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Photo: Church of Scotland, Rev Štěpán Janča (in the centre)
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CZEXPAT Interview: Štěpán Janča, Czech evangelical priest serving at the Church of Scotland in Lockerbie

We can find many great personalities and inspiring stories among Czech expats living in the United Kingdom. This time, we bring you our CZEXPATS Interview with Štěpán Janča, a priest of the Czech Brethren Evangelical Church, who is currently finishing his long-term exchange at the Church of Scotland in Lockerbie.

Hello, pastor, we are very pleased to meet you. How long have you been in the UK and how did you come across this opportunity?

The Czech Brethren Evangelical Church has long had intensive contacts with the Church of Scotland. Some of our colleagues studied in Scotland, and after joining the European Union, the possibility arose for Czech parishioners to work in Scottish parishes for a short time - a year or two. It is a very interesting opportunity to gain useful experience, which can then be used at work in the Czech Republic; and perhaps we also bring some interesting elements from the Czech Christian tradition to the locals.

To be specific, I am about to finish my second year of working in the infamous town of Lockerbie on the border of Scotland and England.

Is the Czech Brethren Evangelical Church the only one that organizes similar stays, and do you also organize them in countries other than Great Britain?

I must confess that I do not know exactly how it works in other churches, but it is true that churches are inherently international institutions and all have contacts abroad, so many priests and preachers have experience of studying or working abroad, which then adds a new dimension to their service at home.

For our Church, the Scottish partnership is probably the most intense. But colleagues have served or are serving in England, the United States, or Germany; others regularly commute from the Czech Republic to churches in Serbia, Romania or Ukraine. And perhaps the most interesting is the story of a colleague who spent several months in churches in New Caledonia in the Pacific.

How do you like Lockerbie and is it a big change compared to your previous place of work in the Czech Republic?

Lockerbie is basically a village that serves as a center of a farming region - it used to host one of the largest sheep markets in Scotland 150 years ago. The landscape is a bit like the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands and I must admit that I really like it. When I have a free moment, I like to walk on the "goat trails" between the hills, sheep pens and hedges. The terrain on the other side for a change descends to the Annan River, almost dried out during dry days, but spilled wide into the surrounding pastures after rain. The overall mood in the city and in the surrounding countryside is very calm and pleasant. Even the lockdown in this small town was certainly much more bearable than in a city center.

On the other hand, Lockerbie, of course, drags on its tragic world-known reputation - thanks to a plane that was blown-up by terrorists when flying above the city just before Christmas 1988, killing 259 passengers and 11 Lockerbie citizens. This event is still alive and it is always discussed during conversations with locals.

Before coming to Lockerbie, I worked for twenty years in Orlová in the Ostrava region. The landscape there was completely different - industrial and post-industrial, large housing estates and closing mines. Likewise, people had slightly different joys and worries than the farmers in Lockerbie. And you can tell the difference "by smell" :-) - in Orlová there were various chimney and factory smudges from the East, West, North and South, while in Lockerbie the air smells either of sheep or cows.

How do local citizens from a rural area that is not as affected by globalization as large cities view pastors of other nationalities, moreover from the former "Eastern Bloc"?

The British in general, due to their colonial superpower past and the worldwide spread of their language, are very global and very open to foreigners. Many people in Lockerbie have relatives somewhere overseas (America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and even in the Czech Republic :-) and vice versa, in Lockerbie, you can also find a few foreigners - Poles, Indians, and even a lady for the Czech Republic.

In a neighboring Episcopal church, we had a pastor from India, a very likeable, selfless and educated man, who started his mission at the same time as me, so the people of Lockerbie suddenly had to get used to two pastors, who were “twisting” the English language a little bit differently than the natives. But I don't think it was a slightest problem for them. We never felt that we would not be welcome, people accepted us as their own. In the church, we had to get used to a slightly different style of worship for a while, but the reactions of the people (at least those that came to me) were generally positive.

The only time I did not feel very well in Scotland was when Czech football team Slavia Praha played in Glasgow against Rangers and a storm broke out when their player Ondřej Kúdela got accused of racism. But even this was given more by newspaper articles, hostile and unfair to all Czechs, rather than that someone in Lockerbie would show any hostility towards us.

On the contrary, I have to highlight the local school that our daughter Anička attended. She came to Scotland knowing literally just a handful of English words, which she could not even put into a sentence. Nevertheless, thanks to the unique support of her teachers and classmates, she fell in love with the school since the very first day and the biggest tragedy for her was when she could not go to her class.

In general, I would say that in Britain, a foreigner can easily feel at home.

What problems do you solve with your parishioners and what is the general view of church in the Lockerbie area and in Scotland in general?

The Church of Scotland is currently undergoing a very fundamental reorganization - the structure of parishes and higher units – presbyters – is changing. There will be fewer pastors in a larger area and many more changes are expected, so all this is of course bringing great emotions - hopes and fears.

Other than that, I was dealing mostly with people’s usual issues of personal nature. In the time of a pandemic, of course, concerns about the health of one's own or of their close people, separation caused by the lockdown and the like. Funerals are an important part of my work and part of funeral preparations is always meeting the bereaved and talking to them, which is a sad experience, but always very interesting. We stay in contact with some of the bereaved for a long time after the funeral.

But this year, after the lockdown, I also got the opportunity to serve at a very traditional Scottish wedding (with the groom in a kilt, including a checkered face mask; with a bagpiper playing at the church door). I find very interesting also our regular cooperation with the local school, where I prepared a short talk for students on various topics (ethics, personality building). Unforgettable services are the second Sunday in November, known as the Remembrance Sunday, when throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, they commemorate the end of World War I and those who have since fallen in the military service of the country. This holiday is taken very seriously and many people take part in commemorative events and services - scouts, military veterans and cadets in ceremonial uniforms, schools and families of the fallen.

The happiest holiday is, of course, Christmas. Christmas decorations add atmosphere to long winter nights and many people take part in various traditional events - both church services and singing carols.

People's view of the church is respectfully positive - people respect it, even though most of them participate in church life only rarely (Christmas, Rememberance Sunday, baptisms, weddings, funerals ...). But especially the elderly are always grateful when the pastor comes to visit them.

Has Brexit influenced your work and will it in any way affect similar stays of your colleagues in the future?

My work as such is independent of Brexit, we just had to register with the British EU settlement scheme, like all the other EU citizens, but it did not really had a direct effect on me.

However, in conversations with local people, Brexit is often one of the main topics, everyone is unhappy about it - poorly permeable borders and unfinished international agreements, restrictions on exports and imports, farmers are losing sales and employees. I have not yet encountered a single Scotsman who would be pleased with Brexit.

However, Brexit (in combination with Covid) will significantly complicate our return to the Czech Republic - customs procedures suddenly also apply to personal belongings that we brought home from home two years ago without a slightest problems, border controls, which we have become accustomed to, and the like.

And certainly Brexit will significantly, if not completely prevent, the possibility of similar further cooperation between churches - due to the cost of working visas and various other bureaucratic issues. But let us believe that relations will calm down over time and that Britain and the EU will find a sensible way to work together.