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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reflections


The last month of our mission has been a whirlwind.  People in our Rome ward thought we had gone home without saying goodbye... a mortal sin in Italy.  We attended church in Caserta last Sunday, July 27 and conducted a baptismal interview with a wonderful Nigerian lady named Joy.  Seeking a better life includes finding the Gospel.  She showed me scars where she had been beaten by her ex-husband.  She and her three children will join the church and will experience support and love.  She called me later in the week asking if I would return to perform the baptism.  I told her that I was honored but would be thinking of her.  She called me right after the baptism on Saturday to express thanks and to let me know that she is the happiest she has ever been.  We also spent a couple of days trying to get some photos of the Amalfi Coast for the temple frescos (it rained most of the time).  

The previous weekend, accompanied by the Fenns, we took the bullet train on the 19th to Mestre for another temple presentation.  We were hosted by the Finotto family.  They were the first members to join the church in Mestre and the last baptism of my mission a week before I left Italy as a young missionary 43 years ago.  Spending the weekend reminiscing together and then attending church in the beautiful Mestre Stake center on Sunday was a fitting way to end our mission as Seniors.   There is nothing sweeter for a missionary to experience than seeing the seed he planted grow from a single family to an entire Stake.

The week before that (10th - 13th) we accompanied the Waddoups to Malta to perform a biannual financial audit and Branch Conference and also spend a day of sightseeing on the Island of Gozo for our P-day.   Our replacement couple, the Stevens, arrived while we were in Mestre.   During the past two weeks we have been attempting to train them on our many responsibilities.  I'm sure the mission office will be in good hands and they will probably make fewer mistakes initially than we did.   The 6th of July we were asked to do our last temple fireside presentation for the Rome 2nd Ward.  It has been nearly two years since we gave our very first presentation there and members wanted an update before we left.  All are anxious to see it finished one day.

The Church website announced recently an "urgent need" for senior couples who might be willing to serve as office couples as nearly a third of the missions are without and must rely on the young missionaries to perform such work.  There has also been a 30% drop from a year ago in the number of senior couples willing to serve missions.  I can understand the reluctance for couples to serve in mission offices.  Serving in the office is not an easy assignment and you have to seek for the spiritual and teaching experiences to feel fullfilled as a missionary.  We will serve again someday, but will probably seek a different assignment other than the office so that we have more teaching opportunities and can interact more with the members. Nevertheless, we have enjoyed the experience and learned much and look forward to serving another mission one day.

As Miriam and I reflected on the last two years of serving in italy, we came up with a list of ten reasons to serve a mission:

1.  Change
Missions are all about change.  A mission provides an opportunity to build gospel skills you always desired but never managed to do at home.  It's an opportunity to break some bad habits and learn some good ones.  Separating oneself somewhat from the world and focusing on the mission of Christ is life changing.   You have an opportunity to witness the power of the atonement and the miracle of change that occurs in the lives of members, missionaries and their investigators.  Not only do you get to witness the changes in others but you can experience the Lord teaching you individually what changes need to occur in your personal life.  Missions accelerate the process of becoming more Christlike.  Just as most young missionaries dramatically mature during their service, so can seniors.  As we come unto Christ he will show us our weaknesses and how to improve.

2.  Revelation
Missions are an opportunity to learn how to receive personal revelation and then teach others to do the same.  We are not salesmen of the Gospel.  We teach people how to communicate with their Heavenly Father in order to receive personal answers and then we teach them the steps to receive the marvelous gift of the Holy Spirit and receive personal revelation for the rest of their lives.  There is no greater gift that that of the Holy Ghost.

3,  Leadership
Missions are a training ground for leaders, young and old.  Training young missionaries how to teach. train others, acquire life skills is high priority.  Senior missionaries are able to use their church experience and skills to train others.   They also learn new skills.    Each has something to offer.   A mission experience is a "lifetime compressed" allowing us to learn from the life choices of others.  The sister missionaries are also an integral part of the mission leadership experience.  The strength of the church will be forever changed in the coming years as the influence of returned sister missionaries "power couples" is felt througout the world.  

4.  Priorities
Your prized possessions are reduced to 100 lbs. of belongings stuffed in two suitcases.  Living out of a suitcase for two years is a liberating experience that helps to free you from the constant temptation to endlessly acquire "stuff" because the same weight limit applies coming home.  Ultimately all must decide at what point they have "sufficient for their needs", before and after the mission experience.  A mission helps you get some perspective on what stuff is really necessary in your life.

5.  Making a difference.   
 By putting aside the routine of normal life, we had an opportunity to awake each day and develop a different routine that allowed for full time service to others.  You can truly make a difference in the lives of those you serve as well as your family and loved ones when set apart from the world and focusing on service to others.

