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Tracing Refugee Journeys: From Nigeria to Italy

"At the heart of the gospel of mercy, the encounter and acceptance by others are intertwined with the encounter and acceptance of God himself. Welcoming others means welcoming God in person!"

            -Pope Francis, World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016

Over 500,000 migrants and refugees fled to Europe this past year – a small part of the 60 million lives on the move, fleeing conflict, economic hopelessness, failing farms, and failed states. In late 2015 I had a chance to learn firsthand about this mass migration. I saw up close the forces pushing people to risk everything, the pull of Europe and the wealthy North, and the greed of those who profit from the migrant’s dangerous journey, taking desperate people’s money, their bodies, and sometimes, it seems, their souls in payment.

My journey started where many refugee journeys start – in Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria.

Fifteen years ago, mission and development agencies of the Christian Reformed Church in North America helped local Nigerian Christians to achieve historic peace agreements among the main ethnic groups in the Eastern Middle Belt region of Nigeria – where the CRCNA has done mission work for over 100 years. We were back to see if we could help support a similar peace process – this time to build peace between urban Muslims and Christians as well as bringing a peaceful alternative to the worsening, long-running conflict between Muslim Fulani pastoralists and mostly Christian farmers.

For ten days we ranged across Eastern Nigeria in the company of members of the Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation Committee of the Nigerian Reformed Churches. We talked to Christian leaders, Muslim leaders, traditional rulers – and just regular people seeking ways to help those working for peace. But in the 10 days we were there, over 60 people were killed – in towns just a few hours north of us – by local fanatics who blew themselves up in markets, at checkpoints, and in mosques. It is little wonder that Northern Nigeria is in chaos. The rest of Nigeria is full of displaced Northerners fleeing Boko Haram and the near total lack of security for themselves and their families in the North East.

This is fertile ground for producing migrants and refugees. People who have already lost their home, farms, and often family members have little to lose by embarking on one, final, three-thousand mile journey through the deserts of Chad, Niger, Mali, and Libya onto leaky and overcrowded boats across the Mediterranean – paying thousands of dollars to those who arrange such passages. They well know that this journey will either end in a new life – or death.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees calls the sea passage from North Africa to Italy the most dangerous migration route in the world. They estimate that over 30,000 Africans have died in the last 25 years trying to cross in packed, unseaworthy boats piloted by incompetents. Last year almost 3,600 persons died or are missing. Each one has a name, a family, a story. Each one is loved by God.

For increasing numbers of people, the risk is worth it – and so nearly 150,000 people arrived on the southern borders of Europe last year, most of them to Italy and many of those to this tiny speck of an Italian island only 70 sea miles away from Libya.

The next step on my journey took me to the place where thousands of these migrants land: Lampedusa.

Lampedusa is home to one of two refugee and migrant processing and detention centers. Following the terrible disaster of October 3, 2013 when 386 refugees lost their lives no more than a kilometer from the shores of Lampedusa, the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI) – including the Waldensian Church – opened a small “observatory” with the name “Mediterranean Hope” on the island. This monitoring group consists of an office staffed by 3-6 persons, many of them young and on one year or shorter fellowships from diverse parts of Europe.

The purpose of this church presence is to watch and witness, to minister in whatever ways are allowed, to invite local residents and migrant processing workers into a conversation around migration, and to facilitate public awareness of the human stories within the statistics.

Under Italian law, migrants that do not qualify for expulsion (which include the large majority who are seeking asylum) are released into Italy after being “processed” in a Center for Identification and Expulsion. Many disappear into Northern Europe but a significant number stay – or are forced to stay – in Sicily.

It is with this largely immigrant population that JJ and Tim TenClay of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) work under the auspices of the Waldensian Church diaconal outreach headquartered in Palermo, Sicily.

You’ve likely heard of the RCA, our close siblings in the Reformed family. But the Waldensians are also our Reformed siblings—12th century refugees who have much to teach us about welcoming refugees today.

Some eight-hundred years ago in the 12th century, the followers of Waldo of Lyons, viciously persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, fled France, scattering as refugees and itinerant lay preachers to the four corners of Europe. Their devotion to the incarnate Christ compelled them to see and be Christ wherever they went and in all circumstances. Some historians call them “Protestant Franciscans who pre-dated St. Francis”!

Given this history it is, perhaps, both odd and fitting that today the Waldensian Church and Pope Francis are, it seems to me, the Christian West’s prime examples of love, compassion, and justice for the stranger, the migrant, and those seeking refuge. The Waldensians are a small Church – no more than 30,000 members. But they operate over 120 significant diaconal ministries – among them ministries to refugees. They do not see migrants and refugees as objects of charitable ministry. They see them rather as integrally important to their adopted communities and to the future of the Church in Italy.

One of the projects connected with this Waldensian-RCA outreach is Pellegrino della Terra (Pilgrim of the Earth) The project grew out of the pastoral work of Vivian Wiwoluku among Nigerian immigrants in Palermo in the 1990s. During prayer meetings he noticed the constant prayers for safety from many of the young African women. Over time Vivian earned their trust and learned their stories – stories of being trafficked from Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast – and the lives of sexual exploitation that followed in Italy.

Vivian could not sleep and needed to do more than pray. And in 1996 he opened a support and education center to provide concrete aid and a route to liberation. Since that time the center has found ways to provide assistance to many and to provide intensive, year-long education and support to a group of 20 – 30 women, helping them to leave the streets and their pimps, to obtain legal documentation, and to gain marketable skills for a new start.

Effective anti-trafficking and anti-sexual abuse programs generate opposition from those who have deep financial interests in maintaining the status quo. By that measure, Pellegrino della Terra is very successful. Vivian’s car has been torched – twice – and members of his family in Nigeria beaten.

In a just-released book of interviews with Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy, Francis chastises “scholars of the law” who “live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries.” 

“Being Church Together” is what the Waldensians call their effort to “open doors and blur boundaries”. In many Waldensian churches, immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Eritrea along with native born Italians worship together and work out how to be church together.

I was a very long way from Nigeria, but on the last Sunday with the Waldensians I experienced what they mean by “being church together” – and I got an inkling of what this might mean to the Nigerian migrants sitting next to me who had barely survived their own journey: The order of worship was in Italian and English while the liturgy was in mixed Italian and English followed by a gospel choir singing African songs in African rhythms. Then came a multi-lingual prayer that encompassed the world.

What was it? It was odd. It was a cultural mash-up. It worked because our common yearning to be in Christ and of Christ was deeper than our need to be culturally comfortable.

We have our own issues with welcoming refugees and migrants in Canada and the US. We can learn and gain courage from the Waldensians. Who knows who we will meet and what we will become when we truly welcome others?

Image: From and Disegni dalla Frontiera]

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