ALASKA DIARY

STORY AND PICTURES: TOMI HINKKANEN – ALASKA

Kenai Peninsula in Alaska has breathtakingly beautiful scenery

Kenai Peninsula in Southern Alaska offers breathtakingly beautiful vistas.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15TH, 2013

I am on a non-stop Alaska Airlines flight 157 from Los Angeles to Anchorage. Exciting! The estimated duration of the trip is 5 hours 45 minutes, but we start landing about a half an hour early at Ted Stevens International Airport. From the plane window I see snow-glazed mountain tops everywhere.

Snowy mountaintops near Anchorage.

Snowy mountaintops near Anchorage.

The weather is crystal clear as we touch down this state billed as the last frontier. There are stuffed animals – a bear and a buffalo – on display at the airport. Not in a million years would you see something that in the politically correct California.

Stuffed animals "greet" travelers at ted Stevens International Airport.

Stuffed animals “greet” travelers at Ted Stevens International Airport.

I march to the rental car counter. After refusing the obligatory sales pitch for insurance, I pull my luggage to a brand new red Toyota Corolla. This will be my sweet ride for the week. The weather outside is about 60 F / 15 C. Although it’s only September, it feels like October in Southern Finland (Anchorage is on the same latitude). I have an appointment in the southern outskirts of Anchorage to meet some local Finns at their club house. The streets are straight, wide and well-maintained. Suburban Anchorage looks like outskirts of any city in the U.S.

The scenery outside Anchorage looks nondescript.

I stop for a bite to eat at a fast food restaurant. It is about 4 pm and it looks like the sun is setting. I better get to my destination before it gets dark (As it turned out, the sun wouldn’t set for hours. At this time of the year, the sun in Alaska appears to be in a perpetual sunset position low on the horizon). The Finnish Hall looks exactly like dozens of others around the U.S. It could be a town hall somewhere in rural Finland. Birch trees in front of the building are starting to turn yellow. I park my Corolla and step in.

Alaska Finns have their own club house in Anchorage.

Alaska Finns have their own club house in Anchorage.

 

There are about a dozen people inside. Jyri and Riitta Larm are running a cleaning service. The are in their 40’s and have lived in Alaska for 20 years. As a result, their teenage kids don’t speak more than a few words of Finnish. The 70-somethings Seija and Matti Raja have braved the subarctic weather for the past 45 years now. Matti made his career in construction, Seija was a homemaker. Both are now retired. Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, 50, found a wife and career in Alaska. He is a physical therapist, who enjoys fishing and hunting in his spare time. The couple has three children and a beautiful house near a lake. Many of the Alaska Finns – there are said to be about a hundred in all – are from Western Finland. Oftentimes they first migrated to Canada and then found their way to Alaska. Many work or worked in honest-to-goodness blue collar jobs. Many felt they were somehow left behind in the Finnish system.

Inside the Finnish hall.

Inside the Finnish hall.

Winters here are awfully long and cold. One needs to keep oneself busy in order to maintain sanity in such harsh conditions. So people belong to church and different kinds of clubs. Anything to keep themselves occupied on those dark winter days. I am being escorted to my downtown Anchorage hotel by Ulla Rantalainen. More of this interesting woman later. Downtown Anchorage is ugly. There, I said it, but there is no other way to describe it.

Downtown Anchorage

Downtown Anchorage

One-way streets are lined with sterile 1970’s hotels and office towers. There is no street life. A massive 9.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed most of Anchorage back in 1964. After that, the city was quickly rebuilt with little thought for aesthetics. The city leaders ought to be ashamed of themselves! Everything quiets down at sunset and this city of 300,000 turns into a ghost town. My hotel is the Econo Inn on one of the main fares. It is a somewhat drab place that has seen its best days but it’s clean and hey, at 70 dollars a night, who’s complaining. Besides, I only intend to sleep in my room and it’s for two nights only. Since there’s nothing else but fast food places open, it’s a Big Mac meal for dinner. After watching the local news I call it a night.

Econo Inn in downtown Anchorage offers modest and cheap accommodation.

Econo Inn in downtown Anchorage offers modest and cheap accommodation.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 16TH

This morning I have a date with Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, the physical therapist. He and his wife have a comfortable two storey house on the southern edge of Anchorage in the Sand Lake district.

Tuomo Latva-Kiskola in his yard. Tuomo enjoys fishing and hunting.

Tuomo Latva-Kiskola in his yard. Tuomo enjoys fishing and hunting.

Tuomo drives us to the lake where rich people have their houses at the water’s edge, complete with private seaplanes docked at the end of their piers, ready to take off at their owners’ pleasure at any time. In fact, other people are clearly uninvited to enjoy the lake. There are signs posted everywhere declaring it’s a private area.

