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Being church together - outlining chances and challenges using the example of the Waldensian church

Worshipper of the Waldensian Church in Verona are listening to Rev. Pieter Grove (Photo: UEM).

A group of students and theologians under the supervision of Prof. Andrea Bieler (Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal/Bethel) and Angelika Veddeler (Head of department, German Region UEM) visited a small Waldensian congregation in Vicenza from September 25-29, 2015. Host was the pastor William Jourdan, a  young committed theologian equipped with lots of humour and perseverance, which is much needed in order to make the small protestant church be heard in the mostly Catholic Italy. Protestants hardly make up two percent of the total population – Methodists and Baptists included already, as they have united under the roof of the Waldensian church.

Which effects the European refugee policy has had on Italy up till now Prof. Paolo Naso, who holds the chair of political science at the University of Rome, illustrates in his speech. While Italy used to be a classic emigration country for a long time, this changed in the 1980s due to the influx of people from Eritrea and Ghana, who searching for work came to the closest EU country. While Germany used to disregard these developments, in Italy the name of the game for a long time used to be that whoever had an employment was allowed to stay. Only in 1989 Italy obtained an immigration act. Meanwhile approximately 5 Million immigrants live in Italy. The global financial crisis in 2008 caused the economic state of many African countries to worsen. Up to now more and more people try to flee their desperate economic situation by setting forth on a life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean.  Annually about 3000 people drown on the passage from Africa to Europe.

How does the Waldensian church react to this dramatic development? On this topic Prof. Naso introduces the church aid program „Mediterranean Hope“. Hereunder the Waldensian church closely observes the situation on Lampedusa. Furthermore they have established a small welcoming centre and accompany the newly arrived on their way to the different administrative bodies. Beyond that the protestant church takes a stand for the application of humanitarian exceptional regulations, for example in cases of pregnant or sick refugees, these regulations are actually included in the Schengen Act. Aim of the Waldensian church is to set an aid programme into motion, which is concentrated within the Italian civil society. This is unarguably a huge social task for a small Waldensian congregation in north Italy.
And on a grass root level? The local Waldensian congregations in Vicenza and Verona pursue a remarkably pragmatic approach. Made up of mostly Ghanaian church members they have long developed into multi-ethnical congregations. Reports on their experiences show that the way there is a tedious one, as well as a strenuous process with an open ending for all concerned. Differences in spirituality and values, but also in the expectations towards pastor or services and lastly language barriers, lead to tensions especially in the early stages. The question raised, to what extent the theology changes when immigrants make up the majority in leading positions, cannot be answered yet today. So far church members with migratory background are not yet represented predominantly in executive committees. There has not been theological footing or a written basis for the development to a multi-ethnical and –cultural church within the Waldensian, yet. Prof. Naso admits: „ The theological dimension is important. Especially for times of crisis we need documented consistent agreements. Please give us some more time for this matter. “Despite the differences named above all parties involved obviously have a basic understanding of wanting to be one church together and to invest themselves into it. In a final review the Waldensians evaluated their multi-ethnical congregations, by all means, as a win-win-project: Ghanaian church members are mostly successfully integrated into the Italian society, while the old core congregations are enriched through the ethnical diversity.

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