E-book: Rookie Notebook — My first nine months as a missionary (Part 5)

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This electronic book (e-book) by Howard Culbertson re-lives his first nine months as a missionary to Italy. These 5 short chapters plus a Preface and a Postscript are full of stories reflecting on what it means to be a cross-cultural missionary to Italy. Originally published in 1976 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City with ISBN number 0-8341-0401-6

Missions in Italy

5. It's part of the culture

     One of the most exciting, yet sometimes irritating, things I've discovered in our first nine months in Italy is that being a missionary involves becoming bi-cultural. That is, you have to learn to operate in a completely new environment which has a whole different set of etiquette rules. For instance, did you know there's more than one way to peel an orange? ... or that there's more than one way to properly hold your knife and fork when you cut a piece of meat? . . . or that when you go to someone's house for dinner, you are expected to provide the pastries for dessert? (We're always forgetting and come off looking like heels!)

A kiss on the cheek

     I have this feeling that when we go back to the U.S., I'll be eating my meat with the fork in the wrong hand and holding the fork wrong on top of that! And I just know I'm going to start eating at a table without waiting until everyone has been served. Here it is considered crude to wait, since the food should be eaten when it's piping hot. To sit and look at a plate of food would be an insult to the cook.
     And I still haven't gotten used to shaking hands with every lady that I encounter. But it's a custom that will probably soon become automatic with me, and I'll look like a country bumpkin when we go home on furlough.
     There is another custom which sounded very strange when we first heard about it, but which now seems very proper and right to me. That's the custom of close friends kissing each other on the cheek when they meet (men kiss the men, ladies kiss the ladies). It's a particularly affectionate greeting between believers, often accompanied by the word "Peace." It, incidentally, is probably also a proper fulfillment of the New Testament exhortation to "greet one another with a holy kiss." (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)
     Before we left the U.S., we were asked by several individuals how we would face the wine problem in Italy. That country is famous for its wines. It's the standard table drink, with per capita consumption running at 30 gallons per year. (Beer and other alcoholic drinks are also consumed on top of this figure.) People came to me who "knew" that Nazarenes in Europe drank, and they wanted to know how we were going to react.
     "To drink or not to drink" is a real problem for many evangelical missionaries serving in Italy. Some independent evangelical missionaries who wouldn't dare touch alcoholic drinks in the U.S. drink wine regularly in Italy as a table beverage. They sometimes excuse themselves by saying, "Well, it's a different thing here. It's such a cultural thing; everybody does it." (I'm certain some of their supporters would be less than thrilled to hear them saying that!)
     So what about the Nazarenes? The position of the Church of the Nazarene on intoxicating beverages is clear in both English and Italian. We promote total abstinence in Florence, Italy as well as Florence, Alabama and in Rome, Georgia as well as Rome, Italy. The personal convictions of every one of the missionary staff about abstaining from alcoholic beverages are bedrock strong as well. Do we have a problem with it in some of our Italian congregations? Yes, some. But then I know churches in the U.S. where people are having trouble keeping their lives untainted by worldly habits and customs. But I think it's less of a problem than some have dreamed it to be.
     I've eaten in a lot of Italian homes in the past nine months-believers and nonbelievers. And I've found it no problem at all to refuse the wine wherever it has been offered to me. In these nine months, no one has argued with me, no one has insisted that I drink, no one has been upset at my refusal. [ case study on drinking in France ]
     To excuse wine-drinking on cultural grounds alone is an error. Christianity has always gone cross-grain at some points in every culture. American society -- or any other society -- is not the yardstick for deciding whether a specific practice is good or bad. Rather, every questionable practice in a culture has to be examined in the light of the Bible.
     It seems to me that if all the arguments we have built in English are valid . . . if all the tracts, pamphlets, and books which have been written buttressed with scriptures against alcoholic beverages are valid ... if all these arguments are valid in English, they are also valid in Italian. Strangely enough, in one breath the Italians will tell you that wine is good for your digestive system, while with the next breath they'll be complaining about their liver problems. (And I happen to have this vague memory of a lesson on alcohol-damaged livers in a high school biology class in Midwest City, Oklahoma.) [ comments in Pasta, pizza and Pinocchio ]
     Blaming things on the culture can also become a very subtle form of prejudice. I have been amazed to see how much is blamed on the Italian character. One of the most amusing things to me has been Americans carrying on about the tardiness of Italians. But I have observed that it's been the Americans, rather than the Italians, who've been late to appointments with me.