Sand lake - the stomping ground of the Anchorage well-heeled crowd.

Sand Lake – the stomping ground of the Anchorage well-heeled crowd.

Only winter brings a little bit of equality to this affluent suburb. As the lake freezes over, the locals get to go ice skating and skiing on the lake. Anyway, by that time, most of the rich people have taken off on their planes to Florida or somewhere else for the winter. After I bid adieu to Tuomo, I stop at City Diner for lunch. At $16.95, the old-fashioned pot roast with mashed potatoes sounds a bit pricey but I decide on it anyway. After waiting for what seems like an eternity, my entrée is brought to me. It is delicious.  After lunch it’s time to explore the city. Not much to see in Anchorage, unless you’re into a mall or a museum. I find the charming little Elderberry Park at the end of the 5th Avenue. With a paper cup of hot coffee, I sit down at one of the park tables to write my assignment for that night, watching people walk their dogs and kids play at the playground. Another fast food dinner, TV and bed.

Tomi Hinkkanen in Eldenberry Park, Anchorage.

Tomi Hinkkanen in Elderberry Park, Anchorage.

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 17TH

I am up bright and early at 6.30 am, since I have a long drive ahead of me. I am heading to Denali National Park, some five hours to the north. It is the shoulder season, so regular tours of the park are not offered at this time of the year. However, I have reserved a five-hour bus tour with Aramark Company, still offering some of the last tours of the year. I check out of my hotel, since I have another accommodation for that night. It is freezing outside. The rowan trees on the parking lot are full of blood red berries. Old-time Finns know it means it’s going to be a cold, snowy winter.

Rowan trees are full of berries in Anchorage - a sure sign of an upcoming cold and snowy winter.

Rowan trees are full of berries in Anchorage – a sure sign of an upcoming cold and snowy winter.

I head north on Glenn Highway. It’s starting to drizzle. After about 20 minutes I pass Wasilla, a small town perhaps best known for its one-time mayor, Sarah Palin. I fill the tank – wouldn’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank. After about a half an hour, the four-lane highway turns into a two lane country road. There are very few cars anywhere. The fall colors are spectacular. As I get close to the park, I stop at a vista point to take a picture of the mountains.

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The tallest peak in the entire North America is here – Mount McKinley. Most days the park is overcast, but I think I manage to capture it before the clouds set in. The Denali National Park is huge – six million acres. That’s over 24,000 square kilometers, folks – larger than the state of Massachusetts. As I enter the park grounds, I feel the same vibe as the in the Stanley Kubrick horror film The Shining starring Jack Nicholson. There’s even a hotel on a mountainside (The Grande Denali Lodge), that looks like Overlook Hotel in the movie.

The Grande Denali Lodge can be seen on the mountainside.

The Grande Denali Lodge can be seen on the mountainside.

As it turns out, my comparison is not so far-fetched. I and about 25 others that are taking today’s tour are one of the last visitors to the park this season. After that, the tours end for the season, the visitors center, hotel (buu) and most activities shut down. Only a small skeleton crew remains over winter as caretakers.

Denali National Park visitors' center.

Denali National Park visitors’ center.

Tour guide Caroline welcomes our group gathered in the visitors center. We are given box lunches and onto the bus we step. Caroline doubles as a driver as well. With a headset on, she narrates through the five hour tour, talking about the flora and fauna of the park.

Denali bus tour takes you through the national park.

Denali bus tour takes you through the national park.

The mammals that make their home here include bears, moose and wolves. It is a tough place to live. The temperature hovers around the freezing point and it’s only mid September.

Fall foliage of Denali.

Fall foliage of Denali.

The fall colors in different shades of rust are mesmerizing. Twice we disembark the bus and take a little walking tour through the wilderness. At the end of the tour we spot a moose by the road. Cameras click as everyone jockeys to capture the animal on their memory cards.

Tourists view Denali's natural wonders from a vista point.

Tourists view Denali’s natural wonders from a vista point.

After the tour I thank and shake hands with Caroline, who has been such a knowledgeable guide. The shy woman doesn’t want to be photographed. Even though I had an inkling of Alaska’s vastness, it still took me somewhat by surprise. I booked myself a cabin for the three remaining nights in Cooper Landing, located in the Kenai Peninsula, 200 miles (320 km) away. And we are not talking about freeway miles either. The estimated travel time is six hours.

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As it turned out, at this time of the year the road construction workers are frantically trying to finish repaving roads before winter sets in. So, I had to wait about a half an hour in one spot before we motorists were let to proceed. I strike up a conversation with two fellows, who had been moose hunting. Their catch lay in pieces in the back of the guys’ pick-up truck. This topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Hunters and their catch in the back of their red pick-up.

