441.
Earlier this week, the Dutch parliament approved a five-year draft agreement with the US covering arrangements for the actual siting and control of the missiles. It specifies that the US will give special consideration to Dutch views before launching missiles from Dutch territory.
``It is 100 percent ruled out that these weapons could be launched without NATO consultation,'' said Dutch Defense Minister Jacob de Ruiter. NATO officials said that similar accords have been signed between the US and the other four West European countries, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Britain, which have already begun stationing the nuclear missiles on their soil.
But the decision to accept the missiles will not be greeted with enthusiasm by Pastor Schepers -- or by two-thirds of the Dutch people who, according to opinion polls, also oppose deployment.
Last Saturday, Dutch peace activists presented Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers with a petition signed by 3.75 million Dutch citizens opposed to deployment.
Yet for many, the government decision to deploy the missiles will mark a major and positive turning point in the history of Western Europe's most broadly based, if not most powerful, peace and disarmament movement.
``Sure, we have lost a battle,'' says Gied Ten Berge, a senior staff member at the Interchurch Peace Council in The Hague. ``But finally that chapter has been closed and we now hope to raise the debate to a higher level of political activity.''
Mr. Ten Berge's organization has spearheaded the antimissile movement at the national level, bringing together churches, political parties, women's groups, and masses of citizens in an effort to force the government to reject deployment.
Yet many peace activists have long felt that the antimissile campaign, while important, focused activists' energies too narrowly and drained the movement of much creative vigor.
``For nearly a decade,'' Ten Berge says, ``the whole discussion [within the peace movement] has been about cruise missiles. There was nothing else. Now that that issue is behind us we want to grow, to consider the broader issues of East-West relations and of Holland's role in the NATO alliance.''
Even here in Woensdrecht work has begun to broaden the debate beyond the cruise missiles.
Until two years ago, there was no local peace movement here, despite an earlier government decision to site the missiles at the Woensdrecht air field if and when the government gave its formal approval.
Protests were left to young activists like ``Fritz'' (as he calls himself) who started a ``peace camp'' just outside the base. He has lived there since September 1983.
But townspeople are taking another approach in order to reach a wider audience. A Woensdrecht peace group has been formed. It holds meetings and publishes a newsletter in its attempt to educate people on peace-related issues. Last month, it bought a small building which it hopes to turn into an information center.
``We know we're fighting an uphill battle,'' says Bert Zwiers, an accountant who heads the group. ``Many people have been discouraged after the movement's failure to stop the deployment of cruise missiles. Some will do nothing. That's a real danger.''