ebook: Rookie Notebook &mdash Our first nine months as missionaries (Part 3)

This ebook by Howard Culbertson re-lives their first nine months as missionaries to Italy. These seven chapters (including the Preface and Postscript) are full of stories reflecting on what it means to be a cross-cultural evangelical missionary to Italy. Originally published by what is now called The Foundry with ISBN number 0-8341-0401-6. A few things have been updated.

Missions in Italy

3. I've always wanted to wear a pith helmet

I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene. My father pastored Nazarene churches in places with names like Ozark, Hiwasse, Claremore, and Guthrie -- towns in the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas. But the town where I spent my Nazarene Junior Fellowship days (way back then I think we called it "Junior Society") was Holdenville, down in the southeastern part of Oklahoma.

One year, during our Sunday evening meetings in the back part of that beige brick building, I can remember us collecting nickels and dimes to open Nazarene mission work in New Guinea ... or was it Samoa? It wasn't long after that, during a revival meeting held by Rev. and Mrs. Herman Crews, that I bowed at the altar of that church and told the Lord "yes" to a call to missionary service. And I began to look forward to the day when I would get to wear a pith helmet and tramp through steaming jungles or over burning desert sands.

In the steps of Paul

And now look where I am: amid the ruins of ancient Rome, living near the remains of medieval palaces and mystic cathedrals filled with delicate Renaissance Madonnas. This is no place for a pith helmet. They sent me to the wrong country for that. Instead, I've come back to the very city where the Apostle Paul spent some of the last years of his ministry.

Last night, out near the beginning of the old Appian Way, I missed a turn. To get headed back to where I wanted to go, I made an illegal turn on purpose. Barbara casually remarked that if I got jailed for that infraction, it really wouldn't be all that bad. "After all, haven't some of the most memorable letters of all time been written from Roman prisons?" she asked. (I do remember Professor Ralph Earle trying to drill into me at seminary that Paul's letters to Philemon, the Colossians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and his second letter to Timothy were most likely written during his periods of imprisonment here.)

Unlike many nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionaries, we haven't come to a technologically primitive, near-Stone-Age culture. Like the Apostle Paul, we have come to Rome, the traditional heart of the spiritual and intellectual life of the Western world. When we move to Florence, we will be living in the birthplace of the Renaissance. No, this is no place for a pith helmet. I look strange enough already in my American-style wardrobe!

The other day I listened as Simin, a young movie director from Iran, argued with an Italian teacher over which culture was the oldest -- Persian or Roman. Wow! Here I am from a country that's celebrated its two hundredth birthday, and they're talking about 3,000 years!

We've been down into the ruins of the Roman Forum and strolled on the very stones where the Caesars walked. We've driven out on the old Appian Way across some of the original paving stones laid down 2,000 years ago. Down near Rome's Mussolini-built railroad stations are the remnants of the city wall built by the Emperor Aurelius in the third century A.D. The nearby Church of Santa Maria Maggiore has a ceiling with gold leafing from the first gold brought from the New World by Christopher Columbus during his trips at the close of the fifteenth century.

Not long ago I walked through the ruins of Pompeii, that sumptuous city near Naples which was buried in A.D. 79 by a disastrous volcanic eruption. In several of the now-excavated homes, 2,000-year-old wall murals are still intact. A brothel still exists, complete with pornographic decorations. As we walked along, our Italian guide muttered, "No wonder God allowed the volcano to destroy it."

As we strolled up and down the streets of that ghost town, it began to dawn on me that the culture I'm living in now and trying desperately to understand is not, a product of the past 20 or even 200 years. There in Pompeii are traces of building patterns, city planning, and lifestyles which are part of Italian life today. Among the most interesting items were the little inset niches in the walls of homes and gardens for images. Today those same niches are still built into garden and building walls. Instead of pagan Roman idols, however, today they hold Catholic idols of Mary and the saints.

Not long ago we toured Castel Sant'Angelo, a giant castle built first as a tomb by the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 135 and then remodeled into a fortress residence by the popes in the Middle Ages. It is connected with the Vatican by a tunnel which, at times, served as a refuge for the popes, notably during the sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V of Spain in 1527. I remember studying some of these events in a high school sophomore class in European history in Midwest City, Oklahoma. But I never dreamed that my missionary call would bring me here to minister in the shadows of these monuments.

The big white things

We'd spent two months in Italy. We were learning the language and taking what opportunities we had to see the tourist sights while we sought to make a few friends for the Church of the Nazarene. Then one day on the bus home from downtown Rome, I met a young missionary wife. (You soon acquire a way of spotting fellow Americans miles away. And my ear is attuned to pick up English conversation from 500 yards.) She asked me where our language school was. "Near Piazza Venezia," I told her.