6.  Family
The love and support of family is important.  Today we have the blessing of technology which makes it possible to connect virtually.  My mother commented that I actually talked for longer periods of time with her using Skype than when I would stop by only to leave after a few minutes.   Having two grandsons serve missions during our service created special bonding opportunities as we compared lessons learned and miracles experienced.  Our famly will forever be blessed by missionary service.  

7.  Differences
Learning to love differences is an importance lesson.  One of the members commented that we really seemed to appreciate the Italian way of life and did not desire to "americanize" things.   Couples who criticize or try to transform Italians to their way of thinking never really learned to embrace Italy.  Italians are learning to appreciate differences in cultures as well.  There is a worldwide gathering of people from many nations who are immigrating to Italy hoping to improve their lives.  In our mission those who have joined the church during the first six months of this year originated from 18 different countries.  Just 44% of the baptisms were native Italians.  We all have much to learn from other cultures.

8.  Covenants,   
A Mission is Opportunity to live Temple Covenants.  I know of no better place than missionary service where we can learn to live the principles of sacrifice, obedience, and consecration.   Missions require that we give of our time, talents and all that the Lord has blessed us with.

9.  Work
Missionary work is after all… WORK.  Hard work.  I think we worked harder than we ever did in our businesses.   It was also important for us to discover the spiritual blessings that exist when doing the temporal work of the Lord.  Serving in the office is mostly office work except when we had opportunities to interact with missionaries and members... and then we realized the spirital nature of our service.   There were good days and bad days, good experiences and some not so great, but the lessons learned are priceless and we will cherish them forever.   

10.  Love
The most important qualification for serving a mission is love for people.  An act of kindness and a smile is understood in any language.  We fell in love with the people of Italy.  Friends ask us, "What did you like best about Italy?"   Italy is country of unparalleled history, art, style, music, language, food, and culture, but the wonderful missionaries and special people of Italy are what we will remember first and foremost... more so than the monuments.  Gelato will be a close second.   We gained more than a testimony it seems!

Serving our Savior 24/7,  wearing his name on our hearts and representing his Church has been a special honor for which we will always be grateful.  Yes, we paid for the priviledge and sacrificed much for the opportunity to do so.  Just as with anything meaningful not every day was heaven, but that is all part of the learning experience.  We always seem to learn more from the challenging experiences which teach us to appreciate and strive for the good.   We are so blessed and thankful for the priviledge is has been to serve our Savior.




  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

It Begins with One

Photo: Opening the city of Venezia and Mestre to the Gospel in Dec. 1970
The growth of the church in every city in Italy begins with one brave and courageous soul who made a pivotal decision to renounce some of the traditions of their fathers and join this strange and marvelous Christian church.   Someone has to be the first to have the confirmation of personal revelation that the Gospel has in fact been restored to the earth with all of the priesthood power, authority, keys, and ordinances as promised by God.   Someone needs to be the pioneer to bear witness to others that the power and gift of the Holy Ghost is available to all who are baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Even today, it's usually just one person in the family that is the first to follow the promptings of the Spirit and ignore the traditions, negative untruths that exist on the internet, and withstand the persecution from friends and family members when they announce that they are joining "i Mormoni".   Everyone around them questions their decision and watches to see what life changes occur as a result of this decision.   Refusing to join in a friendly cup of cafe' or glass of vino is not easily understood by friends or loved ones.    Joining the church is a decision that impacts families and generations, neighbors, friends and those in the workplace.   It's not an easy decision and yet those brave few who are the first seem to have an extra measure of faith and dedication that blesses lives forever.

Photo: Young Elder Steurer with Bro. Larcher at the Swiss Temple in 1970
My first assignment as a young missionary in 1968 was to spread the good news in Trieste.  My companion and trainer was Elder Cardon.  There were no members in Trieste at the time.    Just a few homesick missionaries from America who spoke broken Italian.   We didn't even have a place to meet at first.   We transformed with a little paint and elbow grease a small rented shop and purchased some wooden chairs and constructed a handmade pulpit to create our first meeting hall.    We were anxious to know who the Lord had prepared to become the first official member.   I was able to be a witness as my companion baptized the very first member, Sister Lodi, a cheerful middle aged woman whose husband also wanted to join but found it difficult to give up smoking at first.   Several others were baptized during those first few months, including Fratello Laban whose wonderful baritone voice was heard on the first Italian version of the temple film.   We taught a few of discussions to the teenage Giombi sisters just before I was transferred.  I always wondered what became of them.  While looking through a picture album I found in the office basement of those who served as missionaries in the 1960's and early 70's, I immediately recognized the younger of the two, Rita, who I learned had been called as one of the first Italian sisters to serve a mission.   By the end of my mission thirty months later, Trieste had a thriving Branch of about 30 members.  Today it is one of the stronger wards in Italy.


