Narinder Singh, a young Sikh takes a pair of shoes from another worshiper who has just arrived at the Gurdwara. A few steps behind him are several metal shelves full of shoes in all colors and sizes. As I look around in the big compound, I see many more worshippers walking up the stairs to the entrance. Others are already coming down moving into a big hall downstairs. The marquee on the square in front of the Gurdwara is already full of people. Mostly young ones and families with small kids are sitting on the floor and seek some shelter from the glazing sun. It’s Sunday morning 10 o’clock in Novellara, Italy as I make up my way to greet Narinder. What a surprise to find out that he speaks German! His 8 years in the Gurdwara in Vienna have given him an Austrian accent.
The next four and a half hours Narinder accompanies me, shows me around the temple grounds and tells me a lot about the Sikh community in Novellara, a small city in the province of Reggio Emillia in the fertile Po Valley. The city is home to one of the largest Gurdwaras in Europe. This reflects the presence of a large community, living in Novellara and nearby places, where they work mainly on cattle farms and dairies. The world famous “Parmigiano Reggiano“ or Parmesan cheese as it is commonly known, comes from that area and many Sikhs are part of the production of this delicacy.
On this particular Sunday morning my guess would be that almost 2000 worshippers gathered during the course of my time. I hear stories how the Sikh community celebrated Vaisakhi last April, one of the most significant holidays in the Sikh calendar, commemorating the establishment of the Khalsa, the Sikh brotherhood, which was established by the 10th Guru Gobind Singh. I meet young and old Sikhs telling me of their life in Novellara and how they and their families have now found a new home in this fertile part of Italy which is in some ways very similar to the rich fertile planes of the Punjab in India.
This was just one stop on my 9 day journey through northern Italy. Later on that day I visited the nearby town of Luzzera, which is home to more than 1000 South Asians including many Sikhs. It boasts to be the town with the highest percentage of migrants in Italy.
Over the next few days I visited different towns and cities and hear similar stories. The Gurdwaras vary in size and appearance but again and again I am warmly welcomed, fed with Punjabi meals, sometimes “contextualized” with pasta and tomato sauce and many rounds of sweet tea. Their openness to talk, in spite of some language problems, and their hospitality are a sure sign for me that this community is truly living out their believes to serve all people.
In the last few years the Sikh community in Italy is steadily growing. The Italian government seems to make it easy for people from north India to come and get a work permit if they want to work on the many farms. Some, I talked to, have been in Italy for more than 20 years.
One of my last stops was Italy’s largest Gurdwara which was opened in the northeastern city of Castelcomberto near the city of Vicenza. The new Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara was built by the community in the countryside some 20 km from Vicenza, where many of the community members live. When I asked about the numbers of Sikhs living in Vicenza and the nearby towns, they number it to more than 10 000 some say even 20 000 and their number is growing. The latest Gurdwara in Italy was inaugurated on November 9th last year. Nearly 3000 people took part in the inaugural ceremony. The prayer hall on the first floor, where the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs is kept, can accommodate easily 1000 people.
It is hard to get accurate figures on how many Sikhs live in Italy. Wherever I go I also hear of those that do not have any papers and who are illegal in the country. My current (2018) estimate would be between 100,000 – 120,000 Sikhs in Italy. There are more than 50 Gurdwaras across the country which tells me these Sikhs have decided to make Italy their home. The young generation speaks fluent Italian and attends the local schools yet they still hold on partly to their Punjabi- Indian heritage. I find Indian soccer teams as well as cricket teams who play matches against other towns and cities and on bill boards and shop windows ‘Bollywood’ and ‘Bhangra’ nights are advertised.
I could go on writing about the big Bangladeshi community in Rome and in the port city of Monfalcone where they work in one of the biggest shipyards in Europe. I have seen them by the hundreds on the city squares and in residential areas. I have also met Pakistanis in Milano and Tamils in Verona.
It is true what I found on the internet there is a growing South Asian community in Italy and they blend very well with the local community. It is also true that there are many opportunities to befriend these people and to share about the hope we have found as followers of Jesus. I met a handful of dedicated Italian believers who pray and share their lives with the South Asian communities. They desire from the bottom of their hearts that these people will find peace and forgiveness. They need our prayers and our encouragement. I was challenged by the small group of believers in Monfalcone, when we met for prayer on Thursday evening how they prayed for the Bangladeshi community in their city. They showed me the places in front of Bengali shops on the city square where they have put on evangelistic programs with mime and drama. This small church – not more than 15-20 believers hosts once a year a summer camp for Italian and Bengali kinds on the same playground where night after night many Bengali families meet. I was privileged to meet these brothers and sisters and I promised them to share their stories and their hearts desire with people around the world. It is my prayer and dream that the South Asians in Italy will all have a change to hear about Jesus and that the Worldwide church will get a vision and a passion to see these big pockets of unreached South Asian people groups being reached for the Glory of God.
South Asian Concern, UK