Hunters and their catch in the back of their red pick-up.

Even though it is already pitch dark as I get to the Kenai Peninsula, I immediately realize I have come to a very special place. At 1.30 am I pull in the parking lot of the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge in Cooper Landing, a township of some 300 residents. The manager kindly comes out to hand me the keys to my two storey cabin named after the late George Nelson, a game warden, hunter and trapper.

Kenai River Lodge sign at night.

Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge sign at night.

My cabin has all the comforts of home. On the first level there’s a bathroom with a shower, a kitchenette with a stove, microwave and a refrigerator and a living room area with a couch, table and chairs.

The cabin has all creature comforts.

The cabin has all creature comforts.

A sliding door leads to a balcony overlooking the Kenai River. I stock the fridge with food items I purchased on the way. After a hot shower and a snack I climb upstairs and fall asleep in my queen-sized bed.

My cabin  Jack Lean on grounds of the Kenai River Lodge.

My cabin on grounds of the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH

After yesterday’s long drive, I wake up late. I walk down the path to the green Kenai River flowing fast by. This is a prime area for fishermen. In fact, the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge organizes fishing expeditions that leave early in the morning. One such trip has just concluded and the happy fishermen walk past me with their catch. I have a chat with one of the lodge maids – a California girl from San Diego. She has spent her first summer in Alaska and intends to stay over winter at another resort. The River Lodge will close in two weeks for the winter.

You can rent a cabin at Kenai River Lodge.

You can rent a cabin at Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge.

Later on I see many places that are already closed. To me it’s a plus. It is peaceful and serene. I feel far, far away from civilization and all its troubles. I take a little drive, keeping the radio turned off, take in the breathtakingly beautiful scenery – and take lots of pictures. The clouds hang low on mountainsides. At one moment it’s sunny, the next it rains. A perfect time to cuddle on the sofa with a good book and to just relax.

Kenai River

Kenai River

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 19TH

I am on my way to Seward, a town an hour and a half away from Cooper Landing on the southern tip of the peninsula. Again, I run into some road construction and have to wait, but no worries, I have all the time in the world. Seward was named after the Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for 7 million dollars in 1867. Seward was ridiculed for this and the deal called “Seward’s Folly”. It goes down in history as possibly the best real estate deal ever and Seward himself as one of the best secretaries of state because of it..

Seward is located on tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

Seward is located on tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

But Seward the town is a small place of some 2600 people nestled in an inlet surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the nearby small boat harbor there are fishing vessels and tour boats ready to take you for a ride. It’s time for lunch. I settle for Alaska Nellie’s Roadhouse – a modest-looking diner on the town’s main drag. As it turns out, a big mistake. Without thinking twice or looking at the price, I order fish and chips (after all, one should have a sea food meal here). The food is mediocre, but the bill is not – 27 dollars for the meal and a Coke! So, with a small tip that comes to 30 bucks! As I leave, in front of the restaurant I see the manager (Nellie herself, I presume), talking to a friend about her plans to winter in Florida (Yes, with money from suckers like me, I fume to myself). I walk around Seward. At summertime this is a touristy town and also the cruise ships stop here. So there are plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants to choose from.

Downtown Seward is small and touristy.

Downtown Seward is small and touristy.

At the waterfront I run into an interesting bearded man. He is working for Nokia’s Here Business, mapping the highways of Alaska. Here Maps is a similar service to Google Street View. The man says it takes him five weeks to map all Alaska highways. Once in a while he runs into a bit of trouble in his business. In certain neighborhoods people don’t appreciate their homes being photographed. Ironically, the resistance normally happens in either very wealthy or very poor neighborhoods.

This man is mapping Alaska highways for Nokia's Here Business.

This man is mapping Alaska highways for Nokia’s Here Business.

I have a date with Tuula Hollmén,  a professor at Alaska University and bird researcher at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. The center is located in a foreboding-looking concrete building. My guess is it never won any architectural prices. The interior is more interesting. It contains everything you ever wanted to know about Alaskan sea life. Aquariums have different kinds of fish swimming about and there is a large pool for sea birds that the audience can see. Tuula Hollmén is a delightful woman in her 40’s. Like her subjects, she is tiny and bird-like herself. She has made a stellar scientific career researching sea life, sea birds and eiders in particular. I interview her for a newspaper story.

Bird researcher Tuula Hollmén sits outside Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

Bird researcher Tuula Hollmén sits outside Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

She is married to an American judge. They live in town. She has lived here for ten years and describes summers here as “cold Finnish summers” (Burrrr). The plus side is that since it is windy year round, at least there are no mosquitoes. Alaska is a bird researcher’s paradise.

