By Francesca Nuzzolese
Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling
A native of Southern Italy, I make regular pilgrimages to special childhood spots, to reconnect with my beginnings and soak in the Mediterranean air. These visits are a source of psycho-spiritual renewal, something I look forward to every year, especially swimming in the Mediterranean Sea.
Sadly, over the past few years the Mediterranean coasts have become hosts to horror stories, and the sea has been described as a merciless blue cemetery. No longer the place for my idyllic escapes, nor a promised land for refugees, Southern Europe is struggling mightily to handle mass migration from the Middle East and East Africa.
For millennia a geographic and symbolic divider of two very different worlds, the Mediterranean is still a highly traveled corridor, used by both humanitarian and criminal organizations to move large numbers of human beings into Europe. Fleeing political, social, religious and economic oppression, hundreds of thousands attempt the treacherous crossing for the possibility of a more dignified life. Many never make it to shore due to the precarious conditions in which they are transported. Those who make it often find the land of their dreams to be an unwelcoming and hostile place.
On a quest to better grasp the predicament of refugees and the European politics of immigration, this past summer I visited refugee camps and faith-based organizations in Southern Italy and Sicily. I can affirm that the pressure to accommodate the large human flow is causing a real identity crisis for Europe as a whole. Yet, in some of these places I have also witnessed tangible expressions of humanity and Christianity at their best.
A particular beacon of hope was Casa delle Culture (House of Cultures), a First Help Refugee Center sustained by the work of a small local Methodist church. Located a few kilometers from a highly trafficked port in Sicily, the center is part of a larger organization called Mediterranean Hope, which is an initiative of the Association of Protestant Churches in Italy.
The center hosts unaccompanied and undocumented minors from East Africa, Syrian women and children with legitimate refugee status, and Nigerian girls who have escaped the sex trade. While the diversity poses a cohabitation challenge for this transient community, I was struck by the ethos of mutual care and solidarity, of shared vulnerability and resilience, endorsed by the Italian leadership team and upheld by the young volunteers coming from all over Europe.
The intention of the center is to grant a healthy sense of belonging and an orientation to the ongoing diversity the guests will continue to experience as they get permanently relocated in different countries of the European Union. At Casa delle Culture everyone, guests and hosts, is invited to maintain – or regain – a sense of personal dignity, maximizing the use of creativity and the gifts and wisdom inherent in every culture and person.
This is a huge undertaking, given the climate of rejection spreading in Europe and the misappropriation of funds aimed at refugee and migrant care. Challenges aside, I gained a vision of what kin-dom life is about: Syrian children learning Italian from German volunteers; Sudanese teens babysitting Nigerian girls while their mothers work; Muslim moms shopping at Sicilian markets; the center’s director advocating for migrant children’s rights in the local school districts. And everyone sharing life and stories over pasta, couscous or gelato.
As a pastoral theologian, I find it essential to immerse myself in pastoral praxis, to bear witness and support those who work directly with the most vulnerable people in our midst. The projects of Mediterranean Hope have been particularly inspiring for me due to the Methodist legacy. The refugee crisis, however, remains a severe problem of our time, and not only for Europe. Prayer and action are needed to deal not only with the symptoms but also with the political and economic root causes of mass migrations all over the world.
The invitation by the center leadership is for us at MTSO to engage in the amazing and difficult work they are doing. My hope is to inspire others to immerse with me in the near future – whether in Italy or somewhere closer to home. To experience this work firsthand is to appreciate how pastoral theology is best learned in spaces of shared humanity and vulnerability.
Methodist Theological School in Ohio provides theological education and leadership in pursuit of a just, sustainable and generative world. In addition to the Master of Divinity degree, the school offers master’s degrees in counseling, social justice, theological studies and practical theology, along with a Doctor of Ministry degree.
Danny Russell, communications director