Interview with Jill Kjølaas Sæterbø, priest for the Norwegian Church
Text: Mark De Hoop
On a cool, blue Sunday morning, I walked across the frosty streets towards the Domkirken. The wood seems to be breathing in the fresh cold, and gives the church a calm openness that reminds me of Norwegian nature. As I enter, I smell old liturgy books, wood, fresh coffee and cake.
Inside I meet Jill. She is a priest and the person behind Food & Fellowship, an initiative of the Tromsø International Church. On a regular basis, they organize events where people can meet and celebrate Christian services.
Can you explain what the International Church does?
Tromsø International Church is an international community for people living, working and studying in Tromsø. Our monthly English service is an alternative not only for international students, but also for working immigrants, refugees and even tourists. You will also meet Norwegians who like an international atmosphere. Our goal is to gather them for common services, for social events and also give them the opportunity to participate in smaller groups. These life groups are for friendship, sharing life experiences and our Christian faith. In 2017 we will hold English services once a month, Sundays at 05.00 pm (17.00). We also organize Food & Fellowship. Food & Fellowship is a social arena where we eat together and where we will arrange mini-concerts and maybe share some reflections about life and faith. This will take place on one of the other Sundays, also at 05.00 pm. We really hope to reach out to international students. For many people who come to Tromsø adjusting to the life here will be fine. But for some, it might not always be that easy to find their way. We want to be there for them, and everybody else.
What does the International Church offer to international students that they can`t find on campus or at their student housing?
You can find fellowship, company to discuss values of life, or share your believes and religious convictions. In that regard, it is a social meeting point. And, of course, it is a place to meet Norwegians from different parts of society. The fellowship we offer can give you a feeling of worth independent of degree, nationality or beauty. What makes the church special is that people visiting here share a deeper connection. It is like entering someone’s home. We base ourselves on the gospel and would like to spread its ideas to those who are interested. But anyone who visits us can experience an unconditional welcome and embrace.
There has been a lot of criticism towards the church institution in the past years. How has this impacted your work?
People don’t often show it directly, but I can feel that skepticism about the Christian church and belief is high. Which I can understand. But the institution has to be distinguished from the faith. The church is a place where you will be welcomed with love. A space where you reflect, and find quietness, which is something I think many of us are looking for. As a student, you want education and friendship, but also answers to more existential questions. What do I want to bring into life? Why am I here? For that, the church is a treasure.
Still, the church has become associated with things like child abuse and has been criticized for corruption at every level. People wonder if they should support, even by visiting, an institution that is known for this.
Being a Christian is not about pretending to live only in righteousness. The most important thing is the relationship with your heart and your relationship with God. Even if members of the Church don’t come to the same conclusion on things like gay marriage and female priests, the faith goes deeper and keeps us together in spiritual unity. Still, for some people, these questions are so important that they keep their faith in their heart and stay outside of the church. But even if they do, through faith, we still belong to the same Christian family. Then there are people that might disagree with others inside the Church, but continue to participate in the community. They join to overcome these differences.
How would you describe the openness of the debate about these topics in church?
Well I must say, that at least in the church that I am part of, we have had big discussions about these questions for years. The debate now is very much in the open. As I mentioned before, in the church you will find so many different values and opinions. Ranging from the very conservative to the very liberal. Some colleagues joined the Pride Parade last week, for the first time. We come to church and carry a thousand things with us. The most important thing is, that we hope visitors will feel acceptance, and a personal connection because they are met with love.
Despite the challenges, the church has something important to offer nowadays, even for those who look at religion with skepticism. It is a space where you can be met with an open heart, and use a moment to ask yourself questions which might not come up during a normal day.
Indeed. You can not say the church is just one thing or another. Every Sunday, I meet people with so much love in their hearts and a willingness to do something good. Their inspiration is their faith. You will find a variety of opinions and perspectives, but that is what connects us. We started organizing Food and Fellowship to invite people and let them know what we do. Whenever I walk into a church, I feel that I have entered a holy place. This makes it special, a home where you are invited unconditionally.
On the 27th of December there will be a Christmas service, starting at 05pm in Tromsø domkirke, with food and fellowship afterwards. See Facebook “Tromsø International Church”.