Monday, March 10, 2008

Immigrant Rome

Some of the areas around Rome's Termini station seem to be immigrant neighborhoods. I recall on one of my earliest trips to Rome, getting out of the apartment I was staying at, and seeing men sipping cups of chain the spring morning, speaking in Bengali. The majority seem to be Bangladeshi, but I've noticed Indians and Sri Lankans as well, as far as South Asians go, as well as various Middle Easterners and West Africans. It's not unknown that I got addressed in Bengali, at least when I didn't sport a beard.

On Friday, as I was waiting at Termini for my friends to arrive from the airport, I got asked if I spoke Arabic, three times. The first time it was a 30-something fellow, North African, who approached. "Parla arabe?" I shook my head. "English?" Yep. "Where are you from?" He seemed somewhat alarmed when I said "the US" so I added quickly, "originally from India." In somewhat broke English he explained that he had just arrived, didn't speak much Italian, and was hungry. Could I spare a few euros? I shook my head, but said, "I'll be glad to buy you a sandwich." He readily agreed, so we went to a cafe, and I paid for a tramezzino and a cappuccino for him. We chatted a bit ... he's from Tunisia, a Muslim, looking for work. I didn't buy the whole 'recent arrival' thing: he seemed to know how to order food quite well! I didn't have too much time, however, since my friends' train was arriving any moment, so I took my leave as he sipped his coffee.

The train turned out to have been delayed (surprise). A few seconds later, another gent approached me and said something in Arabic. I shook my head, and he asked if I spoke Italian. Just then, one of the sisters that I'd met at the talk the previous evening came up and said hello. I turned to greet her, and when I turned back he was gone. A few minutes later, yet another guy came up, and asked if I spoke Arabic! There must be a conspiracy! Or, most likely, just a lot of poor folk who approach travelers and beg for money or food and thought someone from their part of the world might be a bit more sympathetic. Just then the train arrived, so I rattled off a brief explanation in Italian that I was waiting for my friends, apologized, and moved ahead.

African, Middle Eastern, South and South East immigrants are everywhere in Rome, most commonly hawking things on the street, or manning stalls. I don't think too many American visitors pay attention. I always find myself wondering what it's like to be a dark-skinned immigrant in Italy.

On Tuesday, hanging out with Mike and Rob at the L. di Torre Argentina, we ducked into a gelateria. The guy behind the counter was almost certainly Bangladeshi. I switched to Hindi and asked if he were Bangladeshi or Indian. Turns out he's from Dhaka. When he found out I was preparing for the priesthood, his face lit up. He made the sign of the cross and spoke excitedly about how much he likes the Christian faith. He grew up Muslim, but really wants to know more about Christianity. He's read the Bible before. I asked if he'd gotten involved in any church or group -- he said his Italian boss had been teaching him a few things. He seemed really eager to talk. So, before I leave Rome, I absolutely must get back to that gelateria.

In his homily at the 1030 am Mass at St. Peter's yesterday (it was a really fantastic homily, and I'll write more on it later), the celebrant talked at one point about the need to present the faith as a living one, of embodying love to all, especially the stranger, so that the faith isn't just about Vatican directives, but is a witness to the love of Jesus, and a life lived in a relationshp with Jesus. He then told the congregation, "And the next time you're passing by a Senegalese man selling leather pursues, stop and smile and talk to him." He shared how he'd been to a community meeting with a Senegalese group, who are all Muslim, and how moving it had been to ask them to pray for him and vice versa.

In the heart of Catholic Central, there are so many opportunities to evangelize, to share just how marvelous life with Jesus Christ is, and how all this connects to the rich and glorous heritage which is all around here in Rome.

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