My second assignment was the city of Brescia.  The first members to join in Brescia were the Larcher family who were taught by some persistent missionaries from Switzerland who followed them to the beach prior to the Italian mission being organized in 1965.   Sister Larcher was baptized in the sea in her black two piece swimsuit before returning home.  It was months later before they saw another missionary or member of the church.   After the mission was dedicated in 1966, a small branch of the church began from this one family and by the time I arrived in 1968, Brother Larcher had become Branch President Larcher.   My companion Elder Lauener and I later had the priviledge of accompanying Brother Larcher to the Swiss Temple on assignment to translate the endowment into Italian.  We spent a couple of weeks working prayfully on the first draft which would be fine tuned by several others before being used.  Returning later with Miriam and attending a session in Italian was a memorable experience.  When I recognized the voice on the film as that of Brother Laban, the second member baptised in Trieste, I nearly broke down with gratitude.

Photo: The beautiful living room of the Pievani home in Bergamo adorned with Giovanna's art talents
The first to join in the neighboring city of Bergamo is one of my special memories.  Sister Lacerti (now Pievani) would take the hour long train ride with her little boy each Sunday to join with the other handful of members who lived in Brescia.   She remained the only member in Bergamo for nearly two years after her baptism.  Later the mission was split in 1971 and other missionaries arrived to help teach others.   Today there are three wards in Bergamo with talk about creating a Stake in the near future.  We were blessed last month to spend a wonderful weeked with Giovanni and Giovanna, together with the Fenns, reminiscing about the miracles that have occurred and how the church has transformed the lives of so many in Bergamo.   She is a gifted artist and nearly every wall of her home is adorned with her work.   Each time we visit the Pievani's we usually are given one of her masterpieces and now our home is a constant reminder of her talent and love of the Gospel.

Photo:   Playing a spirited game of "Bugiardo" (Liar) with the Pievani's and Fenn's 
The last assignment of my mission in December, 1970 was to open the city of Venice... actually Mestre, the mainland city where most of the population around Venice lives.  I had just a little over a month left before completing my service.   Bro. Finotto, had just joined the church in Padova and it was Elder Stark and I who had the privilege to teach him and wife who were now living in Mestre.  Paola was baptized the week before I boarded a plane home in January, 1971. This family became the first Italian members of the church in Mestre.  She was expecting twins at the time and we joked about the church doubling in size several months later.   The Finotto's have been the nucleus for growth in Mestre which now forms one of the stronger Stakes in Italy.  We also had the opportunity to spend another weekend with this marvelous family who has been the ancor of faith for more than 40 years in Mestre/Venice.  I don't think there is a greater blessing for an old missionary to taste the fruits of his seedling labors when he was much younger.

Photo:   The Finotto Family circa 1976
It has not been easy for these early pioneers.  They talk about the persecution, hate,  ridicule and the feeling of being very alone and not having the support of others, especially those who joined and later left the church.  They remember inexperienced leaders, contention, and the missionaries who set poor examples.    It's not easy being a member in Italy even today but many of those who were the very first seemed to have a special ability to withstand the trials of faith that all seem to experience.   Today the pioneers look back with amazement at the steady growth of the Church in Italy.  It has not been an flood like in some other parts of the world... at least not yet.  Growth has been a steady trickle with most missionaries returning home feeling fortunate if they participated in even a single baptismal service during their mission.  The average today is one baptism per missionary per year.

The total membership numbers really do not justify a temple in Italy, but the faithful have been some of the most ardent supporters of the Swiss Temple and the Lord has now blessed them with one of their own.  Once or twice a year wards seem to have no problem filling up buses of dedicated saints who spend an entire week at the temple.   They announced in our ward this morning that there are only a few seats available for the temple trip at the end of this month.  The bus was completely full when it departed.  The experienced ones help the new ones, the youth baby-sit and do baptisms as the adults attend several sessions per day.   They eat, sleep and serve together in a bonding experience they will never forget.  At the end of the week they ride the packed bus all night arriving home exhausted but spiritually nourished to withstand the trials of life.  These are amazing pioneer members of the church who have strengthened our faith as a result of their example of sacrifice and dedication.  We love the faithful saints of Italy!








Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Gift of Freedom

Photo: Nearly 8,000 Americans are buried in this cemetery in Nettuno, Italy
Celebrating the 4th of July in Italy is a little different than if we were in America.   Last year, the Waddoups had just barely arrived as the new mission president and they had received an invitation to attend an event at the American Embassy for select guests and religious leaders in Rome.  For the rest of us it was business as usual in the mission office and throughout the mission field.   This year we gathered with our adult missionary and temple construction friends and had a good 'ol fashioned pancake breakfast in the morning and then it was off to work for everyone for the rest of the day.  No parades or fireworks here.  On the way to breakfast, Miriam spotted an American flag t-shirt hanging in a Chinese store (think Oriental Trading) so I "did as the Romans do" and double parked and put on my emergency blinkers while she ran in to buy it.  It was made in Italy after all!

