When Reverend Lars Bernhardt Ølberg arrived in Singapore a year ago, he was brought into the church room of the Norwegian Seaman’s Church and shown a cross made out of driftwood found on a beach. Little did he know that the beach where the driftwood was found was the same one from his hometown in Norway. A sign perhaps?
As the eldest child of his family, Lars’s duty was to run the farm with his family. However, he became an organist in his local church after receiving an education in the art of playing the piano and organ. When he turned twenty-six, Lars studied Theology and got a job as a reverend in the north of Norway, at a small fishing town called Lofoten.
He stayed and served four churches with an estimate of the population being a mere 3,500 in his parish, though numbers increase during summer with the arrival of tourists to experience the exhilaratingly beautiful ‘Midnight Sun’ – a natural phenomenon when the sun is visible for twenty-four hours.
After eleven years in Lofoten, Lars spent five years at the Bishop’s office located in Bodö and another four years in Fauske before hearing about an available position in Singapore for a reverend from his contacts at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church. Interested in the opportunity to travel and live somewhere completely different, Lars began to research on Singapore and watching whatever television programmes about Singapore he could find.
“When I first arrived in Singapore, it was so hot…I was not used to it at all.” smiles Lars, “But my wife adapted easily, probably because she was born and raised in Madagascar before returning to Norway. I already miss the four seasons in Norway…”
Despite the lack of four seasons, Lars is enjoying every minute of his stay in Singapore..
With more than a thousand Norwegians in Singapore, the church itself has evolved into an association for the community as a place to gather and socialize. Every Thursday, business lunches are held for the working crowd to sit down together and update each other on the latest business happenings in town.
On good days, the church can receive up to more than sixty people attending services which equals to about an estimated 20,000 attendees per year, but giving sermons is not the only duty required of Lars.
Six hundred Norwegian freight ships visit the port of Singapore each year, importing and exporting cargo like generic consumer goods, seafood, oil and gas. Every Monday, Lars would receive an email informing him of which ships would be arriving in the harbour for the rest of the week. When a ship arrives, Lars and his crew pack some food to bring over to the welcoming arms of the Norwegians on deck and have a tête-à-tête session. Sometimes, Lars is even required to baptise a ship before it sets off again.
The church also entertains Norwegian backpackers who visit them to restock on Norwegian food as they travel from Thailand or Malaysia through Singapore to Indonesia and Australia.
According to Lars, the duties of the Norwegian Seamen’s churches is to answer the needs of tourists, business people, students, families and other travelling Norwegians so that they can come “home” for a while; a motto that can even be found on the Singapore Norwegian’s Church’s brochures. It is a mission founded in 1864 to secure the moral and religious education of Norwegians as well as provide a place where they know a fellow countryman will be there for them.
There is an international network of over thirty churches and sixteen mobile services in thirty countries around the world. The main office of the Norwegian Church Aboard is in Bergen and supported by the Church of Norway and the Norwegian Government.
However, when people visit the church for the ‘cheese’, it does make one wonder if the church is treated as a place of worship or merely a ‘home’ where people socialize and shop for groceries.
“I find that the Norwegians back home are more religious than we think, especially when we look at ‘empty’ churches on Sunday mornings.” says Lars, “It feels really sad that only 4 – 5% of the community for Sunday services but I suppose it is justified when the church fills up on special occasions.”
These occasions of course include Norway’s National Day and Christmas Eve.
Lars adds, “Still, there is a reasonable amount of interest in our church as shown from the community. Many people support us since we are an organization associated with the Church of Norway and we are dependent on charitable donations. We try to make people feel at home but we also try to be a church. Although some people only come for the ‘cheese’, the good talk is not far away and they would join us in the church room anyway.”
Support from the community is evident, especially when the church hosts activities such as the Annual Sports Day. The church books Clementi Stadium once every year for a whole day where Norwegians and Swedes compete in various sports such as running, football and long jumps.
Additionally, every Easter, the church would organize a congregation tour of about a hundred people, to Pulau Rawa, an island off the coast from Malaysia. The church and the community treat it as a relaxing few days off though Lars still holds his services on the beach. Confirmation is also held for the 14 year old confirmates who get together and are introduced to one another to strengthen ties between the younger generation in the community.
Charity events such as gold tournaments are held as well. The next Charity Golf Tournament will be held in April next year.
When asked ‘what is the biggest difference between being a priest in Norway and in Singapore’, Lars promptly replies, “As a priest in Norway, things were more formal and I had to deal with a lot of sorrow such as informing of someone’s passing. I also sat behind the computer a lot which I am not very fond of. In Singapore, things are a lot more easy- going and relaxed for me. I also have chores to do such as taking out the rubbish but that’s fine with me.”
During his free time, Lars and his wife head to their favourite place, Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve for a walk and watch fauna like monkeys, monitor lizards and crocodiles pass by. His four children are also fond of Singapore, three of them having worked with the church last year and are coming down again for a holiday.
“Just being here in Asia is personally very rewarding. New things are happening all the time and I’ve had so many positive experiences with people,” says Lars. “To me, it is very satisfactory.”