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Le Vele: The Lost Cause

Their home is going away. Three of the massive buildings have already been demolished, and the remaining four are in shambles. It is said that one will be left standing as a museum, a reminder of what happened here. But for the families who still live inside these walls, who spent their childhoods stepping over discarded needles and surviving clan feuds, no reminder is necessary. They are still here.

The urban housing project was built in the sixties and seventies on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Half of the buildings were triangle-shaped, reminiscent of giant sails that inspired the neighborhood’s name, Le Vele. The architects envisioned children playing in green fields in the shadow of the sails. And children did play here — but as the years passed their games turned violent.

"By 2004, the peak of the gang wars, one person was murdered there every day."

When Camorra, an organized crime syndicate, took over the neighborhood, Le Vele became synonymous with drugs, guns, poverty and Mafia infighting. In the coming decades, Le Vele would become the most active drug and arms market in Western Europe. By 2004, the peak of the gang wars, one person was murdered every day. A million dollars in drug money was traded daily. It is said that more needles could be found in this one neighborhood than in the rest of Italy.

Today, Le Vele is in decline, a drug market in old age. When you enter the complex, you smell burning trash; you hear dogs barking. From the bottom floor, you look up and see suspended metal walkways that lead to bolted doors, like the interior of some post-apocalyptic detention center. Across the entirety of a prominent wall is a painting of an old woman with devil horns.

But something is happening here, amid the rack and ruin. Behind thick metal doors, the ones that were added after the gang wars started, you meet people whose lives tell a different story.

Missionary in Italy

Salvatore: The Escaped Dealer

In the rotten basement of Le Vele, he spent his youth playing games and selling drugs. The youngest of nine children, Salvatore learned to care for himself by the time he was 10. There was not enough money to provide for such a big family, so he made his own way from the bottom of Le Vele.

“We would play ding dong ditch and throw rocks onto cars and that kind of stuff,” he remembers. “I enjoyed it. It was all I knew.”

In middle school, he was already making roughly €1,000 a week, transporting drugs for his older brother. But that income came at a high personal cost. Sometimes he discovered dead bodies in the buildings’ nooks and crannies. One of his eardrums was shattered in a conflict.

“You always had to be alert and keep your head up,” he says.

He met Nunzia as a teenager, and they got married when he was 22. She took his family name — Mincione, the surname of a powerful Mafia family in the region. They had two kids and a closet full of guns.

In 2012, a second war broke out between rival clans, and Salvatore’s older brother was shot. That year, the Mafia tried to invade his house, and he and Nunzia stayed inside with the door bolted for days.

Every night, Nunzia begged Salvatore to cut ties with Camorra. They had heated arguments. When Salvatore finally agreed to make an honest living selling eggs, they suffered a 90% cut to their income. To make ends meet, he secretly sold drugs on the side.

“I felt the world going away,” he says. “I was full of anxiety, and I was depressed… At a certain point, I thought everything was over, and I thought it was just going to be me and my wife, nobody else.”

Marco: The Outsider

The first time he tried to enter Le Vele, a man met him at the entrance and flashed a gun. The message was clear: you have to go.

So he left, went back to the church he pastored a few miles away and regrouped. In his role as EHC Ministry Director, he was tasked with reaching every home in southern Italy with the Gospel. That included the thousands of apartments in Le Vele. His heart was moved by the plight of the people who lived there.

Missionary man in Italy

“Every time I would read something in the paper or hear something on the news, I always had this prayer inside me — God, do something about this. Do something for these people…”

He began to realize that God was sending him. But how could he reach a community that was closed to the rest of the world? The Mafia that controlled the neighborhood was like a big family — albeit a dysfunctional one — and no one could interact with that family unless they were invited in.

Christian missionaries in Italy

The first time he tried to enter Le Vele, a man met him at the entrance and flashed a gun. The message was clear: you have to go.

Marco and Salvatore look out from the roof of Vela Celeste. The building where Salvatore and Nunzia live.

Marco tried again and again to enter Le Vele. He dressed in a leather jacket and black pants, carrying EHC gospel literature inside a black backpack. Every attempt he made to bring the Gospel to this neighborhood was thwarted by men who guarded the area. There was no way in.

Alfonso and Immacolata: The Dreamers

Every morning, as he passed Le Vele on the drive to his son’s school, Alfonso felt a tug on his heart. He heard God say, “This is your inheritance.”

