Thursday, May 17, 2007

Italy's Policy towards the poor and the immigrants -- the role of NGOs

On March 21, 2007, we spent the evening in the community of Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome with many refugees and immigrants. We met with Claudio Betti, who works with English-speaking countries on behalf of the Romanic Church of Sant'Egidio, in Trastevere.

Ms. Betti showed us a building owned by the church that houses people with disabilities, a restaurant run by the church and staffed by people with disabilities, and we visited a soup kitchen for people who are homeless. The people cooking and serving were reflective of the clientele, that is Romans and international on both sides. Mr. Betti said that most people who are homeless in Italy were immigrants.

I was impressed that the church was able to attain a street address for the soup kitchen, so that the people who are homeless could have a mailing address, which is necessary when applying for jobs.

After the tour, we returned to the church to learn more about their grassroots programs. As we were walking down and down through stone doorways, I wondered if we were going all the way to the catacombs, but we did not.

The church is rooted in the gospel, but is not interested in trying to convert people. Rather, they believe in the three pillars of the gospel, serving the poor, and the importance of friendship, which motivates their grassroots work.

Mr. Betti spoke about the need to rediscover the belief in nonviolence, in total nonviolence, and to believe in the power of the people and the possibility of change. It was wonderful to hear a message and philosophy that is so positive and empowering, like RWN.

It is this attitude that allows the Community of Sant'Egidio to be heard by hardline Muslim extremists. On the other hand, he finds that American evangelicals are difficult to talk with because they believe they have arrived and don't need to hear other viewpoints.

There was, as in every country we visited, extensive discussion about Islam. Mr. Betti spoke about the need for engage Muslims, not isolate them, and to understand that there are moderate Muslims, that not all Muslims are terrorists. That only pushes them away and hardens them against those who call them terrorists. Yet the US invasion of Iraq creates more extremism because violence begets only more violence.

We also discussed the situation in Darfur, Sudan. Mr. Betti mentioned that Nancy Pelosi referred to it as genocide. Yet if you call it genocide, the mass murder to extinguish an entire group of people, then you are morally compelled to respond, to send troops on the ground to stop it. You can't just talk.

He asserted that the Sudanese government in Khartoum airlifts the janjaweed from area to area, flying right over the African Union troops on the ground. Therefore the solution is to bomb the airstrips. Not sure how that jibes with the principle of absolute nonviolence.

As we talked, at 6pm, the church bells rang. The bells ring every day to give people pause to think about the poor and the sick. In that church basement, there was absolute silence. There was a window and we could see the sky, but heard no birds singing, no street traffic. It was incredibly peaceful to sit and just think about others. We need more of that in our lives.

After a minute or so, we finished the discussion about the culture of violence that makes people think that war is the solution.

For dinner, we went to the restaurant that is run by the church and staffed by people with disabilities. Unfortunately I don't have the name of the place, but it is near the church of Sant'Egidio and has been favorably reviewed by Roman restaurant critics. What a great example of a social enterprise: a for-profit business that also lives up to a social justice principle. We need more of that too.

The evening ended by going to mass at the church. Mr. Betti provided the English translation via headsets. My headset didn't work, but it was nice and peaceful to listen to the Italian.

Religion can be such an incredibly divisive topic, but there were no objections from the non-Catholics among us to attend the mass. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Literally.

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