by Ronda Wagner
In my travels throughout Europe, I often find that local churches give a distinctive glimpse into important aspects of a city's culture. This sunny Sunday in Helsinki is no different. My plan is to catch the 9:25 tram, exit at Eiran sairaale and walk a few steps to the Mikael Agricola Church, where I will join the Anglican Church in Finland for a worship service.
Even though the service will be in English, I am a little nervous, not knowing what to expect. I have attended church all my life, but I have only been an Anglican for a little over a year, and I don't know how I will fit into this church so far away from my home in North Carolina.
Arriving 25 minutes early, I am grateful to find a flowering garden opposite the church. Drinking in the scent of roses, I walk clockwise on the gravel path. Crossing the street and climbing the steps of the church, I immediately notice the colorful traditional dresses of African women who have gathered in the foyer to greet one another. I wish Arthy, my new teacher friend from North Carolina, was with me because she has told me of her Anglican roots while growing up in Liberia. She would fit right in here.
I take my seat and hear two elderly British gentlemen behind me talking in hushed tones, thinking nobody can hear them. "Do you think we should ask him to take off his hat as a sign of respect in the Lord's house?" I glance a few rows ahead to see a young boy fingering his brimmed hat. Then the men continue, gesturing toward the benches on our left. "They are from South Sudan. Refugees."
I think of Arthy again as I realize that the Africans present, fully two thirds of those in attendance, must have come to Finland as war refugees. Arthy has told me during our walks in Helsinki about her family's forced flight to the United States in 1986 to seek political asylum.
Then I remember the words I had read the previous night on the church's webpage: The Anglican Church in Finland was founded by refugees from St. Petersburg, fleeing the Revolution. Over 90 years later, it continues to be a place for people seeking refuge.
Throughout the service, Arabic, Finnish and English intermingle. The other one third present are mainly British and Finnish. The musical style effortlessly combines Western chorales accompanied on piano and bassoon with African drum-led chants sung in Arabic. Although as a music teacher I have often taught African chants to my students, I am startled to hear the call and response sung in Arabic.
The English bishop presiding as a guest today is equally comfortable conversing with the church's Finnish as well as African priests. Although they hail from very different places, these church leaders are all gathered together this morning to serve at the Agricola Church in Helsinki.
Today the church celebrates the confirmation of thirteen youth, twelve Africans and one Finn. The bishop has been invited from England for this occasion, and he smiles as he proclaims his joy at the scriptural text assigned, the well-known Lord's Prayer. As he preaches a simple sermon explaining this text line-by-line, the African priest simultaneously translates into Arabic. When the bishop comes to the line, "Do not bring us to the time of trial," my eyes dart to the South Sudanese families on my left, wondering what hardships they have gone through that have brought them to this new and much colder country to the north.
The longer I am a part of this congregation, the more I suspect black and white, Africans and Europeans, are blending together not just through accidental association but with intentional connection. As the young people being confirmed are ushered to the altar area, the others in the sanctuary are invited to come forward as well and witness the ceremony, where they enthusiastically show their support for the teenagers joining their fellowship.
During the traditional passing of the peace, a familiar element from my own church in the U.S., everyone mingles for a full three or four minutes, shaking hands enthusiastically across generations, cultures and nationalities, offering a heartfelt "Peace be with you." I am struck by the ease with which black and white, Finn and African, British and American, and old and young seem to care about each other.
Following the confirmation blessings, we all walk together towards the altar and taste the soft bread and the pungent wine of communion, symbols that have been bringing Christians together not only here in Finland but across the world for two thousand years.
After a final jubilant African chant is sung and repeated in Arabic, juxtaposed with a William Cowper hymn sung in regal British fashion, the service is over. I walk back to tram 3, thinking about what I have encountered this morning. Joining me at the tram stop are three people I recognize from the service, and we chat long enough for me to learn that they come from Tanzania and Hong Kong. It strikes me that I didn't meet any other Americans this morning, and I just might have been the only one.
One reason our group of North Carolina teachers has come to Finland is to learn appreciation for a culture different than our own. We hope to find new ways to communicate this diversity of cultures with our students when we return. This is a timely endeavor for all of us as the current cultural and political situation in the U.S. seems precarious; Americans are finding it difficult to get along with each other, especially between black and white, Democratic and Republican, old and young.
My experience at the Mikael Agricola Church has taught me a small lesson to take back to North Carolina: people from all parts of the world can find common ground to promote peace and understanding across different races, cultures and nationalities. When we do, we get a small taste of heaven on earth.