Photo: Fourth of July pancake breakfast with real maple syrup and fresh butter at Jim and Pattee's apt.
On the 4th of July we honor not only the birth of America and those who fought for the freedoms we cherish in America, but we also honor the many veterans who fought to preserve freedom in other parts of the world.   During WWII, Miriam's father was stationed in north Africa assigned as a tail gunner in a B-24.  He flew reconnaissance missions over the Mediterranean Sea and Sicily  which was occupied by the Axis powers of Germany and Italy.  He never fired the gun at another plane and was never involved in action on the ground.  Others were not so fortunate.

While he served his country, his first son was born in Los Angeles where his new bride Meg resided near her parents during his deployment.   She had just been released from active duty having served as a WAVE in the Navy.   One day while walking on base, he stepped on a muddy plank of mahogany and decided to find a lathe to mill a beautiful baby cradle which he sent home in a wooden box.  His children each slept in that cradle as infants.   Miriam and her siblings took turns borrowing the cradle for their babies as they arrived.   Most of our children were also rocked to sleep in Grandpa's cradle from the war.   It's still available for the great and great-great grandchildren who are born into the family.

Photo: Our allied brethren laid to rest at Beach Head Cemetery in Anzio, Italy
The next time Chet and Meg were able to set foot in Europe was nearly 45 years later when Miriam and I invited them to travel with us in the late 1980's.  Visiting Normandy Beach and the nearby cemetery was a very emotional experience and brought back many of the memories of war.  We were not able to travel to southern Italy or visit any of the places he might have flown over or recognized.  I wasn't aware of the WWII cemeteries located in Italy at that time or we might have made a point to visit some of them.

Italy, under the leadership of Mussolini, aligned itself with Hitler thinking it would be on the winning team.  Not only did that backfire, but the decision was not well supported by many of the Italian citizens.  A strong underground partisan army of Italian citizens fought against the Germans and suffered greatly for their patriotism.   They ended up killing and hanging Mussolini upside down in a gas station lot in Milano near the end of the war.   To this day, Germans are viewed somewhat suspiciously in Italy.  When Italy and Germany play soccer against each other, it's WWIII.

There are several recent movies that document Hitler's motives to acquire and/or destroy much of the art and culture of his enemies, particularly in Italy.  "The Rape of Europa" is my favorite and "The Monument Men" tells the story about attempts to preserve and return the stolen art to it's rightful owners.   The world is grateful that much of what was stolen during the war has been returned to Italy.  The Italians are still upset that Napoleon absconded with so much of their priceless art in the early 1800's.  The fact that people today are flocking to the Louvre Museum in Paris to see Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and the hundreds of other Italian art treasures that were hauled off to France only increases Italian ire.   Nearly 400 pieces of priceless art were "purchased" for pennies by Napoleon and then transferred from the Villa Borghese in Rome to be displayed in the remodeled Borghese wing of the Louvre in Paris.   Some of the best of Italian art is not to be found in Italy and that's a tender subject amongst many Italians.  

Photo: Thanks to you Walter and all of your buddies Italian, not German, is the official language of Italy
In July of 1943 American and Allied troupes invaded Sicily and southern Italy.  In one month, from July10th to the 17th of August, thousands of Americans and British allied troupes died in the invasion.  They pushed northward finally liberating Rome the following year on June 4, 1944, a day still celebrated by Italians.   D-Day and the invasion of France followed two days later and thousands more would perish.   By the time Nazi Germany finally surrendered Italy in 1945, more than 320,000 American and Allied lives were sacrificed in Italy alone during the two year Italian Campaign.  The Germans lost more than that.

Photo: Thinking of you Dad... grateful for your service (and baby cradle).
Recently Miriam and I were able to accompany our friends to the town of Anzio for the purpose of visiting the "The Sicily to Rome Cemetery" as well as the allied cemetery known as "Beach Head Cemetery" where thousands of those who died to liberate Italy are buried or recognized.   There are 7,861 white markers located in a beautiful 77 acre setting honoring those whose remains were found, some not identified.  Another 3,095 names of those whose remains were not recovered are memorialized in a chapel.  In the allied cemetery located not far away are the headstones of another 2,213 soldiers, mostly British, who also lost their lives during the battles from Sicily to Rome.   It's impossible not to be emotionally touched by the sea of white crosses and markers that tangibly document the cost of freedom.


