A Heart for Copenhagen: Bringing Warmth to a Cold World
by Gary Krause
To some it may sound incongruous—a second-hand store as a Center of Influence within a city steeped in religious skepticism. How could that work? Yet Seventh-day Adventists in Copenhagen are discovering how even a thrift store can help build deep, genuine relationships within a community and take hope in Jesus outside the four walls of the church.
The Assistens Cemetery dominates the neighborhood just outside the old Northern Gate of Copenhagen, Denmark. Today this old burial place, a little northwest of the city center, doubles as a city park where people come to relax, picnic, enjoy concerts, and enjoy an oasis in the urban environment. Basking in the beauty of the park, they can easily forget the more than 300,000 bodies buried beneath them, including two of Denmark’s most famous writers, Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. Also interred beneath the picnic blankets is Nobel Prize–winning physicist Niels Bohr, who played a significant role in developing quantum mechanics and nuclear physics.
The longest street bordering this cemetery is Nørrebrogade, the cosmopolitan, pulsating main thoroughfare of Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district. On the other side of this street, one of the busiest in the city, a Seventh-day Adventist Center of Influence operates under the engaging name of HappyHand. In many ways, HappyHand is a counterpoint to the cemetery. Assistens, founded in 1760, is a memorial to the past; HappyHand, founded in 2012, is all about sharing hope and a future. Assistens takes up more than 60 acres of urban landscape; HappyHand is one small store. Assistens was established to bury the dead; HappyHand was established to represent the One who is the resurrection and the life.
HappyHand is a nonprofit second-hand shop—a thrift store—selling clothes, furniture, and household items. Its name refers to “lending a hand” to the community and the joy that engagement in mission brings. “In HappyHand we hold an important value—‘pass it on,’ ” says Anne-May Müller, a regular volunteer at the store and Family Ministries director for the Danish Union of Seventh-day Adventists. “It’s our aim to pass on the gifts we’ve received from God—both on a physical and spiritual level.”
HappyHand was founded and continues to be managed by Berit Elkjær, a dynamic woman with a large vision and a passion for mission. “I love Jesus as my friend,” she says. “He inspires us to share with other people.” While running her own business, Berit has also held positions in her local church, volunteered in various ministry projects, and currently serves on the Trans-European Division and Danish Union executive committees.
HappyHand is her spiritual baby. “It’s such an effective and blessed way to reach out to the community and share God’s love and compassion,” she says. “It’s a different way to open the doors of our churches, inviting people into our fellowship, and at the same time showing them that we want to help people in need.”
Thomas Müller, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Denmark, confesses that he initially didn’t realize the potential of HappyHand as a Center of Influence. “I’ve personally been encouraged, and I must admit, surprised,” he says. “HappyHand has given us a platform to share our faith. We’ve spent thousands of hours distributing tracts and literature in order to get the attention of people around us. Suddenly we have people coming to us on our turf asking who we are, what we believe, and why we are doing this. This is the best part of the shop.”
People passing by 58 Nørrebrogade are greeted by cheerful HappyHand signage and a large window showcasing the range of products for sale. As they step inside, they discover a calm atmosphere a world away from the bustling street outside. They’re not stepping into a church, but many comment on the peaceful feeling they experience inside. This hasn’t happened by accident—HappyHand is a Center of Influence that is much prayed for.
“Even though people are shopping, they still feel the warmth of the place,” says Anita Thortzen, a young Adventist volunteer who cares for the store’s Web site, social media, and event invitations. A prayer table sits at the back of the store, where customers can write prayer requests and place them in a prayer box. They can also take home small stickers with Bible promises. Anne-May has made friends through the store who now come to visit because they want someone to talk with and because they want prayer. “At first we were skeptical how customers would respond,” she says, “but God always proves the skeptics wrong. We get a lot of prayer requests every week. And we’ve found that when people are standing by that table, they’re more open to conversations.”
It was natural to be skeptical. Denmark’s official Web site states: “Denmark is . . . among the world’s most secularized countries, in which religion and Christianity play only a minor, often indirect, role in public life.” And yet, as Thomas Müller points out, the average Dane is open toward spiritual questions. “But,” he adds, “this is still a very private issue that is not discussed with others.” This is why Christ’s method of ministry, followed in HappyHand, is so important. “We need to gain people’s confidence and respect before anyone is open to listen,” he says. “As Adventist Christians, we simply have not earned the right to speak about spiritual topics before we have befriended people. There is a high wall of suspicion that needs to be pulled down by simple friendship—showing people that we are interested in them as people, not just as ‘subjects’ needing conversion.”
Space is made in HappyHand for customers to sit down, rest, and enjoy free refreshments. Gentle music plays in the background, and conversations naturally occur. At the rear of the store, a simple but elegantly decorated prayer room provides a space for pastors and volunteers to have a private moment with customers who wish to talk and have someone pray with them. Bible study groups for customers and non-church volunteers are held regularly—one led by a pastor, another by lay people. Every second Sabbath of the month, HappyHand hosts a “Bible brunch,” where people study the Bible, pray, and eat together. Leaders see this as the early stages of establishing a new group of believers.
