ITALY Dispatch #2
We started the first day in Bologna by meeting the full time STINT (Short Term International) team. The married couple who are long term missionaries in Bologna live in a two story loft that overlooks the city. The loft galleria is a small meeting room encircled by wall to wall windows with a view of the terraced, terra cotta shingled skyline. It's a perfect study and refectory and is used by the STINT team as a planning and small group center. Bellissimo (most beautiful,) you would think in Italian (and use this kind of sentence structure as well, no?) We had a devotional time there and clarified the goal of the trip: to meet Italian students, gauge their level of spiritual interest, and get them connected to the STINT and long term ministry in Bologna.
The day was then spent meeting students in the Mensa (cafeteria) and in the piazza (Italian for courtyard; pronounced "pee-aht-za") outside la scuderria (a cafe). We split up into pairs and I was partnered with Maddison, who had been to Bologna the summer before on a six week long trip. We immediately ran into a friend she had made on the previous trip and invited her to an event we were planning for Thursday night.
From there we walked under vaulted porticoes and over cobbled pathways towards the Mensa to grab lunch. We sat down near Bolognese students, struck up conversations in English if possible (if not, then pidgin Italian) and tried to make acquaintances and slowly bring up faith. I found myself able to easily follow the flow of the conversation because of my background in Latin and Tex-Mex Spanish (feel free to laugh), but unable to pronounce the simplest of phrases. This was my first experience with what is sometimes called initiative evangelism and I found the experience daunting, difficult, and uncomfortable. Maddison was a pro, of course, and made the process easier with a little knowledge of Italian.
After lunch, we went to the Cafe and I ordered my first genuinely Italian shot of espresso. It was oily, heavy, and musky, without any subtle flavors. It was so very Italian; I never saw any Italians wearing a hint of color despite visiting three very different cities and spending seven days in the country. We sat down with a few students and invited them to our main event of the week: a common social experience called Apperitivo (think drinks and hor'devries.) It was a solid day of meeting Italian students, learning about the culture, and experiencing their aversion towards Religion. In the evening we had a group dinner and briefing before returning to the hotel.
The second full day of on campus ministry was spent meeting students in the Mensa (cafeteria) and la scuderria (the cafe) again. I was paired with Alicia, a TCU grad who is in her second year of full time ministry on STINT in Bologna. She speaks a reasonable amount of Italian and is easy to talk with. It was great to discover what full time ministry looks like from our conversations.
When we got to the cafe I saw a pair of guys that looked interesting. An impeccably dressed Italian student named Stephano was sitting next to a traveler named Mattimeo, who's matted (and dreadlocked) hair and Deuter ACT pack seemed to promise common ground. We introduced ourselves and found that Stephano spoke fluent English (not uncommon) and was a Philosophy major preparing for a thesis concerning Jean Paul Sartre, a French Existentialist (Simplified: there is no creator, we exist because we exist, there is no before life or after life, to be true to yourself is to truly exist, breaking away from tradition and conscience is the only freedom. Simplified: Seize life as you will. It's all very terrifying when you consider this was the intellectual culture of the twentieth century; this was the sort of thing taught between WWI and WWII, when the Hitler youth were being educated. Yikes!)
It's worth noting that the University of Bologna is still considered to be the central communist theory think tank of Europe, evidenced by the prolific graffiti slogans ("We are the 99%") and frequent non-violent protests. It's worth noting that there are around 100,000 students in attendance at this University that go into various careers across Europe and worth noting that upon Survey, the vast majority identify as agnostic with existential leanings. It is also worth noting that there is only one protestant church in Bologna and that Agape Italia is the only campus ministry.
Despite this dreary backdrop, we had a jovial conversation with Stephano. He was gregarious and good natured. His friend Mattimeo was traveling across Europe, thumb out, with no destination in mind (I'll admit I was a little jealous) and despite the fact that he could not speak any English, we were able to hold a whole conversation with body language. It was a cool experience in that most of the initiative evangelism we had previously attempted had felt forced, awkward, and prickly. The conversation with Stephano and Mattimeo was easy however, and I found myself getting to listen to some of Mattimeo's Italian poetry and share some of my own in English. We invited them to the Apperitivo, but Stephano was unable to make it on account of exams. Alicia had to leave for a meeting, so we parted ways with much to think about.