There are another 14 similar cemeteries located in other parts of Italy honoring the fallen Americans and allied who fought so that the Italians would be liberated.  After the war the Americans helped Italy form it's first democratic form of government in since the Roman republic more than 2,000 years ago.    Based on documents that are similar to our Constitution and Bill of Rights the Italians are still trying to define freedom and rights.  Like many democratic nations, including the USA, they have taken a decidedly socialistic direction and consequently have many challenges economically.  As Margaret Thatcher once commented, "Sooner or later you run out of other people's money."    Italians are very kind and generous and there are many thousands of recent immigrants who would agree that Italy is a lot better place than where they came from.   Having the freedom to decide how tax and spend their money is something they haven't enjoyed until the last 70 years.   The gift of being of having their language and culture preserved in a free country is taken for granted today by most Italians.   I'll sometimes ask an Italian if they speak German and when they say "no",  I respond ... "thank an American."





Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Face of Italy

 Photo: Sister Missionaries recently called from Northern Italy.  Multilingual, they represent the changing face of Italy.
While much about Italy has remained majestically preserved for thousands of years, the population of Italy is experiencing some interesting changes.   Forty-five years ago as we walked the streets and knocked on the doors of Italy, we spoke Italian to the folks whose family history in Italy has spanned generations.   Except to the tourists and the Americans stationed at the two military bases that we supported, did we rarely speak any other language than Italian.   Beginning in the late 1970's things began to change in Italy. Today Italy has a different look as immigrants from around the world migrate at an accelerating rate seeking a better and safer life.

Photo: Multi-cultural Young Women's class in Rome
Last week three Italian sister missionaries arrived from the northern part of the country.  One is African and has been a member for only a couple of years.  She represents the growing number of Africans who discover the Gospel after immigrating to Italy.  Another is a second generation member whose family moved to Columbia years ago.  She was born in Bogata but returned to Italy when she was only 3 years old.  There are nearly as many people of Italian decent living in the South America than currently live in all of Italy.   Many of those are returning to Italy.  The other is also second generation LDS, born and raised in Italy.   Typically many of the missionaries from northern Italy are called to serve in the southern part of the country (and vice versa).   Once in awhile young Italians will be called to serve in other countries, usually English speaking.  Most of them have never been to the southern part of their country and many say it's like serving a foreign mission because of the differences in culture.

Photo:  Missionaries and their investigators from the Philippines, So. America, Africa, and Europe at our apartment.
All but about 30 of the approximately 180 missionaries serving in Italy Rome are from the USA or Canada with the majority from Utah.  The exact numbers seem to change daily... one is returning home tomorrow with a broken ankle, another just arrived from her mission in Portugal until she can fix her visa problems.  They are surprised to find after working so hard to learn Italian at the MTC how many people they meet and teach that speak other languages and come from other countries.  We stock missionary pamphlets and scriptures in 42 different languages at the mission office.   We get requests for materials in at least half of those languages on a regular basis.   Who would think that when called to Italy Rome you would teach people from all over the world.   A similar gathering of the Lord's children is happening in nearly every country in Europe, but especially in the Milano mission to the north.   Northern Italy has a higher percentage of immigrants than the south because there are more employment opportunities.

Photo: 17 year old new member Luca baptized Marco, one of his friends 
I took a few minutes last week and looked at the baptismal records for those who joined the church in our mission during the first five months of this year.  We had 85 baptisms from January to May, about 15% more than we did last year for the same period of time.   I then looked at where they were born and their ages and was surprised to discover that 17 countries were represented.  I was less surprised to see that nearly 3/4 of them were younger than 34 years old.  Here's a copy of the two charts which illustrate some of the characteristics of those who are joining the church in Italy.   I would guess after talking to other missionaries in the Milano mission that their statistics would mirror what we are experiencing.   It's an interesting phenomenon that is changing the face of Italy and other European countries, much like the millions of Mexican and Asian immigrants have changed the face and politics of America.  The gathering of Israel is happening before our eyes and it's much different than I would have thought 45 years ago.   It's a wonderful time to be serving and participating in the work of salvation.










Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Roman Missionaries

Photo:  Recreating when the Apostle Paul traveled to Rome
"...And after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli where we found brethren, and were desired to tarry with them seven days: and so we went toward Rome.   And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii forum, and the three taverns, who when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage"   (Acts 28:1-16)

Photo: The beautiful Appian Way

The Apostle Paul traveled to Rome as a prisoner exercising his right as a Roman citizen to appeal a wrongful conviction.   After being shipwrecked in Malta and then spending three days in Siracusa in Sicilia, Paul landed near the Bay of Naples in what is known today as Pozzuoli.  From there he traveled northward and entered Rome on the road named "Appia".   Placed under house arrest awaiting trial, Paul was free to preach for two years in Rome.  He helped strengthen the faith of Christians already living in Rome and may have traveled to other areas as well.  Some of his most powerful letters were written while in Rome as preserved in the New Testament.    Each of the four cities mentioned in Acts 28 are located within the boundaries of the Italy Rome Mission and enjoy today the presence of faithful young missionaries who preach, as Paul did, the Gospel of Christ to whomever will listen.  