She thought for a moment. Then her eyes brightened. "Oh, yes," she said. "That's where that big white thing is, isn't it?"

Yes, indeed. There is a "big, white thing" there. The geographical center of Rome, this huge, bustling piazza is dominated by a gigantic, nineteenth-century monument to Victor Emmanuel II, king of Italy in 1870 during the unification of the papal- and city-states into one country. Titled Altar of the Fatherland, that lush work has often been compared to a birthday cake. And it is on one side of the piazza that Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini often stood in a balcony the former papal residence (Palazzo Venezia) haranguing the populace of Rome during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

Yes ... I suppose you could identify Piazza Venezia as the place "where that big white thing is." But on that day I sorrowed for that young lady. She and her husband were "short-termers," and their two years in Rome were almost over. They'd come in a widely publicized (in the U.S.) evangelistic blitz to "win souls." And it looks like they have been successful, for they are in the process of organizing a brand-new church out of their efforts. But now her ministry in Italy was almost finished. And she was leaving without really knowing the people she had come to evangelize.

Those dark-haired Italians are not isolated "souls," you know. They're people rooted in the language, cultural heritage, and history of Rome, Pompeii, Sicily, Florence, Venice, Naples, Genoa.... I'm convinced that Jesus wants to do more with people than merely save their souls for Paradise -- He wants to transform their lives so they can live pure and whole in this present world. Successful missionary work, then, as I understand it, requires much more than mere physical presence. It takes into account the people, the culture, and their responsiveness to the gospel.

What am I doing to fulfill my call? Well, I'm trying to add 50,000 new words to my vocabulary. I'm immersing myself in 3,000 years of Graeco-Etrusco-Roman culture. I'm re-memorizing scores of Bible verses in a strange language. I'm feasting on tables full of new dishes. I'm trying to learn what all the "big white things" are.

... and in a halting way, through my limited vocabulary, I'm proclaiming Jesus as Lord to these people whom I'm coming to love and appreciate.

Squid makes a good sandwich

One of my good friends at Southern Nazarene University was "missionary kid" Pete Torgrimson, who grew up in Peru. Now pastoring on the Texas Gulf Coast, Pete used to travel on weekends with us in the Mission Crusaders. And often during mealtimes at those missionary conventions, he would launch into fantastic tales of delicacies which he had eaten -- delicacies quite foreign to North American palates. I remember one of his stories well: It was about eating monkey eyeballs. I wasn't certain at the time whether it was truth or legend. Our Peruvian friend in Rome, Alicia, swears it could not be true. At any rate, I had conditioned myself that when I became a real, live missionary with my pith helmet and all, I would find myself eating some pretty strange things.

Well, here I am minus my pith helmet. But I have found myself eating some strange things -- strange, at least, to me. Things like squid and octopus. And you may not believe this, but I've really come to like them. The only thing I have not been able to get down was some boiled pigskin offered to me one day by a family in Naples.

One stereotype that Americans have of the Italians is that they eat only spaghetti and ravioli and pizza and lasagna. It's a stereotype which needs to be smashed. For Italian food is one of the world's truly great cuisines. It is true that the Italians eat spaghetti or ravioli or something like it for every meal-but that dish is called the "first plate" and is always merely the appetizer!

I had an Italian dinner recently that lasted for close to three hours. it was in the home of a Nazarene family in Catania, a city on the island of Sicily in the shadow of the volcano Etna.

Here's how it went: We began with an ample portion of spaghetti covered with a delicious, home-cooked tomato sauce. Then came the second course of a large piece of veal cutlet together with a mixed green salad, including a vinegar-and-olive-oil dressing. At this point many Italian meals end with some fresh fruit for dessert (and there's always some delicious fruit in season here). I was quite ready to call it quits there, having enjoyed what I thought was a bountiful and delicious dinner.

But, oh, no. The dishes kept coming. On came a plate of swordfish with artichokes (my first time to try them) as the side vegetable. I was now certain the fresh fruit was on its way. But no. The table (which resembled an Early American style piece of furniture, no less!) was cleared, and plates full of boiled eggplant with relishes of olives and pickles came through the door.

After we finished that, they passed around a heaping plate of bakery pastries (and they kept passing the plate around until it was empty). I had never been so stuffed in all my life. I thought I was ready to burst. But then on came that plate of fresh fruit I was looking for several rounds before. So I took an orange, slowly peeled and ate it, looking around for a sofa to lie down on. But would you believe it? The capstone was another plate of bakery pastries.

