Building bridges to the immigrant 'islands' of Sweden
Sweden | Debbie Meroff“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. “Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” Sweden is blessed with thousands of islands, but only in recent decades has it witnessed a new phenomenon: man-made, inland islands created by successive waves of immigrants.
Sweden’s generous immigration policies draw 100,000 newcomers to its shores every year. Even those who are illegal are given presentable accommodation, their children allowed into schools with special tutors for language help.
Like Swedish residents, immigrants also receive a supplement for each child and new mothers are supported so they can stay home with their infants for the first year. New residents receive an allowance while they attend Swedish language classes. Often the men take the classes while their wives care for the children. Yet there’s no real urgency to learn because translators are provided whenever necessary, such as for doctor visits.
The most recent tide of Somalis has stirred a lot of resentment, even from other immigrants, because they are a particularly close-knit, clan-oriented people who do not integrate well.
Observes one OMer, “There’s a lot of racism here, even in my little town. Young Swedish teenagers instigate it, but they’re only acting out what they hear their parents say. They bully Somali kids, bang on the windows of houses. Police can’t do much because they’re minors, and parents don’t stop them.”
But OM Sweden is praying that the arrival of so many nationalities will serve as a wake-up call to the Church. “Churches everywhere are struggling and declining—down on their knees,” states Field Leader Martin Ström. “If the present trend continues, the last evangelical church will close in 2050.”
If the present trend continues, the last evangelical church will close in 2050.
One of the crucial factors is the population drift from the countryside to cities. But Martin points to the fact that while workplaces, schools, hospitals and most other public places are culturally integrated, most of Sweden’s churches remain unmixed. “I’ve seen it wherever I go,” he affirms sadly. “Even churches with a vision aren’t embracing the 10 per cent immigrant population.”
Team members Jean and Anna Ström, who work with immigrant women, explain that most Swedes are normally reserved. “There are Swedes who reach out, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. And when they do, it’s so unusual that people are suspicious!”
One Swedish pastor tells about a man from Tehran he befriended and met with every week before the Iranian moved away to Stockholm. Twenty years later the same man called and told him, “You’re [still] the only Swede I know.”
Acting on the conviction that more Christians need to step out of their comfort zones and plant churches in multinational urban centres, OM moved in 1986 to the largely-immigrant enclave of Råslätt, outside the city of Jönköping in the centre of the country. Råslätt’s 5,000 residents represent 50 nationalities. A small group of believers were beginning a church here, and the pastor who urged OM to join forces with them knew it could be a win-win situation.
Pastor Håkan Karlsson had served with OM on the Eastward Bound programme in India. During his last weeks there, the 25-year-old contracted hepatitis and was left paralysed from the chest down. However, he was determined not to let that stop him. Håkan knew that Råslätt would benefit by OM’s ministry; he also knew it would be an ideal place to give new recruits a taste of other cultures before going overseas.
The experiment has proven its worth. The success of Råslätt’s international church has fuelled OM’s determination to establish at least three more long-term, urban teams in the next three to four years.
The world in miniature
One of those teams is slated for a Stockholm suburb that’s just one square kilometre in size, packed with 15 to 16,000 residents from 100 different countries. OM has worked here in the past and Lars Mörling, a veteran OMer in Egypt, began helping the team when he and his family returned to Sweden. Lars pastored the new church they planted for 13 years before moving to an adjoining suburb in 2002.
This pastor predicts that the influx of newcomers to Sweden will continue. “We have a number of Stockholm suburbs that are 80 per cent immigrant. When residential areas reach about 40 per cent, Swedes move out and more immigrants move in. They find it more comfortable to live near friends and relatives that speak their language.
“I wish I could say that Swedish Christians are not like the rest of the population…but unfortunately I have not found this to be the case. Mostly it’s insecurity, not knowing how to reach out to different people, but it’s also concern for their families. Classes in communities like ours are 90 per cent immigrant, and believers don’t want their child to be the only Swede in the class. So after preschool age it becomes an issue, even to devout believer families, and they are moving away.
“But immigrant Christians are reaching other immigrants, and they are better equipped. We’ve seen many come to Jesus. We started an Arabic fellowship in my last church and here in Husby we have Iranian, Afghan and Eritrean meetings each week. But on Sunday we try to have all the groups together in church. This kind of integration is really a testimony to others that Christians love each other.”
Markus Sand, who pastors the nearby Rinkeby International Church, agrees. “We don’t have far to go here to make disciples of all nations. Please pray that we can be a lifeline to people. We want to see the gospel make a bigger impact in this place!”
Two more immigrant islands
Another project targets a suburb of Gothenburg with 16,000 residents representing 140 nationalities--and no evangelical church. An experienced OM couple who previously served in Arabic-speaking countries moved there in August 2011. Daniel and Hannah have begun a Bible study in Swedish and are considering another one in Arabic, as a basis for planting a church. Another couple is planning to join them soon and they are enthusiastic about the potential.
Malmö, where OM hopes to deploy the third church-planting team, is located in the extreme south of the country, just across the water from Copenhagen. Nearly 50 per cent of this city’s 300,000 population are first- or second-generation immigrants. A great many are Muslims; in fact, the first mosque ever built in Nordic countries was established in a suburb here.
God has challenged us to think of mission in Sweden, not just abroad.
While the mosque is jammed with worshippers every Friday, Sunday services in most of the state churches attract a pitiful few. Malmö does have some growing evangelistic fellowships, however, and as the pastor of one of them, Daniel Norburg of Immanuelskyrken, notes, the situation offers opportunities.
“As I see it, it’s easier for us to preach the gospel here than in the Middle East! God has challenged us to think of mission in Sweden, not just abroad. That’s a mindset the Swedish church needs to have.”
The Somali challenge
Four Swedes and a Somali believer are building an international network focusing on this hard-to-reach people group, 45,000 in Sweden alone. A virtual Somali church now exists on the internet, following up from local and international Somali conferences they have arranged. Recently 40 Somali believers gathered from neighbouring countries and several got baptised, despite the fact that believers live under constant threat of death. The team is producing evangelistic and Christian material in Somali, including worship CDs and a testimony DVD. They also give practical aid to widows and children.
Sweden is not alone in its need to address its growing immigrant population. “A lot of people dream of coming to Europe,” muses an OMer. “They believe all their problems will be solved. But when they come they realise it’s the beginning of a very hard road. The industrious ones can do well. But many are frustrated. And lonely. People jump in front of a tram in Stockholm almost every day.”
Is it possible that a country with so much to offer can also be the place where dreams die? The islands of immigrants now living in Sweden and all over Europe speak for themselves. Jesus’ followers are needed more than ever to act as bridge-builders, bringing hope to these enclaves. Will you help?
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