*By Claus Grue
When he was asked last year to take over as vicar in the parish of Ilulissat, on Greenland’s west coast, Loqqi Fleischer was a bit anxious about how the transition from his smaller hometown Uummannaq, further north along the coastline, would work out. Nevertheless, he took on the challenge and was warmly welcomed right away in the new environment.
“I’ve served as a priest in my hometown since I was ordained 20 years ago, so perhaps it was time for a change. I am overwhelmed by the way I’ve been received here and that people have opened up so quickly”, Fleischer says.
His relaxed style and genuine interest in other people may have helped.
Spending time with his congregation and getting to know the people there is his first and foremost priority as a newcomer. In fact, it is always his priority because meeting people is a central element of the Gospel, according to Fleischer:
“Worship on Sundays is of course a good opportunity to socialize and have a chat outside the church afterwards. Folks here show up every week, but it is important also to initiate and gather around other activities, such as choirs, bible seminars, workshops, etc. outside the church. It is a question of involving people without imposing on them”, he explains.
Sowing seeds among youngsters
A particular challenge is to raise awareness among youngsters about the Gospel, and faith in general. They are no longer taught religion in school and confirmation is often their first serious encounter with the Bible and what Christianity is all about.
“We want religion back on the agenda in elementary school because it sews a seed of interest and provides a spiritual dimension early on in life. Confirmation is an opportunity to build on that, to talk to young people, induce hope and give them something to believe in which they can bring along into adulthood”, Fleischer says.
Having grown up among priests and been engaged in church life since childhood, his desire to preach the Gospel, and eventually become a priest himself, has followed naturally.
At 55, he has been around long enough to have baptised, confirmed and wed the very same people, and even baptised some of their children. Looking ahead, he hopes he can continue following individuals through life and being someone they can turn to in good times, as well as bad.
Being there for people
In collaboration with local authorities, the church in Ilulissat engages in activities helping people to cope with traumas and preventing them from sliding into addiction and other social problems.
On Sundays, benches are full in 240-year-old Zion Church, Greenlands oldest.
Photo: Claus Grue/WCC
“Seminars are held on a monthly basis where specially invited guests share their experiences and where we elaborate on social issues from a biblical perspective. We relate everyday life to Bible texts and try to put things into larger contexts”, Fleischer explains.
The important role of the church as a gathering point has become even more evident since digitalization swept into homes and changed people’s lifestyles.
“Nowadays, families are often split up and spread around over long distances. They see each other on screens, rather than being together physically. But we are all created as human beings in God’s herd, and together we are stronger than on our own”, Fleischer says.
Again, presence and dialogue are crucial elements in his interpretation of the Gospel, something he experienced firsthand in 2017 when a tsunami hit Nuugaatsiaq, a small island 100 kilometres north of Uummannaq, where Fleischer served at the time. Several people were killed when the wave thundered ashore, demolishing everything in its way. The risk of new tsunamis, triggered by landslides after earthquakes, was deemed too high by authorities to let residents stay on the island. In a state of shock, they were permanently evacuated to Uummannaq, where the church stood ready to help them deal with their grief, traumatic experiences and uncertainties about their future.
Facing growing demands
What worries Fleischer is whether the church will have the resources and capabilities necessary to meet future demands in a society where needs are growing. In Ilulissat there are only two ordained priests serving the parish; himself and the dean, along with an organist, a catechist authorized to perform some of the priest’s duties, and a reader-catechist authorized only to read material prepared by either priests or catechists.
“Our busy schedule requires flexibility and doesn’t leave much room for long-term capacity building. We suffer from a shortage of clergy and musicians, which must be resolved in order to maintain high standards of quality”, he points out.
Strong faith and deep roots
With 4,600 inhabitants, Ilulissat is Greenland’s third largest settlement. Located by the mouth of Ilulissat Icefjord, which is the Northern Hemisphere’s largest producer of calved inland ice, it attracts visitors from all over the world, particularly during spring and summer when huge icebergs can be seen floating through the fjord out into the Disko Bay.
Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC
It is a truly spectacular place, a part of the world which Rev. Loqqi Fleischer treasures and where he remains deeply rooted.
“It is God’s creation”, he concludes before running off to lead the church choir.
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.