JOKKMOKK, Sweden (Mennonite Mission Network) – Light from the midnight sun bathes everything below – mountains, winding river, the trees that surround the weathered old house – in an ethereal glow.
During the summer months, the sun never sets above the Arctic Circle. It creates a special kind of light that Lars-Göran Hannler likes to capture in his photographs.
An attractive opportunity
People come for the indigenous handcrafts, mostly. They’re the best to be found in Sweden. Many also travel to the famous winter market to take in such exotic local cultural events as reindeer racing and moose-spotting safaris. Nearly everyone hopes to meet old friends and make new ones.
And every year, when some 30,000 to 50,000 visitors come from all over the world to this little town above the Arctic Circle for Sweden’s oldest winter market, members of Jokkmokk’s free church see one thing more: opportunity.
The winter market gives the church the opportunity to attract people who ordinarily wouldn’t set foot inside a free church, according to longtime Mission Network personnel Tom Rutschman. The church sets up a café at each year’s winter market to provide an alternative to some of the rowdier entertainments.
Proceeds from the café will go this year to a Methodist children’s home in Uruguay, the country where Rutschman grew up with his Mennonite mission worker parents, Harriet and LaVerne Rutschman.
For Rutschman, the involvement goes deep. One of the children from the home, 17-year-old Fabián, stayed at the Rutschman home when a school exchange group from Montevideo came to town for the market. In addition, the Rutschmans’ daughter Miriam is working at the home this year as a volunteer.
“Tom and Disa have meant a lot to Jokkmokk,” said longtime friend and fellow church member Lars-Göran Hannler. “His loving and serving spirit is a very good example of leadership.”
The longest continuous winter market in Sweden, last year the Jokkmokk festival celebrated its 400th anniversary.
He shares that light with visitors who stop by the café his church sets up each year at Jokkmokk’s annual winter market to generate proceeds for a worthy cause. The café was part of some 400 to 500 booths at this year’s market, which drew an estimated 50,000 people for three days beginning Feb. 2 to sample the local handcrafts, food and festivities.
Hannler and other church members were featured artists whose works were offered for sale at the church café. A selection of his photos were on display. (See sidebar for details on this year’s café project.)
There’s another kind of light Hannler hopes to convey through his lens, as well.
“Through these landscapes I hope to give testimony of how God has created an entire world of wonderful landscapes for us,” said Hannler, who with his wife, Barbro, attends Jokkmokk’s free church. They are longtime friends of Tom and Disa Rutschman, who serve in Sweden through Mennonite Mission Network.
Hannler’s photos, taken throughout Sweden’s beautiful national parks, are only part of his testimony.
The other part is what happens when he and Barbro open their home to visitors for the three-day winter market that takes place each year in early February. On the first Thursday of that month, and for the next three days, some 30,000 to 50,000 people travel from as far away as the United States and Japan to sample the exotic local handcrafts, culture, music, shows and other assorted events in the country’s oldest winter market.
Because the sudden influx of guests strains the area’s hotel capacity, it is not uncommon for the people of Jokkmokk to open their homes to accommodate their visitors.
“We stay in touch with the people who have come to stay with us,” he said. “Some become good friends for the rest of our lives.”
Indeed, when people visit the Hannler home, they are treated as though they are already old friends. Within a warm atmosphere of openness and trust – striking in a culture that places a high value on aloofness and reserve – they willingly share their touching personal testimony.
The two speak openly with visitors about the death in June 2000 of their 17-year-old son, Matthias, from cancer. It started in his leg and spread to his lungs. By the time the doctors discovered it, he had 42 tumors. There was nothing anyone could do.
The Hannlers speak about how Matthias came to know Jesus before he died. They speak of how he wished others could know the same Lord. They speak of their gratitude for the outpouring of support that came from all over the world as they shared their story on the Web.
What they never speak – ever – is any word of bitterness. No self-pity. No anger at God.
“I never asked, ‘Why, God? Why me?’” Lars-Göran Hannler said. “I knew God had everything under control.”
Hannler said it is good to tell their story because people are always moved to hear how God helped them through such a difficult time.
“It helps them to hear how we can we get through it as Christians,” he said. “How do we find the strength to get through the loss of a child? This is something that moves and touches people deeply, even those who are outside of the Christian faith who wonder: How can you manage this? Is it possible to feel any meaning when something so difficult happens to your family? Do you get mad at God?
“A situation like this makes people ask many difficult questions,” he said.
In the years since his son’s death, Hannler has appeared many places to speak about what God has done in his life. He said he never worries ahead of time what he’s going to say. Instead, he depends on the Holy Spirit to give him the right words.
He takes every opportunity he can to share his faith, he said, because he believes it is needed. With only 2 to 5 percent of the population regularly attending church, “Sweden is too far away from God,” he said. Despite its sun that never sets in the summer, there is a darkness in this beautiful land that only God can illuminate.
Lars-Göran Hannler hopes that through his testimony in pictures and words, he can share that light with others.