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Healer returns for a spring at the alter
Priest finds clinic, church missions similar
Magne Klingsheim, an Alta clinic director and former wilderness teacher, leads the congregation in a biblical version of "Simon Says" during a sermon while he serves as the temporary priest at Svalbard Church.

Maybe it's just a temp gig in the pulpit, but Magne Klingsheim has a lifetime of genes – and jeans – befitting a spiritual healer in a rugged environment.

The longtime Alta wilderness teacher and health clinic leader is serving as the priest at Svalbard Church for three months while full-time priest Leif Helgesen researches a book about the archipelago. Klingsheim, who also led the church for a year in 2005, has father who's a doctor and a large family used to roughing the outdoors in street clothes without tents, And, it seems, an aunt and a couple of family friends blessed with the gift of prophecy.

"When I was a tiny boy, just born, three different people said 'Oh, he's going to be a priest,'" he said.

"I heard this through the years when I grew up and I said, "No, no, no – I'm going to be a veterinarian,'" said Klingsheim, saying he developed an early love of animals growing up on a farm and in the outdoors.

But the crib-era predictions won out as he has spent his life helping people with physical and psychological problems, guiding year-long outdoor skills classes for high schoolers, and bringing new services such as joint replacements to Alta with the clinic – plus seven years of theology study in Oslo to become an ordained priest. He said his medical work, ranging from teens abusing substances to the elderly suffering depression after the death of loved ones, has always been intensely spiritual.

"It's a new start, but it's also what you have left," he said. When a loved one dies "are you going to go on with your life? When you lose your health you can't walk. Maybe the biggest crisis in a person's life is when you lose your health function."

Still wearing jeans, along with Birkenstocks and an Izod sweatshirt, he spent a recent workday counseling students at Longyearbyen School who have a classmate that committed suicide earlier this year. The outdoor experience also came in handy since one of his first sermons upon returning here was the windy and frigid Good Friday service at Vindodden, a 90-minute snowmobile ride away (full disclosure: when this writer got "scooter sick" during his first long-distance trip, Klingsheim stopped to offer assistance).

Klingsheim said he was "very excited and very's such a small church and you are so near to the people" during his first appointment here. But those traits, in a community where "there's no social security, the plane comes five times a week and the people are toughened by the mining industry," proved a fitting match.

"If you are staying in (another) town or a place and you work in the church, you work in the church," he said. "Here every Friday we eat lunch with the hospital, just the people you have to work with when bad things happen. The team, it's much bigger here in a small town."

Small communities aren't new to Klingsheim, who grew up on an island near Bergen during the 1960s. His father worked with drug- and alcohol-abuse patients. His mother was kept busy with seven kids, of which Klingsheim was the third.

"They say that is the perfect position," he said. "The first one is responsible. The second one is fighting to get on top. The third has to fight with intellect to get on top. Also, when you have younger brothers and sisters you have to be responsible."

The family was largely self-dependent ("to fish for dinner, it was necessary") and activities such as hunting trips where special-ized gear was eschewed for jeans and sleeping under the stars without sleeping bags and tents.

"It was my life and I loved it, but I didn't think of it as outdoor activity," he said.

His northern calling came when he left home, working for the YMCA/YWCA in the Lofoten Islands. Like many, he found the exotic portrayals of the area alluring.

"Many people talk about northern Norway like something way up there the Russians have," he said. But he discovered "it was great. It was everything I wanted to do."

While there Klingsheim said he met a priest whose down-to-Earth ways were a role model for the profession he supposedly was destined for.

"He wasn't a part of the church, separate from us," he said. "He was one of us."

A year later Klingsheim began studying theology in Oslo, where the similarities of spiritual and physical healing were evident from the beginning.

"You have to study as long as being a doctor," he said, adding about half the students drop out. Also, he focused his energies on hospital work where "we were always working with people who had to pick up and start over their lives in a new way."

But it wasn't all somber moments and sermons, as Klingsheim spent his summers working as a tour bus driver all over Scandinavia

"I could travel and I was well paid," he said.

He was ordained in 1986, after which he spent three more years with the YMCA/YWCA as a project leader. Then came a 16-year stint teaching youths the ways of the outdoors at Øytun Folk High School, which promotes itself as a traditional Christian folk school with roots extending back to 1917. He said the work was exhilarating, but it was also a challenge to maintain the freshness and intensity new students experienced as he went through what became a familiar experience each year.

"When the year begins it's like a train," he said. "It comes and it doesn't stop."

Eventually that led to his accepting the challenge of establishing the private Finnmark clinic since "that was the only way to get a clinic with these services." His wife, Bente, who worked for 10 years at Øytun, also now works at the clinic. Their son, Torstein, is a diving instructor in Bergen and their daughter, Ragnhild, is studying psychology in London.

Although both of his appointments to the alter in Longyearbyen have been temporary, "if they ask me I definitely want to keep in touch with Svalbard society," Klingsheim said.

"The people here are a combination of people who want to get a new start and people who want to create something in a fairy-tale way," he said. "People who have a lot of guts."


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