Missionary Diary: Italy's new normal

Jessica Cowell and her husband Simon have been missionaries with Church Missionary Society (CMS) in the south of Italy since January 2017. They live in Bari, in the heel of the Italian boot, with their four children. Here, they work with university students for the GBU (University Bible Groups).

6.40am and we’re all getting out of bed – school starts at 8am and we like to get a good breakfast in before Lydia (6) and Emma (4) need to head off. Almost all ready – mask on for Lydia, Simon grabs his too, and drives them in. School drop-off has been a little strange this year, not seeing the other parents’ faces behind their masks, but we are thankful that school is back on in person!

I’m home with Timothy (2) who just can’t wait until he can join his sisters at school in September. But meanwhile, we get ready to go out to the park. Over the last eight months, it has been one of the few places we can go out to, with Covid restrictions frequently limiting our movement to our council area, and wisdom limiting our movement much further. Cases in our city, about the size of Newcastle in NSW, peaked at over 2000 per day only back in March.

At the park, we meet up with a bunch of kids around Timothy’s age and their mums. I have known some of them for a few years, but in other cases, I won’t even see their unmasked face until late June, once the requirement for masks outdoors is lifted. I have been able to share a lot with these women. A couple of months ago I had even planned and set a start date for a rhyme-time ministry in the park. Many were keen to attend, just before the strictest measures yet were announced. Now, at nine months pregnant, that will have to wait until next year.

These friends are intrigued that we would find ourselves in Bari, but so far when I talk to them more about my faith in Jesus, they don’t really know what to say. Although all these women have grown up in the Catholic Church, the idea of a loving, personal relationship with Jesus is foreign and bewildering to them. I love to ask them about their various traditions though, and that has sparked some very interesting conversations.

Back at home, Simon gets in touch with our student leaders to confirm our end-of-year gathering in person – the first in-person meeting since the start of year get-together. It has been a year of Zoom meetings, both for church and GBU ministry. He checks his emails and works on a course about understanding Catholicism that he is co-writing.

Student leaders gather for the first time in a year in Bari, Italy

Student leaders gather for the first time in a year in Bari, Italy

By 1.30pm – the end of their class time – Simon has picked up both girls from school. We have lunch altogether – focaccia and bread rolls from our local bakery – before Simon heads back into the study to work.

Lydia then starts her homework, a couple of hours every day of repetitive and banal writing and colouring. But she does it without complaint, by now well-rehearsed at the routine as she nears the end of her first school year here in Bari. I drive the kids to an outdoors gymnastics class – after eight months, co-curricular outdoor activities have just been permitted again.

I sit and chat with Serena*, another mum who has been my friend for three years now. She grew up in our apartment complex and her mother still lives here. Our girls did ballet together before it was closed because of Covid. She tells me she’s frustrated that the local church won’t hurry up and let children, like her older son, do their Confirmation now that some restrictions have been lifted.

Back home, the kids have a shower and we all have dinner – only two or three hours earlier than most of our neighbours! Simon goes into his office again to Zoom some students for our weekly GBU Bible study. This week, one of the students has invited an unbelieving friend, which is exciting, because for two years now students haven’t sat in their classrooms and made new friends, with all classes pushed online from the beginning of the pandemic.

At the end of the day, Simon and I sit together and watch some TV to wind down. We’re thankful that God is still working around us and through us, even though every moment of our day, really, has been changed by the pandemic.

*Name changed for privacy reasons