Missionary Diary: Growth and flexibility in Italy

Jessica Cowell and her husband Simon are sent by CMS, the Church Missionary Society, to work with university students for the GBU (University Bible Groups) in the south of Italy. They live in Bari, in the heel of the Italian boot, with their four children and have been in Italy for five years.

A new year! Although for us in the northern hemisphere, it’s just the second half of the current academic year. Still, a break and the beginning of 2022 gives us a moment to reflect on our plans and expectations for this new period.

In some ways, it feels like it’s starting in a similar way to last year – new restrictions, new anxieties all around us, parent chats exploding to 150 unread messages when you’re not looking, discussing the type of mask kids should wear, amongst other things.

But it is actually very different here in Italy. This year, while we know many more people with COVID, they are mostly at home and can’t wait to be given a negative result to return to school and work. Last year, many of the cases we heard about were people in hospital, wondering how long they would need physiotherapy to breathe well again. We are thankful to God for his mercy in this!

What do we do when half of our leaders and kids can’t come that week?

This week we are juggling how to recommence activities that – before Christmas – were held in person for the last few months. But now, many people are COVID positive or just sick. So, will we go online for our small church or do we need to keep an in-person option now that we have five international students who need us to translate into English? And do we have enough computers for that (and people to operate them)?

Simon writes to our GBU student leaders: “Let’s meet up and plan for the next session – wait, both are COVID-positive so I guess we’re doing that online!”

God has certainly been teaching us to be flexible over the last years, even before COVID. I think it is easier this year to be glad of the possibility to continue to do many things in person, even though we expect many more activities to be prevented once again by the need for caution.

However, we are certainly planning with enthusiasm for this year, nonetheless. God has grown the GBU in Bari in the last year, and because they have met regularly in person for the last few months to study the Bible, the group is now ready to plan a week of evangelistic activities in the universities. What will that look like? We’re not sure yet – but how exciting that even in these complicated moments, God has given us these brothers and sisters to work with and to share about his love in places where it is not much known. Until two months ago, one of our students thought he was probably the only believer in Christ on his whole campus. It has been a huge encouragement to him to find out that’s not the case!

I will also be sitting down to work out the plan for our kids’ church program for this half of the year with one of our ex-GBU students who is now a worker and part of our local church. She’s sick today (COVID-negative), but we thought we’d better meet up next week nonetheless. One of the items on my agenda for that meeting will be, what do we do when half of our leaders and kids can’t come that week? But compared to this time last year, when we’d never even been able to run a Friday night kids church program, it’s great to be building on an already existing foundation.

The Cowell kids

The Cowell kids

I’ve taken on one less afternoon commitment for the next few months, which I’m glad of because I do anticipate that we will continue to have periods of isolation or of children home from school for various illnesses. For us, this year is a matter of adjusting our expectations and planning for practicalities as much as possible, but then continuing to trust the Lord and serve him in all the big and small ways he puts in front of us.

On that note, I’m going to grab my Bible while the baby is still sleeping and the kids are at school so I can start this year listening to our heavenly Father, hopefully more than the media!

P.S. This evening a message lit up in the chat from one of our kids’ classes at school. So now, our daughter will need to isolate for the next ten days as a contact. Time to put into practice the flexibility in expectations I had just written about!