Church of Sweden International at its Best – The Åkerö August 2011 Experience
There are moments when you are and should be proud of your own kind and where you come from. One such occasion was last week at Åkerö conference centre, 85 km east of Uppsala on the east coast. This conference centre is run by the Swedish Evangelical Mission, which is a movement within Church of Sweden. The seminar that we attended though was for personnel sent out by the official Church of Sweden, International Mission and Diakonia, in short now a merger of Church of Sweden Mission and Lutherhjälpen (Church of Sweden Aid).
There certainly have been discussions in the Church of Sweden head office regarding the fate of those sent out. Should this continue? Partner churches and NGOs seem to be self sufficient when it comes to staff and perhaps this is now an era gone by. The conference at Åkerö, 8 – 12 August, in many ways spoke to the contrary. We may not be missionaries any more, in the old sense, but some would definitely still be partners-in-mission. Others would do tasks that would lean on a certain professionalism, but would still legitimately be sent out by our church. The argument that nobody in fact could withstand was the constant need of human resources in different directions. Aid in terms of financial support in isolation could mean a burden rather than a blessing to those who were supposed to be assisted.
With some 50 people with working experience in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, plus numerous head office staff from Uppsala, we were quite a group to reckon with. The week evolved into something quite powerful, and, as said, the experience and reflection of those who had just come back from their various assignments were daunting. At stake is whether personnel still will be sent out on a long term contracts. The tendency is definitely short term.
The experience of the week speaks volumes of what an indispensable thing it is to build on those who have gone very deep into various situations. A few examples would here serve a purpose. The argument is simple (and the success of Medecins Sans Frontiers, www.msf.fr, may speak the same language): the church is a community of human beings, and the best (and only) resource of profound and infinite value is the human resource. This also means of course that we, the haves, also have to learn to open our doors of privilege, as we also need human assistance – but that is another story that should not be discussed here.
Let me then mention a few of our colleagues, to mention all would amount to a chapter in a book or a whole book. First I like to mention Gunnar and Anne Sophie Norlén who have worked for many years in Moshi and Arusha, Tanzania. Gunnar has taught theology and religious studies, at, what is now, Makumira University College, a constituent college of Tumaini University, under the strong mainline church ELCT (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania). His nerve is very much that of people’s pedagogy (relating to his experience in Swedish folk high schools), and he loves teaching and his students have ‘hung on his lips’. He has gradually gone more and more into supervision of postgraduate work. But this is not all, having been left stranded with course literature written somewhere in the West, he decided early on that he needed to write his own thing. With great enthusiasm he has provided and published books with his college dealing with church history, ethics, comparative religion etc. Anne Sophie, a nurse and physiotherapist, has played a major role at the well known medical school in Moshi, KCMC (The Kilimanjaro Christian Medical College), also part of Tumaini University. She has over the years built capacity in the training of physiotherapists and has put her mark on the remarkable growth of the medical school in terms of administration as well as teaching. Their whole life has become a service of the Church of Sweden, away from Sweden, not only in Tanzania. Earlier on, during the first intifada, they also served the Lutheran church in Bethlehem, the West Bank and Jerusalem for some years.
Our church has over the years built strong relations with people in Israel and Palestine. For about sixty years the Swedish Theological Institute, STI, in west Jerusalem has been in existence. Later on it became decisively important to relate to the small but vigorous Lutheran church on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. For a number of years we have had Inger and Kjell Jonasson stationed there. They actually live at the well known Tantur Ecumenical Institute, just between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Inger has now for a number of years been at the International Center of Bethlehem and Dar al Kalima Evangelical Lutheran College, both under the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Behtlehem as a teacher and project officer. She is also a painter/artist in her own right. Kjell earlier worked as international secretary for the Lutheran bishop, but is now a liaison officer with the local office of the World Council of Churches. Ordained priest, he also takes services at the STI. He is a liaison person in full. Knowing the ecumenical scene, including the numerous and various Orthodox churches in Jerusalem, having for so many years been involved in the question of justice and peace between Israel and Palestine, he is a key person who every week would help visitors from other parts of the world to find their way. In addition Kjell has also served as secretary for the Middle East for Church of Sweden in Uppsala, and before that also worked with aid to churches and people in Iraq. Seeing and hearing Inger and Kjell Jonasson you experience people who are integrated into a situation, a situation of conflict that seems to have no end.
Amity Foundation is a Christian organization that operates in China, mainly with educational matters (also social services, health etc.) like teaching English. As some will know, China has for many years prohibited people entry from other lands with the aim to further the cause of Christian faith and the church; in other words missionaries have not been welcomed. For a number of years we have had Gunnel and Per-Martin Hjort stationed in a few different towns to the west of Shanghai. Their task has been to teach English through Amity. What they also are allowed to do is to have and cultivate a Christian presence where they live and work and they naturally take part in the life of the local congregation. They have had to move from one city to another once or twice but they nevertheless have fallen in love with the people in China and have also contemplated staying on after retirement, but as I heard them now that will probably not happen. The impression is that they blend in with the people, despite the fact that they are the only Westerners around. They also give a strong impression of being part of something important, imperative. They have also developed a very much liked web page telling about ordinary life in China.
Church of Sweden also has engagements in Latin America. From the start there was a strong ecumenical commitment and that is also combined with work in a few of the very small Lutheran churches. One such church is the Lutheran church in Costa Rica, in Central America, no doubt also part of Latin America. For last 6 – 7 years Magnus and Katarina Hedquist have worked there in local congregations as priests, but also with the bishop. It is a small church, more like a parish in Sweden, but nevertheless a church to reckon with. Magnus and Katarina would tell you about what they call a very courageous work towards inclusivity, in a total sense. They have found how relevant this perspective is as we normally take for granted that we are inclusive, which we aren’t. They and the church have developed a Mass (Eucharist) liturgy that puts emphasis on this way of being church for all humans, regardless of orientation, age, looks. It was a blessing for us at the conference to be able to use this liturgy. Magnus and Katarina Hedquist are still quite young and have four children and they are now all going to settle in Växjö. It is easy to hear, listening to them, that they also have become so much part of life in Costa Rica. There is also the sense of a constant need for liberation, the church is still most of the time dirt poor, and the injustices rife, and we find a way together talking about the ever challenging perspective of a viable liberation theology.
All of us had an enormous sense of togetherness these days and one can wonder, how come? After all we seldom see each other, perhaps once a year. There are two reasons why we should continue with the more long term engagement. Church life, on the global scene, as well as ordinary human life, is a coin with two sides to it. Firstly, and you can read for yourself, and also look them up on various sites, these are people who have found as it were a home and an existence in a different part of the world, where they are loved and welcomed and where their contribution is of a very profound type. Their labour is a good that is unmistakable. Their own love of the place and the people where they live is totally unreserved. Secondly, their contribution to the home church and country is just as unmistakable, but the ways and the in-roads back are not always that easy to find. People may not seem to be interested in your rather exotic experiences and you may feel that church and other things around you at home are stagnating. But the one sent out must not unlearn what was learnt on the other side of the globe, but rather add on a new process, namely re-learn what Sweden is like, a different Sweden from when one lived there last. And in the process one will find an interest and a deep, honest welcoming back.
None of us will forget the Åkerö experience in August 2011 and the Church House staff did an excellent job. We again realised that we are a family, but a family that rarely meet. But there is that inner and deep understanding amongst us that goes beyond mere words and yet when we are together we talk and laugh incessantly, day after day.