2. Somebody stole my jungle

ebook: Rookie Notebook -- Our first nine months as missionaries in Italy (Part 2)

This ebook by Howard Culbertson re-lives the first nine months he and his wife Barbara spent as missionaries to Italy. These five short chapters, plus a Preface and a Postscript, are full of stories reflecting on what it means to be a cross-cultural evangelical missionary to Italy. Originally published by by what is now called The Foundry with ISBN number 0-8341-0401-6

Missions in Italy

Our giant cargo liner, the Tuhobic, eased into the harbor at Savona, Italy. It was 9 p.m. Along with the 50 other passengers, we lined the rail of that Yugoslav freighter to peer across a few hundred yards of dark water at the lights of a city, a foreign city.

Tomorrow morning, the captain had told us, we would dock. And for the first time in 13 days, we would be able to step off that floating hotel onto some solid, dry ground. Flushed with excitement, we went to bed for the last time in that little cabin. The Tuhobic was a strange hotel. It wasn't exactly a luxury cruise ship with room service, ballrooms, shuffleboard courts, a swimming pool, and a full-time recreation director. Instead, lashed to its decks were seven cabin cruisers and sailing craft destined for a boat show in nearby Genoa. There was also an American-made truck and a Caterpillar tractor headed for Yugoslavia. In five cargo holds beneath those dull red, steel decks were machinery parts, rolls and rolls of a kraft-type paper, and even bales of wastepaper headed for recycling plants in Italy where wood pulp was in short supply.

The passengers were a motley collection of wealthy retirees, ex-Peace Corps volunteers and young adventurers out to see Europe before settling down to a job, a university professor and his family on sabbatical . . . and us, the rookie missionaries.

As we went to bed that last night, we set the alarm early, hoping to be up in time to see the entire docking process. But . . . alas, we were too late. When I first peered out our little porthole at 6:30, the ship was already gently nudging the docks of Italy's fifth-largest port.

Where are the cannibals?

We had started this adventure exactly right by catching this cargo liner out of Savannah, Ga. All my missionary heroes of past generations had taken ships to their assignments, not these newfangled jetliners. And, during our passage across the Atlantic, all the rich old ladies on board had ooh-ed and ah-ed over us like we were the David Livingstones of today, off for the terrible ordeal of opening up an unexplored continent.

But on this brisk October morning, as I scrambled out of our room to the wooden promenade deck outside, I didn't see any cannibals massing on shore. And as I drank in those first sights of my new home, there were no dugout canoes to be found. Then, an hour later as I struggled down the gangplank carrying a heavy trunk, I took careful note of the fact that I didn't have to step around any snakes or crocodiles.

Within a couple of hours, we had cleared customs, had our first cup of genuine Italian espresso coffee, and were driving down a four-lane toll highway toward Rome. In the bottom of one of those trunks piled high on top of veteran missionary Roy Fuller's car was a framed parchment titled Certificate of Missionary Appointment. As we sped down that boot-shaped peninsula, we drove through city after city of towering apartment buildings which seemed to have sprouted like weeds on the hillsides and down in the valleys. A large European country as a mission field for me? I had never envisioned this.

The Lord first began talking to me about missionary service while I was in junior high school. I am now 28. Yet not in all that time had I ever thought the "call" would mean this. I had re-lived the biographies of Harmon Schmelzenbach in southern Africa, of Esther Carson Winans in Peru, and of Sidney and Wanda Knox in Papua New Guinea. My dreams had been of the day when I would make dangerous trips up the Upper Orinoco River, taking the Word of God by dugout canoe to isolated jungle clearings.

While a student at Southern Nazarene University, I traveled on the weekends with the Mission Crusaders. During these missionary conventions in local churches, I often quoted Jim Elliot, martyred missionary to the Auca Indians. I imagined that his fate might be mine as well. And I secretly hoped I would leave behind a memorable saying or two. [ Historic missions slogans ] Then came seminary training under Dr. Paul Orjala, including a three-week field trip course to Haiti one January with him. It wasn't long before I knew there had to be a ministry for me in the mountain villages of Haiti.