But when he shared this with his wife, Immacolata felt anxious. She remembered all the times her father had lectured her about the crime and violence that happened in Le Vele. It was a dangerous place, he had warned her. A sinful place.

Missionary man in Italy
Christian woman in Italy

Immacolata says, “I would look at my past and think, ‘I have nothing in common with them.’”

So she prayed. The Lord spoke to her about the people’s need for Jesus’ love, and her heart began to change. She agreed to join her husband on an outreach, despite her fear.

“I was terrified,” she admits.

For 10 years, Alfonso had volunteered in a local prison, sharing the Gospel with inmates. During that time, he had made several connections with people in Le Vele. Where Marco had been turned away, Alfonso was granted access.

The first time Immacolata entered the neighborhood with her husband, she heard dogs barking viciously right outside their car. She sat in the passenger seat and opened her Bible to Psalm 91 — No evil shall be allowed to befall you — and then she followed Alfonso inside. As they passed under a stairwell, she realized that God had already shown her this place in a dream. Two years before she ever set foot in Le Vele, she saw people walking up those stairs and singing songs to God.

Christian woman in Italy

Nunzia: The Transformed

They grew up together, Salvatore and Nunzia, here in Le Vele. They shared a deep love, and through the years, they worked hard to sever their connections with Camorra. When the police raided Le Vele, they imprisoned every person in the Mincione family — every person except Salvatore.

But even though her husband was not imprisoned, Nunzia felt trapped. She remembers, “You were either involved in crime or you were closed in your home by yourself, nothing to do, nowhere to go, because all your friends are in that bad lifestyle.”

Then her 25th birthday came. She and Salvatore went upstairs to her mother’s house and met two guests — they were Alfonso and Immacolata. The couple had met Nunzia’s mother as they shared the Gospel with people in the neighborhood. They talked about Jesus and asked if they could pray for Nunzia and Salvatore. The conversation made Salvatore uncomfortable, and he got up to leave. But they insisted he stay until they cut the birthday cake. So he sat back down, and they prayed together.

And as they prayed, a presence grew thick in the room. Nunzia had rarely seen her husband cry, but now tears were streaming down his face. Inside the dark halls of Le Vele, in a place that had closed its doors to the Gospel, salvation had come.

After that day, their lives began to change. Salvatore and Nunzia gave their lives to Christ, and they experienced a new, deeper love growing in their lives. They started meeting with Alfonso and Immacolata regularly, and then they started hosting a small group in their home. Alfonso connected them with Pastor Marco, and they found a strong community at his church.

When Nunzia thinks about how much has changed in the past two years, she says, “Jesus not only saved us, but also brought us into a community and friendship and hope.”

That hope is spreading.

Bible study in Italy
In Nunzia and Salvatore's dining room, women from neighboring apartments gather to be discipled and discuss scripture.

Le Vele: Home

When Salvatore walks the halls of Le Vele, people yell, “Here comes Jesus!” They say this to mock him, but also to recognize that he is not like them anymore.

“I’ve completely changed,” Salvatore says. “For me, this place is dead to me — the old life. The only weapon that I have now is the Bible.”

Salvatore no longer deals drugs, but he still sells eggs. It’s hard to make ends meet, but he knows that he is surrounded by people who support and love him. Every day, he meets with his friend Alfonso, if only for a quick espresso.

“After I met Jesus, I realized that we weren’t alone,” Salvatore says. “We have brothers and sisters and family… Alfonso has become my brother.”

Salvatore isn’t the only one whose life has been transformed. With his newfound access to the community, Pastor Marco has been able to lead outreaches into Le Vele. He has supplied Alfonso with enough EHC gospel literature to reach the entire community, and together they’re taking the Gospel to all four buildings of Le Vele. On any given week, two or three small groups meet in various homes.

Meanwhile, Nunzia regularly invites other moms over for breakfast and coffee, and they read the Bible together. The women have started challenging each other to share the Gospel during their week, and new people are continually showing up for prayer and discipleship.

Christian missionaries in Italy
Alfonso and Salvatore

“I really care for this place,” Nunzia says. “I will continue to work hard to let all these people know how good God is and how He is able to change everything.”

In Le Vele’s last days, Salvatore and Nunzia are eager to find a new neighborhood for their family. But they also recognize how much God is doing right now in their midst. Around her neck, Nunzia wears a thin gold chain with one word on it: Salvatore. It is her husband’s name, but it is also a common Italian word — savior.

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