On Sunday, February 4, 1956 I preached my first sermon to the gathered throng of blond blue-eyed Christians of Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, at the corner of 45th Street and 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. I had been cashiered as the student assistant minister in Mamaroneck and found refuge among the "square heads" after being admonished by the District Superintendent, Lester Auman, "not to start any fires I couldn't put out." I chose as my sermonic theme that day the love of God. No quarrel there, right? But I did it - somehow, God only knows how - with the launching text of the prophet Ezekiel's slaughter of four hundred priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel. No one stood up in protest. In fact, I doubt anyone understood me.
That inauspicious beginning was a preamble to seventeen and a half years among the Norwegian-Americans, who taught me many things (how to make soft waffles, how to sing "Paaske Morgen" at Easter, and how to love Jesus warmly and genuinely), but, most of all, they taught me how to be a Pastor... which is, I venture to opine, something more than a Reverend. Oh, we had our share of disagreements. They found that a child of Scotch-Irish ancestry could be as stubborn as any son or daughter of Norway. But, God bless them, they not only tolerated me, they held me in their love and esteem, and made me an honorary Viking. They even asked me to represent them one afternoon at the Norwegian Christian Old Peoples' Home when King Olav V was visiting the States and shaking hands (on a red carpet) with dignitaries from local Norwegian institutions.
Their children and grandchildren continue to keep in touch with me some thirty years after my departure in 1973. The towheads are now gone from that church. Indians from Bombay fill the pews on Sundays. But a community of shared memories lives on.
Thus, after years of thinking I ought to, we made our way to the Land of the Midnight Sun, thanks to the good offices of the Williams College Alumni Travel program (with whose director, Bob Behr, I had been legislating in recent years for another tour of Norway). It was like going home. Home to my own past and those who peopled it. At least to those who looked like the people who sat before me every Sunday morning, their English touched with a singsong accent, their coffee hot and bracing, their aspirations for a better life the very same as those that impelled my mother to emigrate from Northern Ireland nigh unto a century ago.
The following descriptions in words and photos tries to catch a glimpse of "home," along with some observations about the current climate (cultural and spiritual as well as meteorological) in Norway. When I took stock of the images I had, they more or less arranged themselves into the following categories.
A Warm Welcome, a Familiar Face
An old friend from the church, Richie Wiger, who with wife Donna emigrated from the U. S. more than thirty years ago to make a life in Oslo, he in biological research (lemmings, initially) and she in remedial education, greeted us as we disembarked from the bus at the Hotel Continental. In my mind Richie is still that twenty something fellow in whose Ft. Hamilton High School yearbook I wrote (Richie reminded me), "May you fulfill the promise you have shown." He certainly has, and at sixty-five he is nearly as bald as I am. The morning following our arrival, while others were exploring the waterfront and nearby shops, I went with Richie on a private tour of Oslo, and caught up on personal events of the past three decades while reminiscing about days gone by in Brooklyn.
Our Swedish Guide to Norway
The song sung by Carly Simon for a James Bond movie, about 007, could most appropriately be sung about our guide on our voyage. To Pia Lindau we can harmonize without reservation and no intent to flatter, just to tell the truth: "Nobody does it better."
The Church in Norway
Hints that the religious milieu in Norway is pretty much what I surmised two generations ago from my experience in Brooklyn: an established state church (Lutheran), steadfastly orthodox (some would say, wooden), which very few attend with any regularity, the priests/pastors civil servants with little incentive to court their congregants the way American clergy must. Surrounding the established church are the "free" churches (including Methodist), very pietistic, focused on individual morality and the first great commandment, akin to the fundamentalist/evangelical movement in the U. S., though no way near as dynamic and popular.
This uninterest in familiar forms of religious expression has, I would suggest from a cursory inquiry among younger Norwegians, led to a channeling of the very human spiritual impulse into an emphasis on ethics (the second great commandment). When I asked Mats, a graduate student guide at Trondheim Cathedral, if he had been confirmed, he said, "Yes, but not in church." He had had a civil confirmation, meaning he had studied ethics in a state-authorized program. Our guide, Pia Lindau, discounted this rite as an excuse to get the presents showered on those completing their religious studies. But I suspect there's something more to it. The Norwegians are self-consciously, almost annoyingly, humanistic and internationalist.
A report in a recent Saturday's edition of The New York Times featured a Norwegian working for the United Nations in its humanitarian efforts. Jan Egeland visits and investigates trouble spots around the world where genocide, famine, and all of the other depredations human beings visit on one another are perpetrated. He explains his motivation with reference to his upbringing: "In Norway my parents gave me the Lutheran kind of message that you should know that you are living in undeserved wealth and prosperity, and you should help."
A monument at the top of the world, North Cape, celebrates human diversity and the need for all of us to live together in peace and goodwill. It shows the children of the world linked as one family, looking toward the North Pole.
From my distant past I recall a phrase coined, I think, by Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian with a Calvinist Christology, who deplored "cut flower ethics." He meant that an ethical structure cut off from its roots (i. e., the second great commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself, divorced from the first great commandment, to love God with everything you have) will fade and wither. Accordingly, Norwegian internationalist do-goodism will not, in my view, be sustained very many generations apart from a healthy investment in Lutheran piety.
