Monday, August 21, 2006 3 comments

Training!

Hello again! I just returned yesterday from two weeks of training in Searcy, Arkansas. One of the most interesting parts of the training was getting to know and spend time with some of the missionaries who went to Italy right after World War II. These men and women are now active in teaching and sending us, the next generation of workers. The stories of these early missionaries are amazing. When they went in to Italy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the country was still reeling from the war, and was staunchly Catholic. Teaching about a non-Catholic church was still illegal, and even after the constitution was changed to make it legal, was highly unpopular. Several were arrested, threatened, or thrown out of the country. Following is a history of the work in Italy, © Dr. Carl Mitchell, 1999:

The Italian Story

At the height of WWII, Harold Paden, sergeant, bazooka specialist, and ski trooper, in the 10th Mountain Division, was fighting the Axis; Alpine Mountain troops in the Italian Apennines between Florence and bologna. In the terrible winter of 1943-44, in a decisive battle in which one in seven of his division was killed, and 60 percent (including Harold) were wounded, defeating the enemy and survival were on Harold’s mind. At the same time, the seed was planted which led him to spearhead the historic evangelistic effort which occurred in Italy after the war.

Harold says, “The idea of my doing mission work in post-war Italy was born with God and my Christian upbringing. My Godly parents had more to do with my prepping than I did. It took time and the experiences of WWII for god to get my attention and make me understand His need for me in Italy. The decision came to fruition after another war was fought with Satan, in a long battle with my conscience. No sudden impulse! No foxhole faith! Lots of evaluation, introspection and sleepless nights of prayer! The battle no less intense! Casualties would be just as great! Lives would be sacrificed! God inspired a hard choice that I had to make. My dilemma: Who would go teach the Italians? Shall I send, or shall I go? Would this heavenly vision change the course of my life and career? Finally, one morning at 4 am I awakened my parents to join me in prayer! The Galilean had won!”

The immediate effect of Harold’s decision was the recruiting of his older brother Cline who, farther along in his education at Abilene Christian than Harold was at Pepperdine, was able to give attention to the preparatory phases of the Italian work.

The Crescent Hill Church of Christ in Brownfield, TX, agreed to support Cline, and became the focal point for the evangelistic thrust into Italy. In November of 1947, Cline and former classmate at Abilene, Bill Hatcher, sailed to Europe for a fifteen day survey trip of Italy. Passing through Switzerland, they were joined by Otis Gatewood, and by Maurice Hall who furnished his car. While visiting major Italian cities, they were struck by the spiritual darkness in which the people lived, by the poverty in evidence everywhere, and by the large number of destitute children that roamed the streets. They returned home with a mission!

Paden and Hatcher immediately began traveling among churches reporting on needs they had observed in Italy, recruiting workers, and raising funds to establish a beachhead in or near their target area of Rome. The Crescent Hill church decided to sponsor the founding of a home for Italian street children, and preparation were made to respond to the need of clothing and food that had been observed in Italy.

In March of 1948 a Lectureship was held in Brownfield, TX, to announce that churches of Christ were preparing for a spiritual invasion if Italy. In August of 1948, the Gordon Linscotts (supported by the church in Lewiston, Idaho) left for Italy to do advance work before the arrival of the larger group. Gordon, who had served behind enemy lines in Italy during the war, knew Italy well and was fluent in the language.

Meanwhile, steps were being taken to obtain visas for those who were to begin the work of the church in Italy. No doubt by Divine providence, the Italian Consulate in New Orleans misinterpreted a communiqué from Rome which announced that U.S. citizens no longer needed visas to enter Italy. Although the communication was intended to be applied only to tourists or casual visitors, the Consulate understood it to apply to all Americans regardless of their purpose. As a result, he informed the missionary group that they were free to go to Italy and that visas were not required.

