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A multicultural commission table discussion at the Chiesa Evangelica Metodista in Milan, Italy. PHOTO: DAVID MARKAYThe Chiesa Evangelica Metodista congregation celebrates Pentecost, 2006. PHOTO: COURTESY DAVID AND KRISTIN MARKAY

Pasta and Plantains: Being The Church Together

By David Markay

Following are story excerpts from David Markay’s 2013 book Pasta and Plantains. He and his wife, the Rev. Kristin Markay, served as United Methodist missionaries in Milan, Italy, for seven years (2004 to 2011). With their children, Hannah and Aidan, the Markays navigated the Italian culture from their unique prospective as Protestant pastors serving a multinational and multicultural congregation that included native Italians and many immigrants to Italy from African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries.

The following meditations reflect the life of a congregation whose members—people of different personalities, cultures, languages, church traditions, and (at last count) 18 different countries—are trying to live together. The societal backdrop is Italy, a nation struggling with the issues of immigration and integration. The urban context is Milano (Milan), a city whose resources and patience are being stretched by the influx of foreigners. The ecumenical setting is a predominantly Roman Catholic country in which many churches are seeking to offer hospitality to the stranger. The missional compass which guides the Italian/Waldensian Church is a desire not only to welcome the outsider but to blend traditions, to be changed by the other, and essere la chiesa insieme (“to be the church together”).

These stories and images are meant as a tribute to the congregation of the Chiesa Evangelica Metodista in Milano. Where necessary, I have changed names and circumstances to protect privacy…. but hopefully not so much as to prevent members from recognizing themselves or from feeling my admiration for their Christian witness.

A Child in the Reeds

“…she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.”

Exodus 2:3-4 (NRSV)

A Lega Nord campaign poster of a ship full of immigrants. The Lega Nord, or Northern League, advocates for political autonomy for northern Italy and keeping immigrants out. PHOTO: DAVID MARKAYA Lega Nord campaign poster of a ship full of immigrants. The Lega Nord, or Northern League, advocates for political autonomy for northern Italy and keeping immigrants out. PHOTO: DAVID MARKAY

Three weeks after giving birth, she had done the necessary paperwork to acquire a passport for her baby. Then she bought a plane ticket and prepared for the 24-hour journey back to her home village. There, she would leave her child with family and then return to Italy to resume work. The child would be cared for by relatives. Someday, bureaucracies in both countries willing, she might be reunited with her child. But for the foreseeable future, they will be 7,000 miles apart.

The Sunday before departure, we prayed a prayer of dedication for the child. The baptism will occur in her home country in a few weeks. After worship, several immigrant members were talking about the mother’s decision.

“I tried to talk her out of it,” said one woman. “She will regret what she is doing.”

“How can we blame her?” said another. “Several of us left our children. We know there is no way we could make the money we need to raise them if we were back there. You know what unemployment is like at home.”

“I left my children in the hands of relatives when I left 15 years ago,” one man commented. “Unfortunately, many children like mine are left without much supervision. We parents abroad send them money, so often they have many things but not a mother or a father there to guide them. My children are now teenagers, and they have made some unwise choices. If I were to do it again, I would first ask myself: Which is better—making enough money to support them through school and put food on their table, or being poor and being there with them? I think I would choose to be with them.”

Thousands of years earlier, another foreign woman placed a baby in a basket and pushed it gently into the current. Because we already know the end of that story, it seems a foregone conclusion that the basket will be retrieved, the baby lifted out and raised with love. But what if the basket had floated past its intended recipient? What if it had become lost in the reeds? On whose shore would it have landed? And the child inside? How would he have grown up?

As we dedicated the child, we could only pray, wonder, and then stand at a distance to see what would happen to him.

First Day

“By the roadside you sat…sat like a nomad in the desert.”

Jeremiah 3:2 (NIV)

Across the street from the middle school, it’s almost time for the morning bell to ring.

A man stands with his 12-year-old daughter. She is wearing a heavy backpack and clutches the straps next to her chest. With one hand, she wipes away her tears. He digs in his pocket and finds a handkerchief to give her. He speaks to her softly in a language unknown to the other parents and children who scurry past. She bows her head, leans into his chest, and burrows. He cups her head in his hands, then strokes her hair and talks with her gently. She shakes her head firmly.

The bell sounds across the street. “Ciao!..Buona scuola!...Un baccione!...”shout the other parents. The girl looks across the street but doesn’t budge. Her father gently pulls her head to his chest again. He looks skyward, then at his watch.

Someday she may be speaking Italian with the other children. But before that day comes, she will walk through those doors many times by herself. She will be taken out of class routinely for language lessons. She will come to know other foreign children, but they will only be able to communicate with one another when they all learn Italian. She may not smile as much as she used to. She will, most likely, be the brunt of teasing. She will, sadly, learn words that tease. She will know the feeling of sitting in class as if in a fog, as unfamiliar words swirl around her head. She will stare blankly at the teacher when asked a question. She will come to expect laughter when she tries to answer, and she may stop trying to answer because of it. Her confidence in herself may slide. Her personality, her expressiveness, her sense of humor may be hidden behind a mask. When the day ends, she may watch the other girls pair up, and wonder if she will ever have friends here. Hopefully, one of them will turn and smile and speak to her.

