The faith and hard work of immigrants from Norway, Africa
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Mud clung to the cuffs of my…
Åkersberga, Sweden — “Just send someone to help.”
It’s a prayer George Opoku sends up continually.
“I’m not asking for money,” said Opoku, who lives with his family in this quiet suburb northeast of the Swedish capital, Stockholm, and preaches for a tiny Church of Christ. “I just need help, spiritually, so that the work of God can be spread.”
Opoku, who was baptized as a teenager in his homeland, the West African nation of Ghana, has spent the past quarter-century in Sweden, a country which enjoys near-perpetual daylight during the summer and endures long, frigid winters. In January, the sun in Stockholm rises just before 9 a.m. — and sets just before 3 p.m.
The Lutheran church has deep roots in this Scandinavian nation, but today more than half of its population of 10 million people identify as non-religious, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.
Sharing Christ here requires a double portion of patience, Opoku told The Christian Chronicle over a traditional Swedish breakfast of Kalles Kaviar — a paste made from cod, squeezed from a tube over hard boiled eggs.
Here, winning souls for Christ can take years.
For Opoku’s wife, Gabrielle, it took more than a decade.
“I was, as many other Swedes are, suspicious,” said Gabrielle Opoku, a tall, blonde-haired native of Stockholm. “People warn you, ‘Oh, don’t become too much into God or church. They will brainwash you.’”
Until she met her future husband, “I didn’t have any Christian friends,” she said. “I didn’t understand the deepness of Christianity.”
Now the couple and their children, Jessie, 22, and Immanuel, 17, serve a congregation that meets in a rented room a few miles from their home.
Attendance hovers around 10, with a few more joining from other locales via video chat. Most are English-speaking expatriates from Africa or the Caribbean who are highly transitory, moving in and out of Scandinavia for jobs.
The Opokus long for teammates — and for new Christians. They are encouraged by what they hear from the south, where Churches of Christ in Greece, Austria and Germany are baptizing new believers fleeing the war-torn Middle East. Some, after they gain refugee status, are starting new lives in Scandinavia.
“Please tell them about us,” Gabrielle Opoku said.
Her message to all believers: “Know that there is a church here, and you are welcome.”
A LONELY CALLING
The congregation the Opokus serve is likely the only Church of Christ in the country — and one of only a handful in Scandinavia, which includes the nations of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.
Her message to all believers: “Know that there is a church here, and you are welcome.”
The work can be lonely, said Floyd M. Williamson, who grew up on the mission field in Sweden. Williamson, minister for the Silver Spring Church of Christ in Maryland, and his wife, Isabelle, later served two stints as missionaries in Sweden.
“They are so faithful,” Williamson said of the Opokus, “and it’s very difficult to be just a few in number and stay faithful. They just really need to be commended.”
FAITH AND A PHONE NUMBER
“Swedes normally go to church only when it comes to baptizing a baby — or for funerals or weddings,” Gabrielle Opoku said.
Her own upbringing was different. Until she was in her mid-teens, she attended Sunday school and church with her grandmother, a devout Pentecostal. But after her grandmother died, she stopped going.
“She had a strong faith,” Gabrielle said of her grandmother. “Maybe she’s up there, watching over me, seeing that I take the right steps.”
Gabrielle met her future husband on a train. George Opoku, a traveling salesman who had worked previously in South Africa, struck up a conversation and asked to be her friend. She obliged and gave him her phone number, but George was unable tor reach her.
Two years passed before they met again — this time on a bus. They found out they were headed to the same café. George got Gabrielle’s number again.
“It was destiny,” he said. “It was God’s will.”
They married in 1995. Now George works full time with a cleaning service. Gabrielle is an attendant in Sweden’s social care system, serving shut-ins and people with disabilities.
Their son, Immanuel, stands at 6 feet, 5 inches and is an avid soccer player. His friends don’t understand why he has to miss games on Sundays.
“Here, it’s difficult to win souls,” said Immanuel Opoku, who helps conduct worship services for the church. “The youths here, they’re not into God.”
He has traveled to his father’s homeland, Ghana, where he was amazed by what he saw.
“We visited three different churches,” he said. “At one, close to town, there were about 600 members. Another was in a village, but it had 200 to 300 members.”
The Opokus’ daughter, Jessie, is an information technology consultant — and a poet. She teaches children during Sunday school.
In Sweden, “it’s very difficult to reach out to people about Christ and invite friends to church,” she said, “due to the prejudice about Christians.”
