Monday, April 14, 2014

A Radical City

A few weeks back I had the amazing opportunity to go to Venice. The city is of course one of the quintessential Italian cities one must visit when they come here. The city has been romanticized in so many ways and in so many different mediums, and for good reason. It is one of the coolest places I have ever been. Venice has shown up in pop-culture so much that I almost felt like I knew the city before I went there, but it can only be experienced in person. It is a city that is just radically different from anything else, anywhere.

From Doge's Palace
It is easy to get caught up in the beauty of the city, and believe me I did. Doge's Palace, Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, The Grand Canal, and all the smaller "streets." It's beauty is unrivaled by any other city I know. But what I found most inspiring about the city is the fact that Venice was founded by refugees. That's right, refugees. Fleeing persecution from the Huns who were attacking the Italian mainland, the original Venetians sought refuge in a lagoon with tiny islands. From these rough and probably terrifying beginnings, the city grew to be one of the most powerful forces in Europe.

Piazza San Marco 


View from Ponte Rialto 

Venice started as a place of last resort. I can't even imagine what it would have been like to live in early Venice, a stinky lagoon that constantly flooded. But it was the only option available to the refugees who settled there. It is empowering to think of the transformation from this place of last resort to the beautiful and treasured city that Venice is today. I'm sure for many of the guests that come to the JNRC on a daily basis, Rome is a place of last resort. They have no family here. They have few friends. They are stuck in a vicious cycle and don't really have a way forward.

What I've taken away from my experience in Venice is that the way forward for the refugees I work with is going to have to be radical. Just as the Venetians built a radically different city, so too will the refugees in Rome have to build a radically new system to free themselves from the vicious cycle where they are trapped. I think people are scared of the word 'radical.' It's taken on a bad connotation in our society, but the word itself is more encouraging than it seems. Stemming from the latin term Radix, meaning roots, being radical is simply asking us to return to our fundamentals, to our roots, and reexamine our lives from a different context.

In this most holy of weeks dedicated to remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus, I urge you to be radical in your prayer, radical in your faith, and radical in your actions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Looking Expectantly

Lent is one of my favorite church seasons. It’s a season that allows us to truly recognize our humanity. Inherent in our humanity is the fact that we will sin. It is going to happen. To me, Lent is the season that lets us know that even though we are bound to sin, we will be forgiven. But Lent is not only about reflecting on our transgressions, it is also about repairing and strengthening our relationship with God.


Ashes On-The-Go
As you can probably imagine, the season of Lent is a very busy one for a church. St. Paul's started out the season participating in Ashes on-the-go on Ash Wednesday. We stood outside the church on Via Nazionale, one of the busiest streets in Rome, and gave ashes to people passing by. Over the 3-4 hours that we were out there, we must have given ashes to over 100 people. St. Paul's is offering a variety of different classes and spiritual formation exercises this year, and I'm happy to be a part of many of them. It is pretty tiring though! My calendar last week was crazy, with a different event each night of the week.


"Remember that you are dust, and to dust
 you shall return"

St. Paul's Intern, Areeta

One thing that has been great for me this Lenten season has been preparing a baptism class with fellow intern Areeta Bridgemohan, called Roots of Our Faith. The class is focusing on what we are all asked to do in our baptismal vows and specifically how the Episcopal Church equips us to live out those vows. The class is designed for those that are preparing for baptism at the Easter vigil. It has been wonderful for me during this season of reflection to look at the vows I’ve made to God.


Archbishop David Moxon and Me
One of my weekly practices since I've been in Rome has been going to the Anglican Center eucharist on Tuesdays. The Anglican Center is basically the Embassy of The Anglican Church to The Roman Catholic Church. It is headed by the The Most Reverend Sir David Moxon, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican. Archbishop David was previously the Archbishop of New Zealand. Folks from Camp Henry will remember the night prayer that we use at camp many nights (Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness...). This prayer comes from the New Zealand prayer book, which Archbishop David had a hand in writing. This particular prayer was drafted for the New Zealand BCP by a group and then thrown away because they didn't think it was good enough. Archbishop David literally saved the prayer from the trash can, and now it is used all over the world. It is one of my favorite collects to end the day on, so thanks David!


