“I have a childish kind of belief in a higher brain of sorts. If God wants me to do something, then I believe all will be fine. I try to just go with the flow, and I try not to worry too much. I go along because whatever happens, God always carries.”
Nordstjernan recently met with Kajsa Öhlmér, senior pastor at the Swedish Church in New York until January 2011.
It didn’t really look like life would make a pastor out of Kajsa Öhlmér. Though she came from a religious home in Uppsala, where her father was a cantor, Kajsa was convinced women shouldn’t become pastors.
“Instead I studied theology and became a parish teacher. My conviction was very strong, because in the Bible it was clear that all of Jesus' apostles were men.”
It wasn’t until 1991 that she changed her mind and was ordained as a priest.
“Looking at the New Testament, you see just how important women are; it was the women who were at the grave first, and look at the Samaritan woman at the well! She went to town and told people about Jesus.”
As a pastor, Kajsa has made an interesting journey, starting out as a prison chaplain (at both Uppsalahäktet and Åbyanstalten), meeting people she never thought she’d meet.
“What working with prisoners taught me is that we all think we’re safe somehow, and that it (becoming involved with criminal activities) can’t happen to us. Well, I learned that it’s not like that at all. It could happen to anybody. Nobody’s safe.”
Whenever the inmates saw her car coming, they flocked to see her―desperate for some human contact.
“Apart from their lawyers, I was the only person they were allowed to talk to,” she says. “Many of them were completely isolated. We talked about just everything. Often about their children and their families, of course. There were many stories of tragic childhoods and broken upbringings.”
Emotions don’t frighten Kajsa―it's the lack thereof that does. In prison, one can easily imagine, turning off an emotion like guilt is a way to survive.
“That’s the hardest part, meeting indifference.”
So what do you do when faced with such total despair? What can one do?
“You listen,” she says simply. “You go there and you listen.”
Then followed a period when she worked in the mountains, in Sälen, as a mountain priest, and for one summer she worked at the Swedish Church in London before she finally settled as assistant vicar at Uppsala Cathedral. It was when she was in Uppsala that she received a phone call from the Swedish Army asking her to join them in Kosovo.
“They sent me a sheet of paper and it said I had to be able to do X number of sit-ups and X number of push-ups in X amount of time. I wasn’t really in shape so I went to a gym and talked to a trainer there―one of those blond, tanned muscular guys―and he looked at the sheet of paper and he looked at me and he said: ‘It’s going to be a challenge.’ But I did it, in three months time. But at first, I had great anxiety about going to Kosovo. I felt too old. This was in 2001, and there was a war in Macedonia, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.”
The solidarity was great, and she often followed the soldiers wherever they were going. Many of them were young and suffered from homesickness. They lived in barracks in fours and something as basic as privacy did not exist. Kajsa was responsible for all services and much of the humanitarian activity as well.
“Then I came back again a year and a half later, when it was peace there, which actually made it harder, because of the internal problems that then surfaced. But I felt it was something very important for me to do, going to Kosovo. I lived like the soldiers and we all wore the same green clothes―there was no integrity.”
After a second stint in Kosovo, she worked as an airport chaplain at Arlanda Airport when New York beckoned.
“I had just bought a hammock and was looking forward to my retirement, when they called me and said they needed help.”
The Swedish Church in New York needed her from May to September, but the time frame was soon extended to January of next year.
“Well,” she says philosophically, “the hammock is waiting in its cover and my flower beds are covered in plastic. It can all wait.”
She plans on walking a lot in New York, and she hopes to hear some good music, preferably jazz and blues. But the most amazing thing with New York so far, she says, has been meeting with people at the church:
“To hear all their stories, all this life experience, is a great gift for me. I can get a bit teary-eyed just thinking about it. And of course it makes me very happy that so many people come to mass here.”
For more information on the activities at the Swedish Church in New York: www.swedishchurch.net
Name: Kajsa Öhlmér
Occupation: Senior pastor at the Swedish Church in New York City.
Family: Husband and two grown sons.
Favorite Bible passage: Psalms 139
Favorite parable: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (John 4:3-42)
Most important feature for a priest: “To listen and to have empathy.”
On doubt: “I am not afraid of having periods of doubt. Doubt can be creative, it means you can work on your faith and develop it. During my first time in Kosovo, when I was living in a war zone and all the horror it involved, I experienced a great deal of doubt. But I talked about it, and people in Sweden prayed for me and I could feel that. Intellectually, I always know God exists, but I need to also feel it in my heart.”
Favorite New York neighborhood: Chelsea.
Reads: “I read everything except Stephen King. I just now read Jussi Björling’s biography, written by his daughter.”
Films: “Dead Man Walking” and “Forrest Gump.”