Give to the poor instead…

Many expats in Thailand tend to talk about themselves and what they are doing in a vivid and selling way. That is not the case with Swedish vicar Ulf Claesson. He is a modest man. A humble person who thinks before he speaks. So it is not very surprising that he does not want any fancy gifts when he finishes his period in Bangkok. Instead of receiving, he wants to give.
     Ulf met his wife Marita when they were young soldiers in the Salvation Army in Sweden. They have been together ever since and the past three years they have spent in Bangkok as the popular and hardworking hosts of the Scandinavian Church. If Ulf wanted, he could boast about more and more people coming to the home of the church in Sukhumvit soi 33 and the well attended services. He could talk about the popular activities for men, woman and children, improvements of the building and all the Scandinavian delicatessens like lingonberryjam and herring that he and Marita buys when on holiday in Sweden and sends by container to Bangkok.
     But he does not. Ulf merely mentions those things as natural parts of their job. Moreover, dressed in khaki pants, barefoot and sipping a beer he does not entirely fit the picture of the average vicar. Then again his background is probably not the one of an average vicar.
     For a vicar employed by SKUT (Skandinaviska Kyrkan i Utlandet), a day at work is different every day depending on the schedule and the persons that are coming bye. One thing is for sure, and that is that he is truly managing the church from all various aspects. The big difference between Ulf’s job in Sweden and the equivalent in Bangkok is that there is much more administration to be taken care of in his current position; notes from meetings, salaries, staff matters, contacts with the Swedish embassy and so on.
     “But my most important and challenging task is to meet people,” Ulf says firmly in his soft way. “To listen to, to talk to and to support people in need. To be here for them.”
     Some days there is one person coming to the church for help, other days there are fifteen. Then there are all those coming for a cup of coffee and home baked cinnamon rolls, a Swedish or a Norwegian newspaper and a chat. Quite a few of them are backpackers and according to Ulf they are by far the most responsible travellers and also those most unlikely to run into trouble.
     “The ones in great need of help are usually people who have had problems at home and have since tried to escape from them. Then when they come here to Thailand it gets even worse. They might turn to heavy drinking or drugs and just get stuck here in Bangkok. There are mostly men but some woman as well and there are always a few of them drifting around in Bangkok. I have heard some sad stories over the years.”
     People with problems are extremely vulnerable and people who are bringing their problems to a foreign country even more so. The achievement which Ulf and the other staff at the church are contributing is invaluable. Not only for people who come to see them, but also for the people whom they are visiting. One of Ulf’s toughest missions over these years was going to Bali after the bomb to support Scandinavians who needed his help.
     “Those moments and those talks were overwhelming. It was extremely heavy, yet fulfilling to meet with people who talked about what they had seen, heard and experienced.”
     The occurrence in Bali and similar things is of course very rare. More regular are the visits to Scandinavians spending time in Thai prisons. Once a week they get a visitor who is bringing things they need such as toothpaste, soap and food. That is one of the reasons why Ulf is having so frequent contact with the Swedish embassy.
     To communicate with prisoners is nothing new to the vicar. In fact he had been working as a prisoners guard for well over ten years when he decided to change direction in life. So he started to study theology and at the same time continued working at the prison. The change of direction was not that extreme since Ulf grew up with the Salvation Army in Gavle where both his parents where soldiers and he himself became one as well.
     That was where he learned to play different musical instruments. He prefers the ones you can blow and has brought his horn to Bangkok and actually used it during some services. In the early days he played a lot with the Salvation Army but he also went on tour with a pop group, The Finders, of which he was a member playing the organ.
     Nowadays he mostly listens to music in his car. When he has time off he likes to play squash or do other racquet sports. To Ulf exercise is one of life’s necessities.
     His current position at the Scandinavian church is like being a welfare officer, an accountant and a vicar, all at the same time. Sixty percent of his working time he spends on social matters, twenty on administration and the last twenty on being a vicar preparing and giving services.
     “To have a faith is no longer something that people mostly want to hide. It has become perfectly alright to talk about it as well as talk about spiritual issues in general,” Ulf states.
     “Both having a faith and the position of the church is less dramatic today than it used to be. That has made it a lot easier for people to come here.”
     But it is not only on the personal face-to-face level that the Scandinavian Church in Bangkok has gone trough a development in recent years. The future cooperation between Sweden, Norway and Denmark is now confirmed and starting to develop further. This means that the church will have more of a complete Scandinavian profile. To achieve this, it is of course important with a Danish person among the new staff. Ulf is most content with this development and also hopes that the changes he has done over these years has been for the better.
     “We have developed the church to the best of our ability and also broadened the network of the church which is important from different points of view.”
     The time in Thailand has had its ups and downs. Ulf feels that it is not always an entirely positive experience to live in a society, which in some parts of the country is as poor as Thailand.
     “It does not always feel right not to be able to help as much as I would like to in a society with so much poverty and need. Also the Scandinavian church has strict limitations. After all our mission is to be here for Scandinavians who needs us.”
     Ulf’s wife Marita went home to Sweden earlier this year and Ulf is following her this summer. His much appreciated work in Thailand is finished. At least for this time and in this job. When people leave a job it is customary that friends and acquaintances join together to buy a gift of farewell. Ulf Claesson cares about the people in the Bangkok slum and consequently he does not want to receive any personal gift. He wants to give. His dream is to arrange something for the people in need before he
goes back to Sweden.
     “That would really be something! To get the possibility to do give a party for the people in Klong Toey,” he smiles.

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