Rome Immersion Class Focuses on Marginalized Ancestors

snapshot_bannersnapshot-2011-02-15Starr King students presented UU hymnals as a gift for the Waldensian Seminary library in Rome

The Colosseum. The Pantheon. The Roman Forum. While most visitors to Rome begin with these classic monuments, not so the Starr King immersion class, “Rome at the Crossroads of Religions.” Instead, the class launched its 2-week exploration of Italy by touring sites where Jews, Protestants, and Muslims once thrived – before being persecuted and even burned at the stake.

sksm-rome-stpeters“We focus on discovering the stories that often go untold,” says Dr. Gabriella Lettini, the Starr King professor who led the December class. “This is very consistent with the philosophy of Starr King.”

The students had a particularly up-close view of the Waldensian Church, a Protestant denomination that was considered heretical and was nearly wiped out in the 17th century. The Waldensians were also known, like UUs, for serving the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating respect for religious diversity

The Rome class is one of an ongoing series of immersion courses that SKSM offers in countries around the world. Lettini says such classes allow students to meet diverse scholars, religious leaders, and students – and it gives them a chance to be the foreigner, the alien, the other. “For some students, it’s their first experience of feeling completely out of context,” she says. “Through the experience of culture shock, students learn about themselves.”

What else do the students learn? Here’s what some of the SKSM-affiliated students in Lettini’s class had to say.

Lucy Bunch, third-year M.Div. student:
“We met Italian UUs who are starting a church there. It’s very inspiring to see their efforts to make community in the country where the government does not recognize non-Christian religions. I am of Italian ancestry and both my grandparents were Italian Protestants. I didn’t know until I started talking with my mother that my grandmother was a Waldensian. Suddenly, the trip had much more significance. I felt very proud of my heretical roots.”

Marcus Liefert, second-year M.Div. student:
“We visited San Clemente, a 17th century Christian Basilica built on top of a 5th century Christian Basilica, which was built on top of a 3rd century BCE temple of Mithras. Below all of these houses of worship, these centers of community, there is a freshwater spring that preceded anything else, which was the original reason for people coming to that spot. To never forget the original spring is to remember that the same human needs existed way before any of the buildings, and also the source that fills those needs.”

Randy Newswanger, second-year M.Div. student:
“I am a Mennonite. The primary reason I was drawn to Starr King School was the emphasis on countering oppression and building just and sustainable communities.  Seeing the history of Christianity through the lens of the Waldensians helps me see dynamics of dominant and minority groups in my own context.”

Joan Cudhea, member of SKSM Board of Trustees:
“The experience that will be the most emotionally enduring was the House Worship that six of us had with three Italian Unitarian Universalist men. It was in Italian, English and Hungarian as we sat at a beautiful table in a beautiful home – with song, poetry, readings, and a communion with stones. It seemed miraculous how these three men very separately ‘discovered’ Unitarian Christianity in Transylvania, and the UUA in the U.S. at long distance, and then came together with their separate gifts and personal histories. I will never forget that day in Tivoli.”