Holiness is at home here

     Three months after we arrived in Italy, we attended the annual interdenominational missionary conference in Florence. One evening a veteran missionary from a Calvinistic mission board was eating at our table. There, in the dining room of the Hotel Columbus, I was enjoying my spaghetti and lecturing him on the advantages of looking at scripture with a holiness theological perspective. Suddenly, he looked me in the eye and said, "And I hope you're not going to impose that on the Italians."
     Well, we don't really intend to "impose" anything on the Italians. Rather, the tenor of the Holy Scriptures is that holiness -- including a pure heart -- is the design for life in the kingdom of God. It's the life-style for which Americans and Italians were both created.
     The desire to establish a holiness church in Italy did not originate with the Roy Fullers or any of the other American missionary families who preceded them. The Church of the Nazarene came into being in Italy in 1948 when a man named Alfredo Del Rosso merged some independent holiness groups with the Church of the Nazarene. Today, we have no desire to alter the basic nature of the holiness movement which Rev. Del Rosso launched back then. In fact, our missionary policy today reads quite clearly, "The work and manifestations of the Holy Spirit are basically the same in all countries around the world."
     In March of our first year in Italy, one of our top pastors confessed to a sin of adultery in his life. The district had to relieve him of his pastorate and ask him to return his ordination certificate. It was not a happy moment, made even more sad because it occurred during district assembly. Wednesday afternoon, just before the business session began, Presiding General Superintendent Edward Lawlor called all the ordained men on the district into the church office to explain the situation. He told us grimly, "We're either going to have a holiness church here in Italy, or we're not going to have a church at all."
     Salvatore Scognamiglio, who also pastors at Civitavecchia, said it just as clearly a few years ago when he wrote in a little booklet titled Called to Be Saints: "If in the future we stop preaching the message of holiness, or if our lives no longer conform to that message, then we no longer have a reason to exist."
     To be sure, there are those in Italy who have trouble believing that God's Word means exactly what it says. They would explain away the passages on holy living, but then they've been doing that in the U.S. for years too. No, the doctrine of holiness is not a foreign element which we have to impose on Italian believers. I remember standing on the front steps of the Rome church following a service. There Alfredo Del Rosso, 86 years old at the time, said to me, "Holiness makes sense to the Italian. All his life he's been doing good works and acts of penance in an attempt to rid his life of sin. He really wants to know that it is possible to have a pure heart and live the holy life Jesus talked about."
     It's not hard to preach holiness here either. The culture abounds in easily understandable illustrations. One of the best ones was told to me late one Wednesday evening in February. We were on our way from Rome to visit our churches in Sicily. To cross from the Italian mainland to Sicily, it's necessary to take a ferryboat. So this night about 11 p.m., there we were, easing out into the Straits of Messina. Way down on the first deck were railroad coaches filled with people making the crossing. Above them was a deck for automobiles. Then, the top deck was for people -- it included a restaurant, a coffee-shop, and a lounge area.
     As we made that 45-minute trip in the cold wind, Roy Fuller taught me a little Greek mythology connected with the very waters we were crossing.
     The Sirens lived here on an island in the Straits of Messina. These witches, who looked like birds, sang so sweetly that everyone passing by felt impelled to land.
     There the Sirens sat in a meadow, singing, and all around them were the shriveled bodies of the men who had come to hear, and had sat down and listened until they died. A mythical character named Odysseus had been warned of this danger. So, before he came sailing through the straits, he plugged up the ears of all his sailors with wax so they wouldn't be able to hear the Sirens. However, he had heard so much about their singing that he wanted to hear it for himself, and yet not be hurt. So he had his men tie him to the mast and instructed them not to let him loose no matter what happened.
     As they approached the straits, the lovely song of the Sirens came floating across the water. Attracted by the alluring music, Odysseus struggled to get free. He shouted to his men to let him loose, but they rowed on until they were safely out of hearing.
     Another mythical character named Jason attacked the problem in a different way. He was on board the ship Argo in search of the golden fleece when he encountered the Straits of Messina with the Sirens. However, on board his ship was the sweet singer Orpheus. And as they cruised past the island of the Sirens, the ravishing strains of these bird-women were countered by the even lovelier strains of Orpheus' harp. In comparison with Orpheus' songs, those of the Sirens seemed almost harsh and shrill.
     Now, who said holiness was an alien concept to Italy? Pastor Angelo Cereda, who's a Sicilian, uses this story to illustrate one of his sermons on sanctification. The carnal Christian struggles and struggles like Odysseus, attracted by the songs of the worldly sirens. But he does not often manage to be an overcomer. On the other hand, the Spirit-filled person hears the sirens' song. But like Jason, his ear is attuned to a much sweeter song which makes that of the world sound shrill. [ How entire is "entire" sanctification ]