The store is also used in the evenings for various spiritual events. These have included concerts, a talk by an astronomer on the existence of God, a seminar on building stronger families and marriages, presentations on Creation, Spiritual Wellness evenings, and even a presentation on the truth about the spirit world. HappyHand also holds craft nights where, for example, people can come together and make unique handmade cards to sell in the shop, or create decorations at Christmastime.
At any given time you may see, side by side in the store, the rich who support the ecologically sound principle of recycling and the poor who support the pragmatically sound principle of buying something cheaply. You may find elderly Danes beside newly arrived immigrants from Pakistan or Bosnia or Somalia or the Middle East. You may find young and old, believers and atheists. Volunteers staff the store. Thirty percent of the staff don’t belong to the Adventist Church—“They just show up on our doorstep and ask, ‘Can I help?’ ” says Anne-May. She adds, “It’s a joy to share our faith in Jesus with them in very practical ways.”
“I think it’s a very practical way of being a Christian,” adds Anita. “I can actually see the help we’re giving. We meet people here, and it actually makes a difference.” The ability to make contact with people, talk with people, and do something for them appeals to her. “Just having a second-hand shop wouldn’t be enough for me, because there are lots of those,” she says. “But having this extra [spiritual] aspect really makes it worth it. It’s very public that this is a Christian shop. We have Bible verses on the walls, and it’s very open and easy to get into conversations with people.”
“Anybody can be useful,” adds Berit, “talking to people, decorating the shop windows, taking care of business, serving customers, making donated clothes ready for sale, starting Bible study groups, coordinating debate evenings or helping with projects for the homeless. God has a task for everyone, and He wants to change the world! And with God’s help, HappyHand changes the world!”
Berit recalls their first customer—a five-year-old boy who visited the store with his mother. They started visiting regularly, and after a while the mother volunteered to help with the store. Tragically, the little boy became ill and died. “It was unbearable for all of us,” says Berit. “I wanted so much to talk to her about life after death, about a loving God who one day will make all things new.” One day the boy’s mother and Berit were working together in the store, when suddenly the opportunity arose. She talked with the woman about sin, evil, and death—and how in the middle of all that there is a loving God who will one day create a new heaven and a new earth. “To see a mother’s broken heart lighten up with hope is so touching,” Berit recalls. “To watch the first, hesitating steps toward faith in God—that makes sense!”
It also makes sense that HappyHand leaders hope to see other stores established around the world. Berit challenges church members: “Go ahead with a HappyHand project in your town or city. God has a task for everyone, and He wants to change the world. And with God’s help, HappyHand changes the world!”
Dream Big, Work Hard, and Let God Do the Rest
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- Location. “It’s so important to find the right place, style and size—and then stick to it,” says Anne-May. “We’ve learned that the location is very important. We have so many people walk by our shop every day—the location is ideal for a shop and project like ours. It took a lot of time to find the right place, but it’s worth the wait. Do it right from the beginning.”
- Be prepared for hard work. “HappyHand has been and still is a lot of hard work,” says Berit. “It’s a challenge to work with volunteers when you are a volunteer yourself. But thanks to God, the blessings are greater than the challenges.”
- Put your trust in God. “Since the beginning of the project, we’ve been confident, knowing that this is God’s project,” says Berit. “We put it in the hands of God and pray that He will lead us to make the decisions that He wants us to.”
- Connect with people’s interests. “I’ve learned a lot about stewardship from the shoppers in HappyHand,” says Thomas Müller. “They care about creation, they care about our natural resources, and they’re conscious of not exploiting nature. They don’t attribute these resources to God, but they have a respect for nature. Here’s an opening for us to share our story of how the world came into existence and how the evil we see around us soon will come to an end.”
- Share the blessing. HappyHand Copenhagen has been such a success that another HappyHand store has started in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city. “We hope that the HappyHand concept will expand and become global,” says Berit. “No church in the whole world should be without a HappyHand. It’s such an effective and blessed way to reach out to communities and to share God’s love and compassion. It’s a different way to open the doors of our churches, inviting people into our fellowship and at the same time showing them that we want to help people in need.”
- Don’t dream too small. The HappyHand Center of Influence is 223 square meters (2,400 square feet). At first the leaders thought it was too big. “Now we know we could have used at least double the size!” says Anne-May.
- Put Christ’s method into practice. The HappyHand Center of Influence provides the means for church members to mingle with people, show sympathy, minister to needs, win confidence, and bid people to follow Jesus. “We‘ve created a natural platform for people to meet us and get a glimpse of God,” says Anne-May. “This project is tearing down barriers between the average Dane and our church—and that’s indeed a great joy.”
You can see photos of the HappyHand store on its Danish-language Web site at www.happy-hand.dk.