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Primetimers Return from Italy Inspired to Build Beloved Community

This April 12-21 twenty-five older adults came together in Italy for a Primetimers event entitled “An Encounter with Protestant Italy.” Throughout this 10-day event, participants traveled to seven cities, examining the historical roots of the Protestant Church (Methodists and Waldensians), the current struggles inherent in being a "minority" church and the church’s current ministry to welcome the stranger. This Primetimers event was one of seven events offered by the Mission Volunteers Program Area and was led by Rev. David Markay and Rev. Kristin Markay, GBGM missionaries and pastors serving at the Methodist Church of Milan.

Participants began their Primetimers experience traveling directly to Torre Pellice, the historical center of the 800 year old Waldensian movement, where they heard speakers and visited the Waldensian museum. It was in the valleys around Torre Pellice that the Waldensians found sanctuary after crossing the Alps to escape persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. According to participant Gloria Esthus of Harahan, Louisiana, “It was here that they worshiped in mountain caves and where they were burned at the stake or were massacred by the enemies of reform. Yet today … [t]heir current mission is to welcome those who find themselves in a strange and sometimes hostile land, particularly new immigrants.”

Primetimers visit cave in northern Italy's Angrogna Valley, where centuries ago,
Waldensians worshipped to escape persecution (Photo credit: David Markay)

The Italian Methodist Church in Milan has made offering hospitality to the stranger a missional priority and Primetimers experienced this ministry firsthand during their travel to Milano where they met and worshiped with members of the multi-cultural Methodist congregation there. Made up of Africans, Asians, Europeans, and persons of other nationalities, this inner-city congregation is a vibrant Christian witness in a city of some 210,000 immigrants. Many Primetimers participants were inspired by this congregation, including Carolyn Forsythe of Tallahassee, FL. According to Forsythe, “I witnessed God working in the world as we became part of this multi-cultural congregation praising the Lord through music and the Word. Many children and adults chose native rhythm instruments from a large wicker basket and joyfully joined the Praise band in accompanying the hymns. The enthusiasm was contagious and one of our group said, ‘This must be what heaven is like!’”

Primetimers make their way through Milano’s Stazione Porta Garibaldi on their way
to a national ecumenical youth event in the city (Photo credit: David Markay)

Through attending Sunday School, worship, and an Agape meal with members of the congregation, Primetimers were able to hear firsthand stories of the challenges of immigrating to Italy, including navigating the immigration system, low-paying, long-hour jobs, random police checks leading to detention or even deportation. They learned about the sense of community amongst congregation members, including the informal ways they help one another apply for immigration status in Italy and help one another with food or transportation when people need help making ends meet. According to Peggy Verreault of Easley, SC, “I felt we in the U.S. could use this experience as a learning tool as immigration increases here.” Participants visited other Methodist ministries, including an after-school and day-care ministry at the Casa Mia/Centro Nitti Methodist Social Center in Napoli and the Methodist Ecumene Center in Velletri (Advance Special #14700), which organizes retreats and seminars, where people can live, worship, study and work together, get to know each other, and identify specific commitments in church as much as in society.

Primetimers garden at the Methodist Ecumene Center in Velletri, Italy
(Photo credit: David Markay)

It was at the Methodist Ecumene Retreat Center that Primetimers were able to engage in hands-on mission service at the Methodist Ecumene Retreat Center. Participants could choose from a variety of service opportunities, depending on their skills and abilities. Some gardened while others assisted in housekeeping through folding towels. Throughout the event, Primetimers also visited various church-related and tourist sites in their travels to Milan, Parma, Florence, Rome, and Pompei. Gloria Esthus captured the spirit of the event in writing: “We are from all across the U.S.A., but we form a community as we travel. We learn to know each other and visit the ministries of the church and are increasingly aware that we are joined in a global mission. We sing together, ‘Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,’ and are strengthened to return to our home churches with a new and refreshed vision of the church universal - its needs and its power for good in our world.”