It is possible that the Apostle Peter also walked the same Via Appia as he traveled into Rome.  There is little scriptural evidence documenting Peter's activity in Rome, but Catholic tradition holds that Peter and Paul were contemporaries and that both suffered martyrdom in Rome by the hand of the Emperor Nero around the year 60 A.D..   Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down according to tradition.

Photo: Modern missionaries on the ancient road leading to Rome
Approximately 560 KM (336 miles) long, Via Appia was the first of the Roman "super highways" built nearly 300 years before Christ.  Named after a Roman general, it stretched southward from Rome to the Adriatic port of Brindisi located at the heel of Italy.   It's original purpose was be able to quickly move fresh troops and supplies southward as Rome expanded it's empire.  It later became a major trade route and inspired the construction of many other roads that, like spokes of a wheel, fan outward from the hub of Rome in most every direction.   All roads led to (and from) the center of Rome.    Via Appia was masterfully engineered and is one of the few roads in the world to have endured in its nearly original state for more than 2,000 years.   Like most major Roman construction projects, it was built by slave labor (1/3 of the population were slaves).  When the gladiator slave Spartacus and his followers were defeated after a two year long revolt against the Romans in 70 B.C., more than 6,000 of them were crucified along Via Appia as a warning to all travelers, their crosses spaced evenly on both sides of the highway for miles and miles... an effective reminder of what happens to those who dared to challenge the authority of Rome.




Today, Via Appia Antica is enjoyed by walkers, joggers, cyclists, and an occasional car.   Along the peacefully quiet, tree lined cobblestoned road are beautiful fields in which are preserved many ruins of ancient Rome.  The Romans lived inside the wall for protection, but they built their summer homes and country villas outside along Via Appia.  It was also along this road that the Christians, and later many pagan Romans,  buried their dead in the catacombs that stretch for miles and miles in underground tunnels.   Further south of the city, the straight and level road is home to birds chirping amongst the quiet countryside.  It is one of our favorite places to walk and talk when we want to clear our heads and transport ourselves emotionally into another world.



The Church is gathering historical facts and photos beginning with the early days of Rome to create a video portrayal of the Gospel in Italy, particularly in Rome.  One of the videographers hired by the Church called me this week and asked me to help him film a particular scene and bring two of our missionaries.    I selected two of our native Italian missionaries (Peter and Paul were certainly not blue-eyed blonds or freckled red-heads like our current AP's).   This film, and the Temple Visitors Center in which it may be displayed, is all about Italians, not Americans.   I feel strongly that the those who live here should have a front row seat and be key participants in their story.   We left after our Zone Conference and braved rush hour traffic meeting nearly an hour later on the south side of Rome at Via Appia Antica, just as the evening sun began to set.  Sporting a rented tunic and sandals, a local returned missionary portrayed the Apostle Paul walking along Via Appia towards Rome.  Next our modern day missionaries were filmed walking in the same steps as Paul traveling towards Rome.   Closeups of the sandals will contrast with closeups of the worn shoes of today.   It will be just one of many scenes that will be used to tell the story of the growth of Christianity and particularly the Gospel in Italy.  I marvel at the impact that disciples in this country have had in spreading and preserving Christianity throughout the world.   Yes, we believe in an apostasy, but the good news is that there are more than 2 billion people in more than 200 countries who profess Christ and call themselves Christians.   We're honored to be some of the chosen modern-day missionaries serving in Rome to help increase the faith and light that exists in this marvelous country.










Saturday, May 31, 2014

Doors

I have a fascination with doors in Italy.  Maybe it's because I knocked on so many of them when I was I young missionary here 45 years ago.   I never knew what to expect.   Most of the time no one would answer even though we could hear someone moving about inside.  Sometimes an older woman would yell through the door "chi é?" ("who's there?").  We would respond by saying something like, "... rappresentanti di Gesu' Cristo ", emphasizing more loudly the last two words for special effect.  Having a door opened and viewing the incredulous look on their faces was always worth having to climb the six flights of stairs in the old apartment buildings.

Many of the doors in Italy are hundreds of years old and have survived weather, wars, natural disasters, and slamming in the faces of missionaries.   They have been repaired, rehung, reinforced, and refinished.  Some are works of art, but most are very simple and functional.  The hinges, handles, door knockers, and locks are often original and are a history lesson of themselves.   Locks, and the keys that go with them, haven't changed so much over hundreds of years.   The large and pocket un-friendly skeleton keys are still is use and can still be duplicated in the locksmith shops.   As lock technology evolves, people will often just add a newer lock to the door hoping to make it more secure.  Some of our missionary apartments  have several different styles of locks, each with its unique type of key.

