Gospel-focused language learning in Italy
Posted on: 29th October 2017
Simon and Jessica Cowell arrived in Siena, Italy at the beginning of 2017 for their first term as CMS missionaries. While they have focused on learning and improving their Italian in this first year, they have discovered that language learning is also a ministry, providing them with opportunities to share the gospel with their classmates.
Constant motion has coloured the last few years of our lives—moving out of theological college, moving to Melbourne for CMS training, back to Sydney for Home Assignment and finally to a new country. Language learning could easily feel like yet another phase where we are not getting anything done in ministry. However, throughout all this time God has been providing us with opportunities to share the gospel. Now, perhaps more than ever, we understand that language learning really is ministry. It is ministry as we begin to understand people as they speak to us in their own language. It is also ministry as it gives us opportunities to meet people and spend a lot of time talking with them. We thought we’d share some of those opportunities.
During my early language lessons, my teachers were coming to our house as Emma was still only seven or eight months old. One lesson, Simon was out with Lydia meeting some university students and I had half a lesson before Emma woke up for her dinner. I was busy feeding her when my teacher commented that he was surprised that there were so many people at our “not Catholic” church. He asked me how I became a Christian and then how Simon because a Christian. I had just learnt how to use enough of the past tense to try answering so, while Emma poured food and then water all over herself, I explained my story and then Simon’s story of how we came to trust in Jesus for ourselves. The idea of personally deciding to follow Jesus was clearly an interesting concept for my teacher!
In August, I was walking with some fellow students through a church that was part of an old hospital here in Siena. The walls were full of paintings of the assumption of Mary—if you don’t remember the story, that’s because you won’t find it in the Bible. However, at the front of the church was a gigantic artwork of Jesus healing the paralysed man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5). I quickly looked it up and then asked my Muslim classmate if she would like to hear the story from the Bible that the painting was about. I was then able to share this story about Jesus with her in Italian. She said it was a beautiful story and asked if the water from the healing pool was still there. I reminded her that, in the end, it was Jesus who had healed the man and she replied, “Ah yes, you’re right.” It was a joy to tell a true story of our Lord Jesus to a classmate, albeit prompted by some confusing surroundings.
I already had reasonable Italian before leaving Australia so for the first few months here my role was to give Jessica time and space to learn as much as she could as quickly as possible. And yet I still needed to keep learning, so I’ve been going to classes at the foreigner’s university here in Siena. One of the joys of the course is that there are, naturally, people from all over the world studying Italian for a wide range of reasons. I’ve met people from Nicaragua, Suriname, Egypt, Germany, Russia, China and everywhere in between. I have developed a particularly good relationship with Tariq*. He’s from Egypt, and we’ve been classmates for a few months. I knew he was from a Muslim background so eventually I had the chance to ask him what that meant to him. He graciously shared that Islam is his way to live a good life. What was even better, though, was that the next day he asked me the same question about Christianity. I took that open invitation to share the gospel with him. Please pray for Tariq and for other students like him (there are lots of international students in Italy and the GBU often has contact with them). Pray that they would encounter the risen Jesus while they study here.
At the higher levels of my language course, the material tends to focus on more advanced language skills like developing an argument and being able to express yourself in a ‘native’ way. These aspects of the course are done by focussing on themes. So far, we’ve covered things like humour, love and identity—all of which have given me the chance not only to share the gospel, but the way it shapes all the parts of our lives. In September, our class had to write a brief essay entitled ‘Strangers like us’. I decided to be a little daring and wrote that all our estrangement and relationship breakdown ultimately stems from our estrangement from God, caused by our sin. The encouraging thing was that my teacher found the argument unique among the class (even if she wasn’t convinced) and we read through it together for comment and discussion. Please pray for my teacher, Paola, and the other eight members of the class, including Tariq, that they may look to Jesus as the one in whom they can find reconciliation and the comforting love of God.
As you can see, there are lots of opportunities for us if we are only wise enough to recognise them and bold enough to take them. Even as language learners, we (and all our fellow CMS missionaries throughout the world) serve and strive to bear witness to our great King Jesus. God answers your prayers as you ask him to grant us wisdom and boldness, so keep on at it!
Thank God for the opportunities that Simon and Jessica have already had to share their faith. Pray that Jessica would have more occasions to share Bible stories with her teachers and classmates, including her Muslim friend. Pray that Paola, Tariq and the other students in Simon’s class would be open to hearing more about the gospel and would ultimately find a saving faith in Jesus.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.