When we met the Nazarene World Missions board as part of our appointment process, one of those distinguished-looking men (I was so scared I don't remember which one it was) asked us where we'd like to be assigned. "Anywhere," we replied confidently. But there was still that vision of black mambas and piranhas. And there were even those fleeting moments during that appointment process when we thought we might be going to Indonesia with Bob and Rosa McCroskey. Then .. . somebody stole my jungle. And here we were driving down a busy superhighway into Rome in possession of a Certificate of Missionary Appointment which read: "Field of Labor to be Italy."

As I stood on the balcony of our fourth-floor apartment last night, I didn't see any wild animals -- only hordes of tiny Fiats, motor scooters, and motorbikes. There was no dense jungle -- only twisting, turning, narrow streets crowded with look-alike apartment buildings. But, even with my jungle missing, I have a calm assurance that we are here in His will, with a valid "missionary" call. I have been sent by God and the church to engage in a cross-cultural ministry with evangelistic goals. God has led me to another culture, not to a jungle, but rather to Italy's crowded cities. And what cities they are! A former U.S. ambassador here, Clare Boothe Luce, has written so graphically of them: "They have produced great saints and great sinners; geniuses and men of gigantic -- and trivial -- folly; heroes and knaves; champions of law and justice and black-hearted tyrants."

What are you doing here?

Two weeks before writing these words Barbara and I were having a cup of cappuccino (a mixture of espresso coffee and whipped milk) in a downtown coffee shop with Maureen, a young magazine correspondent for Newsweek. There, just across the street from Rome's YMCA, she suddenly began to chuckle when we told her what we were doing in Italy. "Missionaries?" She laughed, "What are you doing here at the heart of Christianity?"

I thought back to a couple of months earlier. Nazarene chaplain Kenneth Clements and his family were in Rome for a few days' holiday from duties with the U.S. Army in Germany. We were playing tour guide for them -- and cheating a little bit by taking them to some places we hadn't yet gotten around to seeing ourselves.

One of our stops was the Basilica of St. John's in Lateran, the oldest church in Rome and the headquarters for the bishop of Rome. Across the street from the historic cathedral is a building called the Palace of the Holy Steps. Inside is a flight of masonry steps alleged to be the actual staircase that Christ climbed to Pilate's judgment hall the night prior to His crucifixion. These 28 steps may be climbed -- but only on your knees. And, if you do so, the Roman Catholic Church promises you years of absolution (and thus gets you out of purgatory quicker) for your efforts.

In his Dollar-wise Guide to Italy, Arthur Frommer adds an amusing footnote to his description of the "holy stairs." He says, "One vigorous German boy we recently saw scaled them on his knees in 30 seconds, but we suspect that this set his karma back years!"

Well, the steps and the hopeful people ascending them may furnish laughter for guidebook writers and readers. But on that day we first saw them with the Clements family, they were a sobering sight. The stairs were almost an unbroken carpet of pilgrims mumbling prayers, going up a step at a time, and stopping at the top to kiss the worn wooden covering.

Evidently, the sight evoked the same reactions in us as it did over more than 500 years ago in a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther. During his famous pilgrimage to Rome from November of 1510, to April of 1511, Luther visited these stairs. Some historians say this visit was the turning point in his rejection of salvation based on works rather than through simple faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah.

What are we doing here, Maureen? Well, during the nine months we've been here, it has become increasingly obvious to us that most of the 59 million Italians do not know the reality of Christ living within them -- even though the large majority of them have beem baptized as "Christians."

The Tridentine Decrees -- issued in 1547 and never abrogated -- say rather forcefully: "If anyone shall say that justifying faith is nothing but confidence in the divine mercy remitting sin on account of Christ, or that this faith is the sole thing by which we are justified: let him be accursed." Well, Maureen, that's what we're doing here -- being accursed. Our Lord has led us here to proclaim quite simply that our hope for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is built on nothing less (or more) than Jesus' blood and righteousness! (In the words of Edward Mote's classic hymn)

To be sure, there are signs of ferment within the Catholic church, and many people are hoping that there will be a real revival within it. One of the movements receiving the most attention outside Italy has been the charismatic movement. Recently, however, American Catholic bishops warned of dangers inherent in this revival: "divergence from the official Church, the danger of fundamentalism," according to one Associated Press release from Rome. It appears that far from changing the fundamental character of the Catholic church, the charismatics have simply been accommodated by the church. The people go on kissing the toe of the huge bronze statue of St. Peter in Rome. They go on walking through the Holy Door in St. Peter's basilica, hoping to thereby receive forgiveness of sins. They go on lighting the candles in front of the statues of saints.

