First public lecture at new United Theological Seminary tackles immigration issues


By Tesha M. Christensen

On Feb. 8 the first free public lecture at the new United Theological Seminary building, the topic was “Prayers of the Immigrants” presented by Paolo Naso, national coordinator of Being Church Together, a partnership between Protestant groups in Italy and North America.

He uses his skills and experience in immigration and communication to bring immigrants into Italy’s Waldensian and Methodist churches. Naso was a scholar-in-residence at United through early March.

“It’s very timely with what’s going on in the country right now,” remarked Gina Lotzer, assistant to the president, who pointed out that Naso is involved in how Italy is managing a flux of immigrants from Libya.

“We’re just really lucky to have someone of his caliber to be with us in our new space,” stated Lotzer. “Hopefully, we’ll have lots more events like this.”

Photo right: During a free public lecture on Feb. 8, Paolo Naso stated, “Tell me how you pray, and I will tell you what your immigrant experience is.” Naso is the national coordinator of Being Church Together, a partnership between Protestant groups in Italy and North America. The United Theological Seminary plans to hold more public events in the future. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

Most immigrants are Christians

Religion and piety have always played a crucial role during massive migrations: both among many of those who welcome and assist migrants as well as among migrants who adopt religion as an essential tool of resilience, and Naso addressed the role that religion plays in global migrations. Immigration has led to a diversity of religious belief systems coexisting in societies in Europe.

In general, religious life in Europe is growing increasingly secularized. In Sweden, Estonia, and Denmark, only 10-19% claim a religious dimension in their personal lives. In Norway, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, and Finland it is 20-29%.

“In Sweden, church attendance is 4%,” said Naso.

After Catholicism, Islam is the second largest religion in Italy, Spain, and France. When it is seen, Islam is practiced in many different forms, and sometimes it is a secularized Islam. “Don’t consider Islam a monolith with just one dimension,” Naso encouraged. “Islam itself is fragmented.”

Yet in some countries, such as Italy, the majority of immigrants aren’t Muslim--they’re Christian, the Italian pointed out.

A significant change is coming to Christianity, Naso observed.

“In 25 years, the epicenter of Christianity will not be in the cathedrals of Europe, but in Africa,” Naso said. “Christianity is moving to the global south.”

In 2000, Europe had 560 million Christians. That will fall to 555 million in 2025. At the same time, the number of Christians in Latin America in 2000 was 480 million and will grow to 640 million in 2025; and the number of Christians in Africa was 360 million in 2000 and will grow to 633 million in 2025.

He stated, “In 2050, only one-fifth of the 3 billion Christians in the world will be non-Hispanic white.”

Naso quoted author and theologian Phillip Jenkins, “Soon the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as a Swedish Buddhist.”

The prayer life of non-Europeans and non-Americans looks different, Naso said. It often involves continuous movement and energy, as it embodies the struggle against evil. Immigrants might spend three hours praying.

The Americanization of African spirituality has led to prayers that link how much money someone has in their bank account to being a blessing from God.

Due to an anti-Islamic trend in Europe and lack of religious freedom, Muslims can’t build mosques, and so they pray in the streets.

Naso suggested that interfaith prayer might be a way to create social cohesion, and noted that the Pope is leading the way on that.

“We find that pastors need to be trained inter-culturally,” he observed.

The migrants who have been coming by boat to Italy and the migrants crossing the desert into America--what are they carrying with them?

“They are bringing the Bible as an example of identity and spirituality,” stated Naso. “Tell me how you pray, and I will tell you what your immigrant experience is.”

Many are working to dehumanize the immigrants in Italy by saying they are the reason the economy is not growing. Yet, immigrants “get the jobs Italians don’t want to do,” said Naso.

The humanitarian groups Naso works with seek to welcome immigrants and practice civil disobedience to help them. Their practical theology involves pastors going to the boats in the Mediterranean and praying.

“Thank you for coming and participating in this important conversation,” said Reverend Karen Hutt, a United vice president with responsibility for innovation. “You’re always welcome here.”


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