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Let me introduce you to JJ TenClay, one of the Reformed Church in America’s newest missionary partners. As her official bio shares: “JJ will work in the region of Naples, Italy, as a social action worker, developing partnerships with medical, mental health/substance abuse, governmental, and social service entities as well as ministries focused on meeting the physical, spiritual, and socioeconomic needs of the over 500,000 migrants in the area, most of whom are from Africa and the Middle East.” She and her family—her husband and two children—have relatively recently relocated to Naples and are immersed in learning the local culture and language as they engage in ministry. They are partnering with the Waldensian Church in Italy.
“The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience not from our mental resolution to try a new form of life.” –Leo Tolstoy
One year ago this month my life changed forever.
There have been previous times when I felt the “demands” of my conscience had led to life-altering decisions. A couple of examples that jump to mind are becoming a foster parent and marrying a seminary student preparing for a life of vocational ministry. Not that I regret any of the major, life changing decisions, but knowing that most of them have not been easy decisions, and that they have come with their own hardships and pain mixed in with the joy, I have—in moments—wondered if I made those decisions because my conscience demanded them, because they were preordained by God, or because I wanted to try “a new form of life.”
So, I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I felt my conscience going into overdrive on October 3, 2013. It was the day I pulled up BBC news on my computer and saw a headline reporting hundreds of migrants from Africa were feared dead after a boat carrying them to Europe sank about a mile off the coast of Italy. You can review the article here. I knew this wasn’t a new issue, as my husband—Tim—had been in Italy in January 2013 for a conference and had heard about it. Thousands of migrants (many asylum seekers fleeing their countries due to war, genocide, religious, racial & ethnic persecution, famine, corrupt governments, etc.) from Africa and the Middle East have been attempting this trek to Europe for years, with many dying in the process. This was not a new issue—but October 3rd was a catalyst for bringing the issue into the international spotlight, and I felt ashamed that I was not more aware of it nonetheless. One of the most haunting articles about the boat sinking I have read can be found here. I felt immediate tears well up in my eyes as I thought about the approximate 500 people who were aboard the boat (approximate, of course, because the human traffickers who put them on the boat didn’t keep meticulous records). I prayed for the dead, the missing, the survivors, those aiding in the rescue (as well as search and recovery for bodies), and loved ones. I got angry at those who “allowed this tragedy to happen,” but quickly found myself feeling convicted that we must all take some responsibility for tragedies like this that occur. And I knew my conscience would not allow me to turn away from this issue.
It was later in October I discovered the Reformed Church in America had posted a new position for a social action missionary to be appointed and partner with the Waldensian Methodist church in Italy to provide social services for migrants arriving in Italy. This partnership would take place in Naples, Italy, where over 500,000 migrants live (which is currently approximately 1/8 of the population of the Naples area). I knew I felt called to apply for this position, felt my conscience leading towards this position, but it was a bit terrifying when I was offered the position. This would be the biggest life change my conscience has demanded, and it would be a monumental change for my spouse and two young children as well.
We spent the first half of 2014 preparing for our journey and boarded a plane for Italy in September. Any doubts I had about our journey leading us to Italy were quickly washed away the first time I stood in Piazza Garibaldi and watched hundreds of migrants meeting together on the crowded and narrow side streets at midday, trying to sell various goods as street vendors to make a living wage or attempting to find some shade from the sweltering Neopolitan heat. They were washed away when I met Lorna (a resident of the U.K. who currently lives in Berlin) in my Italian language school. Lorna has spent the last few years working with migrants who have—in the twists and turns of their own lives—made their way from their home countries to Europe via Italy, then to Germany, where many of them are squatting in abandoned buildings they have claimed as their own, attempting to build safe communities inside of an unsafe and uncertain environment. The few stories she has shared with me about the lives of some of the migrants are horrifying, and I expect I will hear many more that are equally so. It solidifies—in my heart and mind—that this is the place for my family and me to share the love and compassion of our Triune God with a lost and broken world.
I have now shared what my conscience is demanding of me….what is your conscience demanding of you?
As I write this post there is another aspect of the immigration issue in Europe that is weighing on my conscience. After the October 3, 2013 boat disaster, the Italian government began a program called Mare Nostrum, which patrols the Mediterranean Sea with the main objective of rescuing migrants in distress. This op-ed piece from the New York times explain Mare Nostrum further and reports that 139,000 people have been saved by Mare Nostrum since last October. The European Union has decided to stop assisting Italy with Mare Nostrum, and as of November 1st, will instead be funding the Frontex joint operation Triton, which has the primary purpose of protecting European borders. With funding cut from the EU, Italy will most likely need to cease operation of Mare Nostrum, risking another spike in immigrant deaths. Please join me in praying and advocating for life saving solutions.