Church on wheels

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Erik Steenberg-Roos the new Swedish priest based in Phuket is a former welder, a lover of rock’n’roll and he knows how it feels to lose faith. Erik and his wife Anna Stenberg’s biggest hope is that everyone will feel welcome to use the mobile Swedish church of Southern Thailand.

With his long hair, prominent mustache and visible tattoos Erik Stenberg-Roos does not look like the average protestant preacher. But do not let the look fool you, what resembles Russian letters on his left forearm is actually a bible quote written in ancient Greek. It roughly translates into; in the beginning was the word. Erik got it because that it is a good thing when people talk to one another.

Erik and his wife Anna Stenberg are both 52 and have worked with the underprivileged. Anna left her job as a social worker to be the priest assistant and bookkeeper in Phuket and for 13 years Erik worked as a priest in a rough Gothenburg neighborhood infamous for its crime rate and gang activities. He didn’t hesitate when asked what his main focus in Phuket will be.

“The most important thing to me is not being afraid of meeting people. Here we meet the extremely rich but also the poor, hungry and wet. Sometimes I think it is a hard job, but it is also very meaningful.  Some of the people who contact us feel so much better after just an hour of talking,” Erik says.

Priest on the road
Erik and Anna cover all of Southern Thailand. Often they also have to fly to Bangkok and this combination mounts up to a lot of travel time. As a mobile church that comes to people when they need help or services, they can try to plan, but often need to adjust to sudden changes.

“It is a good thing that we are out moving, if we had a fixed locality we would risk just sitting there. But now we are out there and people can recognize us, when we come in our uniforms. We actually discussed that maybe it would be good with a place where people could come to, it would save us a lot of travel time, depending on traffic sometimes it can take two hours just getting off Phuket,” Anna says.

At the moment the couple uses their house near Kata Beach for smaller ceremonies. Apart from masses, marriage blessings and baptisms Erik and Anna is also visiting Swedish prisoners and people who are going through tough times and just needs a talk. Having two children each, all in their twenties, have made the couple consider to go to the Full Moon Party at Koh Phangnan, to hand out water and be ready to talk with young Swedes for whom all the partying has become too much.

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Anna and Erik have been in Thailand since September and the timing has been perfect for them. Anna needed change after being boss the same place for 9 years, the last child was about to leave the apartment and Erik had been changing back and forth between jobs. The couple was ready to travel to a several different places, but Thailand seemed warm and exiting in comparison to Gothenburg.

“I don’t think we could have done it in Norway or Denmark. It had to be further away. For me at least the change of culture was very important,” Erik says and adds that culture change is important because the couple is curious to learn more about other people’s lifestyles and to live in a country where things aren’t as safe and comfortable as Sweden. In order to understand a country the couple believes that they have to live there.

Everyone should feel welcome
After experiencing a very strict approach to Christianity in his youth Erik felt like a sinner and lost his faith. Erik travelled a lot in his early twenties and became a welder but realized that the older welders were worn down and retired early.

Erik has always been curious about religion and in the age of 25 he met a priest, that didn’t tell him what to believe, but instead inspired him to think for himself and welcomed Erik’s doubts as a natural thing.  The former approach to Christianity had made felt like I wasn’t good enough, but now he realized that he was just a human and as good as anyone.

The prospects of a physically wearing job, interest in religion and his new found faith inspired Erik to start studying religion at the age of 30. In the beginning he did not know if he wanted to become a priest or a teacher, but after a talk with his bishop, he chose to become a priest, went to priest preparation courses and got ordained when he was 36 years old. Erik’s approach to his priesthood is very inspired by the open approach that restored his faith.

“To me it is very important to say that everyone is welcome. Your doubt, your good sides and bad sides, your thoughts, your education or lack of education, everyone should feel welcome,” he says.

The limits have already been tested
The couple has not been too worried about the challenges of suddenly working together half way around the planet. They have visited Phuket once and felt they had a good idea about what they could expect and after years of sharing an apartment with 4 children the couple is confident that they know each other well enough to avoid any grim surprises.

“We were not afraid of moving down here. It wasn’t easy when we moved together in an apartment with my two children and Erik’s two children, in that process we had to negotiate a lot and find each other’s limits,” Anna says.

3 years at a time
Erik and Anna have signed a 3 year contract and have not yet decided if they are going to stay 3 more. According to Anna they will reconsider it when their contract is about to run out.

“We don’t think that long, the contract is 3 years, and when it runs out we will see how we are feeling about it,” Erik cuts in “And it is also about our moms to be honest, they are healthy now but actually 76 and 79 years old now and they are not growing younger and we don’t know, maybe we will get grandchildren, so we will see in 3 years.”

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