During the 1970s, Rome experienced a substantial increase in the number or refugees, fleeing from disaster, persecution, and war in their home countries–mainly, but not exclusively from throughout the African continent. During this time, Italy adopted a generous and sometimes unregulated “open door” policy towards forced migrants. Many of these migrants made their way to St. Paul’s Within the Walls because they already had connections with the Anglican Church in their home countries. Others arrived to the church because of its central location–near the Termini train station, and still others arrived because the church had developed a reputation for welcoming and offering hospitality towards refugees. Then as now, financial resources were limited–but hospitality towards refugees was abundant.
The then Rector of St. Paul’s Within the Wall, the Rev. Wilbur Woodhams, invited the Rev. Joel Nafuma, a Ugandan priest and refugee from the tyranny of Idi Amin, to take up a formal ministry towards Africans and other refugees in the Rome at St. Paul’s Within the Walls. This outreach towards refugees, led by Fr. Nafuma, grew rapidly and during during the eighties, became an intrinsic part of the general ministry and identity of St. Paul’s in the city. The Center became well-known and offering a variety of services to refugees, at a time when there was a new swell in the number of refugees in Rome fleeing the civil wars, political upheavals, and revolutions of this period. While the Center had little formal structure or financial stability, it did splendid work with an almost entirely voluntary force. It was much appreciated in Rome, and of course, among the refugees themselves.
When Fr. Nafuma left, he was not replaced on the church staff. However, the informal work of offering hospitality to refugees did continue throughout the 1980s. In 1987, thanks to the initiative of several parishioners and the backing of friends from other churches, the Center began life on a semi-formal basis, being closely linked with, and to some extent dependent on the parish, though with a considerable measure of operational autonomy.
In 1992, the new Rector of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Dr. Michael Vono, proposed that the Center should become a focal point of St. Paul’s ministry, and have a more formal relationship with the parish, in order to improve the coordination of activities. Sadly, this led to an entirely unexpected controversy. Some members of the Center’s leadership felt that their autonomy would be threatened and the religious freedom of the Center diminished. This was a sad period in the Center’s history, and eventually, to our lasting regret, was a matter that had to be settled in the courts, in which the church’s claims were upheld. Fortunately, The Joel Nafuma Refugee Center survived this period of difficulty, and continued despite this difficulty, to offer ongoing hospitality towards refugees.
The Center was eventually “refounded” and reconsecrated on June 25, 1995–in the presence of Fr. Nafuma, who returned to Rome for the special rededication, and Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn of the Convocation of American Episcopal Churches in Europe.
2000s to Present Day
Throughout the history of the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, the focus and flux of guests has varied according to the economic and geopolitical forces at play around the globe. For example, in 1987 the largest number of registered guests in the Center, 401, arrived from Poland. In 1990, the Center had no new Polish members but 450 registered guests from Ethiopia. With the adoption of the euro in 1999 and as the economic and monetary union of the European Unions states gained force, the JNRC had to tighten its mission and services towards forced migrants, to include only political refugees—and not economic refugees or those arriving from member states of the EU. In 2012, the Center registered more than 1088 guests–all political refugees. Guests registered from 32 different countries of origin with the majority arriving from Afghanistan (42%), Pakistan (21%), and the Ivory Coast (11%).
The Center remains a sanctuary for political refugees in heart of Rome–many in transit to other countries–where radical hospitality is expressed towards the strangers in our midst. Refugees learn about the Center mostly by word of mouth. Among refugees, it is often referred to as the “underground church.” According to one guest in the Center from Afghanistan, “I am Shia Muslim, and many of these men are Sunni. Shia and Sunnis are at war around the world. In my country, there has been constant war of one kind or another for 34 years, but those who gather here are tired of fighting and respect this Center as a place for peace.”
In 2014, the JNRC underwent a major restoration, thanks to the generosity of the Board of St. Paul’s Within the Walls and many generous donors from around the world. The physical transformation of the JNRC represents our desire and intention to transform our programs – and in turn, be better equipped to transform the lives of those who make their way to the center.
Since the Center’s beginning, this hospitality has been expressed towards forced migrants, regardless of faith tradition or race. While located in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and grounded in living out Christian values; the faith traditions of the guests in our Center are respected and no attempt is made to proselytize. Similarly, the Center has always–and continues to welcome the help of all who wish to serve their fellow human beings without racial, religious or any other bias.