A small mission task force arrived in Frascati, Italy on January 15, 1949 joining Gordon and Peggy Linscott. Members of the group and their sponsoring churches were: Cline and Jo Paden (Crescent Hill Church in Brownfield, TX), Harold and Bettye Paden (East Side Church in Lubbock, TX), Jack and Rosetta McPherson (Nacona, TX), Wyndal Hudson (Seagraves, TX), Bill and Peggy Hatcher (Hayes Avenue Church in Detroit, MI), Dale and Tillie Pittman (North Beach Church in Corpus Christi, TX), and Joe Chisholm (and elder of the Crescent Hill Church in Brownfield, TX). This group occupied property located by the Linscotts, including a 6500 sq. ft. war-scarred but otherwise beautiful villa, and a gatehouse containing two apartments. The property was located about twelve miles SE of Rome, on a hillside overlooking the city of Frascati.

Once settled, the group began distributing vast amounts of clothing which ahs arrive from the U.S., and, in cooperation with the Red Cross, placed about thirty orphans in the larger villa now named Villa Speranza (the house of hope). This former headquarters of the German High Command was brought under the command of the Lord for His work. Many Italians gathered to learn where these “angels of mercy” came from and what they stood for. Bible studies were begun through interpreters. By the end of January more than 300 were in attendance at these studies. The first baptisms began to occur in March and by June there were more than 50 members in the Frascati Church.

Imagine the surprise of the Italian government when it learned that a very evangelistic group has invaded the country armed with a letter from the Italian Consulate in New Orleans, giving them permission to work in Italy.

The obvious solution would have been to expel them, but it was not that simple. Guided by the Allied occupation forces, a constitution has been passed in 1946 which granted freedom of religion in Italy. In addition, Italy was in the process of being rebuilt with aid from the Marshall Plan. Efforts to dislodge these unwanted guests took more indirect forms.

First, a challenge was given to the missionaries to engage officials of the Catholic Church in formal debate. Capuchin monks engaged Cline Paden in five debates on principal Catholic doctrines. As many as 400 attended these discussions and public favor indicated a great victory for the Truth! Many members were added to the church of Christ as a result. Such public debates have never occurred again in Italy!

Second, an effort was made to drive out the workers through threats and intimidation. Word was circulated that those who were baptized were paid large sums of money. Communist papers said the Americans were spies working under the direction of Senator Connelly. Government papers claimed the workers were communists who were sent to strengthen the communist party. This claim was also officially made by high Italian offices to our State Department and believed. One newspaper said that while the group was on vacation in Italy, it had decided to live in the beautiful Roman hills and used religion as an excuse to do so. Some warned parents not to allow their children to be preyed upon by the missionaries, and ordered that anyone receiving a Protestant Bible must turn it in at the local parish church. The end result was that almost overnight, virtually everyone in Italy knew of the presence of this mysterious sect, and many wanted to know more!

Personal threats of bodily harm and even death were issued by a militant group called Catholic Action. Crowds marched in front of the workers’ place of residence calling for their death. The brakes were found cut on a jeep used by orphanage personnel. Workers directed toward a bible study in Castel Gondolfo were met by a large group and forced to turn back, leaving under a barrage of stones. Wyndal Hudson was warned a land mine had been planted where he parked his car when he went to the city of Rocca di Papa for a Bible study. He did not go, and a passing boy was seriously injured by this device.

This second approach caught the attention of our press, and an article with pictures was run in Life magazine, Feb. 20, 1950. This of course aroused great interest and support in America. In Italy, what was intended to be Adverse publicity resulted in thousand of letters asking for additional information. One of the workers discovered that a Jack McPherson club had been established in his honor in the Venice area. The flood of letters led to the creation of a national Bible correspondence course resulting in thousands of students, hundreds of baptisms, and numerous congregations. In a short period, a small beachhead in Frascati developed into scores of churches which dotted the nation.

A third prong of government response, occurring in 1952, involved building closures. In an attempt to destroy the church, police began denying member access to places of meeting, actually posting police at the entries. Though this only occurred in Alessandria, Livorno, Florence, and Rome, Italian officials said all building occupied by churches of Christ would be closed. Howard Bybee, Lido Petrini (former priest), and Salvatore Puliga were arrested for preaching the gospel. Carl Mitchell was issued a threat of arrest for teaching English as a means of converting Italians, and eventually Cline Paden was expelled from Italy.

