October 3rd and the Power of Telling Stories Through Art

I had the honor and privilege of serving as a missionary and social action worker for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in partnership with the Waldensian and Methodist Church in Naples and Sicily, Italy from 2014 to 2018. A year later, I still look back at that period of time with widespread wonder, righteous anger and intense love, knowing I will forever be haunted by the date October 3rd.

The Waldensian and Methodist Church in Italy is a small, but mighty reformed protestant denomination. They make up approximately 0.1% of the Italian population. Their history of deep persecution by the Catholic Church, along with their interpretation of the Bible, has led them down a path of caring for the marginalized in society. For the past few decades they have placed a focus on caring for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, the majority of whom are crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa and the Middle East, seeking refuge in Europe.

The number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Italy rose exponentially after the Arab Spring uprising in 2010-2011 and by 2013 the Waldensians reached out to global ecumenical partners for assistance, including the RCA. I was in the process of interviewing to become a missionary to Italy when the tragic events of October 3, 2013 occurredOn that fateful day, an overcrowded, dilapidated fishing boat that left the coast of Libya 36 hours earlier, caught on fire about a kilometer off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. 518 people were aboard. Once the residents of Lampedusa understood what was happening, they set out to sea with their fishing boats and yachts to rescue those still alive and recover the bodies of those who died. The death toll was officially 368. Some accounts record 366 as the number of dead, but the Waldensians include two unborn fetuses recovered, a number the International Organization of Migration supports.

Out of this tragedy, the non-profit organization Mediterranean Hope was born. It was funded mostly by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, of which the Waldensians are founding members.

Artist and Activist Francesco Piobbichi was one of the first social operators hired by Mediterranean Hope. Armed with his deep passion for political advocacy on behalf of migrants and other marginalized people, Piobbichi brought many talents. I first met him on the island of Lampedusa when I attended an anniversary commemoration. It was a call to advocacy and service for victims, survivors, their families, interfaith leaders and the community itself, which was deeply affected by the October 3rd tragedy because of their geographical and philosophical role as the “Gateway to Europe”.

It was at this commemorative service I first saw Piobbichi’s drawing entitled, 3 Ottobre. The drawing had been printed on a banner and hung at the location. The drawing depicts a young mother sinking into the blue and green waves of the Mediterranean Sea while cradling her infant son. It tells the story of the senseless and traumatic deaths of two of the reported 368 people who lost their lives that day. A boat meant to hold less than 50 people was carrying 518 when it caught fire and sank to the bottom of the sea. It took about a week for recovery divers to find the young mother in the prow of the boat. As they attached her lifeless body to a rope to begin her ascent from the bottom of the sea, they saw her newborn son attached to his mother by the umbilical cord. It’s an image you can’t get out of your head.

It’s been a year since my return to the United States. I’m now the new Refugee Ministries Coordinator for the RCA Global Mission. I keep a copy of Piobbichi’s book of drawings near my desk and I still have his 3 Ottobre design set as my screen saver. Both are there to remind me of my time in Italy and to ensure I never lose focus on why we collectively need to rise up and protect the lives of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. We did not succeed in protecting the lives of this mother and her newborn son, nor the 366 other lives lost that day in 2013, nor the lives of the more than 56,800 migrants reported dead or missing since 2014. Our world is facing a crisis of forcibly displaced people greater than during and after World War II. (see article here) We must act now to protect the lives of those seeking refuge. Click here to learn more about Mediterranean Hope and Francesco Piobbichi’s designs. Click here to learn more about my work with refugees and displaced people.