The 'cop' who switched uniforms, has hope, but is worried about emerging lifestyles

(Photo: Claus Grue/WCC)John Johansen, dean at the diocese of Greenland.

People still often refer to him as "the cop," when he walks down the streets of the capital city, although he wears vestments in church.

Working as a police officer for 14 years has made John Johansen, a familiar face in his hometown Nuuk in Greenland, the world's northernmost capital.

Ordained in 2015, he was promoted last year to lead the deanery of mid Greenland, one of three deaneries within the diocese of Greenland, and its largest in terms of population and church members.

"I am a man of faith and I want to serve the people my own way.

"Preaching the Gospel and making a difference to people by giving them hope and spiritual guidance has become my call," explains Johansen in an interview with the World Council of Churches.

The years as a policeman on patrol has given him a raft of experience to build on, something he finds very useful in his current profession.

He has seen at close range the harsh realities of crime, addiction and other social problems.

"I've switched uniforms, but in many ways, I am doing the same thing, which is to serve the people.

"But now it is more a question of reaching out to people in need in a Christian way, without judging them. I've left the law enforcement aspect behind," Johansen says.

Since Christianity was brought to the island by the Danish missionary Hans Egede, almost 300 years ago, a vibrant church life has emerged.

More than 95 percent of Greenlanders are members of the Lutheran church of Greenland. For many, worship on Sundays is a must.

The island lies between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

There is plenty of work to be done in a society where imposed western lifestyles and cultures often collide with traditional values of Greenland's predominantly indigenous population.

Alienation is seen as a root to high suicide rates, alcohol addiction and sexual child abuse, which continues to plague societies in what must be one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.

"We face huge challenges, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we work closely together with social organisations and local authorities to tackle these issues," says Johansen.

Being there for people, listening to them and offering hope is one way of doing so.

"Faith, hope and love are fundamental values in our culture. An important part of our job is to listen and talk to people, to keep hope alive and motivate people to go ahead with their lives in a positive spirit," he notes.


He is deeply worried about the general trends in modern societies, where youth seem more and more obsessed with smart-phones and other gadgets.

Confirmation gives the church an opportunity to catch their attention and engage them in a dialogue.

That keeps Johansen and his colleagues particularly busy this time of the year.

"For many youngsters nowadays, confirmation becomes their first serious encounter with the Gospel.

"Sadly, religion is no longer a mandatory subject in elementary school and we now have a situation where the young ones don't know much about Christianity or other faiths," Johansen explains.

A positive sign is that the Church of Greenland enjoys high membership rates, around 95 percent, and worships are well attended throughout the country.

Within the deanery led by Johansen there are five parishes with 23 churches in total.

Nuuk's 170-year-old wooden Cathedral of the diocese of Greenland "Our Savior's Church", and the more modern Hans Egede church, attract large numbers of worshipers each Sunday.

They are mostly local, but a growing number of tourists also find their way to the benches, according to Johansen:

"Even though they can't understand Greenlandic, they seem fascinated by the emotional way in which we worship and sing our hymns," he says.

A serious challenge to a continuous vibrant church life throughout Greenland is a shortage of personnel, particularly ordained priests and musicians.

Sometimes, catechists educated by the diocese, can step in and perform clergy's duties.

In rural areas, so called reader-catechists, are engaged to read texts prepared by either an ordained priest or a catechist. No matter where people live, it is their common right to attend worship.

A closely related aspect to personnel shortage is recruiting people with the ability to lead others.

"Good leaders create attractive and non-prestigious working environments where people thrive and are motivated to perform on top of their abilities.

"The church must be reputed as an attractive place to work. We thus need both more skilled personnel and more leaders", Johansen points out.

He regards Christian unity and the worldwide Christian fellowship under the umbrella of the World Council of Churches as important sources of inspiration and crucial elements in sustaining global influence, and exploring new ways forward for the church.

"We must always be rational in our thinking, ready to learn from others and constantly renewing the Christian church, so that we remain relevant," he says.

Firmly rooted in his faith and his call to serve his fellow countrymen, he remains hopeful that his beloved country will overcome its current problems.

With a little help from the church.

*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.

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