Meet Maria Thorsson, the newly appointed pastor for the Swedish Church in Toronto. Her mission is to serve Swedes across all of North America.
“To boldly go where no one has gone before” reads a tattoo on the left upper arm of Maria Thorsson, the new pastor for the Swedish Church in Toronto.
“People often assume it’s a Bible quote, but it’s actually from Star Trek,” she laughs. When asked why she identifies so strongly with the sci-fi-show, she explains, “Their mission is to explore unexplored territory, not just in a geographical sense, but also spiritually.” That is an approach to life that Maria has taken to heart both personally as well as professionally.
Born in Skurup in southern Skåne, Maria has spent the better part of the past two decades working as a pastor around the world in places such as Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and Africa. She has also completed several deployments as military chaplain with the Swedish Armed Forces in Timbuktu, Mali. The mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, has been dubbed the world’s most dangerous UN mission with more than 200 peacekeepers killed since its inception in 2013. Here, even pastors have to undergo combat training before deployment and be heavily armed whenever leaving the camp. For a minister to be constantly armed and ready for battle may seem incongruous, but Maria has given it a great deal of consideration.
“I believe the most important part is that you’ve really thought it through before deploying. I felt like I’m sure most soldiers feel; I don’t ever want to take somebody’s life, but if I end up in a situation where I have to pull the trigger in order to protect the group and myself, I will. There are missions in which the pastor isn’t armed, but instead they have bodyguards. For me it makes no difference if I take the shot or if someone else does it for me. The end result is the same.”
Sweden hasn’t suffered any causalities in Mali thus far, but it falls on the minister to make sure there is a refrigerated container and coffins ready if needed. Their presence act as a constant reminder of the risks involved. And for some, the proximity of death can become a gateway to faith. Several of the soldiers who had been raised as non-believers took an interest in existential questions in Mali. Some even found God with Maria shepherding them through religious studies to Christian confirmations in the camp. All told, the experience proved among the most rewarding of her life.
“Mali transformed me as a human being. It was incredibly humbling to witness how people who live in appalling conditions, and who have been subjected to so much suffering, are still able to maintain faith in the future. I’ve reflected a great deal on that during the weeks I’ve spent in quarantine over the past few months. It has helped me to put things into perspective,” she says.
A strong believer in dialogue, Maria was also the first Swedish minister to reach out to religious leaders of different faiths and denominations in the ancient city of Timbuktu, once an important center for Muslim scholars.
“Sometimes we fail to see things because we are so stuck in our own ways of interpreting reality. I believe it’s important to have the courage to question one’s norms and framework every so often. That doesn’t always mean we’re wrong, but we have to be prepared to think outside the box and to change when necessary. Ours may not be the only truth or the only right way of doing things. As they say in Star Trek: ‘It’s life, but not as we know it’.”
In North America, Maria will pioneer a brand-new position as mobile pastor. The Church of Sweden has a permanent presence in Toronto, Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and Washington D.C., but there are many other cities and states with large groups of Swedes that completely lack representation. So, while Maria will be based in Toronto, she will travel the breadth and width of the continent doing her best to serve Swedes who lack a congregation of their own, providing services such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings and prison visits.
“Just like we have mobile pastors in mainland Europe, Asia, and Africa, it’s time to introduce a similar concept for North America,” she says. “I really enjoy working for SKUT (Church of Sweden Abroad) because it’s so open and one gets to do a bit of everything. Sometimes I wish all congregations in Sweden could be like that; a place where people gather to be together to talk about the mundane as well as the spiritual,” she says.
However, it’s not all about work for Maria. She also enjoys sports, such as skiing, sailing and soccer (Malmö FF). And she loves motorbikes. “I’ve had seven or eight bikes over the years, and they’ve all been named after characters or spaceships in Star Wars or Star Trek. My first bike was called Enterprise. Then there was Obi Wan Kenobi and Millennium Falcon, and I’ve also had a black sports bike called Darth Vader,” she laughs.
Interviewed by Kajsa Norman
Photos: Cia Leander and courtesy of Maria Thorsson