05 August 2019
*By Claus Grue
In Greenland’s fast-growing capital, Nuuk, finding an empty seat in one of its two churches isn’t always easy. Whether at Sunday worship, concerts or other activities, people tend to flock to the churches.
“It is a gathering place for residents and visitors alike. We all love to sing, and we are blessed with a participating and active congregation,” says the vicar, Emilie Steenholdt.
Almost all newborns in Greenland are baptized and most youngsters get confirmed. May and June are extremely busy months, with confirmations each Sunday, all over the island.
“And people have started to get married again, a wonderful and welcome trend which keeps us even busier,” Steenholdt adds.
With the growth of Nuuk, where now almost a third of the island’s population of 55,000 live, comes the need to accommodate spiritual needs of newcomers from other parts of Greenland, as well as from abroad.
“A welcoming church where people can meet, socialize, say a prayer, sing in a choir and engage in different activities is a good start to a new life. We are glad to be able to provide that and that our congregation continues to attract people. We’re now getting to a point here in Nuuk where we need one more church in addition to the two we already have,” Steenholdt explains.
These are the red-painted wooden cathedral, Our Savior Church, built in 1849, and the modern Hans Egede Church, a concrete structure from 1971 named after the Danish missionary who brought Christianity to Greenland in 1721.
Greenland’s fast-growing capital Nuuk, beautifully located by the sea. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC.
A steadily growing fellowship
As vicar in the Nuuk parish, Steenholdt leads a small team of pastors and catechists responding to the needs of the capital and two smaller settlements, Kapisillit, located 75 kilometres northeast of Nuuk, and Qeqertarsuatsiaat, 130 kilometres to the south.
She is also responsible for keeping member registers up to date, which is still done manually, along with other administrative tasks. In a church enjoying a 95 percent membership rate, and where the numbers are rapidly growing, the administrative workload increases.
Nevertheless, preaching the gospel and being there for people are always what she and her colleagues prioritize. With growth also comes a shortage of housing, and in the last few years homelessness has become an issue.
“There are at least 50 homeless people in this town, whom we pray for and whom we reach out to by regularly inviting them to the church to worship and have a meal,” Steenholdt explains.
Another challenge is shortage of graveyard space. Several cemeteries in Nuuk have reached their capacity. To allow sufficient time to grieve, 50 years must pass after the last burial before a full graveyard can be re-used. There is no crematorium yet in Greenland, although the church is in favour of building one. The issue is being discussed with responsible local authorities.
A typical Greenlandic cemetery is scattered with identical white crosses over graves decorated with plastic flowers. Fresh flowers won’t survive in an arctic climate, where temperatures often are below freezing point.
Answers sought in the gospel
Coming from Aasiaat, a small island 500 kilometres north of Nuuk, Steenholdt became a pastor because she sought answers to existential questions related to faith. The gospel provided those answers. Since her ordination in 2006, she has served for two years in Qaqortoq in Southern Greenland and in Nuuk the rest of the time. In 2014 she became the vicar in the Nuuk parish.
As such, she feels fortunate to lead a dynamic team and a vibrant congregation, where people see the church as a place not only to worship, sing and pray, but also to come together.
“Compared to Denmark, where many of us have lived and studied, I believe congregations here generally are more vibrant and that Greenlanders are more engaged in church life. So, in that perspective, I believe we are doing well here. But with the growth in population we now have, we must inspire more young people to become pastors and musicians, and attract enough clergy to Greenland to meet future demands. Along with that, we must develop our administrative systems and provide better opportunities to attend capacity-building courses and theological conventions, right here in Greenland,” Steenholdt concludes.
All in all, while the parish in fast-growing Nuuk faces a number of pertinent challenges, it is blessed with a flourishing church life. This time of the year most 14-year-olds in Nuuk, and elsewhere in Greenland, have just been confirmed. People have filled beautifully decorated churches all over the island to worship and celebrate together with the youth. The Christian fellowship in Greenland is thriving.
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.
“Greenland church life and climate challenges featured in new series” – WCC press release 24 May 2019
“There are no spare parts for whales” – WCC press release 13 June 2019
“Dealing with traumas and healing of wounds” – WCC press release 04 June 2019
World Council of Churches, Weekly Summary, August 2-8, August 8, 2019