I was able to join my husband, Kevin, in Stockholm, Sweden, last week.
He was representing the American Diabetes Association at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes Meeting.
At meetings like this, I continue to learn so much about how ruthless diabetes can be and how it affects so many people and their families worldwide.
And I have the opportunity to meet partners, donors and researchers who are doing everything they can to bring hope to those who suffer from diabetes.
I’m so glad to be on board for this great adventure of leadership and advocacy and glad to lend my voice to be supportive in any way I can.
But I can’t just go somewhere without thinking about questions of faith and life in community. Here are two big takeaways from my travels last week:
1. The church in Sweden is not dead.
There’s an impression, I believe, that many U.S. churchgoers have about the church in Europe, including places like Sweden.
We see pictures of large cathedrals with empty pews and think Europeans have long left faith behind.
We think that no one in this region believes in God anymore. Yet, there’s always more below the surface than we realize.
Thanks to connections through an organization called The Young Clergy Women’s Project, I made a new friend, Jenny, a resident from the Stockholm area and a Lutheran pastor.
She graciously spent time with me on her day off and gave me a “local” tour of the city.
I loved meeting her not only because it’s always lovely to connect with other female clergy but for the opportunity to glean wisdom about her experience of ministry.
Over the course of our afternoon together, Jenny told stories with me about her church’s social ministries and her work in bridging gaps of ecumenical conversations throughout the region.
She contradicted the stereotypes about her country, sharing that while the pews might not be full on Sunday morning, hundreds of folks are connected to the church life throughout the week.
Programs like play groups for moms of young children or education forums on spiritual topics do draw people to the local church, she told me.
Residents of Stockholm do believe in God and want to know more, especially at pivotal moments like births and deaths.
And she told me story after story of conversations she has on a regular basis with faith-seekers.
It was exciting to hear that female clergy are leading the way. In fact, more than 40 percent of the clergy in the Lutheran church in Sweden are now women.
2. The Syrian refugee crisis is worse than you think.
So many of us have all seen the stories about the mass exodus of Syrian refugees, one of the worst humanitarian crises in years.
We’ve watched the news clips of mothers and children screaming and fathers fighting back. We’ve been horrified by the actions of nations like Hungary, refusing to take in refugees at their borders.
But in the U.S., it’s easy to feel so far away from the problem. It’s easy for even the most compassionate of us to think, “These are not my neighbors,” and move on to something else.
But on the plazas of Stockholm, I saw the refugee crisis firsthand. As I traveled each day through the city’s central train station, I saw scenes of Syrian refugees and Red Cross volunteers trying to do anything they could to help bring aid.
Every morning and afternoon, I watched as the Red Cross folks handed out bottled water, medical aid and fresh fruit and other snacks to displaced people of all ages.
Most of the refugees had been without a good night’s rest, proper nutrition or the feelings of safety in more than a month.
Many sought asylum in Sweden but faced difficulties due to the complex system of who can take in who that is now being worked out by the European Union.
As I looked at their faces, I couldn’t help but wonder what more I could do besides giving to organizations like the Red Cross.
I think sharing my experience of encountering refugees and not forgetting what I saw last week is a start.
All in all, what an eye-opening week! Thank you, plazas of Stockholm for your warm welcome and reminding me that the Spirit is always present no matter where we go.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is an ordained American Baptist minister and a freelance writer. She regularly blogs at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @elizabethhagan.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.