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Global Vision - Fall 2010

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From Sweden to St. Paul: A formal exchange begins

by Tracy Behrendt, Correspondent

Christoffer Ahlbäck pictured with Jesus Purisaca, M.Div. student, at the 2009 Global Agape Feast

Beginning with the 2009-10 academic year, Luther Seminary entered into a formal partnership with Johannelund Theological Seminary in Uppsala, Sweden to offer an exchange program between the two schools.

Christoffer Ahlbäck from Johannelund and Antonio Spargo from Luther were the first two students to take part in the exchange.

From Sweden to St. Paul: Christoffer Ahlbäck

When Johannelund Theological Seminary in Uppsala, Sweden announced an exchange program with Luther Seminary in fall 2008, Christoffer Ahlbäck immediately thought it would be a great opportunity--for someone else.

"When I first heard it, I thought, 'That would be really cool. Someone will have a great year, learn a ton of things, grow and (meet) great friends. But it isn't going to be me,'" Ahlbäck said.

After a little encouragement from a professor, Ahlbäck gave the program a second look and applied. Now, having recently completed his year at Luther and returned to Sweden, he is thankful for his time abroad.

"It was hard to leave and go back to Sweden," said Ahlbäck, who returned to Johannelund this fall. "All the classes I took have made an impression on me ... being in another country, and a different continent, has been very valuable."

Now Ahlbäck plans to bring what he learned at Luther back to Sweden to better his home seminary. For one, he hopes that Johannelund, though smaller than Luther with about 130 students, will start a program similar to Luther's Congregational Mission and Leadership program.

Most of all, Ahlbäck returns with a fresh perspective on his own culture and call to ministry. And that, according to Luther Seminary Professor of Old Testament Mark Throntveit, is most important.

"The greatest benefit is surely the marvelous critical appreciation of one's own context and culture that arises as one struggles to understand a new environment with its inevitable questioning of what we hold dear and take for granted," said Throntveit, who spent part of a past sabbatical year teaching at Johannelund and helping to establish the exchange program.

Gaining an understanding of the ELCA and its mission will be invaluable to Ahlbäck as he enters the Swedish church, said Arland Hultgren, associate dean for first theological degrees at Luther Seminary.

"I think Christoffer learned a lot about a church that is planted in a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational, and multi-religious society--which Sweden is becoming more and more," said Hultgren, who, with Throntveit, serves as a point person for the program.

It was through Ahlbäck's immersion in the life of both Luther and the ELCA that he learned the most.

"New perspectives help you see your own culture with new eyes--both good and bad things," he said. "They also help you to extend your imagination to imagine new ways to do things in your own culture."

From St. Paul to Sweden: Antonio Spargo

While Ahlbäck was hesitant to take part in the exchange program, Luther student Antonio Spargo didn't need much convincing. Spargo's grandfather was born in Sweden and he still has many close relatives there. He also spent time in Sweden as a child of missionaries, so Spargo saw Sweden as a second home. When Throntveit, his adviser, found out he spoke Swedish, he immediately encouraged Spargo to study abroad.

"[Throntveit's] eyes lit up because he had been involved in setting up the exchange program with Johannelund," said Spargo, a Master of Divinity intern. "The problem was they had never been able to use the exchange since no students at Luther knew Swedish in order to take classes in Uppsala."

The time in Sweden gave Spargo a chance not only to brush up on his Swedish, but also experience the country in a new way.

"I gained the opportunity to see a Lutheran church in another cultural context," Spargo said.  "Even though it is a European culture and church, the context and history which the church is called to serve is different and it is helpful to see a different culture's perspective on how to go about ministry. In the ELCA, it helps me to think outside the box of what 'we have always done'."

Throntveit noted that it also provided Spargo "an opportunity to reacquaint himself with his roots."

"Whenever possible, we chose classes that included aspects of contextualization that furthered his appreciation of how the church is expressed in contemporary Sweden," Throntveit said.

Now back in the states, Spargo is currently in his internship year. He said his experience in Sweden is already shaping the way he views the global church.

"One aspect of my experience in Sweden which has followed me here is the issue of Muslim-Christian and Arab-Western relations," he said.  "This has been a topic of contention in Sweden and as recent events show, is also here in the U.S. [My time in Sweden gave] me firsthand observations both of what is helpful and what is not, and I can employ that in conversation with people."

Spargo, like Ahlbäck, gained greater certainty in his call to ministry in the ever-changing Lutheran church. Spargo experienced these changes in the Church of Sweden firsthand at Johannelund. It was in the variety of thoughts and beliefs among fellow students that he learned the most and gained a greater understanding of how to reach those with differing beliefs.

"There is a need for the church to really understand who we are called to serve and how we need to reach them," he said. "The church sometimes needs to evaluate what gives us traction with people, believers and non-believers, and if we are not meeting people where they are, then we need to look (critically) at ourselves, not others."