Building closure has been an abusive tactic long used against Protestant bodies in Italy. When Mussolini signed the Lateran Pact with the Catholic Church in 1929, Catholicism became the religion of the State, and laws were established which made life difficult for non-Catholic churches already in existence, and made it virtually impossible for a new church to begin. When the constitution giving freedom of religion was passed, it provided for the establishment of a court which would have the task of bringing all existing laws into line with the constitution. For reasons that are certainly suspect, years passed without this court being appointed. As a result, police were free to close down non-Catholic church buildings for a variety of excuses. By lengthy, costly legal process, police actions were declared illegal, but only after a local church had suffered greatly.

Finally, in May 1957, a group of Italian missionaries including Cline Paden, Harold Paden, Gerald Paden, Howard Bybee, Carl Mitchell, Mel Pownall and Hillard Story went to Washington, D.C. A cadre of our most influential congressmen and senators was assembled to discuss the history of harassment suffered by churches of Christ in Italy. It was also demonstrated to this group that Italy was in fact violating a treaty signed by Italy and the U.S. guaranteeing reciprocity of treatment of guest nationals from these two countries. Then a delegation of senators and congressmen accompanied the missionaries to meet with State Department officials. John Johnson [a member of the church], chief legal counsel of the Air Force, argued the Church’s case successfully despite the opposition of State Department lawyers. The State Department immediately issued a formal protest to the Italian Government, thus beginning the process by which most of the legal problems of churches of Christ in Italy were positively resolved.

One legal problem still plagues us! Italian law for church recognition requires that a person be appointed as the official representative of the church for all of Italy. A review of this situation as it related to other churches showed that this person tended to become, in a certain sense, the head of the church. Our refusal to agree to this condition leaves us in a kind of “non man’s land among churches in Italy. While we are tolerated and allowed to do our work as a church, we are not recognized as a church. This results in our not having certain rights that are made available to other non-catholic bodies: our ministers are not exempted from military service, we cannot officially perform weddings, as a church we cannot own property, and we do not enjoy tax benefits given to other churches.

WHY CHURCHES GROW
Biblical and secular histories attest that the church grows best in times of persecution. Such has been the case in Italy! From its small beginning in Frascati, this group without funds for advertising saw their work advertised throughout Italy by the opposition. As the interest thus spurred was followed up and developed, within a short time the length and breadth of the nation was populated by almost sixty congregations, with a t least 1500 members. Among its members were included former monks, nuns, and priests. Some who had been leaders in the Catholic church became dynamic evangelists, including Fausto Salvoni, Italo Ministroni, Mario Piccoli, Lido Petrini, Raffaello Paone, Aurelio Nori, and Luigi Pandini.

Eventually 31 boys were enrolled at the home and given an opportunity to prepare for life. Though there were legal snarls which space does not permit narrating, this work must be considered most successful! Boys, many of which were literally taken off the streets, were supported through completion of the vocation preparation they had chosen, and are now scattered throughout Italy. Examples of the home’s products would be Gianfranco Sciotti, a church leader in Florence and a successful businessman, and Claudio Chisholm, who for many years did missionary work in Italy, before settling in the Brownfield, Texas area. In 1956, changing economic condition in Italy influenced a decision by the elders of the church in Brownfield, TX, not to accept additional boys into the home.

BIBLE TRAINING SCHOOLS

From the beginning of the Italian work, emphasis was placed on training men and women for Christian service. A school was held in Frascati (1950-1952) with persons from as far away as Sicily in attendance. Outstanding evangelists produced from this effort included Alessandro Corazza, Salvatore Puliga, Rodolfo Berdini, Franco Coco, and Antonio Buta. A second school in Milan (1953-1957) produced many faithful preachers including Leoluca Bonanno, Luigi Lisi, Gilberto Di Luca, Otello Pandolfini, Lidio Petrini, and others. A school in Florence (1958-1981) devised to produce self-supporting church workers sent many highly trained young people back to their congregations where they still serve.

