By Haley Edmondson
FLORENCE, Italy – Only a short bus-ride away from Sesto Fiorentino, in the center of Florence, St. Mark’s English Church is host to events and outreach programs that provide financial and humanitarian support to many of the immigrants, refugees and homeless in the community.
“From a church perspective, we are keen to ensure that refugees are not regarded as a ‘problem’ but as human beings,” said Father William Lister, chaplain and assistant diocesan director at St. Mark’s.
One event held at the Anglican church every two to three years, “Dignity through Art,” provides a way to change perceptions in the face of prejudice. The event is a showcase of artwork created by 24 local artists who meet with a homeless person to hear his or her story and create portraits, Lister said.
St. Mark’s hosts a similar event involving refugees and members of a Florence writing group in which a creative piece is written about refugees that becomes the foundation for an artist to paint a picture. The goal, again, is to lessen or even change misperceptions about refugees.
The work of the church is about “challenging our own perceptions of ourselves and how we relate to one another,” Lister said. Through discussion groups and lectures, people of diverse religious backgrounds are given the opportunity to share their views, he said.
Lister said he considers the result of these discussions “thriving dialogue.”
“Society generally is becoming much more polarized,” he said. “People are breaking up more than coming together. It’s more important than ever for churches and other public institutions to try to draw people together.”
It is important to provide opportunities to those who need them, Lister said, especially immigrants and refugees who want to contribute and who are capable of contributing to their new community and country but need a little help along the way.
St. Mark’s provides resources such as food, sanitary products and financial support for refugees and homeless people through established organizations in the city. The church also supports those seeking an education of the Italian language. Many immigrants are eager to learn the language and take courses either online through various institutions or in a classroom of 20 to 30 students, according to Lister.
“These people are looking forward because they can’t go back, and they have to make a choice,” Lister said.