Voices from the Communion: Pastor Carsten Gerdes, Dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Italy
(LWI) - On the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, lies the small town of Ispra, home to a European research center which has attracted foreign workers, mainly German, Dutch and French scientists, since the 1960s. Close by is the tiny hamlet of Cocquio-Trevisago, home to Pastor Carsten Gerdes, Dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Italy, who recently attended the European Pre-Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Oxford.
Originally from Bremerhaven, on Germany’s North Sea coast, Gerdes and his wife Magdalena, also a Lutheran pastor, serve the community of Ispra-Varese, one of fifteen communities that make up the association of Lutheran churches in Italy today. Founded as an “ecumenical evangelical church” to serve the different groups of Protestants who worshipped there, the community now numbers around 220 members of various nationalities who live and work nearby, or across the border in Switzerland.
Surrounded by stunning scenery, on the edge of a national park and less than two hours away from the ski slopes, it is an ideal setting for a self-confessed “nature lover” like Gerdes. Yet, even in the four years since he took up his post there, he has begun to notice the effects of climate change and the challenges it is posing for farmers and other local businesses.
Tell us a bit about your background and why you decided to become a pastor?
I was born in the far north of Germany to a family that was not particularly religious. My first real contact with the church was at the time of my Confirmation, which was a normal thing for my parents to expect me to do, even though they were not church goers themselves. I become interested and wanted to know more, so I joined the youth group. As a result of those experiences, I started to think about a future as a pastor.
I studied theology in Germany and, after my ordination in 1993, my first parish was in Wolfsburg, a city known as the headquarters of the Volkswagen car industry. From there I moved with my family to Soltau, famous for its nearby nature reserves with beautiful woods and heathland, covered in purple heather and other wild shrubs.
When our two children were older and left home to study, my wife and I decided that it was the right time to move further afield and experience new challenges of living and working in a foreign country. I applied for this position in Ispra-Varese, a place where we can enjoy the outdoor life and meet people from many different backgrounds.
Who are the regular members of your congregation?
Many of our parishioners are scientists or teachers who work for the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, or the European school in Varese. Others live in the area but work across the border with Swiss businesses where they can earn a lot of money. Some have retired or moved away from the big cities like Milan to live a quieter life in the countryside.
Traditionally, people came from a German speaking background, so our services and other activities were mainly in German. But we are increasingly encountering people who are interested in the Biblical sources of their faith and an alternative to the Roman Catholic church, so we are now providing services partly in Italian as well.
What relations do you have with the local Catholic population?
There is a Catholic church very close by and we have good relations with the people there. Every month, we have a short time of prayer together, as well as organizing events during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and other important occasions. During Advent, we hold an annual Christmas fair and raise a lot of money which goes to support a project for the homeless run by the Catholic church.
In May, you were elected as Dean of the association of Lutheran Church in Italy – how closely do you work with congregations in other parts of the country?
People in our congregation are mainly concerned with local issues and do not feel so closely connected to Lutherans elsewhere in Italy. We are trying to create those connections, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nearest neighboring community is in Milan and we recently organized a hiking day out with some of their parishioners to get to know them better.
Last autumn, we organized a three-day workshop in Rome on the topic of Faith and Humor, with about a hundred people from all over Italy coming together to discuss issues like humor in the Bible and the benefits of clown therapy. It was a wonderful event, offering people an alternative perspective to help them deal with everything from the smallest problems to the really difficult issues they may have to face.
Your community is located in a beautiful setting by Lake Maggiore, but you are worried about climate change that is threatening the livelihoods of local people, aren’t you?
Yes, in our region we can see the effects of global warming at our doors. There is less rainfall and less snow on the mountains, so that means less water running down to feed the rivers and lakes. People here rely on that water for agriculture, tourism and hydropower production. As Christians, we must think more carefully about our responsibilities and take action to protect God’s creation for future generations.
You were recently in England at the LWF’s European Pre-Assembly – what impressions did you take away from that meeting?
It was my first time at an LWF meeting like that and it was great to meet so many new people and learn about their churches, especially the smaller ones like our hosts, the Lutheran Church in Great Britain. Climate change is a big concern for the churches and especially for the young people in many of these European countries.
It was also good to share the experiences of decreasing membership and hear how others in this region are dealing with it. As Lutherans in Italy, we are often defined in opposition to the majority Catholic church, but increasingly we are having to explain ourselves to the growing numbers of non-believers.
You will also be in Poland as a delegate to the Krakow Assembly in September - what hopes do you have for that event?
People in our congregations do not know much about the wider Lutheran family. They come to us through local connections, because they are searching for something in their lives, or maybe because they want to talk to others in their own language.
But hearing that we are not alone, that there are other Lutheran Christians like us all over Europe and beyond who share the same beliefs and traditions, who worship in the same way, this is a very valuable experience that the LWF provides and so I will be sharing my experiences and trying to find ways of making connections there too.
Hearing that we are not alone, that there are other Lutheran Christians like us all over Europe and beyond who share the same beliefs and traditions, who worship in the same way, this is a very valuable experience that the LWF provides.
Pastor Carsten GERDES, Dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Italy
It is important for us to see that we share many of the same challenges and can support each other through prayer and practical initiatives as well. I hope it will be a very colorful, very inspiring event and I am looking forward to our time together in Krakow.