New Swedish priest in China

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After 21 years serving as a priest in Kalmar the almost 30 year old dream of living and working in Asia caught up with Anders Johansson and his wife Kerstin Johansson.

Anders Johansson, the new Swedish priest in China and Hong Kong is a bit of a sports nut, he is an eager cyclist, a crosscountry skier, and when it comes to football he is a loyal supporter Kalmar FF and Arsenal. Together with his wife Kerstin Johansson, who will help with the administration, Anders is ready to take on the challenge of serving Swedish expatriates using the Swedish church in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing to build a strong spirit of community, while commuting the almost 2000 kilometers between the cities.

Anders Johansson comes directly from a position as priest in the Kalmar Cathedral, where he had 10 employees working for the church. In Hong Kong it is just him and his wife and even though the cathedral has been exchanged with borrowed premises, Anders is looking forward to the challenges and simplicity that comes with the new job.

You can relax in a big organization were you have funds, staff and a location. Here we have to be creative in another way. We want to make the church a meeting point for people, it should be a place where they feel free to come and share their life’s burden when it is not easy,” Anders says and
adds that the church should be a place with space for people going through both good and bad times.

But insuring that the church can fulfill its role in the Swedish community will be a challenge, in addition to the absence of employees the commuting between the three cities will make Anders’ priesthood very different from the one he had in Sweden.

In China the church will have to be largely reliable on volunteers.

When you operate a church over such vast distances the community becomes more important. We want to have regular services every month and then depending on who is in the congregation and who attends the services, we will see what people need and what we can do,” Anders Johansson says.

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Photo: Lasse Henriksen

An old dream
Anders and Kerstin shocked their friends when they told them that they were leaving for Hong Kong. Some admired the couple’s decision while other thought they were crazy to leave jobs, friends and family in Sweden. One of their closest friends even missed a night of sleep upon the receiving the news. But what might have seem like an impulsive decision to friends and family was not born of a midlife crisis, but an invitation the couple received after 8 months of volunteering in India in the 1980’s.

After volunteering in Goa, India 1986 and 1987 the couple was invited to work for a Christian center in Hong Kong, back then the couple declined since they were still studying, but the dream of working and living in Asia was born and the wish to work abroad followed them through the years.

Since we had been talking about working abroad for so many years, we did not want to look back on all this talk and say, alright we did not do it,” Anders says before Kerstin cuts in ”and we looked at it and said, okay, what is the worst thing that can happen. Worst case scenario would be finding out that this isn’t something for us, but if that is the case we can always move back when our contract has ended.”

Letting go of the dog and 3 trucks packed with furniture and clothes
Selling their SAAB and 150 square meter home of 14 years, was not the toughest part about leaving, as Kerstin puts it, there are lots of cars and houses in Sweden. Putting their dog Tussen, a chihuahua-papillon mix, up for adoption was the hardest part for the family. Though they will miss being around friends and family, the couple are confident that the friendships can survive and hope that moving abroad will be an opportunity to evolve on a personal level.

We do not do this to start afresh, we still have our friends and family, it is a way to take a break from ordinary life in Sweden, we see it more like a chance to reevaluate what is important to us,” Anders says.

The family have stored 40 cubic meters of belongings in Sweden and have donated 3 lorries full of furniture and clothes for charity. All the family brought with them to Hong Kong was 3 suitcases and 5 cardboard boxes with essentials like sports equipment, games and family photos.

The decision
Kerstin and Anders have three children, two sons, who already left home to study in Canada and work in Sydney, and a 17 year old daughter Hanna, who moved with them to Hong Kong and had the final saying in whether the family should move or not.

I was actually sitting with my application the night before the submission deadline, wondering if I should apply or not, when Hanna and one of my sons told me to just send it in and see what happens, it’s not that dangerous,” Anders says and adds that they would not have moved if Hanna wasn’t in on the idea.

