Swedish Priest in Phuket and his unexpected path to priesthood

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

He was a craftsman with ambitions to become a world famous rock-musician, then he became a priest. Erik Stenberg Roos, Swedish Priest of Phuket, talks about priesthood in Phuket and how he entered the religious path raised in an unreligious home.

There’s a 3-hour drive ahead for Erik Stenberg Roos and his wife Anna Stenberg Roos, as they’re leaving the Church of Sweden in Karon, Phuket, to do a wedding ceremony in Khao Lak. Erik was granted as the Swedish Priest in Phuket one and half year ago in August 2014 and he has been covering occasions like this all over Southern Thailand since.

“This car is our most important work equipment”, Anna says, as she is steering the car in the northern direction to pass the border of Phuket.

The couple getting married today is Anna Rolfner, 36,  and Magnus Bengtsson, 36. They called Erik more than a year ago to book this wedding. “This is why I love the job as a priest. You often meet people in the most merry time of their lives, when they’re getting married or when they’re having a child”, Erik explains.

Erik surfs on the iPad during the 3-hour drive from Caron to Khao Lak (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik surfs on the iPad during the 3-hour drive from Karon to Khao Lak (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik and Anna got married 15 years ago at the age of 39, but their relation actually goes back to the age of 11, as they went to the same primary school in Uddevalla. The small Swedish town where Erik’s family finally decided to settle down after moving every 2 or 3 years due to his father’s work as a constructor.

At the age of 11 Erik also took his first step towards a religious life. He visited the local church, looking for friends and something to do in a quiet town. Soon he visited the church every Sunday and began attending church camps and trips in Sweden and Europe.

Erik’s engagement in the church inspired his relatives. His brother, sister and mother also became regular visitors even though religion never played an essential part in their home.

Now Erik and Anna have both turned 53. They had nothing holding them back to leave Sweden for Phuket one and a half year ago. “We longed to work and live abroad,” Erik says. They have 4 grown-up children ranging from the age of 22 to 29 and their parents are in good health, so they applied for the position and got it.

They left Göteborg after more than 15 years of living together; Erik left his job at Biskopsgården, where he was employed since 2000 and Anna quit her job as a social worker. Now Anna works as Erik’s assistant or “sister” at the church, handling the paperwork and continuing her social work, meeting people for conversations by request.

Arriving in Thailand
“It was summer in Sweden, when we arrived to Thailand. The rain was pouring, it was dark, the car didn’t want to start, the telephone was dead and the internet didn’t work”, Anna recalls, when asked to describe their first days in Thailand. “But it’s better now”, Erik adds. “We had a hard time getting around in the beginning, but now we usually do it without GPS”, he says, as he glimpse at the GPS they’re following on their long trip today.  

“Also you get used to that in Thailand things takes time. They have a very relaxed attitude towards time and planning”, Erik explains. He remembers when they arrived and his boss, the Swedish Priest in Bangkok, advised him and Anna that “you can only do one thing a day”. “Right”, they thought planning to keep the busy schedule they had in Sweden with various tasks to do each day. Now they’ve adjusted.

“Look at our plan today. We have a 3-hour-drive forth and back, we need to meet the couple and do some planning, then we do the the ceremony. It’s a full days work”, Erik says. Erik did 25 weddings from the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015. He expect to do around 20 this year, and besides weddings he baptizes, attend funerals and consults when the Swedish Embassy asks him to. Often when Swedes end up in the hospital or in the prison and the relatives can’t reach them, they reach out for a priest, Erik explains.

“We have a lot of tourists and backpackers with bad luck and they have no one else to turn to”, he says and points, that this is one of the differences from working as a priest in Sweden.

He works more now and travels more. Visiting hospitals, prisons or doing lectures in one of the Swedish schools around Phuket plays a bigger role in his work.

