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The Global Reach and Lasting Legacy of Italian Pentecostalism: An Interview with Paul Palma

Pneuma Review: Initially the Italian Pentecostal Movement focused primarily on reaching Italians, now it is more multi-ethnic. What factors have facilitated this change?

Paul Palma: The movement originally served to consolidate identity within the ethnic enclaves of American cities. Many first-generation immigrants left family behind in Italy, thinking they would return after earning some wealth in the New World. The extended Pentecostal network provided a hospitable atmosphere for fellowship with other Italians amid the volatile culture shift in migration, marginalization, and clashes with other ethnic groups. As inroads were made, particularly among the American work force, second- and third-generation immigrants placed a precedent on acculturating and learning English, opening doors for expansion among other ethnicities. Concurrently, immigration quotas issued in the 1920s significantly curbed the arrival of new Italians. Partly out of necessity then, Italians looked to those from other backgrounds as they built their lives in America.

During World War 2 and afterwards, Pentecostals in Italy endured persecution.

WWII was perhaps the decisive factor in solidifying a more culturally inclusive identity. The enemy-alien status of Italians during the war prompted the Pentecostal churches in the United States and Canada to drop the ethnic appellative “Italian” from their incorporated name. Valuing the organizational covering their respective governments afforded—the protection of their rights as sanctioned religious bodies—each group of churches complied.

Lastly, as a movement built on the model of apostolic Christianity, Italian Pentecostalism inevitably sought to encompass the gospel mandate for all peoples (Lk. 2:31), exceeding ethnocultural boundaries. It is interesting to note that much of the success of Italian Pentecostals, particularly in North America, has taken place among other marginalized ethnicities including Haitian, Congolese, Filipino, and Korean groups.

 

Pneuma Review: The history of the Italian Pentecostal Movement shows that different Italian Pentecostal denominations have at times worked together for a common cause, please give us one example.

Paul Palma: The foremost example is the cooperation of the CCNA and the Italian District of the AG (USA) in the establishment of the ADI. The ADI faced the most difficult road to religious liberty, having to overcome the ban levied by Italy’s Fascist regime against any tradition contrary to Roman Catholicism, the state religion. Pentecostal efforts to worship often ended in heavy fees, imprisonment, and sometimes death. Even after WWII, the machinery of Fascism still exerted its influence in Italy, with major restrictions in place, particularly against the host of independent Pentecostal churches. It was not until 1959 that Italian Pentecostals could worship in freedom.

Against such odds, the Italian government admonished Pentecostal churches of the ADI to affiliate with a legal denomination in the United States. Both the CCNA and the Italian District stepped in, sending representatives to help consolidate the churches there. The representatives coordinated their efforts with a focus on bringing together the independent churches wishing to join the ADI. The CCNA offered strategic support to national workers, while the Italian District provided literature and installed a national bible study program. Together they helped establish the Instituto Biblico Italiano (Italian Bible Institute) in Rome. Through the persistent efforts of the CCNA and the Italian District, Pentecostals in Italy finally achieved their religious freedom.

 

Pneuma Review: You have a number of relatives who were very involved in the Italian Pentecostal Movement. Please tell us a bit about them.

Paul Palma: Indeed, while I currently belong to the United Methodist Church, my forebears were among the founders of the CCNA. The first national convention of the CCNA was held at the church founded and pastored by my great-grandfather Massimiliano Tosetto, from Veneto, Italy. He and another of my great-grandfathers, Michele Palma, from Apulia, were among the five original overseers of the denomination. The two of them also worked as mosaicists for the Marshall Field and Company in Chicago and became good friends. Together they produced the cherished Italian hymnal, acting as the hymnbook’s first editors and through the countless hymns they personally composed. Michele’s wife, Catarina, served as the first Secretary-Treasurer of the denomination. Michele’s son and Massimiliano’s daughter, my paternal grandparents, met through the CCNA and became ministers and leaders in the movement. The CCNA was also the common bond that brought my maternal great-grandparents and grandparents together, who would account for several more local and regional leaders within the denomination. My folks met as pastor’s kids at a national convention—making me a fourth-generation, full-blooded Italian.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2019

About the Author: Paul J. Palma, PhD, is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University. Paul’s research centers on global Pentecostal-charismatic movements. His work has been published in a number of national and international journals. His book, Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity has recently been published with the Routledge Studies in Religion series. LinkedIn page. Facebook.

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