Tuula Hollmén has carved out a career of researching birds in Alaska.

Tuula Hollmén has carved out a career of researching birds in Alaska.

Tuula can’t wait to embark on one of her bird expeditions that take her to all kinds of faraway places in this huge state. After saying goodbye to Tuula, I decide to take a long drive to the other side of the peninsula, to a town called Homer. After all, this is my last full day in Alaska.

The northern side of the Kenai Peninsula is sparsely populated.

The northern side of the Kenai Peninsula is sparsely populated.

My trip takes me virtually almost completely around the peninsula, the reason being that the road doesn’t go completely all the way around. The northern side of the Kenai Peninsula is even more sparsely populated than the south side. I drive miles and miles without seeing any human habitation, only scrawny small coniferous trees. Caroline at Denali National Park had told us those trees can be 200 years old but remain small due to the subarctic weather. I reach Homer at sunset and stop at a vista point to take this picture, which by the way is not altered or color enhanced in any way.

A view from Homer at dusk.

A view from Homer at dusk.

Next I head to the beach. There are some locals there, walking their dogs, but as it is getting dark, they too hurry to their cars. After my long drive, nature calls. There are plastic lavatories on the beach. I check into one of them. After finishing my business I try the door. It won’t open. I already envision the headlines: A man freezes to death in Alaska restroom. Is this the end for me, in a place that seems to be in the end of the world? Thank goodness, no. The door was just a little tricky. I get out safely.

Homer, Alaska seems like the most faraway place in the United States.

Homer, Alaska seems like the most faraway place in the United States.

Now I’m hungry. I drive aimlessly the streets of Homer, population 5,000, but everything seems to be closed. There are all kinds of houses of worship to satisfy any creed from Christian Scientists to Jehovah’s Witnesses but no place to eat. There is a roadhouse, but it looks kinda rough, and I don’t think I would fit in very well, so I pass. On the long trip back to my cabin I come to a town called Soldotna. By now it’s late and dark. I stop to ask a local man if there’s a restaurant nearby. He directs me to the Caribou Family Restaurant. There are only a handful of people in this cozy-looking place. I order a chicken dinner. It turns out to be the best meal of my entire Alaska trip. The satisfaction of a good meal washes away bad memories of Alaska Nellie and her outrageous prices. This dinner is half the price and ten times better. Again, I arrive at my cabin late and turn in.

This hungry voyager found a delicious meal at the Caribou Family Restaurant in Soldotna, Alaska.

This hungry voyager found a delicious meal at the Caribou Family Restaurant in Soldotna, Alaska.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20TH

The final day. After packing up I go to the office to thank the manager of the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge. It turned out to be a wonderful place to stay at a very reasonable cost of 150 dollars a night. The nature around the cabins is beautiful, the sounds of the river soothing and everything is very peaceful. The management didn’t make a fuss but left me alone, which is exactly the way I prefer.

Kenai River Lodge offers a peaceful place to stay.

Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge offers a peaceful place to stay.

My final date is with Ulla Rasilainen. Her story is the most interesting of all the people I met in Alaska. Ulla started her career as a streetcar driver in Helsinki but yearned to be a pilot. At 25, Finnair said she was too old for their pilot training! So, Ulla moved to San Francisco and got her pilot’s license there by taking private lessons. After working as an entrepreneur and flying FedEx cargo planes, Ulla moved to Alaska and worked as a bush pilot, delivering people and supplies in small villages in Alaska. About a year ago she got a job as a medivac pilot with a company contracted by the Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.

Captain Ulla Rasilainen at the helm of her plane.

Captain Ulla Rasilainen at the helm of her plane.

She rescues sick people from dangerous and faraway places and flies them to the hospital. We tour her twin turbo engine plane at a hangar in Ted Stevens Airport. It accommodates a crew of four and there are two sick beds in the passenger compartment. She has landed this plane in -50 degree temperatures and inclement weather, rescuing among others, elderly cruise ship passengers, who have broken a hip or suffered a heart attack. It takes a special person to do this kind of a job and Ulla is that person. I truly feel we became good friends.

Ulla on a mission in Sitka, Alaska. Photo courtesy Ulla Rasilainen.

Ulla on a mission in Sitka, Alaska. Photo courtesy Ulla Rasilainen.

Then it is time to head to the passenger side of the airport, turn in my car (no accidents, thank you), and fly back home after a marvelous trip. Looking through the plane window the icy mountain tops disappear into the distance, I say to myself: I will return to Alaska.

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PASTOR JARMO TARKKI SERVES WESTERN FINNS

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!