An Italian “AHA!”: How to Really Do All Are Welcome

I’m on vacation in Italy… In Florence, to be exact. We’ve been planning this trip for a long time, and my biggest concern was whether or not I would starve in Italy. You see, many people told me that with all the pasta and pizza that there would be no gluten free food for me to eat–and my intolerance/food allergy is bad enough that I would rather starve than be sick. So I packed protein bars and came to Italy.

Tonight, we had a dining experience that (I am glad to say) has become familiar to me here in this week that we’ve spent in Italy. We went to a ristorante called Ciro & Sons. The front of the menu says “Welcome to the family.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend from the UK who had visited Firenze recently had sent me the address saying that they had really, really good gluten free pizza.  I couldn’t resist. I had to check it out.  When the waiter handed me the menu I asked in my pigeon Italian “Scusami. Quali sono senza glutine?” which means “Excuse me, which are gluten free?” And he said “All of it.” I couldn’t’ believe my ears.  So I repeated it. “All of it?” He confirmed… whatever is on the menu, we will make it “senza glutine.”

And that’s what they did. No problem. No fuss. No questions. No confusion. The artichoke tart was gluten free. The pizza was gluten free. The Nutella crepe was gluten free.  They brought bread for me, and it was gluten free. They offered to make the bruschetta gluten free too (but my husband didn’t want to share.) When I ordered a cappuccino, they laughingly told me,”I promise, this is gluten free too.”  Oh, and did I mention that they also could help you out if you are lactose free? Or vegetarian? That’s the regular menu…everyone should be able to order what they want/need to eat. And there’s no extra charge for special requests. 

Let me compare this to my more common restaurant experience. Often people are confused…and sometimes even kind of grumpy with me, like I’m causing problems.  Sometimes, they tell me things don’t contain wheat flour when they really do (not out of malice but out of ignorance.) Often, I simply find the two or three menu items that are within my safety zone and choose one of those.  And don’t get me started about the premium price of gluten free options, and the huge up-charge for “special” food handling.  (On one notable business trip to Phoenix, AZ, I ended up eating salad and grilled chicken for three days straight because no one at the hotel restaurant had ever even heard of gluten.)

welcome-shield-2.jpgIn the Episcopal Church, we say that “All are welcome.”  And I am proud to say that I believe that we make a real and sincere effort (at least in the congregations that I have hung out in) to live that out in the ways that we treat people who come through the door.  Sometimes, though, I think we might be more like those American restaurants that I mentioned than that cozy Italian ristorante.  The Italians have perfected being truly welcoming.

Sometimes, I think we have a tendency to enthusiastically welcome anybody who isn’t a nuisance, who doesn’t add bother, and who seems just like us. (Of course, I am speaking in broad generalities here… There are exceptions, but bear with me.) We don’t always know what to do with the rest of the people who show up… The ones who look or sound different than we do, the ones who speak a different language, or have different needs. We often, out of ignorance, make those people feel, maybe, a little bit sorry they showed up.

If we really wanted to welcome, everyone we would find out what they need when the come to our door. We would genuinely want to accommodate them in whatever way they needed. Do they speak a different language? Do they need a special place to sit or special equipment to see or hear what’s going on? Do they need help understanding the liturgy? Can we take some extra time to understand each other better?

As I sat at Ciro & Sons, I felt welcomed. I felt like they were delighted to make sure that I didn’t miss out on anything that their cuisine had to offer. I felt like they wanted me to be there and be part of the experience. I felt like they wanted to make sure that I was well fed and part of the community. That’s when it hit me: Can we, as a church, say that we have achieved that?

  • Can we say that we are delighted to make sure that anyone who shows up doesn’t miss out on what the Episcopal Church has to offer?
  • Do we desperately want newcomers to feel completely a part of the worship experience?
  • Are we willing to do what it takes to make sure that they are well fed and part of our community?

In Italy, sharing food is an inherent part of the culture. In fact, it would be inconceivable to leave anyone out of a meal. If you show up, you get to be part of it–just as much as anyone else.  In the Episcopal Church, sharing worship should be just the same.  It takes time to understand. It takes asking questions and being willing to do things a little bit differently. It takes an embodied commitment to welcoming everyone who wants to come and share the meal with us.

Who is with me? (Oh…and remind me to tell you where to get the best and only gluten free Tiramisu I’ve ever eaten…it’s right here in Italy.)


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