Old First Summer 2017: What’s Michael Doing on his Sabbatical? (Installment #1)

Old First Summer 2017: What’s Michael Doing on his Sabbatical? (Installment #1)

It started with an invitation to participate in the UCC delegation to the World Communion of Reform Churches (WCRC) in late June / early July in Leipzig, Germany. I am after all the pastor of the mother-church of the U.S.’s German Reformed Denomination. And I speak German. And the gathering includes getting to visit Wittenburg during the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s kick-off the Reformation. Oh, and my friend Geoffrey and his wife Pat are going too. So, accepting that invitation was a no brainer.

It was election day last November when I was invited to join this delegation.

The next morning, our world was unexpectedly different. And I was in a bad mood. But at least I was going to Europe in the summer. And I started thinking: “It’s my sabbatical — maybe I could spend the summer abroad. A political refugee from my own country! If I was going to be in Europe anyway, why not just stay?”

I wondered if maybe the German church was involved in the resettlement of the Syrian refugees that Germany had accepted in large numbers. Maybe they would have a place for me to volunteer. I liked the idea of doing refugee work. As a seminarian, I was more interested in church-related refugee work than serving in a local church! And after the Presidential campaign and how then President-elect Trump had kept pointing to immigrants and refugees among his various, favorite scapegoats, volunteering for refugee work suddenly felt like a necessary personal Christian witness towards a better way, about being a neighbor.

I contacted Peter Makari at UCC headquarters in Cleveland. He is responsible for our relations with church partners in Europe and the Middle East. He said he’d gladly reach out to our partners in the German church. But, he continued, “The ones who are really doing refugee work are the Waldensians in Italy. Would you be interested in seeing if they have any volunteer openings?” Spending the summer in Germany where I have already spent a lot of time over the years or in Italy that I have only visited once. Hmm…

The Waldensian Evangelical Church (Chiesa Evangelica Valdese, CEV) is a Reformed denomination founded by Peter Waldo in 12th century in Italy. (In 1975, it merged with the Methodist Evangelical Church to form the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches.) It is one of several Protestant denominations with pre-Lutheran roots. The Church, after the Protestant Reformation, adhered to Calvinist theology and became the Italian branch of the Reformed churches. As such, the church is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (whose meeting I’m attending!).

Before the merger with the Methodists, there were roughly 30,000 Waldensians in Italy and some 15,000 affiliates in Argentina and Uruguay. The Methodist – Waldensian Union is progressive like the UCC, taking as its mission “proclaiming the Christian Gospel, serving the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating respect for religious diversity and freedom of conscience.” Also like us, they have ordained women to ministry for years and likewise early offered blessings for same-sex couples.

I will be working with their program called Mediterranean Hope. Italians can opt to have 8% of their tax debt go to either a church organization or a social service organization set up by the government. Though the Methodist – Waldensian Union is a very small minority of the Italian population, over 600,000 Italians contribute their 8% to this church’s charitable work. That is what funds much of their work with refugees.

I will be at a refugee center in Palermo, Sicily, where they offer shelter to unaccompanied, asylum-seeking minors from North Africa and the Middle East. What will I be doing? It’s pretty unclear actually. Sort of a leap of faith, and hoping I can be of some help. I have heard that there is a Waldensian congregation right near the center where a lot of the young people congregate. And since they often speak some English, the Waldensians are excited about having an English-speaking pastor for the summer. But I’m also warned that the Italians don’t speak much English. So here’s hoping the little Italian I’ve learned will expand exponentially when I’m in an Italian-speaking environment. Who knows, I might spend the summer mopping floors!

I have actually been appointed a Volunteer in Service by the Board for Global Ministries (the joint UCC-Disciples of Christ overseas mission board) for the summer. As such they help me a little with the cost of housing. And they ask me to share with them and the wider church my experiences. I have been thinking that I am so used to writing weekly, I’ll aim to offer reflections on my experiences. I’m taking suggestions for the name of this column — I’d like to have the title suggest that there is actually insight that comes of finding oneself in a liminal setting! Displacement Perspectives? A Refugee in Palermo. Not sure, but open to suggestions.

My last Sunday in worship at Old First will be May 28. I hope you all will send me forth with a blessing, as is our tradition. I leave for Rome the next day. And make my way to Palermo by train and boat (why not see some of the country and see how my Italian is!) It will be a long time away, and I will miss you all. But I plan to return to Philly on Sept. 10.

I thank you all for the break in my normal pastoring routines. I’m looking forward to the restoration that comes of new settings, situations, service. And I am interested in what these experiences will teach me…

– Michael

P.S. Old First Summer 2017: Installment #2 will be coming very soon, with details of the Interim pastor the church is contracting with to cover the needs of this congregation while I am away.