There were many clouds in the sky. The temperature was still hot enough for early October and I was walking hurriedly across the narrow streets of Plaka. Shortly before 15.00 pm I would ring the bell in the building of 18, Daidalou street. Looking up I would notice a Swedish and Finnish flag fluttering on the balcony of the first floor while at the door of the entrance I would see only a small inscription with the emblem of the official Church of Sweden — Svenska Kyrkan.
Going to the first floor, Rev’d’ Björn Kling would open the door. Coming in, I heard a mixture of Scandinavian languages while Björn is offering me a tea to start our conversation. Brigitta, who is responsible for the cafe of the Swedish Church, is giving me my brown sugar, smiling, while she is speaking her mother tongue on the phone.
Founding the Swedish Church
“The Swedish church has been established about 45 years ago and not even in Athens where we are now but in Piraeus. Originally, it was a branch of the Seamen’s Churches, part of a huge network. The thought behind it, was that all Scandinavian countries had a large number of men working in shipping, at sea. When they got to the harbor, they were all in a bad situation due to the harsh working conditions and there was no one to take care of them as their own people would do. Well, this role has come to be covered by the Swedish Church.” says Björn, sitting on the white couch.
But the time when the Swedish sailors were at sea was over and the Swedish Church had to change its role and mission. It was now there to help the Swedish truck drivers who were waiting to load and unload goods from the port of Piraeus. Due to time-consuming customs procedures, drivers waited in Piraeus for several days or weeks and the Church was there to help them and facilitate their stay.”
“Then we entered the era of the European Union and there were no customs and therefore no truck drivers. Our Church had to think very seriously about its raison d’être, its reason of existence. Why do we exist? Whom should we help?
From Piraeus to Athens
The needs were now shifted from Piraeus to the center of Athens. “There were quite a few Swedes and Scandinavians in Athens. Mainly women who married Greeks 30–40 years ago and settled here permanently. The need to find a common bond with their homeland again, to speak their language again and to pray in a church with memories from their childhood was more intense than ever.”
Based on this reasoning, the Church settled in this building 8–10 years ago. Access now is pretty easy and everyone can come. But who are they all?
“The truth is that we are a very small parish, and indeed a “poor” parish. At Easter, 60 people were in the mass, while in Sunday’s services we did not exceed 20 people. “
The average age of Swedes who are members of the Church is growing while younger generations do not come to the church.
“Our people here are growing up. Mobility impairs and diseases do not allow them to come to the church regularly. Also, many choose to return to Sweden because of the economic crisis. An even more important problem is that the descendants of these people, children and grandchildren, have nothing to do with Swedish culture and identity. Because of their daily life in Greece, they did not learn to speak Swedish and they have no contact with this country culturally, let alone religiously. “
While we are talking, I am hearing people arrive and coffee cups take their place in front of the coffee maker. Fika is called the habit of Swedes to take a break from everyday life to have coffee with friends while enjoying the cinnamon buns. Coincidentally, on the same day of the interview, October 4th in Sweden, they celebrate the National Day of Cinnamon Buns.
“As I told you, our parish here is quite poor. Of course, the Church supports us back to Sweden, but we have to face several challenges. That’s why I chose tbeing and serving abroad. Parishes abroad do not enjoy the advantages of parishes in Sweden such as huge, clean buildings, bureaucratic organization, several employees, etc. “
In my question about their activities as a parish, I would be happy to learn that there have been several things in the last two years. There is a children-youth choir and a youth club where it meets Wednesdays or Saturdays. “We study and discuss. We study mainly religious books, but we love the ancient Greek philosophers and ancient Greek mythology. Despite the odds, the Swedish church will celebrate with all the glory the Christian feasts as well as the Swedish traditions such as the tradition of Lucia — Lucia. The custom of Lucius is celebrated every year in St. Paul’s Anglican Church. We have an excellent collaboration with both the Anglican and all other Lutheran churches here.”
“Unfortunately, we would love to help even more actively to tackle social problems. We are not running our own programs to alleviate vulnerable social groups. Instead, we provide some sponsorship for some who know very well how to do it. First, we give an amount to the Non-Profit Organization APOSTOLI belonging to the Greek Orthodox Archbishopric. Then we give a support to a very worthwhile effort, ANASA. It is a school — circus where pupils either Greeks or refugees or immigrants learn acrobatics. It supports young people so that they can come out of the margin or do not get to the margin. They learn how to work together and how to acquire skills. We are interested in souls. Everyone will give a dish of food or do a medical examination. But who will care for these so tormented souls? “
Volunteers play a very important role in the parish’s actions. “Generally, we have quite a few volunteers. Mostly young volunteers from the Finnish church.”
A few months earlier, I would have noticed a new Finnish in Greece. She had just begun to work in the refugee on behalf of the Finn Church Aid, official organization of the Finnish church.
“But we also have paid staff for a few hours a week. Brigitta, Eva or Mari but also other women. They are employed for the cafe or the administrative part while there are two musicians. “
“Are you optimistic about the future of the parish in Greece?” I will ask with naivety. He has traveled with the church as a volunteer but also as a priest in places like Tanzania and Eritrea, Paris, Spain. His experiences marked him and shaped him.
“I grew up in a small town in northern Sweden. My parents were not particularly observant, but my friends and I were going to the church. It was a little normal for me to become a priest … “
“At first I went to a very small place of Sweden. I had awesome dreams and innovative ideas for a priest. I dreamt to create a football team, a volleyball team, etc. The people there taught me to make close relationships and learn each other.”
While we share our experiences from Sweden, I would tell him that I believe that the Swedes are not at all religious. “I think the Swedes are very Christian,” Bjorn told me. “And when I say Christians I mean they have, they maintain and they share Christian values. The negative is that it is now a polarized society where everyone is afraid of religion. Is he a Muslim? He is a terrorist. “
We close the interview and the last question I want to ask is about memories. A memory he will keep with him when he leaves Greece.
“I will never forget a feeling. How people feel when they speak their mother tongue again, when they pray and sing hymns that remind them of their childhood, when they find shelter and themselves in their memories.
You next cofee meeting can take place at the cafe of the Swedish Church: https://www.svenskakyrkan.se/grekland/cafe-paulusgarden (with Google translation you will also see the days and hours of operation). If you are interested in seeing a typical Sunday service in Swedish, you can be on Sunday at 18.00 at the Anglican Church of St. Paul in Filellinon. But where you will meet the original Swedish and Scandinavian culture will be in the annual Christmas Bazaar and the tradition of Lucia. To keep up with their news, follow them: https://www.svenskakyrkan.se/grekland & Facebook.