During our time in Italy, our group has found engagement with diverse religious communities a powerful means to build our journalistic understanding of religion and more generally, to develop respect for diverse cultures and traditions. Today was a powerful one for the Covering Religion group, and perhaps more than on any other day, our class experienced religious pluralism first hand, visiting places of worship and meeting community leaders at a Waldensian church, a mosque, and Turin’s Jewish Synagogue.
Our first stop was a Waldensian church, which as a Protestant community proved an interesting contrast to many of the Catholic sites we have visited thus far. In centuries past, the Waldensians were persecuted by the Catholic church, and leaders of the two groups did not communicate until this year. Spending time in the space was a reminder of how religious schisms can easily potentiate persecution.
Our guide at the church – Pastor Paolo Ribete – was the first Waldensian leader to meet with a Catholic pope and centuries, and the meeting took place in the very church we visited. It was an uplifting reminder of the reconciliatory nature of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis’ leadership and the to a tour of the church and the great benefit of shared support among different religious community. The Waldensian church provides clothing, food and support to refugees from largely Muslim countries, and at the church saw closets and bins packed with clothes that the church has collected for refugees. In fact, many of the services Italy offers immigrants and refugees are provided by religious institutions – and the Waldensians are particularly altruistic. They use tax revenue provided from the government to benefit others rather than to fund their church, and as a result, more than 600,000 allocate their religious taxes to the much smaller Waldensian community of about 20,000 each year.
Many immigrants seeking refuge in Italy are Muslim, and as a result, mosques have become centers of refugee life. In Turin, we visited an Egyptian mosque where many refugees, particularly from northern Africa, come to pray and to form a semblance of normalcy in challenging situations. The Mosque itself was in small building recessed from the street that looked as if it might have been a converted garage. It was telling of the space Muslims hold in Italian society, particularly when contrasted to the lavish churches that are seemingly on every block throughout all of Italy. Our group arrived at the mosque shortly before Dhuhr, the midday prayer, where groups of men speaking Arabic were clustered on the street and in the alley near the Mosque. Both parties were reticent – understandable, given these men are vulnerable to arrest and deportation – and our interaction felt strained for both parties. Afterwards, some of our ground spoke about how we might have achieved better access, and several mentioned the importance of a “gatekeeper” who might have been the vehicle for relationship building in the community. It was a valuable lesson that I’m sure many of us will apply in the future.
The Jewish community has also offered support to refugees, and we spent a beautiful Shabbat evening at Turin’s synagogue, where we met a Ezekiel and Esther, a couple from the Congo that the Jewish Community has taken in and given total support. Our group participated in the Kabbalat Shabbat service, and Emily, a member of our group, described attending a Jewish service for the first time.
It was my first time at Shabbat services, so that in and of itself was incredible. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of history present in the service, in both the prayers and rituals which are thousands of years old, and the history of the building and the Jewish Italians who worshipped there in years past and were persecuted.
I also think the beliefs related to particular rituals are beautiful. The idea of turning to welcome the Sabbath, and the angels which accompany the Sabbath, is powerful – and then welcoming the angels to the dinner table and having a series of prayers at the meal was a wonderful way of transitioning from a spiritual practice at services to the more down-to-earth aspects of everyday life. That unity between prayer and worship in the synagogue and spirituality as practiced in everyday actions seemed to be very important to the community and their strength amongst themselves in their faith; at the same time it also allowed those of us not of the faith to connect to the beliefs and participate, in some sense, and I was very grateful for that.
Afterward the service we were treated to a meal of salads, lasagna, veal and substantial quantities of Kosher wine, which offered an opportunity to relax and to speak with members of the Jewish community and their guests from the Ivory Coast. At one point in the evening, we all introduced ourselves, and Ezekial spoke about his and his wife’s difficult experiences in their country and afterwards, and their gratitude at finally finding a home with the Jews of Turin. It was a moving moment, and it seemed to remind us all of the beauty a religious community can bring to human life, regardless of denomination or sect. It was a beautiful day, and we look forward to more tomorrow, which is sadly the last full day of our Italy adventure.