Lessons From Roseto
In 1882, ten men began the arduous journey from Roseto, Italy to the New World. In Roseto, they had toiled day in and day out in a stone quarry, which prepared them for similar work when they arrived near Bangor, Pennsylvania. The next year, fifteen more men joined them – the next year, still more. In 1894 alone, twelve hundred Rosetans applied for passports to travel from Italy to the New World.
And in 1896, a priest arrived, named Father Pasquale de Nisco (would you believe, he was from Ireland?). Father de Nisco engaged in hard work too: setting up a church, civic groups and organized festivals. And with his help, the townspeople planted onions, beans, potatoes, and fruit trees. They founded schools, opened parks, a convent, and a cemetery. Small shops, bakeries, and restaurants opened up. More than a dozen factories supplied the garment trade. If you’d walked through town in the early 1900’s, you would have only heard Italian being spoken, though neighboring towns were populated with English, Welsh and Germans.
In the mid-1950’s, a physician by the name of Stewart Wolf gave a lecture near the town. Wolf lived in Oklahoma, but summered in PA, and after his lecture, a doctor who’d attended asked him to have a drink. As they did, the doctor explained to Wolf that though he’d been practicing in the area for 17 years, he rarely found anyone with heart disease. Now, remember, this is the 1950’s, before Plavix – at the time heart disease was the leading cause of death in men under sixty-five. But after investigating, Wolf found that almost no one had heart disease under 55, and for those over 65, the death rate was half that of America’s rates. Then, a sociologist hired by Wolf stated that interviews and examinations of medical histories revealed, “there was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.”
In the opening chapter of his book by the same name, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the people of Roseto as Outliers – the normal rules did not apply to these folks.
Now, back to Stewart Wolf, who committed himself figuring out why. It wasn’t because they had retained the dietary practices from the Old World. They cooked with lard instead of olive oil. They ate a lot of pepperoni, sausage, salami, ham, and sometimes egg pizza. They indulged in sweets year round that used to be reserved for the holidays. And get this: 41 percent of their calories came from fat. (Is that a lot?) What’s more, the Rosetans smoked heavily and struggled with obesity.
Perhaps it was genetic, Wolf wondered. But after tracking down other Rosetans living elsewhere in the United States, that theory went out the window.
What about the area they lived? Nope, that wasn’t it, as the other hardworking European immigrants in neighboring towns, death rates from heart disease were three times higher.
At long last, they figured it out: It seemed so commonplace that they hadn’t even noticed it before.
It was Roseto itself, not the physical space, but Roseto, the people.
They constantly visited one another, chatting in Italian on the street. Extended family clans underlaid the social structure. Most homes had three generations living under one roof (and we can hardly handle our in-laws for the weekend!). Grandparents commanded – and were given – respect. Everyone gathered together Sunday for mass. There was an egalitarian ethos, where successful folks helped those less fortunate.
They were insulated from the mounting pressures of modern life.
Now, to us, this is no surprise – we know that life lived in community positively actually affects our health, though Stewart Wolf had a difficult time trying to persuade other doctors at medical conferences.
Malcolm Gladwell concludes,
Living a long life, the conventional wisdom at the time said, depended to a great extent on who we were – that is, our genes. It depended on the decisions we made – on what we chose to eat, and how much we chose to exercise, and how effectively we were treated by the medical system. No one was used to thinking about health in terms of community.
Wolf had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn’t be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.
The people of Roseto, working in the stone quarry, talking with one another on the street, living three generations to a home, were outliers. They were different from the norm.
This story provides a powerful illustration to what we read in 1st Peter 2:
As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him - you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message - which is also what they were destined for.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The people of Roseto worked long, hard hours in a rock quarry. Through Jesus' work, we are becoming living stones, built into a spiritual house as a holy priesthood.
Who could you invite into this flourishing life in God’s family this Easter?
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