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What mission? Mission in Europe and universal mission: reciprocity, partnership ...

A Christianity which has lost its vertical dimension has lost its salt and is not only insipid in itself, but useless for the world. But a Christianity which would use the vertical preoccupation as a means to escape from its responsibility for and in the common life of man is a denial of the incarnation.

Visser't Hooft, Uppsala 1969

My context: religious, conservative Italy

I think it is important to begin my modest contribution to this important discussion by describing the context in which I live and work. I am a pastor of the Waldensian and Methodist churches in Italy. I have been living in Palermo for two years now, and the parish where I work is a little parish in a suburb of Sicily's biggest city. We live on the border, in every sense of the word: Sicily is one of the points of entry for the illegal trafficking of refugees and others without papers; what is legal is often open to interpretation in this context; different cultures have made their way here, mixed and influenced each other from time immemorial. There is a clientelistic mentality that is often impossible to change and not easy to understand; the state is often perceived as a useless bureaucracy to be replaced by an unregulated system. The official Roman Catholic religion often takes the form of a secularized catholic culture, but it has a strong influence over the whole country's social, political and civic life.

One example: at the beginning of the summer of 2005, at the time of the referendum on stem cell research and experiments, Cardinal Camillo Ruini called on Italians to abstain and stay away from the ballot box so that the law on medically assisted procreation would not be changed. A quorum was not attained and so the referendum was annulled. The outright request to electors to give up their fundamental right to vote is a good illustration of the influence of the Catholic church. If the 'no' vote had won, it would not have changed the end result: the law would not have been changed. Several politicians who are practising Christians call themselves theological conservatives, and they are often pre-conciliar Catholics.

The Palermo parish of La Noce has around 140 members, Italians and Africans (francophone and anglophone), Waldensians, Methodists and Presbyterians from a Pentecostal or evangelical background. It is a small but very varied and complex group of people, with great diversity of ethics, ecclesiology, spirituality, etc.

Historic Protestantism in Italy: challenges, dreams, projects

I think that there are two things which have made a great contribution to reflection on witness, mission and missiology models in the Europe that we are creating: our presence at the grassroots and our relationship with immigrant Christians.

In the social, ecclesiastical and political context I have been describing, Protestants have been mostly a misunderstood minority in Italian history and often lumped together with the left, the anti-globalization movement and the << secularists >> a term which in Italian often means << of no religious adherence >>, or without faith, you could almost say 'dechristianized'. We therefore find it difficult to make ourselves understood, often defining ourselves in negative terms by things that we do not do or believe in, and emphasizing how we are different to Catholics and charismatics. It is often only then that we go on to say what we believe in and who we are in a positive, affirmative and non-polemical way.

For at least a decade, our churches have been reflecting on their own identity, their confession of faith and their ecclesiology, especially since our encounter or confrontation with immigrant Protestants. Legal immigrants come to Italy to work, as self-employed or waged workers, or for religious reasons or as refugees. It is more difficult, of course, to quantify the number of illegal immigrants, but in a week of fine weather and calm seas, between 150 and 300 immigrants arrive every day on the southern coasts of Sicily and Lampedusa. In addition, the Bossi-Fini law on immigration has encouraged migrants with residence permits to go underground, making an already complex situation even more complicated. Among these are a significant number of 'historical' Protestants.

In addition to the problems related to the provision of reception, support and social integration services to these people, other questions await our response. What contribution can non-Italian believers make to the Protestant and Christian identity in Italy? What model of witness and mission do they bring with them?

What contribution to the theology of mission in the current European context? The Being Church Together model

The Being Church Together (Essere Chiesa Insieme) model is a more recent experience for Protestant churches in Italy than for other European countries, as non-European immigrants are mainly Muslims or Catholics. It is only during the last twenty years that non-European Protestants have joined Italian churches in significant numbers. It is therefore much more recent than in France or England. Our reflection so far on this theme has made us aware of the following:

The situation. Following a first 'spontaneous' phase, we have now entered the second 'experience' phase. At present, we have ethnic parishes side by side with Italian parishes, some experience of mixed communities and a missionary project that combines integration and evangelization (in Mezzani-Parme).

Basic questions: partnership. It is very clear that the way in which I see and regard immigrants influences both the way I live out my faith with them and the way I live with them in civil society. This poses the following question: how should I see migrants? Migrants are often simply victims I welcome, the object of the churches' diakonia. At other times, I see them as people arriving in my home but questioning my identity in a more or less intrusive manner. At other times, they are only unknown neighbours, whose language, way of praying and living their faith does not really speak to me. Finally, migrants can also be the partner of my witness here in my home. They can, with others, be mediators, companions in my journey and life. In fact, they can invite me to and bring about my conversion!

