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.
"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."
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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