Hanna was doing her first year at a gymnasium in Sweden, when her parents asked her if she wanted to move to Hong Kong, she accepted the idea and was excited about the possibility of improving her English skills. She is now enrolled at Delia School of Canada in Hong Kong and will finish her last 2 1/2 years of secondary school there.

About a month after Anders had sent the job application he was offered the job with Kerstin working an administrative part-time position, after a night of talking it through the couple decided to take job and move to Hong Kong.

We have been attracted to Asia, and I do not believe there will ever be a perfect moment to move abroad. Maybe it would have been better if Hanna had finished her school and so on, but then something else would probably have come up,” Kerstin says.

Photo: Lasse Henriksen

Photo: Lasse Henriksen

A village in the metropolis
Even though Hong Kong is a large city, the Swedish community is very small and in some ways Anders’ new job can be compared to the one of a village priest. In Hong Kong and Shanghai the Swedish community only consists of a couple of thousand individuals, while there were 50.000 potential churchgoers in Kalmar.

When we come here as a family, we come as the priest family. Like Lennart Hamark, the former Swedish priest in China, told me: “You are living in a big city but within this city there are many smaller cities, one of those small cities is the Swedish community,” Anders says.

Even though Anders has been a priest for 21 years, moving to Hong Kong is a whole new and different chapter of his priesthood, but challenges and new experiences is what he is seeking.

We have been talking for several years, about doing something different, maybe moving to Stockholm, just do something to make some sort of change. Our trip to Asia in 1986 made us grow, we learned so much, we changed as persons because of the experiences we had, so I think it is also curiosity to learn new things, the challenges and then of course our craving for adventure is also part of the equation,” Anders says.

Getting Christianity down-to-earth
Anders looks at Christianity as a way to reflect on your daily choices and way of life, and in that sense Christianity becomes a ”down-to-earth” thing that has a direct effect on your life and actions.

Through Jesus the Christian God becomes a human figure, not just a guy in the sky, but a man that shows what it means to be a true human. For me, being a Christian is to find out what Christianity means in everyday life and what Jesus is showing me in the ordinary life I live,” he says, and adds that some might be confident in their faith and some might be in doubt, but that this is a good thing, cause then people can talk to each other and learn from one another.

My religion is rooted in the confidence, that God is greater than me, I don’t have to save the world, that is up to God. I think this makes me relaxed and allows me to be open toward other peoples interpretation of Christianity,” Anders Johansson says.

If everything goes as planned the church’s activities will start at the end of October. Like former priest Lennart Hamark, Anders is going to Shanghai and Beijing on a monthly basis to do services and prepare young Swedish expats for their confirmation.

There is something about Asia
The family is now in Hong Kong and are ready to settle in. Their first impressions are good, the combination of lush mountains and skyscrapers suits the family well, with opportunities for trekking, as Anders puts it ”If it had only shopping malls I would probably die down here”.

The family appreciates the cultural diversity of Hong Kong and are ready to venture into the unknown, undeterred by bureaucracy or daily challenges.

In Sweden everything is very effective, here in Asia it is not always the case, at times it can be frustrating, but sometimes when the systems are not flexible the population learn to be.”

Family facts:

  • Anders is 51, born in Uppsala and became ordained in 1993 by the age of 30. He has been a priest in Kalmar ever since.

  • Even though Anders’ father was a priest, Anders did not feel like he grew up in a priest-family, none of his siblings became priests and before Anders chose to become one, he considered becoming a teacher.

  • Anders has completed Vasaloppet 3 times, and when in Sweden he watches Kalmar FF on the stadium.

  • Anders has been married to Kerstin for 30 years in May.

  • Kerstin is a teacher of 1st to 7th graders and got a leave of absence from her job in Kalmar.

  • The couple has 3 children:
    • Simon who is 24 and works as a volunteer for Svenskakyrkan in Sydney.

    • Rasmus who is 21 and studies economy in Canada.

    • Hanna who is 17 and has left her Swedish Gymnasium to attend to Delia School of Canada in

      Hong Kong.

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