Nevertheless, this poses several problems. How can we build our church together? How can we govern it, manage its resources and encourage responsible autonomy when carrying out our tasks (empowerment) ? How can we relate the different ecclesiologies, ethical frameworks and identities to one another?

Church and society. The church model that we choose also becomes our visiting card towards society. This may sometimes mean adopting a strong and concrete witness of 'other' models to incarnate our own confession of faith. To be a church 'together' may be a clear and strong witness but may often not be straightforward to manage and announce in an environment dominated by the political right, in which fear of foreigners, who represent only danger, provides an icon for terrorism. It is quite simply a question of living our appeal for dialogue and communion and to witness to it when faced with distrust and fundamentalism.

The Being Church Together path asks major questions of civil society. Religious marginalization leads to radicalization and fundamentalism, while valuing one's own cultural identity, including the religious component, allows one to develop profound security within the framework of society, allowing people to be open in their attitude to new things. Finally, dialogue with a local religious community allows an exchange on political as well as ethical issues, such as democracy, violence, the role of women, spirituality, community life, etc.

Of course, there are still several questions to answer: how do we manage and organize the training of leaders and preachers, parishes, liturgy, the ecclesiological model? How will we relate to other churches and the state (approach the issue of laicite etc.)?

The Cevaa 'my mission, my neighbour' model: From everywhere to everywhere

The Community of Churches in Mission (Cevaa) is a very important partner in this work. Since its foundation in 1971, the Community acts and witnesses to promote sharing of the gospel everywhere (from everywhere to everywhere), so that it can bring together all human beings in all their complexity. In this context of partnership and reciprocity, progress in recent years has emphasized how important it is to talk, to plan and live our mission with our close neighbouts, to relate to them and to not compete with them. "Meet your neighbours" is the theme that permeates the activities of recent years and the idea will be properly launched at the General Assembly in Bouznika, Morocco, in October 2006, in the form of an important series of projects. Three groups of 'priority neighbours' have been identified: migrants, 'other' believers and sufferers, especially people with HIV/AIDS. We want to build the mission of our Community of churches and sister churches with and for these people.

A document adopted by the Executive Council in March 2005 explicitly referred to this issue:
   We should put the need to build a culture of encounter at the heart
   of our understanding of our common mission today; encounter as a
   promise and not as a confrontation; encounter as an opportunity to
   create and not as a risk of losing; encounter as something that
   quenches our thirst and brings joy and not as a conquest; encounter
   as liberation and not as alienation; encounter not as something
   closed but as fulfilment, the fulfilment of putting our own freedom
   to believe and love at the service of everybody's freedom to
   believe and love.


In this context, we should neither forget the role being played in discussions and appeals to nations and churches by ecumenical organizations in which the Waldensian and Methodist churches are partners (the WCC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Athens mission conference). These windows of dialogue are an important stimulus to reflection on our responsibilities as individuals and communities in the dynamics of globalization and encourage us to get involved in the implementation of a project to globalize justice.

Implement projects together

The Italian and Sicilian Observatory says there are two types of projects which are priorities: serious and well-organized communications work based on local and national involvement and aimed at learning language and promoting communication between cultures and sensibilities. All parties involved in the creation of Christian witness must be able to explain and express themselves and to try and make themselves understood by others. The partnership will never be equal unless communications are good and clear.

What has recently been described in the Italian context as << diakonia-light >>: projects that are sustainable from the financial and human resources points of view. To work together on simple but practical projects can be a very good way of simplifying communication between partners, a very strong and visible way of expressing witness in civil society and an irreplaceable tool for theological action in parishes. This kind of work, we know, is based on paying attention to the context in order to clarify demands and needs, and to the creation and operation of work and service teams that can engage with and arouse the interest of local communities.

Elisabetta Ribet

Elisabetta Ribet, member of the Executive Council of the Cevaa--Community of Churches in Mission, is pastor of the Waldensian and Methodist Church in Italy. At the moment she is based in Palermo, Sicily, in an intercultural and inter-denominational congregation made of Italian and African believers belonging to the different Protestant families.
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Author:Ribet, Elisabetta
Publication:International Review of Mission
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:1894
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