As the COVID-19 pandemic has put cities, businesses and day-to-day life on hold around the world, many organizations and individuals continue to find new ways of reaching out to their communities to help hard-hit citizens thrive through the crisis. In New York City, as elsewhere, such help is especially found among communities of worship, where the faithful continue to seek solace, spirituality, comfort and healing — albeit in socially distant ways.
Enter the Danish Seamen’s Church in Brooklyn: New York City’s historical spiritual outpost for Danes living in the Big Apple. Located in Brooklyn Heights, the Church has navigated the turbulent waters of the pandemic, providing a source of relief, community and hygge for Danes amid the crisis.
Denmark in New York caught up with Pastor Julie Sløk to talk about the Church’s upcoming activities, the myriad challenges it faced during the COVID-19 lockdown and how she plans to care for her community in a city transformed by the pandemic.
This interview forms part of a new series of COVID-19 Culture Conversations, through which Denmark in New York engages key local partners on how to rise to the occasion in a time of crisis. The series spotlights innovative initiatives and crisis response in New York and Denmark amid the global pandemic.
Denmark in New York: Can you tell us a little bit about the Danish Seamen’s Church in New York?
Julie Sløk: The Danish Seamen’s Church is a small Lutheran church in Brooklyn Heights and has a congregation of 900 families. The vast majority live in the Tri-State area, and about 100 families in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area are members as well.
Today, the congregation is made up of a large influx of Danes to the Tri-State area over the past 20 years. We’re geared towards a congregation consisting of young families, visiting students, and Danes living here semi-permanently. The church attend to their needs with weekly church services in Danish, a mother’s group, a playgroup, a youth network and plenty of social activities like talks, hikes, brunches, etc.
The Danish Seamen’s Church was founded by the Rev. Rasmus Andersen in 1878. One curious story is that for the first service held at the Church on July 10th, 1878 there were only 2 people attending — a local tailor and the renowned Danish photographer, social critic and reformer Jacob A. Riis, who had financially supported the establishment of the church.
How do you see your own role in the Danish expat community in New York and wider Tristate Area, beyond the narrowly defined responsibilities you carry as pastor of the Seamen’s church?
Julie Sløk: I think the church is an anchor for Danes living in New York. People have a fundamental trust in all of us working here, and generally, we lend a sympathetic ear when life is hard in the big city, people are homesick, relationships crumble, or family members in Denmark are sick.
It is also a place Danes seek out when they move to New York. Here they get into the Danish community and meet new friends. I think everybody moving to a new country has a need to reflect on cultural differences even for cultures as similar as the Danish and the American. This social function is as important to the Danes here as the opportunity to use the church as a place of worship, or to get married, confirmed and baptized.
How has the church been able to serve its congregation and wider community during the COVID-19 lockdown? What have been the biggest challenges and the most important lessons learned?
Julie Sløk: It has been a difficult time for all of us like it has been for the rest of the city. We have had to close the church completely for in-person meetings in March under the lockdown and just opened up again in September.
The pandemic has taught us that being relevant is not as much about meeting in person as about accommodating to needs of the congregation by helping them through the hard times we are facing. The lockdown meant that we moved preaching online and held a lot of zoom meetings. We have reached out to people in the congregation, been on the phone a lot, met people for distanced walks and tried to be very visible with an encouraging message on Instagram and Facebook. We wanted people to know we were here, that the church community was not suspended just because we had to physically distance from each other.
The Seamen’s Church has always served both as a religious and a cultural anchor point for New York’s Danish expat community. Do you see these roles changing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and how?
Julie Sløk: There has been a lot of homesickness and despair fuelled by the uncertainty of the future, a lot of departures from the city to the countryside as well as permanent returns to Denmark being moved up. I’ve been busy during the quarantine trying to plan for an uncertain future, doing a lot of outreach to hear how the congregants are handling the pandemic as well as a lot of pastoral counselling sessions with people having their lives upended by the pandemic. And I think the term ‘pastoral care’ got expanded with the pandemic to include shopping for people in the congregation.
The Seamen’s Church resumed services in September. What other plans do you have in place for activities and programs for the upcoming fall and winter season?
Julie Sløk: Our online auction just started after we had to postpone it in the spring. It’s been hard to get it up running during the pandemic as businesses also have been closed; but honestly, I think we managed to get some quite exciting items donated for the auction such as Danish design from George Jensen, some mid-century furniture and of course plenty of Danish food and candy items like gift cards for Danish bakeries and licorice.
Autumn is usually our busy season as we’re in full swing preparing for our annual Christmas Fair. In a normal year, we draw more than 1500–2000 guest for a day of Christmas shopping and some Danish hygge. This is the place to meet fellow Danes, get some Danish open-faced sandwiches, drink traditional gløgg (mulled wine), and buy all the classic Danish Christmas ornaments, advent candles and everything else one would need for a Scandinavian Christmas time. And apart from having a lot of hygge, it’s our most important fundraiser of the year.
Even with a pandemic raging, we knew we had to come up with a different kind of Christmas Fair because we needed the funds, but we also knew that it would be impossible to assemble this many people. We came up with a format that spreads out the Christmas Fair over a longer period of time from November 14 to December 6, so there is ample time to shop for those delicious Christmas goodies and even for some hot glogg and æbleskiver in a tent in our backyard. We hope that a lot of people will come by for some Christmas hygge.
Every Sunday morning at 11AM a service is held at The Danish Seamen’s Church except for the last Sunday of the month. This year, the annual Christmas Fair is held from November 14 to December 6, and orders for Danish Christmas specialities and decorations can be made from the web shop later in October.
Mona Raben Eisby is the Culture and Public Diplomacy Intern at Denmark in New York.