The Anglican Center's extensive library

The Chapel

Fellowship Lunch


Mantsonyane Lodge, paid for by the Community
of the Resurrection in England
Each week, a small group from St. Paul's heads over to the center to enjoy a eucharist and fellowship lunch with people from all over the world. You can never be too sure who you will run into at the Anglican Center. With Rome being a hot spot for pilgrims and travelers, the group that comes to the weekly eucharist changes every time. It's truly a microcosm of the Anglican Communion. It has happened on more than one occasion that I've met people at the eucharist that have not only been to Lesotho, but have been to St. James Hospital in Mantsonyane where I was working last year! The most recent time this happened I was speaking with Fr. Nicolas from the Community of the Resurrection in Mirefield, England. The Community of the Resurrection paid for the new guest house that St. James built during my time last year. The building is beautiful and has been a real asset to the hospital. The Anglican Communion is a smaller world than we like to think sometimes!

It is great, especially during this busy time of Lent, to be able to attend a service where I don't have to do anything other than participate. It is really nice to be able to sit in a service and know that I am not responsible for making anything happen. I just get to worship! Although we might not always be the best at it here, it is nice to be able to drop everything that is happening during the week and go pray. Even if things are extremely busy at the church, we all stop and head to the Anglican Center.

So, during this season of Lent I urge you to take time to stop what you are doing, no matter how important it is, and pray. Reflect on, renew, and strengthen your connection to God through prayer. And in the words of the New Zealand night prayer, "Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, and new possibilities" that will come after this blessed season of spiritual reflection.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Unity

You cant tell, but it's pouring down rain
Greetings from a cold and wet Rome! While a Roman winter may not be as bad as the winter many of you are experiencing in the USA right now, it's still pretty chilly (and very damp). Especially if you are part of the refugee community here and you don't have adequate housing. Housing for the guests of the JNRC is a constant concern. Many of these guys are living in places called a centro, which is a limited-time shelter for refugees. Once you've hit your allotted amount of time in a centro, you're back out on the street. There are a few other options for refugees when they've hit their time limit, like the tent center which resembles a refugee camp you'd see in a war-torn county, but even the tent has time limits set on it. Housing is a vicious cycle for many refugees in Rome. It's not possible to get sustainable housing without a well paying job (Rome is just too expensive to live in), and it's not possible to get a job until they've gone through the commission process to get legal refugee status (which can take a year or longer). Depending on how long the commission process takes, many of the guys run out of time in the centros and tents before they can even get their papers to start work. It's a very stark reality.

With all this in mind, Jill and I sat down with the new St. Paul's intern, Areeta, and two of the Artisans, Maiga and Syed, to discuss housing last week. If you are from the Diocese of Western North Carolina, then you might be familiar with a program called Room-In-The-Inn (RITI). RITI is a traveling emergency shelter for women in the WNC area. Each week a different church/business/school hosts the shelter. The host facility provides the space needed for the shelter, food for the guests, and volunteers to help out. RITI provides the infrastructure needed to make the shelter happen (beds, bedding, transportation, etc.). Jill had the idea to try and adapt the RITI approach to work with the refugee community in Rome. There are countless church spaces in Rome that are literally sitting unused, and there are countless more that are used but should be willing to host a group like this. It's going to take a lot of sitting down and working with different churches and figuring it all out, but I think this idea has a good chance of working. Will it solve the refugee housing issues in Rome? No. (But you have to start somewhere)

During this conversation, Jill mentioned that we should write the Pope. This struck me as funny because 1) I've never been in a situation where writing the Pope in hopes of getting something done was not just a shot in the dark/crazy idea, and 2) I've never been in a place where if I wrote a letter to the Pope about business, not only is there a good chance that the Pope would read it, but also respond to it. In Italy, it's all about who you know. If you know the right people, things get done.

Papa Francesco
The idea of different churches coming together to tackle the refugee housing crisis is very fitting for this time of year as we have just finished the week of prayer for Christian unity. The ecumenical community in Rome has been very busy this past week with all sorts of services, speeches, meetings, and conferences all about christian unity. The Canadian Council of Churches picked this years theme, "Has Christ been divided?"I had the opportunity to attend a few of these activities during the past week, including the Papal vespers on Saturday. The service was held at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, which is one of the larger churches in Rome. I think that anyone who has been paying attention to the work that Pope Francis has been doing can understand how much of an honor it was to hear the Pope speak on the topic of Christian unity (even though I didn't technically understand anything while he spoke). You can find a transcript of his homily here.

