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  • DATE: 30-01-2021
  • PLACE: Torre Pellice





The Waldensians, these strangers

By Elisingiro

The first time I met a Waldensian was ten years ago in Paris. It was the partner of a friend from Turin who was studying to become a pastor. I was struck by the fact that a homosexual person could also become a “priest”, until then I had not known anything like that. The second thing that struck me was the age, this boy was about twenty years old and at the time it seemed impossible for a peer of my age to want to pursue a “religious career”.

Of course, it was a decade ago, it was perhaps a couple of years that I had started traveling more seriously and having random encounters that opened windows to worlds unknown to me until then. A few years later, when I began to fill out the tax return, I found the Waldensian Church among the 8×1000 taxes options (it is a system that allows you to send part of the amount of your taxes to churches or associations). I remembered that boy, the walk at the Père Lachaise with my friend Laura, and I crossed that option for sympathy.

It so happened that in the last two years I came into very close contact with the Waldensians and I spent a good part of 2020 in a house immersed in the heart of the valleys that bear their name, a few meters away from the Waldensian Temple par excellence, that del Ciabas.

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Where do the Waldensians come from?

The Waldensians are an industrious and discreet people. Shortly after we met, my mother-in-law, who is originally from Valtellina, but has lived in Turin for a lifetime and has married a Waldensian, gave me a book to get in touch with their “oddities”. It is a book in the “Xenophobic Guide” series written by Sergio Velluto and entitled “Waldensians. Guide to the best defects and worst virtues”. I had a lot of fun reading it 😊

The word “Waldensian” is from the late Middle Ages and indicated the followers of Valdo from Lion, a merchant who decided to change his life and devote himself to preaching. It was the time when people began to translate the Bible into the vernacular and Valdo managed to gather around him a group of poor people who began to preach the Gospel in an itinerant way. The word “Waldensian” was then used to indicate generically many of the heretical movements that were forming. Many women were considered witches and even Joan of Arc was accused of being Waldesian at one point.

After the itinerant phase, the Waldensians took root in the Alpine territory between France and Piedmont and their communities joined Luther’s Protestant Reformation. For the Waldensians, churches are not sacred buildings – the photo above shows it, a simple building without charms – but places where believers can gather.

The typical verve

For the Waldensians, the relationship with God is private and the Pastors also have the function of preachers rather than intermediaries between the faithful and God. They organize the activities of the community and act as “opinion leaders”. A couple of weeks ago I attended a funeral in the Torre Pellice temple, the most important Waldensian temple.

Upon entering, the sign “We are all Jews” was posted on the door, a clear reminder of the closeness that the Waldensians have always expressed towards this persecuted people. The Waldensians also suffered the Crusades and were recognized equal rights only in 1848. They were great partisans during the Nazi-Fascism and there are many commemorative plaques here and there on the walls of the houses.

During the funeral, the Pastor in the pulpit pressed “play” several times to start some hymns in stereo – there was no choir, we are after all in the Covid era, even if music is central to Waldensian life. In the ceremony, which was like a long sermon, he began by saying that that rite (there were several non-Waldensians in the audience) was not so much to commemorate the deceased as to encourage the living. He then commented on the verses of Ecclesiastes, an unimaginable choice in the Catholic sphere to which I am used to.

For the Waldensians, in fact, it is not the letter of the single verse that counts, but the meaning that can be drawn from it after having analyzed and contextualized it. Ah, the pastor, he was wearing boots and ear piercings 😉 and he is the highest Waldensian authority.

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The Protestant ethic

The Waldensians are hard workers. It is enough for me to see it in my partner’s grandparents, over ninety and always busy. In the memories that you have about the father, passionate and dedicated to work. The French roots of the family, the Parisian ones, are always regarded with suspicion. Those who have value are those who have remained in the valleys or those who have returned to the valleys after a life of hard work.

They are respectful of the diversity of others, they take sides in favour of immigrants, homosexuals, the elderly, young people in difficulty. A tour in the village of Torre Pellice is enough to see how many family homes there are, how many activities the community also organizes for the transport or catering service to the elderly from house to house.

Being a minority, the Waldensians are inclined to defend other minorities. They are also a linguistic minority; their language is a legacy of Occitan: patois or patuà. Their church is a poor but proud church (after all they are people of the mountains): there is always a debate on the use of 8×1000, they would like to be financially independent. The solution found is that those funds be totally dedicated to social and cultural works in Italy and abroad, not to pay for pastors and worship activities.

Internationality and oddities

The Waldensians have close relationships with ecumenical organizations around the world and have also had strong migrations to Argentina and Uruguay, where there is a sister church to the Italian one. Another part of the Waldensian emigration was towards North America, especially North Carolina. Waldensian pride was imposed here.

A new city was founded in North Carolina which they called Waldensian and, among the first public buildings built, there was the Waldensian Museum. Not satisfied, in the 1990s a group of local entrepreneurs founded an amusement park dedicated to the origins of their fellow citizens. The Trial of Faith, this is the name of the Luna Park, is a sort of small Disneyland with 15 attractions that reproduce the Waldensian history.

Between discretion and bizarre, these valleys have welcomed me in all these months. The air is freer and less judgmental than the one I breathed in many parts of Italy. The population is young, the villages are not inhabited only by the elderly. There is a deep pride, but also an enviable openness to others.