ITALY Dispatch #3
Just a heads up, this is a long one. It was quite the day.
Today was totally frustrating and then relaxing and then more relaxing; it was a full day. My ministry partner (who I won't name) had a very strange personality and it was very difficult to do anything. Each conversation they initiated turned immediately into a debate and I felt as if we were shoving doctrine down people's throats rather than demonstrating Christ. I eventually broke off from him and wandered the campus on my own (not sure if this was okay.) I found myself gravitating back towards the cafe after looking around the campus.
Campuses in Europe are very different from our residential American campuses. The buildings are integrated into the surrounding architecture and it isn't uncommon for commercial buildings, civic spaces, or museums to jut up against class buildings (where only one room is used for teaching). Most students commute on the metro, rather than living nearby. The cafe, however, is as collegiate as it gets. Students fill the tables during the afternoon and conversation flits on the breeze. There's also a gypsy (think rasta/emo/homeless) group that always hangs out in one corner and looks intimidating with their pit-bulls (on a veritable chain) and heavy smoke cloud.
Did I mention that everyone smokes? Espresso and nicotine have a powerful influence here. The tempo of life is softly alluring. Men on corners drag deeply and then go about their way, no cells phones blinking, as they focus on walking alone. An individual enters a cafe; there's one on every corner (though not as graceful as you might imagine "Cafe/Tobbaccoria" suggests a gas station vibe). Italians are very pragmatic with their vices, it seems.
In the evening we convened for an Aperitif that we were hosting. The plan was to send out blanket invitations throughout the week and then connect anyone we met to the full-time missionaries. Aperitif is essentially a cocktail party that's a pretty regular occurrence. (Keep in mind that there aren't clubs and organizations on European campuses like there are in the states. A ministry function wasn't a hard sell since there aren't weekly meetings that conflict; students spend every evening socializing and going to aperitif with friends. It was uncomfortable at first since the English speakers dominated the room, but students gradually showed up and made the event less awkward. Several students wanted to get plugged in with the STINT team and exchanged numbers.
As the event winded down, we were released for the evening and the three guys on the trip headed out to explore the town. The guys were both younger than me and posed the most serious ethical dilemma I faced on the trip. Every evening, we headed out to explore Bologna (which was hands down the best decision of the trip). We were all looking for cultural exchanges, but the other guys (both underage in American terms) wanted to check out bar culture in particular. (Remember that the drinking age abroad is 18). I told them at the front of the trip what I thought about their decision to drink (that it was irresponsible and somewhat contrary to being on a mission trip), but also that it was their decision; that I was not their chaperon or parent.
I ended up making the decision to go along each night and so, this night, we ended up at a pub with some of the college students we had met that day (Mattio, Antonio, and Roderico). It turned out to be the most genuine ministry experience of the whole trip. First observation: Italian drinking is completely different from American drinking. Drinks do not come as pints; even in a pub. Everyone orders half-pints and usually stops at one or two. Getting drunk (or even tipsy) is seen as juvenile behavior and there is less reckless abandon in this area (perhaps driven by frugality) for the college age group. We ended up sharing all sorts of common ground and had really good pub conversation that soon turned to the question of faith.
Mattio asked why we had chosen to come to Italy and, upon explaining that we had come as part of a faith based organization (having been cautioned to avoid starting conversations with the gospel, but to use the word 'organization' to gain credibility,) he asked what the difference was between protestantism and catholicism. I took this as a carte blanche opportunity to explain the whole gospel, defend the Catholic church, and explain that one difference was an emphasis on the personal relationship with Christ (priesthood of the believer, if you will). It was a weird moment, sitting in the pub with the undivided attention of three young Italians and my two Texan friends, and pontificating evangelically (see what I did there?).
They listened attentively, but as soon as I turned the question towards them of what they personally believed the moment was over. A brief awkwardness lulled over our conversation before my fellow Texans deflected the conversation back to trivialities. This was probably appropriate; we were strangers after all. I guess my hope for the ministry here and for any evangelical organizations that follows is that the Catholic Church wouldn't be as thoroughly dismissed as it currently is.
In the process of learning more about CRU in Italy, it became obvious that they had made no overtures or efforts to collaborate with Christians across the ecclesial divide and that their ministry plan often involved bashing the Church (Big C). The proof of this is that they continuously claimed to be the only evangelical presence on campus (implying they were the only Christian influence) and were ignorant about the parish congregations and diocese lines I had easily found with a cursory Google search before coming, thinking the ecclesial life of local Catholics might be relevant to ministry in Italy. This made me pretty uncomfortable.
Doctrinal differences aside, I cannot believe that the Faith of all Christendom from roughly Christ to Luther is devoid of Life here in Italy; that a millennium of incredibly scholastic and dynamic faith has been annulled by the 95 Theses overnight and that the innumerable pious mother of Italy do not know Christ simply because they carry rosaries and pray ceaselessly. I don't think the role of a foreign, nondenominational (aka Protestant/Baptist) mission attempt to spread the gospel in Italy should become an attempt to convert people into a faith articulated as mutually exclusive from the faith that their grandparents (and often parents) still practice over and beyond an attempt to actually talk about Christ, because this is what I saw working with CRU; the conversation was always "how protestants are different from Catholics" instead of how a Christ centered life is different from a life of bondage. Rant over.
We had a good evening and then retired to our rooms, exchanging Facebook information and pleasantries as we walked back in the night like Italians: stoic, quiet and grand.
Today we ventured out of Bologna to test the waters at a University in Milan that CRU wanted to start a ministry at. I was paired with Alicia, one of the STINT missionaries whom I had teamed up with before. In hindsight, it was a rather interesting (though understandable) approach to pair guys and girls for ministry. Today in particular was rather...well, interesting; I spent the day wandering about a mysterious city with a beautiful girl who spoke Italian and loved Jesus. Read between the lines. It was really fun, especially as we approached students, because Alicia truly was semi-fluent in Italian. I could follow along and understood the conversation and though I had to frame my own responses in English, I was able to work in considerably more Italian words than before and felt (almost) as if I could truly learn the language this way. The whole declension aspect of Italian would, of course, ruin me in reality, but it was nice to imagine.
It was also really cool to dig deeper into what it meant to be a full time missionary and hear firsthand what the joys and struggles of living life as an alien can be. The day gave me greater empathy for CRU. As we reconvened for lunch, we again got on the sub and made our way to downtown Milan. (The flexible plan had been to visit a different part of Milan, but I convinced our team leader that "yes, the Milanese Duomo is a very big deal." (Duomo simply means the central church, but if you ask someone if they have seen The Duomo it is implied that you are speaking of Milan. It is literally THE Church [little C]). We arrived just before dinner, saw the magnificent structure, and then climbed on top. It was certainly the most intimate experience of a cathedral on the trip. It gave scale and scope to the idea. Every inch was ornamented in statuary and relief; unique statues and carvings, every inch!
Also had an exciting event when Philip and I got separated from the group, who ended up at a different Restaurant than planned, and we had to get technologically creative to find them. It was rather uneventful as far as escapades go and not unexpected (we were the pair that tended to branch out from the group; more comfortable with navigation and chafing against the chaperoning.) We then had another long bus ride back to Bologna and another evening of wandering the town, though uneventful. Let me reiterate, these nightly excursions were the most fascinating experiences culturally as we were able to actually meet Italians without an agenda.