More than a hundred years ago, a man by the name of Phineas F. Bresee talked about "Christianizing Christianity." As missionaries supported by the movement Bresee headed, we've found ourselves repeating almost this same phrase to Maureen and to others. We've been telling them: "Much of what passes for Christianity is only a tragic caricature of it. An authentic Church is one that is composed of people whose lives have been transformed by the risen Christ."

It is true that Italy's census reports list 80 percent or more of the population as baptized Christians. And Catholic priests do teach mandatory religion classes in public schools. But the signs of spiritual famine abound. Brazen pornography adorns newsstands at the very walls of the Vatican itself while the screens of nearby movie theaters glorify immorality and decadent living. Social injustice is a way of life. To many Italians, Christianity means superstitious idol worship and empty rituals.

The Catholics can even criticize their church better than the Protestants. An Associated Press dispatch out of Brussels, Belgium, noted that a group of Belgian and Italian Catholics had published a booklet calling Rome

"a schizophrenic city where privileged people are securing all the best of life, and marginal people are left with practically nothing.... In addition to economic power, the church has a still more dangerous power: ideological power ... which it uses to chain man instead of liberating him."

In an article in Eternity magazine, Robert P. Evans wrote:

"To better his frugal life, the Italian farmer is a weekday communist. For the safety of his soul, he is a Sunday Roman Catholic. At heart he remains a pagan."

It seems clear that Italy desperately needs the full and abundant salvation that Jesus Christ made possible. And, Maureen, that's why we've come: to bring the life-changing message of Jesus to pagan hearts.

That we would come to the industrialized cities of Europe has been a puzzle even to many American evangelicals. In a few weeks, we will move to Florence to begin our ministry there. It's an assignment we knew would be ours even before we left the United States. During a service in one of the Nazarene churches in Houston, TX, we talked some about Florence and our future ministry there. Afterward, a man came up and exclaimed, "But Florence is a city of 400,000. I thought missionaries only went into isolated places!"

Well, as I understand Mark 16:15, Jesus didn't have in mind bats, black mambas, or polar bears when He said, "Every creature." He meant people. And in Florence, there's close to half a million of them. That means it's the size of Omaha, NE ... or Colorado Springs, CO ... or Atlanta, GA ... or Minneapolis, MN ... or Columbus, OH ... or Phoenix, AZ ... or Indianapolis, IN ... However, one of the big differences between Florence and these North American cities is that Florence has fewer than a dozen Protestant churches, all of them small.

I've found my family

One of the most often repeated comments about Italy in evangelical circles is that it is a tough, discouraging country in which to be a missionary. And it may yet turn out to be so. But one chilly Thursday evening of our first month here made me forget all about my dream of a jungle as I got excited about being part of God's family in Italy.

It was six o'clock, and the weekly prayer and praise service at the Church of the Nazarene in Rome's Monte Sacro suburb was ending. Outside, the rain drizzled down. So the small prayer meeting crowd of two missionary families and Italian assistant pastor, Eduardo Lerro, lingered in the sanctuary talking. Then, just as we were leaving, in walked Elisabeth Lopes.

This radiant, transplanted Cape Verdian waits very eagerly each week for our prayer meeting hour. On this particular Thursday afternoon, she had left her home on the far side of Rome in a taxi at 3:45 p.m. It should have been enough time to get her to the church before five o'clock. But the rain and Rome's infamous traffic snarls had stretched the ride out for an additional hour.

Collectively, we expressed our sorrow that we had ended the service before she had even arrived. Someone jokingly suggested that we run through the service all over again for her benefit. Then Roy Fuller asked, "Why don't you at least sing for us?"

She looked hesitant. We nodded yes. So she thumbed through her tattered Portuguese hymnal and began to sing one of her favorites. I wouldn't even have known the Italian words -- much less the Portuguese ones. But the tune was familiar. So I joined her softly in English.