But enough of my ecclesiastical rambling... for now, anyway.
Others may travel on their feet, but I confess I travel equally on my stomach. If the fare doesn't satisfy, neither will the scenery. I am happy to report that each, food and landscape, were excellent. I could have wished for a bit more "biff" and a little less fish, but I am a recovering McDonaldsolic, so you should take my words with a grain of sea salt.
Very early on we noticed at the buffet aboard ship a certain rudeness exhibited by people who seemed to share a common language not English. They pushed their way to the head of the line. They elbowed their way to the ice cream. They never said, "Excuse me," or whatever would be the Deutsch equivalent. Some of the women looked like linebackers for the Chicago Bears. "Don't mess with me" was their unspoken motto. Our guide confirmed our observation of Teutonic aggressiveness and noted, to our surprise, that Americans are the most polite tourists... maybe - she didn't say it, but I inferred it - too polite.
The Norwegian guides could not be accused of the political incorrectness to which I have just given voice. Along the routes of our sightseeing time and again a church, a neighborhood, and a whole town would be dated for its relatively recent construction, say, in 1947 or the early Fifties. The whole town of Honningsvag was burned to the ground, except for the small church on the hillside next to a graveyard. The Cathedrals of Bodr and Tromsr did not survive the World War II destructions which one guide finally attributed to the Nazis (a felicitous choice of words!). Kirkenes, the last stop on our voyage, was also leveled as the Germans retreated down the peninsula in the face of the Russian onslaught at the end of the war.
Fauna and Flora
Early arrivals at the Hotel Continental complained about the revelry Saturday night before the Sunday we checked in. The midnight sun allows Norwegians to make up for the darkness of winter; and they certainly do take advantage of it. Since our time in Oslo was limited to workdays, we were not afflicted with youthful exuberance when gray hairs needed sleep. Such wildlife as we encountered was not the human variety but the animal kind.
The Land and Seascape
I am, as my wife describes me, not a "looker." I am, I guess, a gabber. I go on these sightseeing trips to meet people. An online critique of our voyage quotes an executive of the Hurtingruten line explaining that the entertainment on the cruise is the scenery. No casinos. No dance bands. No recreation director leading a session of "Simon Says." The Midnatsol may look like the Love Boat but its purpose is more like the ships that plied the Murmansk run during the Second War: to deliver goods and personnel above the Arctic Circle. Which (the foregoing) may simply be my excuse for failing to include many picturesque photos. Wife Barbara and others on the voyage will surely make up for my deficiency in following postings on this website.
As befitted our global positioning - along the coast of internationalistic Norway - we were treated to three lectures by former correspondent for The New York Times, current producer of documentaries for PBS, Hedrick Smith, and his wife and collaborator, Susan Zox. The topics? China, Iraq, and Tax Evasion. Along the way we got to see Rick dressed up in a yellow rubber toxic suit investigating the sewers of Bocum, Germany. Our eyes were surfeited with sights, our stomachs with food: we were grateful for Rick's plentiful stimulation of our brains. The lectures were for me the highlight of the trip.
* A visit to Grieg's Home in Bergen where we listened to a young pianist practicing for a concert later in the day.
* Buying Dale Norwegian sweaters in Bergen.
And getting acquainted with local legends.
* Celebrating the crossing of the Arctic Circle with an icy baptism.
For some of us it was just too cold; in fact, the coldest day of the entire trip.
But we got a certificate anyway.
* We visited the Edvard Vigeland sculptures in a park in the heart of Oslo.
* We toured the harbor in a launch and visited the museum featuring the ships from the adventures of Thor Hyerdahl; and a vessel unearthed in recent times, a ship for the king's journey to Valhalla.
* We visited the National Gallery and eyed Munch's (pronounced Monk) most famous painting.
On a private tour I photographed this mural by Munch in a university building near the Hotel Continental.
What I Did When Others Were Admiring the Scenery
Friends, New and Old
Betsy Taylor summed up with a toast at our farewell dinner, that the trip to Norway not only provided us with glorious sights but with friendships new and renewed. Herewith are a series of photos from the train platform in Oslo and the farewell dinner at the Hotel Continental the evening before our departure for home or other corners of the world.
Residue: Happy Memories, Lots of Photos, and 180 Kroner
Final Thought on Going Home
Tom Wolfe (the original, not the fellow in the white suits) had it right, in the title of that novel I read at Williams College for Professor Bushnell, "You Can't Go Home Again." At the Kirkenes Airport I struck up a conversation with a trio of Norwegian hikers, young men on the cusp of thirty. I joked that I had once lived for eighteen years in the second largest Norwegian city. When I told them it was Brooklyn, they were non-plussed. They were three or four generations removed from those immigrants to the Borough of Churches, farmers and fishermen who left the land of the Midnight Sun for the USA, because it promised far greater opportunity than they would ever find in Norway. That was before the discovery of oil off Stavanger in the North Sea. The Norwegian government has seen to it, much to its credit, that everyone, from the king to the carpenter, benefits from this petroleum largesse. Norway enjoys the highest standard of living in the world. Little wonder my airport conversationalists had only the faintest notion of the life and hardships endured by the Norwegian-Americans to whom God and the bishop (unwittingly!) sent me in February 1956. My Norwegian home is, I now see, a very personal region of the mind and heart.