Bells are sounding in Sorrento as the sun sets over the Bay of Naples, and a cool ocean breeze soothes away the heat of a day in Southern Italy. In the past week, I’ve seen and smelled and tasted places that existed before only in photographs and history books. Before me, Mt. Vesuvius reaches up to the heavens, a sweet serenity away from crowded streets and tourists, and I’m afraid if I close my eyes I’ll wake to find this is only a dream.
Milan, Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Assisi, Rome, and Pompeii filled the last eight days with untold adventures, and tomorrow, on our last day, we’ll take a ferry to Capri, the island of my childhood dreams. On this trip, my students and I have walked eight miles a day, taking in the sights during a 100 degree heat wave unusual for June. Our tour director, Stefano, designed the itinerary to make every hour count. At night, we sneak in six hours of silence, preparing for another day of adventures.
I’ve seen it all, you might say. The Basilica of St. Francis, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colloseum, St. Mark’s Square, even Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I’ve snapped hundreds of photos, learning from local guides and strangers I’ve met along the way. But the person who has most impacted my perspective in these Italian days is Stefano.
Our first day in Florence, my girls wanted a gelato before we met up for dinner, and Stefano convinced me to let them go down the block on their own as I finished my engraved leather purchases. I instructed them to wait at the store for me, and we would walk on to the meeting point together. I was nervous, quite unprepared to let these teens out of my sight. It was safe, he said, and we’d only be apart for a few minutes.
The girls were not in the Gelateria when I arrived, and I became frantic. Though I knew I had the right shop, I feared the girls had wandered into another… so for the next ten minutes I searched every gelateria in a two block radius, asking shop owners in broken Italian if my studentezi had been there. Never had I known such fear, but it wasn’t paralyzing; instead I could have ran a marathon despite the suffocating heat and humidity.
The girls, having finished their treats, were happily waiting with the rest of the group at the next meeting point in the Piazza. Relief and anger waged a war. I quickly chastised them for deviating from the plan, emphazing the importance of following directions in a foreign country, mentally beating myself up for letting them go in the first place, then letting them know I was glad they were safe… and I walked away to cool off.
There was no cooling off. I’m not a parent. I’ve never lost a child. It was only ten minutes, and the girls were never actually lost, but I couldn’t shake the failure of this responsibility. An adult traveler in our group came alongside me to speak some reality into the situation: You said the right things. They won’t disappear again. They were on their own for a total of five minutes. Most of them have cell service here. We would have found them even if they had been lost.
Hours later, back in our hotel far from the city center after dinner, I was still reeling. Hoping to rebuild a little good will, I offered to take them to the small square a block away for some shopping. They jumped at the chance. While they tried on clothes, I stood outside searching for wifi strong enough to send an email to my parents recapping the day. Stefano and our bus driver, Pasquale, were sitting at the caffè next door and invited me to join them for a drink.
I looked at them, then at the store, and I declined. Stefano ordered a mojito for me, assuming the sale, and I sat with them while the girls shopped. He pointed at all the families with little children playing in the square, encouraging me to let the girls reestablish some trust by allowing them to shop by themselves while we sat in the square. I hesitantly agreed, and my girls found their way down the street to the hotel within an hour, spent and ready for bed.
I stayed with Stefano, who spoke many languages, and Pasquale who did not speak English. Spanish was a common language for the three of us, and for three hours, I learned more about Italian culture, history, politics, and language than I could have in a three dozen YouTube videos. Stefano was most intrigued to discover that I was an Italian-American who was not Catholic. I told him of my ancestor who became a Waldensian. In Italian, the word is Valdese. Stefano knew the history of the protestant church in Italy, and I was able to use the websites my father had given me to explain our family’s story. That was my favorite night in Italy, away from tourists, talking freely and merging Stefano’s accounts with the stories I had heard.
On Sunday, I had a chance to see the Pope bless the people from a window in the balcony of the Vatican with the rest of my group. Or, I could find a Waledensian church in Rome and attend a worship service. Stefano gave me the freedom to make that choice and step out on my own for a few hours. Understanding the difficulty of the decision, my roommate offered to account for my girls. There were three Valdese churches on Google maps. The rest of the tour got off the bus Sunday morning, and my adventure began.
