In Hard Times, Ghanaians in Italy Find Solace in Evangelical Faith

In Hard Times, Ghanaians in Italy Find Solace in Evangelical Faith

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PORDENONE, Italy—They have been celebrating Christmas far from their hometown for more than 10 years now. But with the economic crisis, many things have become more difficult for Ghanaian evangelicals in Italy, including the holidays.

“African evangelical churches used to come together at this time of the year and organize a big gospel concert,” says Wendy Manford, a 23-year-old Ghanaian cultural mediator. “But this will not happen in 2010. Because of the crisis, many immigrants have already left [Italy] or will leave soon. Uncertainty is strong and makes it complicated to bring people together, even just to fix a date for a concert.”

Manford has lived in Italy since she was five years old and is an active member of the New Life Pentecostal Ministries church in Pordenone, a northeastern town 63 kilometers (39 miles) from Venice that is known as the Italian capital of Ghana.

Until the 1960s, it was native Italians who sought work abroad because the country was poor and they could find no jobs at home. Then Italy experienced a long period of economic growth, reversing the flow of migration. Now Ghanaians comprise nearly 4 percent of Pordenone’s 55,000 inhabitants, making them the town’s largest immigrant community.

Like other newcomers from Africa, East Europe, Asia and South America, the bulk of Italy’s 45,000 Ghanaians arrived in the 1990s and 2000s. The men came first, quickly finding work in the factories of northeastern Italy, in the triangle formed by the cities of Modena, Brescia and Udine. But with the global economic downturn of 2008, many lost their jobs.

According to a recent report by the Italian foundation Ismu (Initiatives and Studies on Multi-Ethnicity, www.ismu.org), 8.7 percent of Italy’s population, or 5.3 million people, are immigrants. Foreigners continue to arrive, though in smaller numbers than before (an estimated 100,000 fewer immigrants in 2010 than in 2007).

Many of these immigrants are evangelical Christians.

“The rise of foreign evangelical churches in Italy is a new phenomenon,” says Paolo Naso, a professor of political science and religion at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” “In the ’80s and ’90s, most African immigrants were Muslims.” In the past 10 years, however, the number of Protestant worshippers has reached 200,000 to 300,000, Naso estimates. Besides Ghana, the majority of African-born evangelicals come from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Cameroun, adds Annalisa Butticci, a research worker at the University of Padua.

In the beginning, Italy’s immigrant evangelicals joined existing churches, but as their numbers grew, they founded their own places of worship. These days, immigrants worship in Spanish, Chinese, English, French, or African languages.

A great number of these ethnic churches are located in Northern Italy, mostly in abandoned industrial suburban areas where worshippers can make noise, sing gospels and dance without disturbing residents. Pordenone alone boasts about 40 Protestant churches, most of them Pentecostal.

“Sunday is a very special day for us», Wendy Manford says. “We never miss the Mass, because here we find solace in difficult moments. We recreate an African atmosphere in Italy, and this makes it easier for us to face ordinary problems related to work, children’s education, renting a house, shopping with little money, etc.” Mass lasts about four hours, much of that time dedicated to dances and gospels: “Music helps us concentrating while we are praying,” Manford says.

“These churches do a great job at a social level,” Naso says. “But Italian authorities don’t recognize their role: ethnic churches are registered as ‘cultural associations,’ and pastors, like other immigrants, usually need [other jobs] to get a [legal residency permit]. They can’t obtain their papers on religious reasons.” It’s because a law on religious freedom never passed in this country.”

With the recession, evangelical churches are playing a more important role than ever in the lives of immigrants. “Throughout history, crises have always affected immigrants’ lives first,” notes sociologist Stefano Allievi, professor at the University of Padua. Recessions and other crises often represent a crossroads: “Either immigrants decide to move away and never come back, or they choose to stay for the rest of their lives.”

That's been true in Pordenone. “Quite a big number of people in my church decided to move away from Pordenone because they lost their job and couldn’t find another one,” says Patrick Mumuni Boakye, pastor of Faith Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal congregation.. “A few went back to Ghana, where, with a small amount of capital, they started a business,” Boakye adds. “Many moved to southern Italy, looking for a job in agriculture or in the black [underground] economy; others went to Northern European countries like the UK or the Netherlands and some went to New York City, especially to the Bronx.”

But most immigrants, including Ghanaians, seem determined to remain in Italy, despite the recession, experts say. In Pordenone, even if the traditional gospel concert doesn’t happen, worshippers will gather on Christmas and New Year’s, as always, to sing, dance and pray to God all night, hoping that tough times will soon be gone.