The newer doors are like bank vaults with multiple deadbolts and crash proof jambs.   Our own apartment door has only one keyed lock on the outside, but on the inside there are two separate locking mechanisms that activate a total of six interconnected deadbolts that secure all sides of the extra thick, reinforced door.   I guess if you live in a country that has a history of being invaded and sacked every few decades,  people are more motivated to invest in extra strong doors and barricaded window systems.    In Italy, every home and apartment is a fortified castle.  

I really like the old doors and wish they could talk.  There is surely an interesting story each could tell about the history of people and events that occurred on either side of the door.   The condition of the building outside would sometimes contrast sharply with the appearance of the door.   Some appear to be very tired and worn.  Others, very proud and When a door would open and we were invited inside we would quickly form an opinion of the home and it's inhabitants using all of the senses available.   Beyond the obvious visual clues, we could often sense the emotional temperatures, the love, the tension, the hopes, and some of the challenges facing the inhabitants.

During this mission we've had the opportunity to enter the homes of many of the members and some of those investigating the Church.  It's customary when invited to someones home to bring a gift.  It's why you can find flower stands in Rome that are open twenty-four hours a day.  Italians will never knock on a door empty handed for a visit or dinner appointment.  Likewise the host will always offer a guest something to eat or drink, even if just a brief visit.   I had a sweet experience one morning this week of joining one of the members in giving a Priesthood blessing to his next door neighbors who so desperately want another child before their clock runs out that they agreed to try anything... even calling upon the Mormons.   Like many bright and educated Italians (he speaks five languages, she is an attorney)  they waited to discover the joys of parenting until almost too late.   Their wish is for their four year old daughter to have at least one other sibling.  After a prayer and explaining a little bit about faith and the priesthood, we gave each a blessing.  Afterwards, we were served "café Mormone" (hot Orzo barley beverage) out of respect for our beliefs and got to know each other a little more.   No matter how hurried the schedule, the Italians always find time to pause for a café and some wonderful conversation with friends.

We've been invited to give several baptismal interviews in various parts of Italy to those wishing to join the church.   More than half of those joining the church throughout Europe, and especially Italy, are immigrants from many of the nearby troubled nations.   They often leave their country and families behind seeking relief from persecution and hoping for a better future.   Because of the close proximity to the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, Italy is often the first country to open its doors to these desperate immigrants.   With opened doors, the crush of immigrants is becoming a social challenge for Europe, and in particular Italy.   Countries within the EU have agreed to accept and help relocate some, but there are thousands arriving weekly by boat or on foot and the system is overwhelmed.   Just this week more than 2,800 immigrants arrived on the shores of Sicily from both Africa and Syria.   They claim that there are more than 800,000 waiting on the shores of Libya hoping for safe passage away from the dangers of living in their home countries.   Many come by foot across the Sahara from Nigeria and Sierra Leon only to face the deplorable conditions in camps on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Photo: Glowing with the light of the Gospel
Phtot: Yummy Foo-Foo 
One of the couples I interviewed in Sicily were raised Muslim in Sierra Leon but decided to risk their lives and convert to Christianity.  After escaping persecution and arriving in Italy, they eventually found the missionaries and many of the answers they have been seeking.  He has been it Italy nearly 10 years and is now in the tourist industry having learned Italian and English.   He was able to marry and bring his wife of a year to Italy and they are now expecting their first child.  As they opened their door to us we were greeted as old friends (at least the "old" part is true).   Their small, humble apartment was spotless and simple.  As she was busy preparing "foo-foo" in the kitchen, the gas "bombola" emptied so she sent him out to find a refill.  After a few minutes, dinner was cooking again and we sat down to a traditional African meal.   We were instructed how to pinch off a piece of the firm dough ball and then scoop some of the boiled soupy okra mixed with pieces chicken and fish.   A bowl of water in the middle of the table was useful in cleaning our hands when things got too slimy.  It was actually pretty good.   We will never forget is their smiles of gratitude and the strong faith that they expressed in knowing how much the Lord loves them.   Their optimism and love of life was contagious and we left blessed for the experience.

Another occurrence this week was with Gloria, a Nigerian immigrant relocated to the little town of Rieti, about an hour north of Rome.  Her husband lives in Germany where he has found work in a food processing plant.  He returns home every eight weeks.  They have a two year old boy, Victor, and are excited to become members of the Church.   She feels the Lord's hand in her life and has never been happier.   I was so impressed with her faith and willingness to sacrifice in making the hour long train ride to church in Terni each week.  She is anxious to serve and learn how to teach the gospel to others as well.