Excuses I've heard

     The last evening of that interdenominational missionary convention in Florence, all of the expatriate (or foreign) missionaries living in Rome had collected in a corner of the hotel lounge for a prayer meeting. I was startled to hear an independent missionary (a graduate of Asbury College, no less) praying, "Lord, You know we're not interested in quantity. It's quality we're after."
     I'm sure my mouth must have dropped open in astonishment. And I was tempted to interrupt and say, "Baloney, Lord. We do happen to be interested in quantity as well as quality." But I didn't. There does seem to be a tendency here -- even as in the U.S. -- to explain away the lack of converts and new churches planted. I know that I'm an incurable optimist. But I happen to believe that Jesus meant what He said when He commanded us to preach to every creature, to make disciples of every nation. And I also happen to believe Him when He says that after the sowing, there will be a successful harvest.
     One day in a conversation with Gioele Baldari, Italian director of Campus Crusade for Christ, I asked him about some of the "impossibility" remarks I had heard in my first few months here. I wanted to know if it really was easier to lead people to the Lord in the U.S. than it was here. I wanted to know if it was really true that methods of personal evangelism so successful in the U.S. were useless here. Gioele smiled a bit, then said firmly, "It's a lie, Howard. It's a lie straight out of the Pit."
     I know I don't have all the answers. As this point, as a rookie missionary, I know I'm as green as can be. But I have noticed that those Christians -- Italian and foreign -- who are seeing fruit here are those giving daily, joyful, spontaneous witness to what Jesus can do. A few weeks ago I sat in a tent meeting not far from our home. There, with about 100 people present, I watched as 10 people responded to an invitation to become born-again Christians -- many of those 10 had that night heard an evangelical sermon for the first time in their lives!
     On a recent trip to Florence to conduct the services, I arrived for Sunday school just as an elderly lady with two of her grandchildren approached. She asked one of our laymen standing there if he knew where the nearest Catholic church was. He said he didn't know and then launched into a testimony of how he'd found the Lord.
     After talking with her for a while, he invited her in to our service. Just then Pastor Cianchi's mother walked up. A born-again believer as well, she began to testify to the lady and finally got her to come inside with the children.
     However, there wasn't a class for the two small girls, and they had to go into the junior class. There they began to make so much noise that the grandmother got embarrassed. She got the two girls and walked out of the church.
     But the Lord wasn't through with her yet. On the front steps she encountered Rev. Del Rosso arriving from his home in nearby Prato for the worship service. He stopped her and began to witness. Now, I happen to believe if there's that kind of abundant sowing going on weekly in the lives of believers, that God is going to give us an abundant harvest.
     As a pastor in Uvalde, Texas., I became increasingly convinced that a great deal of the strength of the Church lies in its being the body of Christ. Bill Gaither used a slightly different metaphor, but one which carries many of the same connotations, in his song about the "Family of God." To my relief, I've discovered that the sense of "belongingness" is strong here in the lives of believers. And that makes me extremely optimistic about the future of the Italian church and its evangelistic outreach.
     It came home to me clearly the first of March during a trip north from Rome to the Italian District Assembly being held in the Moncalieri suburb of Turin. In the little Fiat mini-van with us were the Eduardo Lerros (he was assistant pastor in Rome at that time) and Eduardo's mother. His mother, who's not a believer, lives south of Rome at Naples. But one of her daughters is married to a postman who works in Turin. So she was hitching a ride with us to spend a couple of days with this daughter and a year-old grandson.
     The Italian family is a very close-knit unit. So that day as we drove along, Mrs. Lerro did her best to talk Eduardo and Lee into skipping some of the assembly sessions to spend a little time with her and his sister. She really leaned heavily on his loyalty to the family. But Eduardo stubbornly refused, feeling he had a commitment to keep to be in every part of the assembly. Finally, with a note of desperation in her voice, his mother exclaimed, "Those people ... they're really your family, aren't they?"
     His head bowed, the words came softly, slowly ... meaningfully. "Yes, they are. They really are." . . . [ continue reading ]

  Page:  << Prev  |    1. Preface  |   2. Somebody stole my jungle  |   3. I've always wanted to wear a pith helmet  |   4. Sometimes I really want to go home   |   5. It's part of the culture  |   6. "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow"  |   7. Postscript  |   Next >> 


"Because He lives, I can face tomorrow"

Next chapterStrength in the tough times of cultural adjustment and loneliness . . [ read more ]

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