By Luca Illiano
In this article, Luca Illiano takes a look at the colourful culture of Mergellina, both from his experience as a boy growing up in Naples, as well as his return to Mergellina in 2008 to start mission work there.
Mergellina lies in the Chiaia quarter on a coastal section of the city of Naples. It is known to Neapolitans as a good place to spend your day off, walking along the promenade, eating a gelato (ice cream). Chiaia and the adjacent quarters of Posillipo and San Ferdinando, are part of a municipality, which has a population of about 80,000 people.
Mergellina attracts tourists and people from other areas of the city, since the harbour brings in business from restaurants and the fish market. The community is mixed, and society is divided by education and lifestyle. Arguably, this division has its roots in history. Originally a small fishing village and port, it was quite distinct from its larger neighbour, Naples; the latter’s gradual expansion led to Mergellina’s incorporation into the greater metropolis of Naples. Mergellina is still a fishing port and retains a distinct feel compared to other areas of the city. It is possible to see the social differences between those born to generations of fishermen, and those of the newer middle-class.
One of the most well-known churches in Naples is the church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta, which was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the fishermen of Mergellina. This church is at the heart of La Festa di Piedigrotta, (The Feast of Piedigrotta), a folk festival celebrated annually on 8 September. The people of Mergellina are highly devoted to Mary. Although there are many different religions in the area, Roman Catholicism is predominant and has had a significant impact on the community; strengthened by the presence of Eastern Europeans and Sinhala Catholics, who live and work in the area. There are many Catholic churches and four large, functioning Catholic monasteries. Nuns ‘evangelise’ about Mary and carry out social work within the community.
Mergellina is changing
I was born and grew up in Mergellina; however, it has changed considerably since my childhood and continues to develop. From an evangelistic standpoint, Mergellina is a strategic area for gospel witness – not only to locals, but to people from other areas and countries. Mergellina is increasingly multi-ethnic and its culture is colourful. The influence of Filipinos, Poles, Romanians, Russians, South Americans, Sri Lankans and Ukrainians – each with their own religion and beliefs – is visible. We have 140 refugees housed at the youth hostel. One of our neighbours is Polish, another is from Brazil and my wife, Anca, is Romanian. So, in one block of flats, there is a multiplicity of beliefs, cultures and languages, without even counting those from Sri Lanka and Ukraine, who work here from Monday to Friday – I love it!
Mergellina has three embassies: American, Ecuadorian and French, which means there are always people from these countries visiting or studying. There is an American and a French school, a sizeable German community, with their own Catholic church, a liberal Lutheran church and an Anglican church. There are eight schools, so you can imagine how many students there are. On one occasion, we went to evangelise outside two schools that together have 3,000 students. With the help of the Gideons, we handed out 1,500 New Testaments in one morning!
The Call to Mergellina
Although I was born in Mergellina, it was not until I lived in the UK that I received the call from the Lord to serve Him here. One day, while struggling to discern my future, the Lord showed me that He Himself and His Word, were more attractive than becoming a famous artist, and that sharing the name of Christ, with people who do not know Him, is more wonderful than exhibiting work in an art gallery. From that day, the gospel became more important than my career and shortly afterwards I applied to study at Tilsley College. The Lord reminded me that while I was living in Naples, I had a heart to see a new church planted in Mergellina. I believe that God called me back to Italy with a specific vision to plant a church in an area which, until three years ago, was largely unreached. Similarly, my wife Anca recognised the needs of the area. Together we have embraced this vision and with the team we are working toward the same goal.
The first gospel seed was planted in 2008, in Chiaia, by a Pentecostal church; however, the work did not continue due to lack of workers. At the moment, we believe that God is leading us to work in the west side of Mergellina. My parents and most of the team live in that area, as do many of my relatives. Our acquaintances, contacts and the buildings in which we carry out evangelism are situated there. Focusing on this side of Chiaia, from Mergellina to Posillipo, encompasses about 60,000 people – all without a church built on Christ and with His gospel at the centre.
The work in Mergellina started from nothing. We have only gradually understood God’s guidance and sometimes this has become apparent simply by trying various forms of work in the community. Personally, I love to be on the street sharing the gospel, with copies of John’s Gospel or other literature. I recognise that I am still learning how to evangelise for church-planting. It is a fascinating experience, with some frustrations too, as I learn how best to share the gospel with people from different cultures and beliefs.
In the last four years, the evangelistic work in Mergellina has changed. The team has taken shape, and, with greater numbers of people, we have more gifts and can do different things. Short term teams from other churches have helped us, as have GLO teams. When I worked on my own, I focused more on one-to-one distribution and chatting with the people whom I already knew from the area. When we married, our friendship circle widened. For the first time I lived in an apartment with a doorman, which inspired me to share the gospel with other doormen from the area.
We hold an annual meeting where we agree our goals from year to year, stepping forward for the gospel in Mergellina. So far the Lord has been gracious towards us. During 2017 we held a monthly Bible discussion group on Mark’s Gospel, with people we have met and prayed for over the last two years. We started a weekly prayer meeting and formed an evangelistic team committed to outreach. Alongside these advances, we have organised evangelistic weeks, started a weekly outreach among refugees, hosted evangelistic dinners and social evenings for unbelievers, and accommodated summer teams.
Our commitment is to get to know people and to be known in the community around us. I follow up new contacts, identifying those who received leaflets during distributions, and asking if they have read the leaflets and what they think of their content. These conversations can sometimes start anywhere. We met Paolo in a coffee shop because it was raining and we were unable to distribute leaflets! Paolo lives in the flat opposite, so now, when I see him in the area, we stop to have a chat. I also visit relatives and long-term friends, such as those from university.
Another form of evangelism in the community is our literature table. Each week, we set up a book table in the street. After only three months, this means of evangelism showed results. We witness the openness of people from other cultures and are getting to know them. Massimo (see Jul. Echoes ’17 p321) is a family friend; we used to camp together during the summer when I was around 12 years old, before I was a Christian. However, our lives took us in different directions. The Lord brought Massimo to us while we were at the book table, after nearly 20 years! We are encouraged by these unexpected meetings, since we see the Lord’s hand in them.
We also visit the refugees at the youth hostel, where we have opportunities to share the gospel with a community of Muslims. We aim to start discipleship meetings with the Christian refugees who are struggling to integrate.
My wife Anca and I, alongside six people from the church-planting team, are members of the assembly in Fuorigrotta, another area of Naples where we continue to serve. I am involved in Bible teaching and lead the teenagers’ group alongside Anca.
We have greatly appreciated the support of Echoes International as we started ministry in Mergellina. Through your prayers, we have experienced God’s faithfulness and many blessings. The initial support from Echoes was one of the Lord’s affirmations that He was calling us to Mergellina. Many thanks to all who have read our news, prayed and given financially over the years. We are moving on to be supported by Comitato Amministrazione Offerte (CAO), (Offering Administration Committee), and are excited and expectant at all God has in store for us personally, as He builds and extends His Kingdom in Mergellina.