What is going on in Europe?
It was pleasantly warm the night of the Brexit referendum, or at least it was in New Orleans. I was in The Big Easy as part of a gathering of millennial faith leaders converged around the issue of global climate change. On our final evening together, the ministry students, like myself, were organizing a group rideshare down into the festive French Quarter. I was trying to convince some new friends, all professional policy wonks, to come join us in the excursion, but it was like convincing a sports fan to skip out on a league championship. They legitimately wanted to watch the Brexit results come in. Eventually, three were persuaded to hop in the Uber while two others, both from London, stayed back and stationed in front of a live BBC stream.
As they watched vote tallies, we watched live street jazz. They would send text message updates on the razor-thin margins, but I dismissed it as media hype. “There’s no way Britain would pull out of the European Union! Put your phone away and enjoy the show!”
After enjoying a moderate evening out that would still be enough to embarrass my temperance forebears, we trekked back to our lodging. We arrived, one hour past midnight, to the sight of two globally-minded Brits looking as if they had just seen a ghost. The referendum had passed, 52% in favor of leaving.
The next day, I flew out of New Orleans with the two Londoners in my mind. I arrived to my hometown in Oregon to spend time with family. In my many spare moments I found myself glued to the news coverage of the Brexit aftermath. I felt a creeping denial about the state of our world finally catch up to me. Perhaps you, the reader, do not share my political views. That’s okay! Speaking for myself, someone who had majored in global studies at North Park University, watching this blatant rejection of international cooperation was a bit like how I imagine a literature major would be mesmerized by a book burning.
What is going on in Europe?
I carried this question with me for the weeks to come. A family connection pointed me toward the refugee crisis unfolding across the continent. Back in Chicago friends from my collegelinjen cohort (the exchange program between North Park and Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola, Jönköping) told me many stories about Swedish churches engaged in refugee integration. From these conversations, a project proposal emerged. I was fortunate to receive financing through the University of Chicago’s Divinity School to spend the summer of 2017 in Sweden learning about church-based hospitality to refugee and immigrants.
Over the course of my travels I saw church and society being re-imagined. Lutherans wrestled with the radical command to “love thy neighbor” and Pentecostals contended with a mission field that had come to them. I participated in a free-church worship service that was conducted in multiple languages, the week after watching a dozen confirmands of Iranian heritage speak the Swedish-language confirmation liturgy at their folk church parish mass. A man from Côte d’Ivoire, wrapping his head around who I was and the fact my ancestors had left this seemingly secure country of Sweden in the midst of nineteenth century poverty, began to feel a renewed sense of hope, not only for his children and grandchildren in this country, but also for the nieces and nephews left behind.
But, although it wasn’t the official question on my grant proposal, the original question continued to haunt me. What is going on in Europe? What are the forces leading disintegration? After all, it wasn’t refugees who were voting to leave the European Union.
An opportunity to find the answer to the question presented itself to me at the end of my travels. The Sweden Democrats, which had been a marginal party when I was an exchange student in 2009, is today Sweden’s third-largest political party, and also the party nearly every church leader I talked to had described to me as “the racist party.” They were now holding their annual summer festival in Sölvesborg, the hometown of their party leader Jimmie Åkesson. Painting in broad strokes, they belong to a similar right-populist phenomenon as the UK Independence Party. Considering my project parameters, it would have been off-topic for me to observe this gathering, but given that the Sweden Democrats were running a campaign to gain seats in the upcoming kyrkovalet (folk church elections), I had an excuse to go observe.
On the train over to Sölvesborg, I entertained myself by trying to guess who the racists are. One candidate is a heavier-set guy with blonde hair worn partly-shaved and part rat-tail mullet. He has facial piercings in places where it looks like it would hurt. He has a Gamestop bag filled with what I believe to be a Playstation and some games. He gets off at the same stop I do.
The first people I notice as I exit the train station are a biracial couple with their young child being embraced by the white woman’s father. I wander around looking for any clues to the location of the Swedish Democrats’ festival, but there are no signs, no streams of people, no music in the distance. I am worried I am not in the right place. I need food before I continue my investigation. I stop by a grillstand window and order the fast-food version of meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. The cashier, of Middle Eastern descent, and I struggle to get my American credit card validated, forced to communicate in Swedish, a language that is neither of our native tongues.
I am finishing my dinner when an Indian man about my age approaches me and starts speaking Swedish. I ask if we can take the conversation in English, and (after he gets over his initial surprise that I am not Swedish by nationality) asks me if I know about the “big party” happening here today and tomorrow.
“Sort of. Tell me more.”
Thomas explains that the Sweden Democrats’ festival is going to bring in people from all over Sweden in order to hear Jimmy speak.
“Do you like him?” I ask.
“Yes, very much so,” Thomas responds. “What Jimmy thinks is important is to protect Sweden from all the people coming in from places like Syria, where there is war. They take jobs and resources from Swedes and drain the welfare state. Meanwhile, we are sending all of our jobs to China, and only Jimmy wants to do something about it.”
I ask Thomas where he is from originally — turns out to be Mumbai — and then ask him if he likes Sweden.
“Yes, very much so. They are very nice and generous here. The Swedish government has given me what I need in order to live in this country.”
As I’m mentally trying to sort out the contradictions, Thomas waves over to his friend who has been standing off in the distance. It’s the guy from the train! Thomas introduces us, “Kaleb, this is Ole. Ole really likes Jimmy.”
Ole, uncomfortable with English and maybe also Thomas’s introduction, makes a reserved but friendly gesture. I try and reciprocate. He opens up his Gamestop bag to show a virtual reality headset he had just purchased and was rather proud of. He asked me if I played, and I say, “oh, no, I don’t have time for games now that I am in school.” Ole, looking disappointed, withdraws the bag back towards him. I am not immediately certain what got lost in translation.
Thomas invites me to a party at their friend’s house and I politely decline. I ask him what direction the festival is and he points me down along the shore. We say hej då and — although our paths would cross again before my time in Sölvesborg was over — part ways for the night.
As I walk against the direction of the sunset, I am overcome by a more tangible form of the fear I had first felt when the reality of Brexit dawned on me. A fear that, somewhere along the way, I was losing that “common man” touch that was part of my faith tradition. A fear that was never actually about Europe, but about who I understood myself to be. That for the sake of cosmopolitan gatherings in fancy cities and the pursuit of graduate education at elite institutions, I was giving up my Pietist DNA as a Covenanter, a populist heritage accessible to me through my church and infinitely more hopeful than the nativist movements capturing the imaginations of people like Thomas and Ole. That Ole wanted to connect with me over video games, hoping I’d be impressed but I wasn’t, while my sole interest in him was that he probably was a stereotypical racist.
How would Jesus, who associated with sinners, have acted in in this situation? Would he have had been prophetically outraged against the racism? Or evangelically hospitable toward humanity? Somehow, I had managed to be neither.
I eventually reach the festival grounds, nodding at the police guarding the entrance. The air is filled with the aroma of cigarette smoke and booze, while a power-rock band takes the stage. I keep my mouth shut so as not to out myself as an American, and begin to wander around, observing.