Christian Immigrants in Oslo
While in Oslo, Norway, we had the chance to visit the American Lutheran Congregation there. This church is about 55 years old – built by American immigrants!
Norway is a traditionally Lutheran country – since the reformation 500 years ago. But a handful of Americans working in Oslo in the 1950s wanted their own English-speaking American style church. So, they reversed history! After a century of Norwegian Immigrants to the US building European-style churches in the midwest, the Americans in Oslo asked for help from their American friends to financially support their new American-style building in Norway!
Today, Pastor Joel (a graduate of Luther Seminary!) leads the congregation in English worship, including a very welcoming communion, and a very friendly children’s message. There’s a multi-national feel to the building, with a globe-shaped candelabra in the front and multi-colored windows all around.
The congregation is really diverse. When we visited, There were people of all Nationalities there. Some looked Norwegian, but were actually American 😉 Some looked American but were actually South African 😉 Pretty soon, I stopped guessing! The congregation is full of members and visitors from all over the world, with about 25 countries or languages represented amongst their regular attendees.
We met two Farsi-speaking immigrants, too.
After a great weak at Farsi Conference in Denmark, we were surprised to meet more immigrants from Iran and Afghanistan. I was even more surprised to learn that Javed and Mohammad had been in Norway for 9 and 13 years respectively.
Do the math on that. Mohammad (Denim jacket) came to Norway from Iran in 2003 – three years before the US imposed sanctions – and Javed (black jacket) came to Norway from Afghanistan in 2007 – around the time we sent a ‘surge’ of soldiers into that war.
They walked into Turkey and found a way from there into Europe, eventually landing in Norway. They’ve been in limbo ever since.
Mohammad is embarrassed of his name. He converted to Christianity in Iran, and fled to Norway fearing religious persecution. Christian converts in Iran are disowned by their families, imprisoned, and often killed. Even though he’s been here for 13 years, and the Iranian human rights violations against Christians is universally acknowledged, he has never received asylum status. Every 6 months he needs to re-apply for another 6 month pass. He says that in order to get a job, he needed to speak Norwegian and have either a license or a degree, but that once he had such training, his asylum was denied, because he could theoretically work somewhere else.
Javed became a Christian on the journey. He had heard of Jesus, but never had a chance to read the Bible, or hear about Christianity, or experience God’s love until he left that country. He met Christians who were working with refugees, and had a chance to ask questions and read the Bible. God worked through those experiences to change his heart and his life.
Despite these setbacks, they are thrilled to live in a country where they can worship openly and talk about their faith. The freedom to worship is so important to them.
Even if they have no personal security – no promise that of a permanent home, or a long-term residence permit.
What a choice – freedom to worship or security to live safely.
No One can stop the Spirit of God
Their stories reinforced what we had just been learning in Denmark: the Holy Spirit is at work in the Farsi-speaking people of Iran and Afghanistan. But the more converts, the angrier the government becomes. (More info on Iran and Afghanistan persecution of Christians.)
Mohammad and Javed wanted to tell us about the Ayatollas of their country. In their words, these men are not Muslims; they are power-hungry dictators. In many cases, they cannot read the Koran, because they do not speak Arabic. They try very much to impose their own version of Taliban-enforced Shari’a law on the people of their mosques. There is no room for questions, no room for faith. Just blind obedience.
We talked about the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Martin Luther very much wanted common people to have the Bible in their own language, and to be able to talk about their faith, to ask questions and connect with God directly, in order to experience more grace in their lives.
This reality of Norwegian Christianity made a difference in the lives of Mohammad and Javed. Once they read the Bible in their own language, once they talked with Christians who loved them and cared about them as people, they could no longer deny God’s work in the world. Once they began praying to a loving God in their own language, they began to accept that Jesus died for them – that God’s grace was for them, too.
What’s the Controversy?
When I hear stories like Mohammad’s and Javed’s, I remember why I’m doing this work. God knows our stories. We aren’t statistics – we are beloved children. Mohammad and Javed are God’s children, too.
But in a country that is majority ‘Christian’, the conversation about Asylum seekers is all about the economy. Not about grace.
Immigration to Norway has grown from 5% of the population in 1992 to 15% of the population today, and people are getting scared. Even though immigration has had a positive impact on the economy, and asylum seekers like Mohammad and Javed really want to integrate into Christian churches, people are still carrying fear of immigrants.
Mohammad and Javed are showing the Christians of the world what it means to rely on God’s power and to seek God first. They do not have wives or children, they do not have permanent residency, they do not have stable jobs or a promised future here on earth. But despite their lack of earthly stability, they are rejoicing in their Christian freedom to worship and pray and live their faith on purpose.
Freedom and security might not be the same thing. But what if western countries were able to support both? What if God is calling us to welcome immigrants in order to grow our faith? What if by sharing our security, we can receive their shared faith.