An Arctic Pastor On The Front Lines Of Climate Change

As head of the northernmost parish in the world, Leif Helgesen has a clear (and often chilly) view of global warming.

Leif Magne Helgesen (left) celebrating mass at the Longyearbyen 'cathedral'
Leif Magne Helgesen (left) celebrating mass at the Longyearbyen "cathedral"
Leïla Miñano

LONGYEARBYEN — At just over 1,000 km from the North Pole, Longyearbyen — population 2,300 — is home to more polar bears than people. For some locals like Leif Magne Helgesen, a 56-year-old Lutheran pastor who keeps his small wooden church open at all hours, that's part of the beauty of living here.

Towards the end of November, Longyearbyen is coated in snow and powerful gusts of icy wind descend on the town. "Usually, during polar nights, the moon and the stars reflect on the snow," says Helgesen. "The light is magnificent." But in 2016, things were different. The sky was pitch black save for the lights of a few houses. In the meantime, Helgesen's snowmobile gathered dust in the parking lot. "There was no snow," he says. "Not even a snowflake."

Longyearbyen is the capital of the Svalbard archipelago, a Norwegian-administered group of islands in the Arctic Ocean. Six months of sunlight are followed by six months of darkness, punctured only by the Northern Lights that illuminate the sky. Locals call this the "dark season."

Snow should have started falling in October that year, but the temperature remained stubbornly above freezing. With 72 consecutive months of abnormally warm temperatures, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute found that Longyearbyen was the fastest-warming city on Earth.

Snow finally began to fall in late November. Serving coffee around a fire in his church, Helgesen offered a respite from the harsh weather outside. As the only Christian representative in the archipelago, he has welcomed people of all denominations to the church, which opened in 1958. Christians from across the islands come here for services, from Russians in the nearby mining town of Barentsburg to Polish glaciologists in southern Hornsund. Presiding over a parish larger than Belgium, Helgesen must travel by snowmobile and by helicopter to reach all of the faithful.

The parish where Helgesen holds his sermons — Photo: Leif Magne Helgesen

Two weeks earlier, the pastor was forced to evacuate the church when unseasonal rains provoked mudslides that threatened to destroy several homes. In 2015, similar landslides ravaged parts of Longyearbyen and killed two people, including a 2-year-old child. "The situation has gotten dramatically worse in the 10 years I've been here," says Helgesen. "Instead of snowing, it rains."

Those catastrophic events struck at the heart of the small community and posed a stark reminder of the imminent dangers of climate change. "We know how to protect ourselves from avalanches, storms, and even polar bears, but before this, we felt safe in our homes," says a representative on the local council.

Helgesen is hosting an informal get-together at his church with several members of the community, including the council representative, a former Norwegian navy officer, and the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, Svalbardposten. The group engages in heated discussion on the topic of the day: the increasing Russian presence in the archipelago. For the residents of this small town founded in 1906, climate change has brought new challenges to the table. Russia, which is seeking to open a new trade route through the warming Arctic Ocean, is one of them.

Preaching and reaching

Ten years ago, Helgesen was on the front lines of a very different challenge: post-conflict reconciliation in Kosovo. Working for the Norwegian NGO Church Aid in Pristina between 2000 and 2004, he organized meetings between religious officials from the capital's Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox communities. Before that, he worked with drug addicts and the homeless on the streets of Norway and in multiple European cities.

I discovered I believed in two things: God and humanity.

Dressed in faded jeans and sporting a three-day-old beard with salt-and-pepper hair, one can easily imagine Helgesen at ease on the streets of Paris, London, or Oslo. Born in Madagascar to Norwegian missionaries, he decided to follow in his parents' footsteps after spending 30 years working with prisoners in one of the most notorious prisons in Norway.

"Speaking with detainees, I realized I could help them reflect and see some light in the darkness," he says. "I discovered I believed in two things: God and humanity."

For Helgesen, the internet is a formidable tool to escape the parish's isolation and reach followers around the world through his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. He runs a popular blog where he writes about climate change and gives his outspoken opinion on subjects ranging from refugees in Norway to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Beyond his role as a pastor, Helgesen is also a prolific writer and a member of the Svalbard Kirkes Trio, a band that plays religious hymns. His published works include books on his time in the Balkans, the West Bank, and in Svalbard. His bestseller, a collaborative effort with the renowned Norwegian Polar Institute, has been published in English with the title The Ice is Melting: Ethics in the Arctic.

Parishioners on snowmobiles, the means of transportation in the village — Photo: Leif Magne Helgesen

"We're finding exotic fish in the sea and unknown flowers are growing in the soil," says Helgesen. "Of course I'm worried!"

Kim Holmén is one of the directors of the Norwegian Polar Institute, a collaborator of Helgesen's on the book and an occasional visitor to his parish. "The situation is urgent," he says. "We have to inform the public on what's happening. That's everyone's responsibility, from scientists to politicians to journalists."

For his part, Helgesen is trying to convince the Lutheran Church to take a greater role in the fight against climate change. Both men regularly attend international climate conferences to pressure global officials on their efforts to reduce emissions.

"Unlike politicians, we'll always be here and we have to think about the future for our children," says Helgesen. "We have to fight for the victims of climate change because today it's the poorest who are suffering and abandoning their homes."

First light

The first sunrise of 2017 appeared in the skies of Longyearbyen in early March, bathing the small town and its snow-capped fjords in a turquoise glow. Helgesen is back on his snowmobile, preparing to host a special open-air service to inaugurate the first light of the year.

The mass will be held at a remote fjord Helgesen first discovered two years ago, and he is accompanied on the trip by his brother and his deacon, Thorun, a former nurse. The snowmobile climbs summit after summit, slowly progressing past glaciers and frozen lakes. The temperature drops quickly from zero to -20 °C, and after 15 minutes the cold has rendered most electronic devices inoperable.

All carry obligatory rifles, a recent requirement due to a spike in polar bear attacks.

The snowmobile stops at the mouth of a barren fjord jutting out on the Sea of Greenland, with rays of sunlight piercing the dark grey sky. "The most beautiful cathedral in the world," says Helgesen.

He quickly gets to work, pulling out a large metal case that will serve as the altar, while Thorun gathers the crucifix and the chalice. As time passes the snowmobiles of congregants start filing in, parking in neat rows beside the makeshift church. All carry obligatory rifles, a recent requirement due to a spike in polar bear attacks.

"As Christians, we do not believe in injustice," says Helgesen during his sermon, raising his voice and lifting his arms. "We don't believe in violence or hate, in selfishness or over-consumption, in jealousy or abuse."

Fighting the gusts of wind ruffling his hair, the pastor presses his point. "We have faith in a Church that fights all of this," he says. "We believe in a love that is stronger than death! We believe in life."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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