Story, pictures: Tomi Hinkkanen
There’s a new pastor in town. Jarmo Tarkki began his tenure as the Lutheran pastor of California and Texas Finns April 1st, 2012.
Pastor Jarmo Tarkki
“And that’s no April fools joke,” he quips about his starting date.
The very first impression of the man is that he smiles a lot. I get to attend the first sermon at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Santa Monica. Tarkki involved the audience in the proceedings by quizzing their knowledge of charismatic protestant movements of Finland. He also performed a baby boy’s baptismal to the horror of the boy himself, who kept crying throughout the rite. Afterwards there was a coffee and cake reception for the new pastor. A week later we sit down for an interview with the good pastor at the Glendale Hilton, while he was attending a meeting of Lutheran pastors.
Jarmo Tarkki at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Santa Monica
His official title is Finnish Minister of California and Texas Finns. It is an office of American Evangelical Lutheran Church, but by agreement, his salary is paid by the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. There were 17 applicants to this job. Previously Tarkki had a post in the Danish Lutheran Church in Solvang, California, where he still resides (Although he does not speak Danish, he tells). Jarmo Tarkki first came to the United States in 1978 while working on his doctoral thesis on the subject “questioning religious authority.” After receiving his Ph.D. in Theology, Tarkki served as the pastor in Siuntio, Southern Finland and has also served as a prison minister. In the 1990’s he briefly dappled in politics, wrote newspaper columns and appeared as the host of a popular TV talk show “Mars and Venus”. He returned to the States in 1999 and has lived here ever since. This new post as the pastor to the Finnish immigrants just might geographically be the largest Lutheran congregation in the world.
Pastor Jarmo Tarkki
“The congregation consists of the whole of California, Texas and Mexico. I also serve Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. It has been estimated that there are approximately 60 000 first, second and third generation Finns in California who still identify themselves as such,” the pastor knows.
He has an unusual way of getting around his vast congregation.
“I have my own airplane, Cessna 172, with which I fly from Solvang to San Diego and San Francisco.”
To longer destinations, such as Dallas, he flies on a commercial airliner. Each congregation has a distinctly different flavor.
A reception after services given by Pastor Tarkki in Santa Monica
“Dallas has younger Finns, 30-40 years old, a lot of families with children – Finns who moved there to work for Nokia Siemens Networks and other high-tech companies. We had 105 people there for Mother’s Day worship.”
The pastor squeezes in several functions on these longer trips.
“I flew there Thursday and came back on Monday. All day Friday, there were many meetings. We had a church that evening, the Council meeting and the new pastor’s barbecue party. It was held in a local Finnish home and was attended by about forty people. On Saturday, there was the end of semester celebration for the Finnish school with children and families involved. Then I held confirmation rehearsals for four four candidates for confirmation. On Sunday, there was church service, which culminated in the confirmation. After that I went to the home of one newly confirmed, whose family threw him a reception.”
The new pastor was well-received in Dallas.
“The majority of the Dallas congregation are Finnish, though some of them have American spouses. They are open, cheerful, positive people, who keep in close contact with each other out there, even though the newer entrants are fluent in English. However, there is this sort of Finnish community. It is of great importance, especially on holidays such as Mother’s Day or Christmas.”
Pastor Tarkki gave the Easter service in San Diego.
“Beause there is a Nokia research and development in San Diego, it resembles somewhat Dallas. Then there are the academics – researchers, scientists and the like. There are also a few older folk – Armi Kuusela among others participated in the worship, sitting in the front row with her husband Albert. She promised to come back the next time. The San Diego Finnish congregation is a nice, active community.”
Tarkki has a touching memory from his last trip there.
“I went to see an elderly Finnish woman in a retirement home there. She died only a few days after my visit.”
Los Angeles feels like a typical Finnish community to Tarkki. About 40 people attended his inaugural worship in Santa Monica.
Pastor Jarmo Tarkki with Suomi-Koulu (Finnish school), teacher Mira Scott at St. Paul’s Church in Santa Monica
There is an entirely new congregation in the making in Silicon Valley.
“I assume that in Silicon Valley there are probably similar people as in Dallas. In Berkeley, there is a Finnish Church, the Lutheran Church of the Cross. They had a Finnish pastor there before. There is a Finnish deaconess there, who has presided over services there from time to time.”
The idea is to have Finnish church services in each of the locations six times a year. In addition, Tarkki will travel to Mexico City on December 15th to give services there to the consular staff.
Jarmo Tarkki wants to invite all western Finns to his church service.
“I want to inform Finnish residents that such a possibility of having a worship service now exists six times a year in these different places. And if someone has a need to contact the minister – whether it be a discussion of pastoral care, baptisms, weddings or funerals – so they can now be handled from here.”
“The idea is to integrate the local Finns in the American Lutheran Church, rather than creating Finnish ghettoes here, where services are given only by Finnish pastors.”
Pastor Tarkki points out that this approach differs from the Swedish model, in which separate Swedish congregations are encouraged.
“In this sense, the Finnish model is really good. When there are no Finnish church services, the congregation is encouraged to attend the American Lutheran Church.”
What is amazing is that Tarkki does all this without any help – he doesn’t even have an assistant. So, this reporter encourages you all to give generously when the collection times comes. There is always need for extra this and that in the church.
Tarkki’s new Finnish congregation differs from his former Danish-American one.
“In Solvang, I did a lot of pastoral work over the phone. People called on all sorts of things. Some Finns will call as well, but the threshold for them to call is higher than for Americans. They are more used to it.”
Church plays a significantly larger role in American lives than it does in Finns’ lives.
