When congregational leaders of Nations Worship Center (NWC) chose to purchase a large old commercial building on Ritner St. in South Philadelphia, they couldn’t have guessed the disruption this would be in their lives—and the lives of the folks in that neighborhood. The building was once home to the Knights of Columbus and a catering business. Residents remember attending Sweet Sixteen parties and wedding receptions held there years ago. But for the last 10 years, it’s been vacant. When the neighbors and neighborhood association heard of NWC’s plans, Pastor Beny Krisbianto and others began hearing rumors of discontent and surprising misunderstandings. Some worried that the congregation would allow homeless folks to stay there. They feared this possible change in the human landscape of the place. Many were concerned about the parking spaces worshipers would occupy. Some saw the appearance of Nations Worship congregants mostly from Southeast Asia and assumed the building would become a Buddhist temple.
It’s an established neighborhood, a predominantly Italian neighborhood. When I heard this, I was angry and embarrassed. I’m half Italian, and I feel a strong identification with much of Italianness as I know it. And, sometimes my people get carried away. There’s of course the stereotype of fist-shaking bluster, a bark that is much worse than our bite. In my personal and familial experience, that stereotype has been pretty true. I remember my dad getting angry and yelling about some small thing, and the next minute he’d be whistling a happy tune around the house. I’m not exaggerating. Used to drive my mother crazy.
But then there’s the bite. I admit, in some ways I’m confused by the strong reaction in the neighborhood against Nations Worship. The Italians in my life are warm, generous, passionate about most of life. On the other hand, I have noticed a cultural tendency to take care of our own and be wary of outsiders. Let’s be honest: most tightly-knit communities with a history in a certain place are this way. I’ve heard stories of Northerners moving South and never feeling accepted, after many years. As human beings, we often give hospitality that is only skin-deep.
Then there’s this weird dynamic that many minorities experience of becoming like people who were once their enemies. It shouldn’t be this way, but it happens over and over again. It wasn’t so long ago that immigrants from Italy who spoke English with a strong accent were a significant percentage of Northeastern urban populations in the U.S. My great-grandfather was one of them. Donato Lioi (known in the States as Dan) left his home country and moved to Newark, NJ as a teenager. Like many immigrants, he worked as a common laborer in construction. On Sunday mornings he would tell his young grandson (my dad), “David…meta le’Meeta d’Pressa…Walter Frankize…”—his own pronunciation of famed journalist Walter Cronkite. My dad grew up understanding his grandfather’s Engliano as if it were an official language of the UN. It was normal, everyday family life for him.
Now, I lean in to listen and understand English spoken with an Indonesian accent as I meet with my brothers and sisters from Nations Worship Center. I respect their hard work learning English, and their desire to be a positive presence in whatever neighborhood they find themselves. As they face resistance, they are not so unlike Italians who faced labels like WOP and prejudice from those who’d been here longer. And because they are in a vulnerable position as new and recent immigrants, they do not respond to this resistance with clenched fists and a stubborn refusal to cooperate. In some respects, they have no choice but to cooperate.
It’s understandable that folks would ask about parking; they’ve been used to parking in the unused spots for years. It’s quite possible that many of the neighbors had never met an Indonesian Christian before. But when Beny and other leaders—accompanied by several Anglo brothers and sisters—attended a public neighborhood meeting, they were saddened and somewhat frightened by the yelling and the accusations that faced them. They wanted to be a blessing to their neighbors; how could they explain themselves in a way that would be heard? Since that night, leaders of NWC have met several other neighborhood residents who have welcomed them and said they’re glad to have them around. How to relate in loving ways with those who are still unsatisfied with their presence is an ongoing question, one they are living one conversation at a time.
It’s understandable that, having established ourselves in a place, having developed routines and deep relationships there, we want to protect all that. It’s human. But Christ calls us further than that. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no Italian or Indonesian, male or female, citizen or non-citizen. That can be a tough pill to swallow. But Jesus’ teachings usually are.