The spaghetti in the stereotype? We'd finished it more than two hours before. Don't be fooled by what you see on the Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee advertisements. Italy is rich in tasty products, and its cooking is among the best known in the world. They do cook great ravioli, macaroni, and spaghetti, but that's only the start.

I didn't really like horses anyway

My years of missions dreaming had included horseback trips deep into secluded areas to take the gospel to isolated tribes and villages where roads had not yet penetrated. It's not that I'm much of a horse rider -- the few times I've ridden one, I've found it quite uncomfortable. But I figured that if God was calling me to be a missionary, there was probably a horse somewhere in my future. But I was wrong. There's no horseback riding to be done here. I'm having to leave that to my college and seminary classmates scattered all around the globe in other countries.

Italy's highway system is one of the world's best -- as is its train system. Not to mention, of course, that Italy is a 700-mile-long peninsula with a land area the size of Georgia and Florida combined. Our churches are scattered from one end of the country to the other, the average distance between them being something more than 100 miles. In addition to being impractical for us, horses would be far too slow.

There have even been times when we've felt that a car was superfluous here. For in the cities, the rapid transit bus system is unbelievable. For small change you can ride on any of the hundreds of routes in Rome. The buses pass in 5-10-minute intervals, so there's never much waiting; and on many main thoroughfares they have their own separate lanes. For a few dollars you can get a month's pass which enables you to ride any bus on any route for as many times as you wish during that month. During our language study, we spent about three hours a day on Rome's buses, going to and from school. It was cheaper than driving (gasoline will be as much as four times as expensive in Italy as it is in the U.S.A.), and there was never any hassle over finding a parking place.

I've done a lot of my cultural observing on Rome's buses. You see a lot of interesting people, hear a lot of interesting arguments, etc. And in fact, I've written parts of this book on Bus Line No. 136 going out Nomentana Street. It is true that Rome does have its traffic problems. And it often appears that those buses are sometimes a factor in those tie-ups. But if you look inside them, you'll see they're often full to their 100-person capacity (and sometimes beyond). That many people represent a lot of potential private automobiles!

There are pages and pages of statistics and charts which show quite impressively how we Americans are energy gobblers in comparison with the rest of the world. But I did not fully realize all that that meant until we came to another industrialized country like Italy. They are really fuel-pinchers here. Perhaps that's why rises in energy costs hit them so hard -- they have no more notches with which to tighten their . belts.

They drive tiny, tiny cars which get 40-60 miles per gallon. In fact, the German-built Volkswagen bug is considered such a large car here that owners of it last year had to pay a "luxury" tax. My own Fiat mini-van holds seven people legally (more if necessary). But it is as short as a VW bug and gets 30-40 miles to the gallon, fully loaded. I think that one of our feelings of reverse culture shock when we return to the U.S. on furlough may come when we encounter the big cars again. (Don't forget that the VW is one of the bigger cars on the road here in Italy. The VW bug even has a 1,300-c.c. engine in it, while the engine in my seven-passenger Fiat had only 850 c.c.'s.)

There's very little air conditioning here -- and what there is is generally small, window-unit stuff. Nor is there much heat in the wintertime. In our Rome apartment we got heat from six to eight in the morning and from three to nine in the evening ... no matter how cold it got. The buildings are constructed, however, to conserve as much of the heat as possible in the wintertime and to keep as cool as possible in the summer.

Light bulb wattage is much smaller here than we were used to in the U.S. Entire rooms are lit by 40 watts or less, sometimes only 25. When I return home for furlough, one of my big shocks may be the nighttime brightness of homes, stairwells, shops, and other places. It may be I'll have to go to wearing sunglasses at nighttime to protect my eyes!

Central hot water systems with their seemingly endless supply of steaming water are a rarity here. We have a small electric hot water heater above our kitchen sink which heats two and one-half gallons at a time. The one in the bathroom is somewhat larger -- perhaps 10 gallons.

Forget the pith helmet

Well, we are having to make some adjustments here from our life-style in the U.S.A. There are a lot of interesting discoveries we're making almost every day. Yet, we're not living in a tent somewhere boiling our drinking water. The fulfillment of our missionary call is taking place in a modern, industrialized society.

There are missionary strategists who assert that we're actually living in the "sunrise of missions." While some of the great missionary adventure stories of the past two centuries will not be repeated, yet the Holy Spirit is moving in an unusual way all around the globe. I'm glad to be a part of that -- even if I never get to wear that pith helmet. . . . [ 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

Sometimes I really want to go home

arrow pointing rightCulture shock can overtake you in Italy just as well as in the jungle. . . . [ continue reading ]

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