Thriving in Singapore

This Christmas will be the Danish chaplain Hans Vestergaard Jensen and his wife Anne Hviid Jensen’s third Christmas in Singapore.
     The couple is obviously thriving in the job and as the community is highly appreciative of their efforts one might safely expect more years to follow – although it may not beat the couple’s 13 years in the former British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
     “In total we’ve been abroad for more than 20 years,” Hans Vestergaard told me when we met over a cup of coffee on the porch of the Danish Seamen’s Church on Mount Faber.
     “My very first assignment was as a seaman’s chaplain in Antwerp, where we stayed from 1977 to 1982, followed by three years at the Hans Egede Church on Vesterbro in Copenhagen.”
     “Then we did our so far longest haul, 13 years in Hong Kong where we lived in the centre of town, right in the middle of the tourist area in an apartment on the 11th floor.”
     The seamen’s church in Hong Kong didn’t have its own church, but the Danes shared the English church, which had 120 employees.
     “We were more outgoing in Hong Kong, as people could call me both at home and in my office. Often meetings with the congregation were held outside the church, in people’s home or over lunch at restaurants. Most often though, newly arrived sailors would find the church by themselves and walk in without knocking. “Is the Rabbi home,” they’d shout, while they helped themselves to a beer from the fridge.”
     The 13 years in Hong Kong culminated with the hand-over of the colony from Britain to China.
     “It was a very exiting time,” recalls Hans Vestergaard.
     Hans’ next job was back in Denmark on the island of Bornholm in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Here the couple stayed for four years. At the same time he was involved in the preparations for the merging of the Danish churches abroad and the seaman’s Missions.
     “Suddenly the position as a seaman’s chaplain at the Church in Singapore was available. My wife and I were pretty keen on going abroad again before we were going to be too old. So I applied for the job,” Hans Vestergaard smiles.
     Hans Vestergaard and Anne Hviid Jensen arrived in Singapore in December 2002.
     “While Hong Kong is predominately Chinese, the cultural and ethnic melting pot of Singapore is fascinating. But I’m happy we started out in Hong Kong,” Hans Vestergaard adds.
     “A major difference is, that here we have our own church which also functions as a meeting point for the community, our shop with Danish groceries, and much more.”
     The setting of the Danish Seamen’s Mission in Singapore is legendary for its breath taking view since it was established 18 years ago in a big villa on Mount Faber owned by the port authorities. From the porch you can overlook part of the harbour that for many years has been amongst the three busiest in the world.
     Even though Hans Vestergaard is employed and residing in Singapore, it’s by far the new centre in Malaysia that has taken up most of his and the staffs’ energy.
“From the very first day here in Singapore, I’ve been deeply involved in the new seaman’s Centre in Pelapas in Malaysia. It was established when A. P. Moeller decided to move a major part of their freight directly across the channel that divides Singapore and Malaysia.”
     “I attended construction meetings every week, and at the same time did my share at the Centre. Now that the centre is established in Malaysia it is run by an assistant. But once a week, every Tuesday, I leave Singapore some time in the early afternoon, and come back around midnight,” Hans Vestergaard explains.
     Contrary to the church in Singapore that lies on top of a hill, some distance from the harbour the Pelapas Centre is situated right outside the fence surrounding the freight containers on the harbour.
     “We have between 100 and 150 visitors at the Centre every week. The Centre is not Danish like the seaman’s church, but international, and has already had visitors from more than 30 different countries. Only 30 percent are Danish. All our guests have access to billiard, Internet, bar and kitchen, library with fresh papers every day and our big hit, the international phone lines. We sell between 30 – 60 phone cards a week, so people can make cheap calls home. We’ve got four lines, often glowing for hours at the time,” explains Hans Vestergaard.
     The biggest event at the Church in Singapore is the Christmas bazaar, which serves at least two major functions. It supplies the Danish community in Singapore with what they need for a proper Danish Christmas, and it creates a big surplus, which is used to run the church.
     “The Christmas bazaar is something we all take part in. And I think it’s fantastic that people so easily volunteer to help out. And I’m astonished and happy, that even Danish businessmen participate in the bazaar zealously,” the chaplain smiles.
     “This is one of the points that make the Danish churches abroad, not least in Singapore, special. Most often the churches will be a place to get together for the Danish colony.”
     “Danes abroad need the church more than when they’re home in Denmark. In any case the attendance rate at the sermons here is much higher than at the corresponding churches in Denmark,” says Hans Vestergaard, who furthermore notes, that he is also much needed in the colony on a more personal level. Maybe not so much as spiritual adviser, but more as someone to talk to about serious diseases, marriage problems and such. When asked directly, the seaman’s chaplain confirms, that being a chaplain can be lonely.
     “A lot of the problems I listen to and carry are of a strictly private nature, so I can’t even involve my own wife. Should there, however, be something I couldn’t handle on my own, I may seek guidance from other chaplains in the region or back in Denmark.
     Also Hans’ father was a chaplain. His vicarage was the Danish west coast town Thyboroen, where Hans grew up. Hans recalls how he used to sneak down to the harbour, as he was quite excited with the fishing vessels and ships harbouring there, the vast ocean and the red sunset at the end of the day.
     “I dreamt of becoming a fisherman or a sailor. Unfortunately I would become terribly seasick, so in the end I became the next best thing, a seaman’s chaplain,” smiles Hans Vestergaard Jensen.

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