A talk with the new Swedish pastor on Phuket

ScandAsia has met Anders Stenbäck, the new pastor of the Church of Sweden in Southern Thailand. Raised in Malaysia, he now returns to Asia to work among Swedes in the region. He hopes to let them feel that it is them, and not him, who are the most essential part of the church.

Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

The Swedish church on the island Phuket looks nothing like a church at all. In fact, it is a normal house. At first glance, only a little picture of Jesus and an interim altar in the living room reveals that it is a religious place. At the same time, it is also the new home of pastor Anders Stenbäck and his wife, deacon Ulrika Stenbäck.

“That’s all there is: The two of us, our home and a car and so we are responsible of the Church of Sweden in Southern Thailand,” says 57-year-old Anders Stenbäck, sitting in the living room.

They began their new positions on Phuket in September 2018. Based on Phuket, they will do their best to help Swedes in Southern Thailand for the next three years.

The new pastor believes the church should be humble and serving. He seems to embody that ideal himself with his calm attitude and soft voice. This day, the church’s choir will practice and when the first member apologises for showing up early, Anders Stenbäck just smiles and tells him not to worry.

Anders Stenbäck thinks of the church as a community. The lack of an actual church building does not matter to him, since it is people and not brick walls that makes up a community:

“A church needs a pastor, but the pastor is not the church. It is the people who come here that are the church. They do not come here to watch what I am doing as a pastor, they come here so that we can do things together as a church,” he says.

As the remaining members of the choir arrive, the house changes from being the home of a couple to becoming the church.

Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

Thailand and Malaysia
Anders Stenbäck hands out songbooks and grabs his guitar. Together with the choir, he starts singing Abba’s “Waterloo”. As they sing, the sun sets outside the windows that offer a great view of one Phuket’s many beaches.

It is only seven months since the pastor and his wife sat foot in Thailand for the first time. That was in April 2018, when they came to Phuket to see the house and talk to the locals. It was not to consider whether they might want the live and work here – they had already said yes before they arrived.

Originally, it was Ulrika Stenbäck who wanted to work abroad, while at first Anders Stenbäck was not too keen. He began to change his mind 1,5 year ago, when they visited some of Ulrika Stenbäck’s relatives, who were stationed in Los Angeles with the same assignment:
“In Los Angeles I saw that it was very meaningful to work with Swedes abroad and I gradually began to think it could be exciting. I was still very much into my work in Sweden and I was very hesitant leaving, but I am so glad I did. It is a good break after so many years in the same place.”

After 29 years in Sweden’s second biggest city, Gothenburg, the three years leave in Thailand is their first job outside Sweden.

However, Anders Stenbäck is no stranger to Asia. He was raised in Malaysia and lived there until he was 13 years old. He believes his upbringing in Malaysia will help him settle down quickly in Thailand.

When the choir finishes singing, he slips upstairs to change into a vestment before the service begins. Like many other places in Thailand, the heat means there is no reason to wear socks inside, and Anders Stenbäck is still barefooted when he comes back downstairs in his vestment.

Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

Impact of Buddhism 
From the house of the Swedish church you can spot Phuket’s famous big Buddha. It overlooks the island on top of a steep hill. Christians are clearly a minority here, which is also the case in Malaysia. With his background in Malaysia, Anders Stenbäck thinks he has an advantage in being familiar with belonging to a minority.

In his experience, the Buddhist culture of Thailand has an impact on the Swedes living here, making them more aware of the religious dimensions of life. He also thinks, many of them have become better at asking for help, because they know it is common to feel bewildered in a new culture:
“I was bewildered myself, when I came back to Sweden from Malaysia as a teenager. I had not yet learnt the social codes in Sweden. Maybe my time in Thailand is a chance for me to understand Swedes even better as they open up,” he says.

More than 20 Swedes fill up the living room on plastic chairs during the service and most of them are long-term stayers on Phuket. Just like in many other churches, some sings loudly during the hymns, while others stay quiet.

Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

Expats and tourists
Anders Stenbäck is grateful for the Swedish expats because they help him and his wife to ease into the life in Thailand. On the other hand, the pastor can help them if they are in need of support:
“The expats are the experts, so we can support each other in different ways.”

The expats are not the only Swedes the church is for. It also offers help to tourists and a few have shown up for the service. Their red, sunburned skin reveals that they have not been in Thailand for long.

“If some tourists are in stressful situations, we can help them understand the big picture as they are new to Phuket. We try to help them to find their own motivation to do things rather than us taking over,” says Anders Stenbäck.

When the service is over, the Swedes sit down to chat. When you close the front door, only a little sign outside saying “Swedish church” reveals the community inside.

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