"We are all journeying together, fraternally, on the road towards unity, bringing about unity even as we walk; that unity comes from the Holy Spirit and brings us something unique which only the Holy Spirit can do, that is, reconciling our differences. The Lord waits for us all, accompanies us all, and is with us all on this path of unity."


The group of us waiting to get into St. Paul's

St. Paul's is HUGE


Christian unity is an easy thing to hope for, but it's definitely not as easy to implement. The final service of the week of prayer was on Sunday at San Silvestro. A congregation of Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, and more came together for a chance to all pray as one. I thought it was beautiful that after a week of talk of unity, these churches came together and raised a pretty sizable donation for the JNRC emergency housing fund. Actions almost always speak louder than words. Even though the week of prayer for unity is over, I encourage you all to seek as many ecumenical opportunities as possible. Reach out to someone from a denomination that isn't your own. Or better yet, visit a church different from your own denomination. Even though the church may be divided, I think we can all agree that Christ is not.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Humanity

Saho
Meet my friend Saho. Saho is one of the JNRC guests that works with our Artisans group on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He is a multitalented artist who makes a majority of the peace flags that the Artisans group sells. Since I've met him, I don't think that I can remember a time where he hasn't had a smile on his face or a positive attitude. All around good guy. He's been working with the Artisans group since it started last spring.

JNRC Peace Flags

Saho is from Mali and he is here in Italy seeking protection from the war happening there. I don't know the full story of how Saho came to be in Italy, but it is pretty incredible from what I have heard of it. He originally left Mali and fled to Libya, just in time for the turmoil happening there. When Libya became too dangerous, Saho paid a smuggler to take him by boat to Italy. That boat unfortunately didn't make it to Italy. It broke down in the middle of the ocean for several days. The waters between Northern Africa and Europe are pretty well patrolled by various European coast guards, which means that Saho's boat was well within sight of people that could have come to rescue them at any point, but chose not too because of politics and bureaucracy. I don't know the exact number of days Saho and his boat-mates spent adrift at sea, but it was far too long.

Eventually Saho's boat was rescued by the Maltese Coast Guard. You might remember the story from a few months back about a boat of immigrants that was adrift for several days before it caught fire and sank less than a 1/4 mile off the coast of one of Sicilian islands. 150 people died and 250 more are presumed dead. So the fact that Saho's boat was rescued and did not suffer the same fate as the other boat is a huge blessing because it could have easily gone the other way. When a boat is picked up by the Maltese government, the people on that boat are then sent immediately to a mandatory 18 month detention. After detention it isn't clear what will happen to immigrants. Some are deported, some seek asylum, some move on to other countries. I know very little about the detention center in Malta, but from what I can tell it is a hell hole. The next part of Saho's story isn't clear to me, but he somehow escaped detention and fled to Italy.

Italy is sort of a safe haven for refugees because it has a very lax border. Almost anyone can come in, but once they are here there are few options for them. They aren't allowed to legally work, or even legally live here, until they gain actual refugee status from the Italian Government, which involves a long process called commission where they give refugees a "permesso di soggiorno" or Permission of Stay. Saho has been preparing for his commission hearing since he got here and he finally had his commission hearing a few weeks back. Saho was given a permesso di soggiorno of one year, which is the standard amount given to most Malian refugees. Commission hearings take into account many things, like a refugees family ties back in their home country, the state of that country, and the amount of danger involved in a refugee returning to that country. By the Italian Government's standards, the situation in Mali is improving, so they give Malians one year to stay in hopes that they can return afterwords.

The problem with this system is that it generalizes the whole conflict in Mali, and it generalizes every single Malian refugee that is in Italy. To me, it seems like it turns refugees into statistics and forgets the fact that they are human beings. For many, to return to Mali within the year would simply be impossible, which is Saho's case. I went with Saho yesterday to a meeting with a lawyer so that he can begin to appeal his commission decision. It's a long process that will involve somehow proving that Saho would likely be killed if he were to return to Mali. It seems a bit strange to me that refugees are asked to prove that they might be killed so that they can gain some kind of life. Prove your imminent death to live. That seems backwards to me in more ways than one.

