RCA missionaries support refugees in Italy.
Some call them migrants. Some call them refugees. Either way, one thing is certain: Thousands of people are fleeing strife in Africa and the Middle East and hoping for a new life in Europe. They often arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, or perhaps a backpack stuffed with food, photographs and whatever money they could pull together. Entering a country where they may not speak the language, they may lack friends or family to help. It is at this moment, when they are most vulnerable, that predators appear. Mafia members, pimps, human traffickers — they all prey on refugees who have few options. And it is at this moment that JJ (Johnson) ’98 and Tim TenClay ’97 step in.
As missionaries with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the TenClays are dedicated to assisting refugees as they transition from an old life to a new. They arrived in Naples in September 2014, and relocated to Palermo, Sicily, in August 2015. Italy is a popular destination for refugees and has seen thousands arrive during the past few years.
Husband and wife each have different roles to play in Palermo, though their work is related. Tim is a minister of word and sacrament for the RCA and serves as a specialized minister to three Waldensian/Methodist congregations in Italy, two of which are multiethnic congregations (including Italians and Africans). The Waldensian Church in Italy is the oldest Reformed denomination in the world, dating back to the 12th century. Tim characterizes his work as “primarily about facilitating reconciliation and community, and promoting justice for people often overlooked by those in power, caring for the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of the people living in the communities of Palermo, Trapani and Marsala.”
JJ’s work focuses on women. She is officially a social action worker and missionary through the RCA, in partnership with the Waldensian and Methodist Church in Italy. Her main goal is to help migrant women get the support they need to survive and thrive in Italy, as well as educating people (especially in North America) about the refugee crisis. “Mass migration of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe is not just an issue for Italy, for Europe, for Africa — it is a global crisis that requires a global response,” she says.
Both TenClays are living far from where they grew up. Tim was born and raised in northwest Iowa (Orange City and Alton), while JJ is from Oskaloosa. Tim graduated from Central with a religion major and JJ majored in general studies, focusing on sociology and communication. They have long been affiliated with the RCA, in which Tim has served as a minister for 15 years. In 1999, while Tim was attending Western Theological Seminary, the couple visited Rome as part of an intercultural immersion trip sponsored by the school. “We fell in love with Italy, even spending the evening of our first wedding anniversary at Piazza Navona in Rome, dreaming of moving to Italy one day,” JJ says.
Tim returned to Italy in January 2013 to attend a conference highlighting intercultural work the Waldensian/Methodist Church was doing to welcome and integrate refugees into churches and communities. Soon after the trip, the plight of refugees was cast in sharp relief when a boat left Libya and sank off the coast of Lampedusa (a small Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea). Overall, 155 people were rescued, more than 360 died, and the event sparked international media coverage.
For the TenClays, events in Italy were pulling them toward the country. In late 2013, JJ accepted her position as a missionary. “As we continued to research and educate ourselves on the issues surrounding this crisis, once we were presented with an opportunity to assist, we had to say yes,” JJ says. “We began fundraising in January 2014 and landed in Naples in September 2014. After spending 10 months in Naples, we — along with our mission partners — decided a move to Palermo would allow us the opportunity to more fully engage with the migrant/refugee population in Italy.”
Palermo is on the frontline of the refugee crisis. By September, more than 120,000 people had arrived in Italy during 2015. One Saturday in August, nearly 3,500 people were rescued from boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the TenClays’ work focuses on refugees from Africa, including Eritrea, Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Egypt. While recent news coverage has focused on Syrian refugees, many people from Africa are also looking for ways to escape life-threatening situations in their home countries and enter Europe. And their deaths number in the thousands. By September 2015, more than 2,600 migrants had died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. “These are men, women and children who had hopes, dreams, family and friends,” JJ says.
JJ recalls the story of Amino, a young Somalian woman she met who arrived in Italy by boat. She had already been displaced from her home country of Somalia to Ethiopia before starting a six-month journey to Italy. “She has family members living in Norway,” JJ says, “and once she discovered she was pregnant did not want her child to face the same dangers she has faced.”
Amino left Ethiopia and traveled through Sudan and Libya before boarding a boat for Italy. In Libya, JJ says Amino was forced to stay in a refugee camp run by human smugglers, with limited food and clean water, no toilets and no medical care. As her boat was rescued by Italian authorities, Amino went into labor, and her son, Mohamed, was born soon after. JJ spent two weeks with mother and son at Mediterranean Hope House of Cultures in Scicli, Sicily, “a reception center for migrants/refugees affiliated with the Waldensian/ Methodist Church in Italy,” JJ says. “We spent a lot of time together, talking, cooking, going to medical appointments and helping her connect with family in Norway through Skype. During our time together, Mohamed turned one month old.” Mediterranean Hope is helping Amino make arrangements to join her family in Norway.
Why do refugees make the risky trip across the sea to Italy or Greece? JJ says civil unrest in Tunisia and Libya spurs them to try to reach Europe. “Although many African migrants are ineligible for asylum status as they do not meet the legal definition in Europe, they are fleeing very real dangers such as violence, persecution, famine and poverty, life-threatening illnesses and political instability,” she says. Their journey often begins by paying a human smuggler for passage on a boat. But for many, the boat turns out to be a small fishing vessel or dinghy, crammed with hundreds of other refugees. They frequently have no food, water or life jackets.
Migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe has been growing since the Arab Spring of 2010-11. European Union laws mandate that refugees remain in the country they enter for processing. “This is a very long, difficult process, complicated by the massive numbers of people now entering Europe,” JJ says. “Laws prohibit them from working until their initial request has been processed, but even after that, it is very difficult to find gainful employment; many are vulnerable to asking for money on the street, illegal employment as street vendors or in agricultural fields, prostitution or becoming indebted to the mafia or other organized crime.”
The work the TenClays and others are doing is meant to assist refugees so they aren’t victimized or forced into a criminal underworld. They are driven to perform this work by a longing for justice. JJ says, “A desire to see more people experience peace, grace and justice has been an overarching theme in our lives, fostered through our religious beliefs, personal convictions, education (including at Central College), time spent abroad (in Germany, St. Thomas—the U.S. Virgin Islands, Italy, Turkey, Hong Kong and South Africa), as well as through our career paths.”
While the scale of the crisis can seem insurmountable, JJ says simply becoming educated is a way for people to help. “I am a firm believer that knowledge is power,” she says, “and being global citizens means we must continue to grow in our knowledge of global issues.” But she also hopes it won’t end there — she urges people to use their talents to do what they can to help. She says, “Perhaps a medical worker is willing to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, or an aspiring writer or artist will highlight this crisis in their work. A political scientist could advocate for North American policy changes to aid Africa, the Middle East or Europe. Perhaps some people will decide to volunteer for or financially support organizations providing care for refugees.”
Perhaps most importantly of all, she encourages everyone to reach out to the migrants and refugees in their midst. She says, “Get to know your own neighbors, the members of your communities.” Who knows what a little compassion may yield in the life of another?