This is a safe place.
This is a place of peace.
This is a place of refuge.
Imagine reading these words when you have nothing and don’t know anyone. I expect the closest comparison we have would be a sanctuary. For me, when life pulls me to my knees, a church sanctuary – the Word, prayer and music – brings peace.
I could not have known what to expect the first day I walked into the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center http://stpaulsrome.it/jnrc in the basement of St. Paul’s Anglican Episcopal Church on Tuesday, the fourth of June. Descending the stairs, the sense that triggers first is that of smell. (I don’t notice it anymore.) Mark traversed the room and waited patiently for Piero, the coordinator at JNRC. I decided to sit at the end of the trio of tables covered in plastic. The clay being pressed and molded intrigued me. A gentleman, my senior, approached and asked if I was a volunteer. I said that we were discussing those options. He was reluctant and almost gruff. Time passed and we shared more conversation as I was interested in one sculpture in particular on the table. “I did that one,” said Peter. He sounds American. I appreciated his work. Before long, I was in the back room viewing a wide variety of pieces done by the refugees (one a bust of Peter by his ‘star’ student). I learned that Peter is a professional sculptor. He is now in his seventies. He volunteers each Tuesday and Friday morning, leading in clay. I am now invited to assist him on those mornings and, hopefully, learn from him.
Peter asks where we are from. I say Atlanta as it is recognized instantly abroad. He tells me he is an historian, as well, and has spoken at ….. he tries to remember …. Emory. He goes on to say that he also lectured at the “High” (High Museum of Art for those not from Georgia), however, that was on his father’s work. As an art lover, I say that I would enjoy seeing images of his dad’s work at some point. He pauses and says, Norman Rockwell. Yup. I look at him as though this slightly sarcastic gentleman is pulling my leg. Nope. His last name is Rockwell. Norman’s third-born child. I feel rather dumb though not sure why. I guess I don’t need anyone to “show me” his body of work. Peter is in my prayers. He lost his wife of 55 years just over a month ago.
This is really where all work begins, missional or otherwise. The list of new friends is simply long and getting longer (and it’s just been a month). I will share more of those whom God has planted in our path over the next weeks.
Tamim. Javid. Ali. Mamadou. Cisse. The latter two are from Niger and my first students in English Class. Yvette is returning to the states for two months and had been praying for a teacher. In I walked, thanks to our partners.
Tamim has excellent English skills. We have been friends since our first day talking at the clay table. There is always interest in America. From Afghanistan, he is quick to help me communicate with others from his country. He is thirty. I asked (after several meetings) why he was in Italy. The answer was quiet and simple. The drug smugglers want to kill him. He is here under political asylum, as are all the others (around 200).
Javid did not want to work in clay, but he wanted to talk. I asked if I could use his face as my “model” to learn. He liked that. We liked our end result. It will go into a show on June 25 open to the public at St. Paul’s Within the Walls. http://www.stpaulsrome.it If it sells, the money will go to help him. (Okay, I may have to buy it.) He did end up making a cow out of clay before the morning was over. I asked about his reason for being in Rome. Again, his enemies were trying to kill him. He has no enemies here. I share that I am very happy he is safe. He gets two pieces of fruit for the afternoon and wants me to have his peach. I am grateful and eat it immediately. I brought him toothpaste this morning.
Ali stood between Tamim and Javid yesterday after English Class. His English is limited. He asked about my family. Of course, my i-phone has a family snapshot as background. His face grows expressionless. He shares that he has lost many. His wife. His three children. His sister. His mother. Air raids. Three years ago. We quietly talk through translation and I let him know I will be praying for him. I am sad for his great loss. When will I go back to America, he asks. In October for my daughter’s wedding, I answer. He has something he wants to give me. It belonged to his sister. He wants me to bring it to my daughter as a gift. Generosity, compassion, the example of Christ’s love – exchanged daily. I am blessed to serve.