I'd love to tell you that Saho's case is unique. I'd love to say that there aren't hundreds, if not thousands, more stories very similar to his. I'd love to tell you all those things, but I can't. There are parts of me that are very grateful to the Italian Government for even allowing people to come into Italy and seek protection, because even that is much more than many countries are willing to do. But there are other parts of me that are completely disillusioned with the system as well. There isn't a single part of the system that is easy for a refugee to navigate. You basically need a law degree to understand the complete in's and out's of the process.

There is a severe lack of humanity in the whole process, which is really what these refugees need when they've come from such terrible trials and tribulations. There is no humanity in letting people sit at sea because of the simple fact that they are refugees. There is no humanity in throwing people into detention simply because they are fleeing persecution by the only means they know how. There is no humanity in turning refugees into statistics in a report. This lack of humanity is why when Saho comes in on Wednesday with his giant, genuine smile, I'll smile back and chat with him as the friend that he is. This lack of humanity is why when a guest comes into the center, the staff and volunteers will smile and try to treat them with the dignity that the world forgot they deserved.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The New "Normal"

First, my apologies for not writing for several weeks. It's been absolutely crazy here at the church and I've literally not had a spare moment. So much has been going on in the past couple of weeks that I don't even know where to start with this post, but I'll do my best.

The craziness started with the St. Paul's board visit 3 Sundays ago. St. Paul's has been undergoing some  major renovation for the past 10 years, and this visit was a celebration for reaching the halfway mark. Austin worked really hard on setting up things for the board to do and see that are outside of the regular tourist experiences. Somehow I got on the good side of the group and was able to tag along on some pretty incredible Roman experiences. I could write a blog post about each of them, but I don't have time so you'll just have to deal with a quick overview. Tea with the British Ambassador to the Vatican at the highest vantage point inside the walls of Rome, a private tour of the Vatican observatory (which just happens to be located at Castel Gandolfo, you know, the Pope's summer residence), a private tour of the US Embassy's art collection, a private tour of the Villa Aurora with the Princess who still lives there (Yes, I did say Princess), and more food than I care to remember.

Tea Time!
It's a shame they didn't have this during the
whole "Galileo incident"...
These chairs are only 500 years old...
The Princess casually holding a letter from
Marie Antoinette

Fr. Austin, Rev. Jennings, Me, and Bishop Pierre 
Now if all that wasn't enough for one week, the Convocation's Convention started in the middle of the week. Since there are only 9 Episcopal Churches in Europe, spread out over Belgium, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France, they band together to make a pseudo-diocese called The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Convention is held in a different church each year, and this year it was St. Paul's turn. It was really great to meet people from all over Europe and make some good connections. I even got to meet the Rev. Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies. She gave a great talk about the state of The Episcopal Church. Everything with the Convention went off without a hitch, which was a huge relief to the St. Paul's staff. We also had a Peace Party with the the Artisans group from the Refugee center and we were able to sell a lot of their crafts. These parties are a great way to spread information about the Artisans group and the JNRC.


Peace Party for Convention spouses


Now as you can imagine, the church staff was quite tired after such an eventful week. The church closed down for a few days last week so everyone could rest, which was perfect timing for my good buddy James to arrive from Madagascar. James has been with the Peace Corps in Madagascar for the past year and a half and this trip to Rome is the first time he's been off the island since he arrived. You can imagine that he might be a little culture shocked. James, Austin, and I took a trip up into the Italian mountains around Umbria. Just an absolutely gorgeous area. We spent a night in a town called Norcia, which is famous for two things: Pork and Truffles. The Italian word for pork butcher is norcineria, which is derived from Norcia, so as you might guess the pork is ridiculously amazing. Norcia also happens to be the town where St. Benedict was born. There's a large benedictine monastery in the town where they make beer. Beer, Pork, Truffles. Sounds like my kind of place. We also stopped in a small town called Todi, which is where all Italian restaurants in the USA come to get their stereotypical views of the Italian countryside. Ok, thats not true, but its one of the prettiest towns I've ever been to.

Umbria

St. Benedict

Needs no caption
One of St. Paul's parishioners asked me yesterday how I was settling in after 3 weeks, and I told him that I was doing well, but I hadn't seen what a normal week working with the church was like yet. He replied that I had indeed seen a normal week because "normal" doesn't exist. Even though he may be pretty accurate in that statement, it'll be nice that everything is settling down now and I can get a grasp of what this new "normal" will actually be like without so many events and guests. But it has been an incredible time the past couple of weeks and I'm still in shock about some of the experiences I've been able to have. That'll do for now!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ciao!