She finished. And we stood quietly, awed. Tears welled up in my eyes. Reverently, we walked out of that small sanctuary, now hallowed anew by her singing testimony.

Roy Fuller and I had to go directly from church that evening to the railroad station to pick up some tickets for a weekend trip north to Turin, Italy's "Detroit." On the way to the station, he told me Elisabeth's story.

Elisabeth was one of hundreds of immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands to Italy. Most of them are single young ladies who have left their homes in search of jobs. Since Italy has a ready market for them as housekeepers, cooks, and other minimum-wage type employment, they come here.

But there was something different about Elisabeth. For through the Church of the Nazarene in Cape Verde, she had met Jesus. She was a born-again, Spirit-filled believer. In Cape Verde she had been active in street meetings, house-to-house evangelism, and other outreach activities.

When she arrived in Italy, she went to work for a Catholic family on a farm near Rome. The Church, and in particular the Church of the Nazarene, was very important to her. But here she was in a foreign country, isolated by a language barrier. So, for a year she lived with and worked for that family with no way of finding any group of evangelical believers -- much less the small band of Roman Nazarenes (the church phone and address weren't yet listed in the telephone book).

However, her commitment to the Lord never wavered. She even kept in touch with the Church of the Nazarene through Portuguese publications mailed to her from her home church in Cape Verde.

She was not at all satisfied with the working conditions in the home where she was, so after a year, when another offer was made, she took it. This time she was able to move into Rome with a job as a housekeeper for one of Rome's apartment-dwelling families in the vicinity of facilities built for the 1960 Olympics.

That family discovered she was an evangelical. Though they were Roman Catholics, they helped direct her to a nearby Baptist church. That Sunday, through her broken Italian (liberally sprinkled with Portuguese), the Baptist pastor learned of her connection with the Church of the Nazarene. In a directory of Italian Protestant churches, he discovered a telephone listing for the Rome mission Church of the Nazarene. He picked up his telephone and dialed the number.

Missionary-Pastor Roy Fuller answered the call. So, 12 months after Elisabeth's arrival in a strange land, she got directions to a Nazarene service -- a Thursday night prayer meeting in the home of Pio Boccini, a retired railroad conductor living near the University of Rome.

The Fullers went to that third-floor prayer meeting, expecting to meet Elisabeth. But the meeting ended with no sign of her. However, as they walked out of that old stone apartment building and through the iron gates onto the street, a taxi drove slowly by and came to a stop. A girl got out and began reading address numbers on the buildings. Hesitantly, she walked up to Roy and asked, "Do you know where I can find the Nazarenes?"

Roy's face crinkled into a smile. "Elisabeth?" he asked. And it was.

They all went back upstairs to the Boccinis' living room. Elisabeth was introduced all around. After a bit of small talk and warm greetings, Roy suggested they pray again. In Italian he began to pray, thanking the Lord for Elisabeth and His guidance and care for her. As he looked up after his "amen," there were big tears of joy coursing down her shining face. A year without any Christian contacts, alone in a strange country with strange foods, customs, and language, had not dimmed Elisabeth's close relationship to the Lord.

Suddenly, spontaneously, she burst into a Portuguese hymn. Her soprano voice was clear and full in that triangular, high-ceilinged room.

When she finished, the room was hushed and quiet. She glanced shyly around at everyone and then softly but triumphantly said, "I have found my family!"

Elisabeth, in a strange land a long way from the Cape Verde Islands, had discovered a home.

Last Monday, she, along with my wife Barbara, our son Matthew, and myself, sat on top of St. Peter's Basilica eating a sack lunch. (Don't laugh; it's a great place for a picnic!) Elisabeth talked of what Jesus meant to her, how He had changed her life, and how much she wished the whole world could know of her discovery.

Yes, it's true. Somebody stole my jungle. But I've found myself in the midst of believers like Elisabeth who need to be molded into a loving, caring family. There's nobody here who needs "civilizing" either. But oh, how they need Jesus! . . . [ 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→ 
-- Howard Culbertson,

I've always wanted to wear a pith helmet

arrow pointing rightHistoric Italy is a mission field, even though it's a very different one. . . . [ more ]

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