Pasquale picked the church that was closest to our potential meeting points, and he tried to help me find a taxi. After a few minutes, he said in Spanish that he found one, and he proceeded to put the key in the ignition and drive me to the Colloseum from where I would have only a fifteen minute walk. I found my way to the church early, bought a soda from a shopkeeper named Andrea who was curious about this American girl with Italian blood wanting to go to a Waldensian church. He bought me a coffee, and we talked and passed the time. When I finally entered the church five minutes before the service, the confused man at the entrance said, “Tourista?”
On my phone, I had the Favale Connection website open to the entry on my great, great, great grandfather Stefano Cereghino. The greeter looked like he was in shock, then quickly ushered me to meet a man at the front of the church. We tried Italian and Spanish, then I realized this gentleman in his sixties was the only man in the church who actually spoke English. His name was Mario. “I know this man, Stefano Cerighino. My great, great grandfather was with him in Florence in the great conference in 1871.” He hugged me, and I hugged him back, and we cried. I hadn’t expected anyone to know him, much less greet me with such great joy and welcoming.
The service was incredible. In the beginning, I could understand much of the pastor’s words. I recognized the familiar scriptures, and the hymns reminded me of those my own great grandfathers had penned in their Italian hymnals years ago. When the passion of the sermon hit, the rapid words were lost on me, but I had the feeling I belonged right there, beside Mario, and I was overwhelmed by the history within my reach yet still unknown to me.
After church, Mario, and the pastor who had studied at Calvin Theological Seminary, took me and some other women out for lunch. There, Mario explained why Stefano Cereghino was so important. My ancestor was preparing to be a Catholic priest when he had an encounter with a Waldensian missionary in Genova. The man gave him a Bible, and through reading it and listening to this missionary, Stefano understood the gospel and salvation. Before this time in 1832, you were born into the Valdese faith, but Stefano converted. He even married a Valdese woman. He and his family suffered great persecution. Mario said one of Stefano’s brothers died while imprisoned, shackled and chained, but in 1870, the laws in Italy changed, and it was no longer illegal to be a protestant in Italy.
Stefano became a pastor of the Waldensian Church, and the next year, he was the representative sent to the council in Florence. Mario’s great, great grandfather was the representive from Elba. Mario is a biblical scholar, and he had compiled a history of those important in the Valdese faith. It was Mario’s mother who had written my great, great, great grandfather’s story in that book. He told me if I had attended services at either of the other Valdese churches, they would not have known this history, but this Chiesa di Valdese was the first church in Rome.
I learned so much from him in that restaurant in Rome, having had my eyes open to a legacy I hadn’t realized existed in my family. Mario confided in me that he didn’t want to go to church on Sunday because it was so hot, but something told him he had to go, and know he knew it was God leading me to him in that front pew on a suffocating Sunday morning in June. We exchanged emails and hugged goodbye as if we were old friends, kindred spirits woven together in the fabric of an unexpected Italian protestant faith.
Today, I went to the woodworking shop in Sorrento where my grandparents had gone forty-some years ago, where my parents had gone twenty-some years ago, and the owner Pepe said he remembered the dentist and his wife who bought furniture and jewelry boxes. I wound one up myself and listened to the familiar song, “Torno a Sorrento” – Take me back to Sorrento. Yesterday, I threw a coin over my shoulder into the Trevi Fountain symbolizing that I wanted to come back to Rome.
But it’s not Sorrento or Rome that will bring me back to Italy. It’s Mario and his promise that if I return someday, he’ll go with me to visit the Waldensian Cemetery in Genova where Stefano Cereghino is buried. I’m beyond inspired. I will learn Italian. Like my brother David, I will earn my dual citizenship in Italy. Then, I will return. And I will travel not to the great sights of the history books but to the cities of my ancestors. I will find people who still know the stories.
For so much of the past year, I’ve focused on what I don’t have: a family of my own. But as I write tonight, Mt. Vesuvius had disappeared into the night sky, and I feel closer to my ancestors than ever before. I am a part of something God put into motion nearly two hundred years ago when He first placed a calling on the life of Stefano Cereghino.
My moments in Italy have been carefully woven to tell a much different story than the typical American tourist. And so it’s no the Vatican or Giotto’s Belltower that I wrote home about. It was the small congregation of a Waldensian church in Rome where I met Mario and realized God had given me a hope in my family, after all.
Not the ones to come, but the ones who came before. And He will take me back to what matters most.