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

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

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 Arkansas and Oklahoma. 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'm in 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. I made an illegal turn on purpose to get headed back to where I wanted to go. 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 sevefral of Paul's letters 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! I am from a country (the USA) that is less than 250 years old, 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. Near Rome's Mussolini-built railroad stations are the remnants of a 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 Christopher Columbus brought back to Europe from the New World 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 pagan images. Today similar niches are built into the walls of gardens and buildings. 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. It is on one side of the piazza where Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini often stood on a balcony haranguing the populace of Rome during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

Yes, 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 had a measure of success, for they are in the process of organizing a small new church out of their efforts. But now her time 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 that 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 Americans have of the Italians is that they eat only spaghetti, ravioli, pizza and lasagna. It's a stereotype which needs to be smashed. 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 thus somewhat of an 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 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 in 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 dreaming about being a missionary 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 leave that to my college and seminary classmates scattered around the globe.

Italy's highway system is one of the world's best -- as is its train system. 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 each of them is more than 100 miles. So, travel by horseback would be very impractical for us.

There have even been times when we've felt that a car was superfluous here. In the cities, the rapid transit bus system is unbelievable. You can ride very inexpensively on any of the hundreds of routes in Rome. Buses pass in 5-10-minute intervals. So there's never much waiting, and on many main thoroughfares buses have their own separate lanes. For a few dollars, you can get a month's pass enabling you to ride any bus on any route 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 is far more 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, and so on. 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 that impressively show 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 small 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 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 home assignment 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 1,300cc engine in it, while the engine in my seven-passenger Fiat van had only 850 cc'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 un ways that conserve heat in the wintertime and then kep things 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 to the USA for home assignment, one of my big shocks may be the nighttime brightness of homes, stairwells, shops, and other places. I may have to wear sunglasses at nighttime in the USA 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 obviously making some adjustments the the lifestyule we were used to in the USA. There are a lot of interesting discoveries we're making almost every day. Yet, we're not living in a tent or a tiny thatched roof dwelling and boiling our drinking water. The fulfillment of our missionary call is taking place in a modern, industrialized society.

Some world missions strategists assert that we're actually living in the "sunrise of missions." While some of the great missionary adventure stories of past centuries will not be repeated, the Holy Spirit is still moving in unusual ways 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 ]

    -- Howard Culbertson,

  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 → 

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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