PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH
“Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” - Mathew 11:28 . Church is proving its role in society as it becomes a safe place for almost 60 Iraqi asylum seekers that are to be forcefully deported out of Denmark. New Times interviewed the The Brorsons Kirke priest about the serious situation.
Please, describe yourself and this church!
My name is Per Ramsdahl and I am the youth pastor for Copenhagen´s Brorsons Kirke, a church converted into a youth church. All our activities here are directed to the young people, we hold rock services, hip-hop services, youth gospel services and the like. As you can see we are a church here in Nørrebro and we like to involve ourselves in dialogue with the people who live here, especially the Muslims and Christians.
So you are now challenged with a situation of having asylum seekers in the church, and are you aware of Kirkeasyl?
Yes I am aware and I know that’s a group helping the Iraqi asylum seekers.
How come the Kirkeasyl is helping in the church?
They are around 150 people working with Kirkeasyl so I don’t know all the people. But I know some of them and I have worked with them on a few projects in Nørrebro because they are very active in fact. Some are the activists who helped also when the Ungdomshuset was put down. We have good co-operation with Kirkeasyl. They are organizing everything here for the Iraqi people, the church, on the other hand, is doing nothing except welcoming the Iraqis to stay in the church.
When did the Iraqi asylum seekers come here?
They came on Sunday 17th May, in the afternoon, and at the time we didn’t know anything because the church was closed both Sunday and Monday. Nobody was here and the church was closed. After we had learnt of this on Monday evening, the church board sat and discussed whether we would call the police and take the people out or we would let them stay. Lucky enough, the board decided to let the Iraqi asylum seekers stay in the church as long as they wanted. On Monday night I came in and talked to the Iraqis as a priest and told them they are welcome and we shall give them shelter for as long as they wanted.
Is this affecting the church activities in any way?
Yes in some way because we are a very busy church with lots of activities but now we have tried to cancel some of the things and move some things from the basement so that they can have it for themselves. The Iraqis are very respectful, they want to co-operate, and in the summer we don’t have many activities. The winter is busier for us, but we will handle this as it comes.
What is your feeling about this whole situation, I mean the government policy and its decision to have these people deported?
I must say that I am very sorry for the Iraqis because this is a very hard situation that they are in, and it’s very stressful. As a priest I should say that it’s very hard for the body and soul to be oppressed in such a way and on the other hand I am very happy that we are able to help them to offer shelter for them. I feel the situation in the church is just okay, although I hope that this won’t take long time, because we don’t have good facilities here, for example we have only one bathroom, yet there are even whole families here. I hope a good solution will be reached very fast.
As you are a priest, does the church have different laws that set it apart from the state laws?
Well, we have different laws but we are a state church and we are under the government laws. I cannot prevent the police from coming here. I cannot lock the door and say you cannot come inside. We also have to live under the laws of Denmark; however there is a tradition that in church there is a different world, a different language, a different way of understanding, and a different way of perceiving things. In church we think in different time, we think of eternity and not clock time, so the church is a special world within the world, it’s a holy place; it’s a place of refuge. The bible says: “the name of the lord is a strong tower the righteous run into it and they are saved”. We should be happy in Denmark that we have places like this; people should know that those are places for prayer and they can be sanctuaries for people in need. I am happy that the asylum seekers came to us because every Sunday I am preaching about loving thy neighbour, helping people who are going through a hard time, feeding the hungry, and I believe those are not meant to be empty words but we need to also put them in practice and that is what we are doing now. We are simply practicing what we preach.
How long can they live here?
Well this church has so many rooms so we can have them for years, but as I said I don’t hope it will take years for them because it is not good to live here for a long time, and the agreement with the church board was that if the situation is the same in August then we will have another meeting and evaluate the entire situation. I told you already, the summer time for us is a very calm time because the young never come to church. They are always at the beach, but in August we start to speed up again, with a lot of activities. Thus, in August we have to find out if we can continue this and how best we can do this. Until August there should be no problem and they should be able to stay a lot longer.
What is the reaction from the people of the church?
The reaction from the people of our congregation is very positive and also from other churches, it is very positive. However, I have a lot of local people coming. Just before I came to meet you, there was a lady who wanted to sign out of the church (resign her church membership). I had a long talk with her because many times it’s because some people don’t know what it is all about. They just simply say “this is too much”, or “ we will not be members any more”. She got the paper to sign out, but I don’t think she will do it after I talked with her. I also have lots of people on the phone and I have got many anonymous e-mails coming to me. That’s what we are dealing with but I think it is important to have these discussions. Many times it is only about prejudice, for example when you don’t know someone you think they are very bad, but when you talk to them you might change your opinion. It’s important that we can have these discussions, when people call and say, “a priest should not deal with political activities”. I tell them that I am not dealing with politics but simply helping people. Then they say, “one of them is a criminal”, but I say to them that I don’t know that because I don’t ask for their names, history, skin color and things like that. I only say, “if you want to come into the church, the door is open”. I really don’t want to know anything about these people I just want to help them.
Is this, in any way, jeopardizing your priestly office and at the same time promoting it?
Yes, I get lots of enemies and lots of friends. I like the “enemies” because I think it’s a challenge to talk to these people and after talking to them they say “oh thank you it was nice talking to you”. This has taught me how to change people’s opinions just talking to them.
What would be your word to the government of Denmark?
In a way I don’t want to address the government, but if I should I would say, “please, think about the fact that these are human beings, not just boxes or non-living things to just be sent back to where they come from”. Theses are human beings, these are people with families and children and I think that it’s important to think about that and take it into a consideration before major decisions are made.