CHANGING CURRENTS

After a highly productive beginning, the Italian work has not been able to maintain its high level of growth. Two factors seem to be major reasons for a more difficult working situation. The first is the work of Pope John XXIII in Vatican II (1963-1965). In section 90, called “The Role of Christians in International Institutions,” there is a call fro cooperation between the Catholic Church and the “separated brothers” who also profess the gospel. In section 3 of “Catholic Principles on Ecumenism,” it is stated that these “separated brothers” are to be accepted with love and respect. Section 4, on the same topic, admits that other believers both participate in salvation and bring others to salvation.[1]

When Catholics in Italy were warned to have nothing to do with “these heretics bound for hell,” interest was aroused and many wanted to know more about churches of Christ. Later when Italians were told that we were separated brethren, and it made no eternal difference as to which camp one occupied, the public attitude came to be, “then why bother!”

A second negative force affecting the Italian work has been the rapid economic development of the Italian people. When our work began, Italy was suffering the aftermath of WWII. Work opportunities were scarce, and poverty was rife. It seems universally true that poverty tends to create a more receptive soil for the gospel seed. However, Italy has enjoyed such success financially, that it now ranks fifth in world economies. It seems universally true that financial wellbeing tends to create spiritually unproductive soil. As a result, today it is about as hard to make a convert in Italy as it is in the United States.

ENCOURAGING SIGNS

As we begin our second half-century in Italy, those of us who love Italy and are involved in the work of the church there are encouraged as we look to the future. Some of the new generation which has grown up with economic wellbeing seem to understand that material things cannot fill one’s spiritual need. Consequently, there is a resurgence of interest in spiritual things in Italy, especially among young people. One of our best projects in called Avanti Italia (go ahead Italy), usually shortened to A.I. This is a program which is especially effective in reaching young people. A.I. was begun by Howard and Doris Bybee, and is sponsored by the College Church in Searcy, AR. It involves sending recent college graduates to Florence for two years of apprentice mission work at subsistence income.

These young people live together in a large villa owned by the church. On-site directors are Jay and Alicia Walls [this article was written in 1999; the current directors are Gary and Jennifer Williams]. A.I. workers are there to serve in the mission of the church in any way needed. However, most of their time is spent teaching English using a modern English Bible as a text. Virtually all conversions in Florence in the past fifteen years have come through this program. The number of young people wanting to be a part of A.I. has grown to the point that we are now sending some of them to work with other congregations. A.I. has also proved to be a good way to develop long-term workers. At present, eleven former A.I. participants have returned (or remained) to work long-term.

Other important indicators of success are the many congregations in Italy which support their own work financially, and do all of their own teaching, preaching, and evangelizing. Some are supporting their own local ministers financially. Some are supporting mission work financially in other parts of Italy. Some of the churches in the South of Italy are involved in missionary outreach to Albania. Some members who work in the medical field participate in medical campaigns to Africa. Hundreds of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ have died in the Lord. Many have suffered greatly because of the stand they have taken for Christ.

What is the future of the work in Italy? Almost two hundred years ago a missionary in Burma, while in prison there, was asked this same questions. He answered, “The future of the church in Burma is as bright as the promises of God.” What a good answer! That is true in Italy as well!

[1] The Documents of Vatican II, (All Sixteen Official Texts Promulgated by the Ecumenical Council, 1963-1965, Translated from the Latin), W.M. Abbott, S.J., General Editor, American Press, Association Press; Western Publishing Company, Inc., 1966).
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Ciao! Ciao, by the way, is hello and/or goodbye in Italian. Anyhow, hello, and welcome to the site! I hope this will be a good way for my friends and supporters to be involved as much as possible on the work being done by the Avanti Italia team in Italy. This is my online journal; in it I will write about my experiences and challenges on the field, and let you all know of prayer requests. We have a website, http://www.avantiitalia.org/, that you might want to check out. It's currently being redesigned, so more things will be added along.

I've had several people ask about our address there. The Bible school address is:

Scuola Biblica di Firenze
Via Armando Spadini, 24
50018 Scandicci (FI)
Italy

My e-mail is kacross@gmail.com; feel free to contact me if you have any questions about our work or this site.

Arrividerci! (See you soon!)
Thursday, August 17, 2006 0 comments

Florence and the Arno River, early morning

 
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