30-year-old Danish Lars Emil Bolt had only just finished his degree in theological studies and started a temporary job as a pastor in Glostrup, Denmark, when the dream job was posted. Chaplain at the Danish Seamen’s Church in Hong Kong.
“I always dreamt of going overseas,” says Lars Emil Bolt. “And if I had to move my entire life, I had to do it the proper way. Hamburg or the like just wouldn’t do it for me.”
The church in Singapore was also looking for a new Chaplain at the same time, but this didn’t catch Lars’s attention, who says, that Hong Kong has been “on the list” for a long time.
“It was Hong Kong or nothing. It just has a certain flavour to it, when you say ‘Hong Kong’. It’s a clash of East and West,” says Lars, who is excited to start feeling at home in the big city.
A turbulent start
When Lars and his wife, Nickie Mathilde Bolt, arrived in late July, so Lars could start his new job as planned on 1 August 2019, they only just touched down when a typhoon struck the city.
“We landed in the first forceful typhoon of the year. We were one of the last planes to land. So, the first thing we did was to rush to the supermarket and buy food. Then we sat in our dark apartment and turned on the TV,” says Lars.
Prior to moving, the couple had only spent 48 hours in Hong Kong, which was during a visit to the church in May. Tropical weather is therefore a new climate for both of them.
Another thing, the couple have had to get used to, is the demonstrations Hong Kong has experienced for the past couple of months.
“When you drink coffee with people, demonstrations are often the talk of the town. I’m surprised that people speak so freely about politics.”
But the new Chaplain is quick to add, that the demonstrations aren’t visible in his everyday life.
Thus, neither Lars nor his wife feel unsafe in any way. It might even have helped, that the couple have seen some of the protestors.
“The other day, we were out for lunch when we saw a lot of people dressed in black clothes and black masks.”
Things added up, when the couple checked the news and read, that a demonstration was to take place in the area that day.
“The pictures can look frightening, but when you actually see the protestors, you realise that most of them are young people. University students. And even though they are dressed in black some of them also have Hello Kitty labels on their clothes. And they hit with umbrellas. It’s limited how much damage an umbrella can cause to an armoured police car,” says Lars.
From Cultural Christian to pastor
Lars grew up in Ordrup in Northern Copenhagen in what he refers to as a “proper accountant family”.
“And my family is what you would call Cultural Christians. We went to church during Christmas and sometimes Easter. That was it.”
But when Lars started high school the sign above the entrance read Niels Steensens Gymnasium –a Catholic school in Copenhagen.
Here, he became familiar with religion in a way he hadn’t been before, when he was taught by a teacher he speaks of with great respect and gratitude.
“I learned that religion was more than the prejudice people had. It generated a general interest for religion in me.”
After high school, Lars went on to serve his time as a conscript in the Danish military. Later, he had several short-term jobs as well as an office job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Staring at a screen from 8am to 4pm just didn’t appeal to me. I thought, there must be more to life. And then I thought of my former teacher (at the Catholic high school). It became more and more obvious that being a pastor must be the most amazing job in life,” he says.
“Getting to be there through the greatest moments in peoples’ lives. Both the good and the bad. From baptisms and weddings to funerals. And you get to choose, how you want to do the job.”
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Despite his family’s relationship or lack thereof with religion, he has always felt that they supported his decision.
“It wasn’t even a question. I had to study theology. And as I was studying, I was affirmed more and more that I had made the right choice.”
And the job has another perk for Lars.
“I’ve always been fond of singing and acting. So, to be in the spotlight every Sunday and perform my sermon is ideal,” he says but stresses that to him, being a pastor of course isn’t an act.
A dream come true
Living abroad was not a spontaneous thought to strike Lars. In fact, he was planning to study in Finland for a semester, when he met his now wife during his studies.
“She’s from Aalborg (in Northern Jutland) and she moved to Copenhagen for me. So, I never went to study abroad. It has remained an unresolved dream ever since.”
Finally, his dream came true when he and his wife left their beloved apartment in the Copenhagen district of Østerbro and set sail for the Chinese port.
“We are 30 and 25, so we had to decide that either we have children, or we go for an experience. We decided to put our dream of children on hold.”
Lars’ wife, who decided to bring her theology studies with her and finish them remotely, is helping her husband as much as possible in his new job.
“At some level it’s a couples thing. It’s a job which is very social in a lot of ways. You have to open your life and your home, so it seems pretty natural that both spouse and children become a part of it. It’s not just a job where you show up at 8am and leave at 4pm,” says Lars.
On your own
Even though Lars didn’t get to work as a pastor in Denmark for a long time before his Hong Kong adventure begun, he has already spotted a few of the differences.
“In Denmark you will often have a church council which is happy to devote time and inclination to the cause. Out here, I don’t have that service. I’m the one who sits in the office and applies for funds, and I send the thank you notes. It’s a very versatile job,” Lars says.
He adds that in Denmark, the church is secured financially unlike seamen’s churches, which are on their own in finding a way to make ends meet.
Nevertheless, Lars is excited about the job, which he goes on telling about.
“There is a big, fat line under the word ‘seaman’ in my job. Any Danish ship to arrive in Hong Kong must be paid a visit.”
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According to Lars, about four to five ships moor to the quay. Every week. Luckily for him, it is the one part of the job that he enjoys the most so far.
“It’s a wonderful task. Seamen live in the moment,” he says and adds that he does have an assistant, who can also visit the ships.
“When I arrive, they boldly spill all their problems right away. They trust me from the get-go. I don’t take notes or write reports about it, so they can tell me anything. It’s a relief to a lot of them, when they have been at sea for perhaps months. Family problems, issues with the captain or whatever it may be, I consider it my first job to be there for other people.”
Apart from offering his ears to the seamen it is also his job to supply the ship with newspapers and bring them DVD’s or whatever they may be missing after being at sea for however long.
Big dreams for a small church
Lars has bigger plans for the church than what is expected of him during his time in Hong Kong.
“Every pastor should be able to add their touch to the job. But personally, I hope to bring the church back to life.”
When the new Chaplain says so, he isn’t trying to offend anyone. He explains, that the church has been run by a substitute for the past half year, and therefore a lot of things have been on stand-by.
“The church needs more life. It’s a natural center for the Danish colony out here. I don’t just want it to be a place where people buy lakridskonfekt (Danish liquorice confectionary) and rugbrød (rye bread). I want it to be a second home.”
Lars says that even though Hong Kong isn’t the expat paradise it used to be, he sees a great potential in Danish exchange students.
“It has become less interesting to do business in Hong Kong, but there are still a lot of students that come here. They are far from home, but they haven’t really been in focus. I will do whatever I can to appeal to them.”
He also hopes to have more services. His ideal is to have one every Sunday, but he acknowledges, that most people are too busy for this.
“Time is the most valuable resource out here. A lot of people come here for work. Unlike some other places, we don’t get a lot of people on post-employment benefits and retirement. Pretty much everyone is working,” the Chaplain says.
“For now, I’m happy with a service once a month.”
Lars Emil Bolt will officially be inaugurated on Saturday 7 September 2019.