“I don’t think there are big differences in terms of religiousness, but the social interaction is totally different here. Our American churches have a strong social function. Many younger people use them as dating venues. The church also has a networking task – reaching out to people. Americans move a lot. If you are a member of the Lutheran church, by joining a new Lutheran congregation, you will instantly gain a network of a couple hundred people. Among them, there is almost certainly a person for every purpose, whether you need a lawyer or a doctor.”
Jarmo Tarkki says that church plays a large role in American lives.
In Finland, on the other hand, the church no longer plays a significant role in connecting people.
“In Finland, there is substantially less need for that. People move around less and they create their networks in other ways. When no one attends church, it is difficult to create any kind of a network.”
In some ways the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church can blame itself for becoming irrelevant. YLE 2 – a TV channel in Finland aired a gay-themed night in the fall of 2010. The Finnish panelists affiliated with the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church largely condemned homosexuality, causing tens of thousands of Finns to resign from the church within weeks of the broadcast. Jarmo Tarkki has dealt with the issue in his own church and former congregation.
“The U.S. Lutheran church made its decision three years ago. After all, it has ordained openly gay people as pastors for a long time. The burning question was: Can a person living in a homosexual relationship be ordained. It had previously been prohibited, but even that was permitted at that time three years ago.”
Tarkki agrees with the decision.
“In my opinion, the American Lutheran Church has acted in a fine way and set an example that this should now be followed elsewhere.”
The American Evangelical Lutheran Church was present at this year’s Gay Pride march in West Hollywood.
He says he has no problem presiding over same sex weddings.
“I could do it even today. It is a matter of state law. When California allowed same-sex marriages, I announced that if anyone should ask such a blessing, I’m willing to wed them and I do not see in any kind of problem in it.”
Tarkki extended his offer to his parish in Solvang, but in the rural community no such couples stepped forward. He had earlier held a series of discussions on the subject with his parishioners.
“There were some people who presented loud and strong views. Others are made equally strong views of an opposite opinion. We had agreed beforehand that this is a secure location to speak. Everyone has the right to express their views, but must also listen to others. We dealt with these things so much that when the American Evangelical Lutheran Church finally made its decision, it was no longer a novelty.”
Tarkki criticizes the church as a whole on human rights.
“The church should always defend the human rights of those who are in need of defending. This includes all minorities, whether racial, religious, or of sexual orientation. We should now be in the world today where the Church has no right to discriminate. It is a shocking situation that a private employer cannot discriminate a person based on his or her sexual orientation, but the church can. It should be the other way around – the church should have led the way.”
Jarmo Tarkki thinks the church leaders in Finland are too timid on human rights as not to “rock the boat”.
“I once had a long person-to-person meeting at the Cathedral Chapter with the Helsinki Bishop Eero Huovinen. We talked about this. Bishop Huovinen thought, as many of the bishops think, that the bishop’s main role is to ensure that the church ship does not sway. I said to him, that it is difficult to rock the church boat, when it’s already half submerged!”
He says in Finland the church is known mainly for the things it opposes.
“The Church has distinguished itself by what it opposes, not by what it is for. That the Church opposes abortion, stores being open on Sundays – supposedly on the grounds that if the stores were open on Sunday mornings, people would not come to church. Well, they will not go there anyway! And then the gay debate. I think that people will form the impression that the Church always opposes something.”
Pastor Jarmo Tarkki criticizes the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church on being known mainly for what it opposes.
The immigrant pastors work sometimes takes Tarkki to unusual places and situations.
“I received word from a prison priest in Finland that I know. He said there is a Finnish inmate in a Las Vegas detention center – if I could visit him? Well, I flew to Vegas on my plane. It took a full day to arrange the half an hour meeting at the Clark County Jail with the detainee. He was visibly surprised and delighted that a Finnish pastor came to see him. It was an interesting meeting. I told him we can talk about anything he wants. That started the conversation. Now, this is exactly what I think the actual work of Church should be.”
Then there was a rather unusual baptismal the pastor was sent to perform.
“I got a request from Ridgecrest to baptize the child of Finnish couple. Ridgecrest is located in Indian Wells Valley, the middle of a desert. Again, I flew there on my plane. The child’s father came to pick me up and was glad to know that the pastor comes from the sky. Then we went to his house. The mother’s parents were visiting from Finland. It turned out that the father is a Finnish Air Force engineer. He develops the F-18 fighter jet Hornet’s computer systems in the nearby China Lake Naval Air Station. We had a completely Finnish baptismal with hymns and all.”
Pastor Tarkki reminisces about unusual situations that his work sometimes gets him into.
There was also a very untraditional wedding that Jarmo Tarkki performed.
“A Finnish couple wanted to get married in San Diego. It was Saturday, and I had to fly there from Solvang. We had agreed that I’d be there that morning. But that day it was still foggy at noon, so I couldn’t take off. Finally at 1 pm the fog had lifted and I was able to get on the way, flying there over Catalina island. I had called the couple before taking off, telling them I was in a tight spot: I had a wedding rehearsal back in Solvang that same evening. I asked them to come to the airport, so I could marry them right there. They were very excited. So, I married them at the end of the runway and had the reception in a nearby private air terminal. Then I jumped on my plane and flew back to Solvang, just in time for the wedding rehearsal.”
Jarmo Tarkki and Dean Nelson, Bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
Pastor Jarmo Tarkki will be officially sworn in as the minister of the Finnish congregation by Dean Nelson, Bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The ceremony is set to take place in Santa Monica, California on October 21st, 2012.
See you at the worship services!