Another door that was opened this week was that of our office volunteer, Michele Calabrese.  Retiring from a military career sixteen years ago, he has served under six mission presidents in the mission office for 20 to 30 hours a week without monetary compensation.  As Stake Patriarch is loved by many for his faith and purity.  He told me once that his only fear is sin... everything else is in the hands of the Lord.   He and Rosa invited us to dinner at their home and we took as a gift his favorite treat ... chocolate chip cookies.  After an amazing dinner, we enjoyed hearing about their conversion stories and about her father's vision and change of heart before he died.   The people of Italy are particularly receptive to spiritual dreams, impressions and visions.   The Lord seems to really bless them with gifts of the spirit to let them know how much he loves them and is aware of their faith.   I know that the doors of heaven will swing open wide for many of the Lords children in Italy.












Sunday, May 25, 2014

La Campagna

Campagna is the Italian word that collectively describes the non-urban countryside that makes up most of Italy.  We're told that in the Rome Temple there will be painted murals that depict the unique and beautiful country of Italy.   When the Italian Saints view the murals they will see their familiar campagna and will know that this Temple is their own, personal very Italian temple.

Temple murals portray only those divine creations untouched or modified by man.  Any man-made or man-modified elements are not included.  Only those elements touched by the hand of God will be included in the painted images that represent God's handiwork.   As we travel around Italy to meet with the missionaries, perform baptismal interviews or Temple firesides, I've tried to visualize what scenes of this amazing country might be included by an artist in the murals of the Temple.   Visitors who venture with us outside of Rome are immediately impressed by how much open space and undeveloped land there is.  There are miles of rolling hills, snow capped mountains and endless shorelines.   Italy is a long peninsula surrounded by water.  Included in the geography are two islands known for their world class beauty and spectacular shorelines.   Even to the north where Italy is attached to Switzerland and Austria there are large fresh water lakes  with breath taking shorelines.   Water and shorelines, in some form, certainly will be portrayed in the Temple murals, I would hope.   To escape the craziness of the crowded cities, Italians escape either to the seashores or to the mountains.

The mountains of Italy include several active volcanoes,  the towering alps to the north (the famous Matterhorn is actually more Italian than Swiss), the smaller granite mountains found in Sardegna (from which the granite used on the Rome Temple is quarried), to the snow capped Apennine mountains that run the center length of the main peninsula of Italy.  Italians love their mountains and escape often to hike, picnic, ski or camp.   The Italians have a special, spiritual affinity with their mountains and just as the mountains mentioned in the scriptures typically provided places of spiritual and temple-like experiences, I would hope to see some representation of the divine mountains of Italy in the background of a mural.

Trees will most certainly be included.  The beautifully tall umbrella-shaped pine trees that greet visitors in Rome and many other areas of Italy are unfortunately trimmed and shaped by man.  Such would not meet the standards for inclusion in a temple mural.   It wasn't until I saw a slightly shorter and untouched version of the same pine in Sardegna that my hopes were raised that these iconic trees might be included.   It's from the pine cones of these trees that the yummy pine nuts included in so many Italian recipe's originate.   Oak trees and maple trees are also found throughout Italy.   One of my favorite drives is the tree lined, fully canopied tunnel of foliage that exists for several miles in the campagna as we enter the town of Rieti, just a little over an hour from Rome.

Olive trees are also found throughout Italy.  Most that you see on the mainland are planted by man in neatly groomed orchards, some having been cultivated for many hundreds of years.   These would most likely not be included in the mural.   But there are others that grow wild among the hills and fields of red poppies and yellow wildflowers.   In the spring, the variety of wildflowers and colors is spectacular, especially on the islands of Sicilia and Sardegna.    It was in Sardegna recently where we were able to find large areas of native campagna that appeared to be just like I imagine the fields and hills within the Garden of Eden.   I know that the Temples in Brazil and Central America probably portray lush jungle scenes typical of their climate.   Somehow, a hot sweaty jungle never did appeal to me as being like heaven.  By contrast, the beautiful trees and flowering fields,  gentle rolling hills, and tall snow-capped mountains in the background are my idea of heaven in Italy.

There will probably be included some images of the wildlife and birds of the campagna.   I would expect to find deer, goats, wild boar, birds, and other of God's creations just as they now appear among the fields and hills of Italy.   They say that on the island of Sardegna that there are more goats and sheep than people!  

It's such a diverse country with many micro-cultures embedded in every region.  Each region is so different.  I think it's one of the reasons why Italy is the number one favorite destination country for American tourists who come to Europe.  There is so much to see and do.   Once you've seen the "top ten" postcard icons in Rome, the real fun begins for those who venture out into the campagna.   The inhabitants of each area are so proud of their diverse history, heritage, customs, and especially their food.   One of the artists in Piazza Navona tells me that the best selling paintings are those of the Italian campagna or coastline scenes followed by the picturesque flower filled balcony scenes.

We have fallen deeply in love with the Italian campagna and can't wait to see which of the beautiful images of the countryside will be captured and portrayed by the inspired artist(s) who are entrusted to represent heavenly scenes of Italy in the Temple.  It will be a sight to behold!