Missionary Diary: Juggling motherhood, discipleship, exercise and an avalanche of 'WhatsApp' messages

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).

September 2021.

A new school year begins! 6.30 am and we’re up getting three kids ready – little Timothy, 3 in November, started for the first time this week. School is five days a week but only mornings. You can choose to do school for a half-day or a full day, so either bring the kids home for lunch or have them eat the two-course meal at the school dining room – the half-day is a common choice down south, lunch is very important and many people come home from work at lunchtime to eat as a family.

I now technically have mornings with just my three-month-old, Sofia, who is a good napper, so maybe I’ll have some time to work and get the house more organised?

Part of ‘the maybe’ is related to the remaining uncertainties after last year: will COVID turn our routines around twice a week (school on, school off) again? It looks less likely as we hit 90% vaccination of 12 and overs. The other part of ‘the maybe’ is just that babies don’t always follow the book, do they?

I print some documents before her nap since her bedroom is currently the study – our apartment is small by Australian standards but big by Baresi ones, given that most families have one or at most two children. Then I do manage to sit down, check some emails, and do some writing.

Meanwhile, Simon is preparing PowerPoint slides for his talks on Revelation for our annual student leaders conference, Formazione. He will catch the bus to Rome on Friday along with two of our student leaders and many others to study the Bible, do training in leading inductive Bible studies and plan for the year ahead – a year in which most groups don’t yet know how many students will be studying in person, or whether non-students like us GBU staff will even be allowed on campus. Maybe it will give further impetus for our students to reach out to friends, but there will be challenges if we’re not able to be beside them in that.

I was very encouraged to see her care for each member of our church family and her desire to see each of them grow in love and service of the Lord.

While he’s away, our ex-student leader and good friend, Marianna, is coming to stay with me. After graduating, she found work in Bari and last year came over once a week, having asked us if we would be able to continue to meet with and disciple her – something we are very glad to do!

Two weeks ago, we sat down after Sunday lunch and ended up talking about some of the needs at our church and what we could do to meet them. I was very encouraged to see her care for each member of our church family and her desire to see each of them grow in love and service of the Lord. For example, one of the young men with fairly limited Italian can play guitar, and she suggested we ask him to play before the service and during the Lord’s supper. By the end of Sunday afternoon, we had a whole page of similar action points! And when I say “afternoon”, in Australia we’d probably call it afternoon and evening: the kids had been fed dinner and were almost ready for bed at this point. Sunday lunch lasts a very long time in Bari

We get to lunchtime and pick up the kids from school. I have decided this year to “silence” the WhatsApp messages that come from the various classes. I get on very well with the other mothers, but I find it hard when all afternoon I’m watching and replying to messages as often happened last year.

Sure enough, when I check later on, I’ve missed 68, a light day really: I skim through and don’t need to do anything differently or reply. I’m trying to be more thoughtful this year about things that will help my mental health – in general trying to continue the good habits I put in place when we had a very low point in March in the midst of yet another lockdown and skyrocketing cases.

This week I ran my first 5k – after many years of insisting that running was not my sport …

Exercise is another element of that, and actually just this week I ran my first 5k – after many years of insisting that running was not my sport, I finally tried it, and actually, I’m glad I have something I can keep enjoying throughout this year.

Simon has also found a group of guys who play football (soccer) once a week. Last year, any sport like that was cancelled because of COVID, so the timing is very good. He found them through a new Christian friend, so he’s getting to know a bunch of Christian guys from other churches around Bari, some of whom have been on the edges of the GBU but not come along regularly thus far. Plus, exercise (even though he’s a goalie)!

Basically, there are a lot of new things going on – which is not difficult after a year in which it felt at times that nothing at all was happening. Of course, that was not true then and won’t be true this year even if all these plans and activities don’t happen as we hope. Our good God and heavenly Father remains in control and we can trust Him and keep pointing others to Him.