Greetings from Roma! It's been one crazy week here in the Eternal city. Not only was it my first week here in Rome, it was also the week before the Convocation's (Diocese of all the European Episcopal Churches) Convention. If you're not familiar with convention, its basically the Congress of the Convocation (Hopefully next weeks convention is a little more productive than the US congress). Not only is it convention, but the St. Paul's Board of Trustees is convening next week as well, so needless to say there has been a lot of preparation work for these big events.

Mangia!

Even with all that stuff going on, I've been able to get a good feel for what the next year is going to be like, and if this week is any indication of what's in store for next year, it's going to be nothing short of incredible. Austin picked me up at the airport last saturday and took me directly to the place that everyone goes right when they arrive in Rome, The Vatican Supermarket (which happens to be right behind the papal palace). Ok ok, so maybe it's not everyone's first stop in Rome, but it was mine. You actually need a special card to enter, so it's basically the Pope's Costco. We got some fantastic prosciutto and fresh mozzarella for lunch, then headed to St Paul's.

My new home is amazing. It's breathtakingly beautiful and it's close to pretty much everything famous in Rome. I still have no idea how I scored this position, but I am extremely grateful to have done so. My new apartment is in the rectory of the Church, which is just behind the sanctuary. I have a nice little room and I share a bathroom and kitchen with the other 5 people that live on the floor. Most of the other people in the collegio are masters students at a local Catholic University. It seems to be a really nice living situation so far!

The view from my room
St. Paul's Sanctuary
This is literally a 2 minute walk from my
apartment. 2 minutes, y'all!!

In between all the sightseeing and exploring, which there has been a lot of, I've found time to work! My placement here at St. Paul's will primarily be with the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, which is run out of the church's undercroft. It's truly an incredible and hectic experience to enter the center for the first time. Nearly 200 refugees come to the center everyday. The center serves a small breakfast and distributes some basic hygiene supplies, like toothbrushes and soap. It's basically a way for people to come get off the streets for a while and be with people that are experiencing the same struggles and hardships that they are experiencing. Many of the refugees had to leave all of their family and friends behind in their country, so they arrive in Italy and don't know a soul. I cannot even conceive of the sense of loneliness they must feel.

The Artisans Group
I've also been working with the JNRC Artisans group, which is a group of hand picked members from the center that create beautiful works of art. The pieces are sold to help raise support and awareness for the JNRC, but most of the proceeds from the sales go back to the group to help generate some sustainable income. The guys in the group are, without a doubt, some of the most incredible people I've had the honor to meet. Even though the group comes from many different countries, backgrounds, ethnic groups, and religions, they work together with a powerful sense of respect and dignity for one another that is unlike anything I've ever seen. The stories of how many of them came to Italy are nothing short of heart-breaking. I am incredibly blessed that they are willing to let me come in and work with them.

Bowls made from rolled newspaper
Necklace from newspaper
Please keep the Artisans group and all the refugees in your prayers, as they are very much in need of them. You will definitely be hearing more from me on how you all can help support the work of the JNRC and the Artisans group.

It's been an amazing first week and I am very excited to get more involved with the work here. This next week will be a crazy one for St. Paul's with the convention and board visit, but we'll get through it! Last year, I finished every blog post with the words "Sala hantle," which is Sesotho for "Be well." I'm not sure what the correct Italian phrase for that is, so I'll figure that our before next time. Until then, be well!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What do you mean I'm leaving again?

Greetings from the good ol' US of A! Wherever you are right now, I hope that you are doing well. It seems like it was just last week that I left St. James in Lesotho and started the week of traveling to get home, but when I look at a calendar it seems as though that was almost 2 months ago. Go figure, right?

It's been nothing short of wonderful to be home. I cant tell you how nice it is to see my family, even if just for a short time. I wont go into to all that I've done, but you can take a look at the photos below and get the gist of it. Basically, its been a perfect little slice of Americana.










Also, you may have noticed that the title of this blog has changed! New placement = new title! But everything else about my blog will stay the same. You can still find all of my posts from Lesotho in the blog archive.

It's crazy to think that I will be getting on a plane on Friday and head to Rome! What? It's literally been one of the fastest months I've had in a long time. Thanks to everyone who showed me some love while I've been home. It was short, but it was sweet. Thanks all for continuing to support me during the coming year! Much love, y'all!