She may make it here. She may become more Italian than her parents. Then again, she may not. She may beg her parents to let her return to China and live with her grandparents. Hers is the young face of globalization.

The Wall of Separation

“…I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. (speech at King Chapel, Cornell College, Vernon, Iowa, October 15, 1962.)

A bench in the Saronno train station in Italy indicates a clear separation of people. PHOTO: DAVID MARKAYA bench in the Saronno train station in Italy indicates a clear separation of people. PHOTO: DAVID MARKAY

One response to the influx of foreigners in Italy was the formation of a right-wing, nationalistic political party. Created in the early 1990s, the Lombard League, later called the Northern League (Lega Nord), advocates political autonomy and even independence for northern Italy. It has also taken on an increasingly strident anti-immigration message. Some of its recent campaigns have included picketing outside an Arab school in the city and calling for tighter laws on citizenship. Each year the Lega garners a sizeable portion of the vote, mostly in the north, where the impact of mass immigration is more prevalent. Its party headquarters rests only a mile or so from the Chiesa Metodista—a congregation filled with the kind of immigrants the Lega wants out.

The Lega has tapped into a growing strain of fear and anger in Italian society. In one northern Italian city, municipal leaders even erected a wall. While its stated purpose was to isolate drug traffic, protestors note that it divides the foreigners from the Italians. It has been dubbed the wall of separation.

One Milanese woman described to us the changes she has seen in her city. “It has happened so quickly,” she said. “First, there were so few foreigners. Now there are so many. The change came so fast. Now I don’t even recognize some of the places I once knew. Arab shops, Asian groceries, Moroccan coffee bars—I used to know all the proprietors of those places. I used to know all my neighbors. Now, with a lot of them, I can’t even carry on a conversation.” Raising her hands in exasperation, she said, “We end up being caught somewhere between paura [fear] and the voglia di [the desire to]…. la voglia di…. (she continued to search for the right word)…la voglia di capire [the desire to understand].”

I tested out her assessment on an Italian man in our congregation. He nodded. “Yes, we’re all somewhere along that line, I guess. For example, six years ago when I looked at all the Filipinos in our church, all I saw was a bunch of people with black hair. To me they were just a big mob. None were speaking my language, and they were in my church! But one day after church, I got to talking with Lena. She didn’t speak Italian so well, but we were able to communicate. I found out that she has a sister in the congregation, and several cousins. She told me a few of their names. Over time, I’m getting to know them—not all of them, but enough that I’m able to ask individuals: ‘How’s your son?’ or ‘Did you go to the doctor?’ I know them better now as people.”

Somewhere between fear and the desire to understand…our natural tendencies pull us in one direction. Our Christian faith, hopefully, pulls us toward the other.

Love God and Serve Your Neighbor

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

Psalm 133:1

Bilingual worship, we are discovering, is not a precise science. Long explanations, puzzled looks, and clapping out of rhythm are all part of an awkward courtship. People still sit in their favorite spots. Neighbors whisper to one another in their native tongue. Old friends sit with old friends. Aisles still separate. Dual translations can both unify and divide. Like a tapestry in progress, the community’s seams are plainly visible.

One Sunday, as the leaders labored through the announcements, Giovanni was sitting at the back of the sanctuary. With both hands he held a toddler, who was delighting in gripping the old man’s bifocals. Giovanni playfully lifted the child over his head, then would look up and grin. Then he would bring the boy lower, nuzzling his nose into the child’s belly. When the little one would giggle, Giovanni’s eyes would widen with mock chagrin. He would shush him gently. Things would quiet, and then up he’d go again. Although I couldn’t see the child’s face, it was clear that he was enjoying himself at least half as much as was Giovanni. Through six announcements, a hymn, one long prayer for unity (in Italian and English), the Lord’s Prayer, another hymn, and into the benediction, they smiled at one another. Go in peace to love God and serve your neighbor. Amen. The man hugged the child, as a grandfather embraces a grandson, as if congratulating him on some mutual achievement.

After worship, I asked him, “Giovanni, that child you had on your lap. Who is he?” “Oh him?” he said. “I’m not sure whose child he was. One of the Filipino sisters gave him to me to hold.”

The Rev. David Markay, a United Methodist minister from the West Ohio Conference who served for 15 years as a Global Ministries missionary in Lithuania, New York, and Italy, is now serving in the Sheffield Circuit of the British Methodist Church.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, September-October 2016 issue. Used by permission.

To order Pasta and Plantains: Being the Church Together

David Markay’s book is available on Amazon, UK.