For close to five years Staffan Simonsson has been the Swedish minister in California. He has travelled back and forth between his two congregations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, feeling very much at home in both cities. In June, his SoCal time is up and he's moving back to Sweden.
Interview with Staffan Simonsson by Ingegerd Landström
It goes without saying that the place to meet Staffan Simonsson for an interview is the day room at the Church of Sweden in San Pedro. The welcoming atmosphere, the comfortable couches and the coffee and waffles that just keep coming make it a good place to spend a few hours on any day, and Staffan has spent a good part of his five years right here.
When I stop by on a Friday afternoon he has just waived goodbye to three colleagues visiting from Sweden and finds time to sit down for a chat about his time in California.
It was quite a hectic start to his California adventure. Shortly after his arrival, the Norwegian Church in Los Angeles/San Pedro had scheduled a major renovation of the house. It was supposed to take three months, but it lasted for almost an entire year. Staffan thinks back and lets out a long sigh. There was the dust, the lack of kitchen facilities and the frustration of not knowing from day to day whether or not planned activities could take place. His Norwegian colleague was preoccupied with the renovation and amidst all this, Staffan and his wife were trying to get settled in a new country and new work environment.
"It was pretty rough," he concluded matter-of-factly.
Another initial surprise for the newly arrived priest was the wide range of work duties. With only three staff members, including himself, Staffan found himself responsible not only for a heavy administrative load, but for things that he never had to pay much attention to before. He soon came to realize that as minister at a church with a small staff he could be no stranger to any of those practicalities that need to be carried out to run a church, but that are commonly handled by other staff members in larger congregations.
"Just to arrive in the morning and not have a verger that has set everything up in the church. For my first service here I was thinking, 'How do I do this? What do I need?' I think it was five to eleven when I realized that I had forgotten to post the numbers for the day's hymns on the board. All those things that the verger took care of at home. At the same time, that's some of the charm with working here. You have to keep an eye on everything; you have to make sure that all the practical things are running smoothly."
Social and consular work
A substantial part of Staffan's work—and one that he keeps close at heart—consists of the social, or consular work. The Church of Sweden receives many phone calls and inquiries from Swedish citizens in trouble or simply wishing to talk to a minister when things are a bit rough and family is far away. Over the years Staffan has made visits to jail and hospitals, acted as a link to family and friends in Sweden, helped navigate between a myriad of local authorities and, not least, been there as a listener and fellow human being.
When it comes to social undertakings and assisting Swedish citizens in various ways, the Church often works closely together with the Swedish missions in the U.S. (previously the Consulate General of Sweden in Los Angeles, now mainly the Swedish Honorary Consulate General in San Francisco, the Consulate in San Diego and the Swedish Embassy in in Washington D.C.).
This relationship has worked very well over the years, says Staffan. His experience is that past and previous Consular Generals and consular staff in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego value the work done by the Church, and that it is an appreciated member of the Swedish community in California and in the U.S. When the Swedish Ambassador, Jonas Hafstrom, summits the Swedish Honorary Consuls for meetings in Washington, D.C. the three Swedish reverends in the U.S. are also invited to participate.
In general, Staffan has found the church here has a different—and broader—role than it does in Sweden.
"In Sweden the church is considered a religious institution first and foremost, it's operating within its own religious sphere. Here we have a broader social and a cultural function as well. You might not be a religious person, but you still interact with the church in various ways and at various occasions."
"You represent Sweden. Especially when the Consulate General was still around—if they had an event we were often invited," he laughs. "I was never invited to the City Council in Helsingborg when I was working there. The ministers simply didn't have that role in society."
"Traveler in the Christian Faith"
Staffan Simonsson has certainly enjoyed being involved in the Swedish community at large. His calling to be a minister was as a missionary and while he has not worked abroad before coming to California, he has never been much for waiting around in the church for people to find him. On the contrary. He has made an effort to go out and meet people on their home turf; as a school minister he has worked with youths and he enjoys being a link between the church on the one hand and schools and work places on the other.
Perhaps it's only fitting that the Swedish Church in Los Angeles has a geographically large area of responsibility. Its primary area is Los Angeles and the Bay Area, meaning that once a month Staffan has spent time with the Swedish congregation in San Francisco. He has also made an effort to hold services in different parts of southern California, in San Diego, Santa Monica and Thousand Oaks. Moreover, in the event of a larger crisis with Swedish citizens, the area of responsibility consists of the thirteen western U.S. states, including Hawaii and Alaska.
When asked how all the travelling has worked out for him, Staffan laughs. He refers to himself as a "Traveler in the Christian Faith" and says that it has been a largely positive experience. He thinks of it as an added benefit to have been able to get to know two different, but equally wonderful cities and congregations, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Another perk has been his living quarters. The Church of Sweden in Los Angeles owns and maintains a house in San Pedro, where the visiting priest and his family reside during their stay.
"I realize that I'll never live in a place like this again. It's a wonderful house and the Board has really made an effort to keep it pleasant and modern. They have been concerned with my wellbeing and I have appreciated that very much."
Despite some initial challenges and some later ones too, including his separation from his wife and a lengthy visa application process that was required in order to hire staff from Sweden, Staffan looks back at his five years in California with great fondness. It took a while to be able to look past the things he didn't particularly enjoy about Los Angeles: the traffic, the long distances and the glitzy surface. But new friends—locals who knew their way around—introduced him to more genuine parts of town, places that don't exist in the tourist guides, and after about a year he truly started to enjoy Los Angeles and call it home.
Returning 'home' with mixed feelings
With his departure date getting closer, and just like any expat probably would feel, Staffan has mixed emotions about returning to his native Sweden. He doesn't know where he will end up, a situation that he finds both liberating and frustrating. He also realizes he has changed over the years; he has turned into a big-city dweller that enjoys the pace, the diversity and the ability to buy a double tall cappuccino at odd hours. But he's also looking forward to a new phase in his life, new challenges and having his family nearby.
What will you miss the most from California?
"All the people. I have been fortunate enough to work in two wonderful congregations, with many delightful personalities. I'll miss the involvement, and the kindness and thoughtfulness I have met here. The weather of course, and the big-city pace."¯
Finally, and since several Swedish churches abroad have been forced to close due to economic constraints, I ask Staffan about his thoughts on the future of the Church of Sweden in Los Angeles. Will it still be around ten years from now, I wonder?
"Yes," he says confidently, offering some optimistic final thoughts. "The membership numbers certainly leave a lot to be desired and that needs to be addressed. But," he concludes, "if the Church of Sweden in Los Angeles can increase its membership, continue to build a solid economy and keep its large and very engaged volunteer group that helps with matters big and small, that will go a long way. There might even be room for expansion when the overall economy is improving.
Bild: Staffan Simonsson. Photo: Kerstin Alm