In addition Erik and Anna also arrange meeting points in cities around Southern Thailand. A chance to get together with Swedes and just have a relaxed chat and a coffee. They’re fairly well-visited Anna tells, counting approximately 20-35 people every time. Besides that they do a weekly ceremony at the priest home in Kata every second Wednesday.

“Apart from working more, my overall duties as a priest are very similar to the ones I had back in Sweden. Maybe we add more flowers than we used to”, Erik explains when reflecting on whether the Thai culture reflects his work in the Church.

Entering Khao Lak and the path of priesthood

Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” plays from the stereo as Erik and Anna are crossing the Sarasin Bridge, connecting Phuket with the mainland. The song also features on the guitar-playing and rock’n’roll-loving priest’s repertoire for occasions like this. The wedding couple haven’t asked for any songs or hymns yet, so that’s one of the things, they’re going to discuss when Erik and Anna have the last meeting with them before the ceremony begins in the evening.

Prior to this the couple have written Erik a letter telling about themselves, their stories, their interests and so on. Erik talks to them and write a short speech founded on this information before he welds the couple together, something he has a many years of experience to do in a more literal way.  

Before Erik began studying theology he worked as a welder. He was working in different workshops till the age of 30, when back problems forced him to change his path. Not a lot of thinking was needed before he entered the University at Göteborg to study theology in 1992.

In the summer of 1994 Erik had his first experiences as a priest, working a summer job in Billdal for 4-6 weeks. He returned to Billdal in the coming 3 years, and the Bishop accepted him as becoming a full time priest in the summer of 1996.    

After listening to a parade of love songs Erik and Anna enters the Mai Khao Lak Beach Resort and Spa, where the wedding takes place. They meet Magnus, Anna, their kid, Liam, and the other guests by the pool and have a casual chat, before following them to the restaurant to talk through the final details of the wedding.

Erik and Anna unpacks the car. Erik often brings his acoustic guitar on weddings (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik and Anna unpacks the car. Erik often brings his acoustic guitar on weddings (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik meets the couple by the pool. Magnus, the groom, is in the background (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik meets the couple by the pool. Magnus, the groom, is in the background (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik and Anna are having a final meeting with Magnus and Anna three hours before the ceremony (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik and Anna are having a final meeting with Magnus and Anna three hours before the ceremony (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Soft drinks are ordered. Anna hands over a laminated sheet titled “Words from the Bible that fits the Wedding Blessing”. Magnus and Anna studies the paper for a minute before they decide on some words: Ruth 1:15 – 17. Songs are discussed and they agree on two hymns. Liam is splashing around in the pool, they finish their soft drinks and head towards the beach where the ceremony will take place.

The ceremony is not a formal devotion, as it’s more difficult and expensive to do in Thailand due to paperwork, applications and laws, but it works as a blessing. Ceremonies like these helps finance the Church in Phuket, but most costs are financed by the Church of Sweden, Anna explains.

Erik and Anna do the last preparations a couple of hours before the ceremony takes place. They print the hymns, rehearse them and Erik change into a cassock. A tiny altar is lined up by the foot of the beach: a bible, a chest and an electric candle.

Anne and Erik prepares for the ceremony (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Anne and Erik prepares for the ceremony (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

The couple arrives to the beach at 6pm clothed in white. The Sun is setting and Erik’s guitar is tuned. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the union of Magnus and Anna in holy matrimony”, Erik begins, following the traditional steps. Vows are said, rings are presented, the couple kiss and Erik performs the hard rock band, KISS, classic love song “I was made for lovin’ you” on his acoustic guitar. He might not have made it to Carnegie Hall, but a sunset by the beach of Khao Lak celebrating and sharing one the merriest time of Magnus and Anna’s life isn’t to bad a venue either.

The Swedish Priests in Phuket are on a 3-year contract. Erik’s contract runs out in August 2017.

The ceremony is just about to begin (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

The ceremony is just about to begin (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik performs KISS-classic "I was made for lovin' you" (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

Erik performs KISS-classic “I was made for lovin’ you” (Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

(Photo: Frederik Sonne)

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