St Francis, Terriers - Lent 2 (12.03.2017)

Fr Ed Hanson

As the bookends of this sermon, I would like to use two passages from Scripture which I know will be very familiar to you. The first is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and I will finish with the passage from Matthew which includes the phrase “when I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” These both seem extremely à propos to a talk about the Neighbours in Need programme of the Anglican Church of the Holy Ghost in Genoa, Italy.

First, a little background. Ever since the Reformation there have been English church services held on the Continent – originally in private homes, hotels, or embassies – but their organisation was not formalised until 1843 when the Diocese of Gibraltar was established under the direction of the Bishop of London, who forty years later delegated his authority to a suffragan, the Bishop of Fulham. Eventually, in 1980, the Diocese in Europe was finally established as a separate diocese within the Church of England. Today it covers a vast territory from Iceland in the north, Uzbekistan in the east, and Morocco in the south. English communities of merchants, diplomats, and ex pats built up churches throughout the area, all based upon the Book of Common Prayer. Every church is required to be financially independent and receives no funding from the Church of England, and likewise none is eligible for assistance from most grant organisations such as the Heritage Lottery fund, because although they are part of the Church of England they are not located in England.

In Italy many congregations developed in different locations. One of these is the Church of the Holy Ghost in Genoa which began in 1818 at the British consulate, with services later held in a private home, and since 1873 in a purpose-built building designed by George Edmund Street. It was badly damaged by RAF bombings during the last war, and still suffers from inadequate repairs done in the post-war period. Although they never attracted huge numbers, the church has long been the focus of the British community, and since the closing of the chapels at San Remo and Bordighera in 2000 is now the only English-language church in all of Liguria. Today Genoa has no resident priest and relies on locum priests going out on a volunteer basis for a month or two at a time. I have recently returned from my third locum there and find the congregation and the city both increasingly endearing. It is still a small congregation but quite an international one. I remember one Sunday when there were 21 in the congregation, but they came from England, Italy, the United States, Switzerland, China, Japan, Ghana and Nigeria – a real gathering of God’s children from the ends of the earth. Some of these people are long-term residents in Genoa, some short-term visitors, and some from the recent migrant community.

It’s about this last group that I would particularly like to talk – although that wouldn’t be possible without the first group. And this is when the Good Samaritan puts in his appearance. I won’t recount the entire parable, because I’m sure you know it well, so you will remember that three men came across a man at the roadside – a man beaten, robbed, and left for dead. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk by, and it was only the Samaritan who provided assistance to the man in need. Jesus told this story when he was asked “Who is my neighbour?” After telling the parable, Jesus asked “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer who asked the original question had no hesitation in answering “The one who showed him mercy.” To which Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise.”

The Good Samaritan did not ask who the man was, where he was from, whether he had a right to be on that road, or what his religion was. He simply saw a man in need, and he helped. As you know from too many news reports on television and the press, Europe is now facing the biggest population movement since World War II – perhaps ever. Much of this is because of the civil war in Syria, but increasingly Italy is becoming the goal of people who cross the sea of sand and then the sea of water to find safety, security and hope for a better future in Europe. Most simply pass through Italy as they carry on to Germany or Sweden, but some remain. Upon arrival they are dispersed around the country and placed into refugee camps – which are usually unused schools, monasteries or military bases. They are provided with basic food and shelter. At some point they are required to establish a legal status within the country – usually as an asylum seeker. Unless one can prove that one has fled from a war zone or from racial or religious persecution, the initial application is usually denied, although often is granted later for humanitarian reasons.

fastest growing foreign community in Italy, and Genoa in particular, is from Nigeria. They gravitate to the Church of the Holy Ghost, not only because most of them speak English rather than Italian, but also because they know that they will receive help, support, and Christian love there. People do not ask if they have a right to be in Italy. Instead, they see a need, and they help as neighbours.

The Neighbours in Need project developed to respond to that need. Food and clothing are given out as required, the women of the church – and it is indeed virtually all women who maintain both the church itself and its outreach programme – help the migrant community find out about accommodation, or assist by attending a meeting with a lawyer, or writing letters of reference of character. The young men and women can also receive a small amount of money for helping to clean the church and its garden on a weekly basis. The Neighbours in Need programme has received its current funding through a grant from an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., as well as other small donations from time to time. And I should add here that social services and support are not particularly brilliant in Italy, and I have also seen elderly Italian women come to the church to ask for some food assistance from the Neighbours in Need.

All of the Nigerians at the Holy Ghost come from a Christian background – and many have names bearing witness to that – Old Testament names like Israel, Isaac or Rachel – or others like Godstime or Thank-God – or others, like Blessing and her daughters Precious and Joy. Some were baptised in their homeland, others were baptised at the Holy Ghost – I have done three such baptisms myself. And in April, nine people from this small congregation will be going forward for Confirmation – and eight of them are from the migrant community. A great testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church of the Holy Ghost.

To help personalise this, I’d like to share with you this morning two stories. [NOTE: The two personal stories are not published here for privacy considerations]

In addition to a strong support community and the other benefits I mentioned earlier, one of the ways that the Church of the Holy Ghost is helping the migrant community is through a new IT programme. Hanako Tsushima, who is an active part of the congregation, was visiting her parents in Japan recently, and she spoke to two church groups there about the Neighbours in Need programme. Jointly they donated enough money to purchase two new laptop computers, and Hanako is teaching basic computing skills as well as creating CV’s for them to help in seeking employment. There was enough money left to purchase a camera, and one of the young Nigerian men who worked as a photographer in Africa is starting to use that to record events in church, and the eventual goal is to create a short documentary about displaced people and how they react and adapt to change. This will tell the story of the Nigerian migrant community, but also the stories of the ex-pat women who make so much happen with so few financial resources available in Genoa. One of the goals of the current building fund drive is to enhance the lighting system so that the church building can be used for more of these activities in the future.

I said that I would finish with a passage from Matthew: (25.34-40) Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them. ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ AMEN.