‘WE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER’
Churches of Christ in Sweden could have similar numbers to their Ghanaian counterparts, Williamson said, if they “spent the same amount of time and effort in Scandinavia as they’ve done in other parts of the world.”
In addition, “a very small, established congregation in Sweden could support missionaries into the rest of the world,” he said.
Too many American Christians think of Scandinavians as atheistic and unreachable — especially compared to people in Africa or Central America, Williamson said. Swedes have humanistic and postmodern beliefs, he said, but they’re also dedicated to family. They’re slow to make friends, but they make friends for life.
His parents, Floyd A. and Merna Williamson, were part of an initial wave of missionaries from Churches of Christ who worked in Scandinavia in the late 1950s and 1960s. They planted churches and, as they began returning to the U.S., they looked for new recruits to join the work.
One of the missionaries, Mitchell Greer, recruited Gerd Fecht of Oklahoma to join the work in Sweden. The German-born church member and his wife, Lucky, moved to Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast, in 1966. At the time, there were nearly 30 missionaries among the Scandinavian nations.
Fecht keeps a file of newspaper clippings and mission reports from their days on the field. In one report from Norway, missionary Kenneth P. Baird described Scandinavia as a “sleeping beauty,” full of breathtaking mountains and fjords but beset by “the beast of unbelief.”
In a 1967 issue of The Christian Chronicle, A. Wayne Harris in Denmark called for more workers.
“A beachhead for further operations has been secured in each of the Scandinavian countries,” Harris wrote. “The job is not only far from finished, it is also likely to remain that way if there is not a step-up in recruiting and enlistment of fresh troops.”
Few “troops” answered that call, Fecht said. In Sweden, “by the time 1972 came around, we were the only ones left.”
“A lot of effort was put forth,” he said. “A lot of people sacrificed. I always feel like some good was done. We had great years.
“We could have done better.”
BECOMING SWEDISH TO THE SWEDES
As the younger Williamsons prepared to work in Sweden, they hoped to follow in the footsteps of multi-family missions that planted churches in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and other cities around the world.
But potential teammates had to back out for financial or personal reasons, Floyd Williamson said, and the couple went to Sweden on their own in 1981. The Church of Christ they served grew to about 30 members before they returned to the U.S. in 1987. They went back to Sweden in 1990 but were only able to stay for two years, in part because of a steep decline in the U.S. dollar versus the Swedish currency. In the years since, the church has faded.
“If the Lord provided an open door for us, we would be willing to go back,” Floyd Williamson said, adding that he’d prefer to be part of a multi-generational team with a long-term vision.
“Becoming a Swede to the Swedes in order to win the Swedes” should be the goal, he said. “This includes learning the language, the culture, the traditions and accepting their history.”
‘WE’RE HERE TO SACRIFICE’
The Opokus would joyously welcome new workers from outside Sweden. But for Churches of Christ here to flourish, “I think the Swedish themselves are the key holders,” George Opoku said.
Across Europe, Churches of Christ have grown through immigration from West Africa, especially Ghana. Many have launched worship services in their own language, Twi, and meet separately from their European brethren. In recent years, the small church that the Opokus serve has experienced heartbreaking division, the couple said, partly due to this issue.
“I wish to be part of a congregation that’s mixed with every people,” Gabrielle Opoku said. “I believe that God made church for everyone to be a part of. We’re not supposed to be divided into groups. I know that it happens, but it’s absolutely wrong, according to the Bible.”
They’ve thought about moving to Ghana. Gabrielle said she loves it there and could adapt to life in West Africa, where they could be part of a large church family.
But“we’re here to sacrifice, to do this work for the Lord.”
But “we’re here to sacrifice, to do this work for the Lord,” George Opoku said of Sweden, his adopted homeland. “We shouldn’t give up.”
The couple found a new reason to stay when they learned that Gabrielle was pregnant with their third child, a boy. Before press time, however, the couple informed the Chronicle that the child was stillborn. They named him Nathanael, “gift of God.”
The family soldiers on.
During their interview with the Chronicle, Gabrielle Opoku talked about her favorite Bible stories. She admires Moses, who kept serving God even when those around him doubted his ability to lead. It’s a topic she and her husband have discussed, she said.
She takes encouragement from Jesus’ disciples, who stayed strong in their faith even when they were persecuted and faced death.
“They had to face hard times; that’s the point of it,” she said. “God is always there, turning everything around.”
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