A Note from a College Missionary in Italy
“Ciao! I’m Jackson. I’m from the United States. What’s your name?”
This is the gist of how I started conversations during my time in Italy this past May and June. It was usually accompanied by the question, “Do you speak English?” and a handshake. This introduction was often followed by the student asking me why I was in Bologna, Italy. Since you’re probably wondering the same thing, I’ll give you some context.
My name is Jackson Watts. I am going into my senior year at Oklahoma State University, and I am considering attending Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA for my MDiv in order to become a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church. This past school year, I joined the campus ministry group Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), where I attended weekly Bible studies and other events. Early in the fall semester, I heard that Cru did summer mission trips at universities around the world, and the OSU branch of Cru was affiliated with Cru at the University of Bologna in Bologna, Italy.
I told myself that it sounded cool but wasn’t for me. As often happens to me with ministry opportunities, the more I told myself that I didn’t have the time or the resources for it, the more I realized it was God’s plan for me. After speaking with the team leader about it in November, I decided to apply to the six week Bologna summer mission trip. Since then, I have seen God work in more ways than I ever could have imagined, and I have had countless opportunities to grow in my faith.
One of the first ways in which I saw God work was in fundraising. I started fundraising in February, giving myself three months to raise the $6,000 needed for the trip. The fundraising started off well. Lutheran CORE was my first supporter! However, I soon faltered. With three weeks left, I still needed $2,500. There were 30 people I had mailed for fundraising who hadn’t gotten back to me. I began to lose hope when I realized that even if all 30 of those people gave me $50 each, I would still be $1,000 short. I spoke to my team leader about it, and he told me he was confident God would provide the $2,500 I needed in the next three weeks. I didn’t believe him, but I continued to fundraise, talking to new people and texting those with whom I had already been in contact. Not only did God provide me what I needed, but He provided an overabundance! Through the unexpected generosity of many people, I raised all the money I needed with significant extra, which I gave to other members of the team.
On May 17, 2022, eight other students, three Cru staff, and I departed for Bologna, Italy, to spend five weeks doing ministry at the University of Bologna. The University of Bologna is the oldest continually operating university in the world, having been founded in 1088 A.D. It has an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 50,000 and a postgraduate enrollment of approximately 35,000. The Cru group there has approximately 50 active students, and it calls itself Agape Studenti.
I soon discovered several major differences between the University of Bologna (UB) and traditional American universities, some of which made ministry difficult. One major difference was that UB doesn’t have a finals week like most American universities have. UB students finish classes at the end of May and take their final test any time during June. Most students were free to leave Bologna for a week or two before coming back to take tests.
This made ministry difficult because we met many students who couldn’t meet up again because they were about to leave Bologna and go back to their parents’ house for a few weeks, or for the rest of the summer. I met several students who were interested in my faith in Jesus and wanted to know more but weren’t free to meet up until after I left Bologna. This was one of the most frustrating parts of the trip.
Another major difference was that there were no clubs at UB like the clubs at universities here in the U.S. This was a challenge to ministry as well. When talking to students I couldn’t present Agape Studenti as a club with weekly meetings at a designated time and place. The students would see that as a very strange thing. In fact, Agape Studenti doesn’t have weekly meetings at UB. They did in past years, but the staff decided to drop the weekly meetings because of low attendance. Because the idea of a club is so foreign, students at UB prioritize hanging out with friends over weekly meetings with an organization at a designated time. Now, the staff meets with students one-on-one to read the Bible together.
Although I’m more comfortable with the American style of campus ministry, I had to adapt to the culture. When doing ministry in the United States, I prioritized getting students involved in weekly Bible studies. In Italy, I had to focus on being friends with students whom I met, telling them about how my faith in Jesus has changed my life, and introducing them to an Agape staff member.
The difference which was most relevant to ministry was the extremely low number of practicing religious adherents of any kind. As a group, we met around 300 students and had spiritual conversations with around 200 students whom we didn’t meet through Agape Studenti. To my knowledge, none of those people consistently attended a worship service, mass, mosque, or synagogue. We did meet one Italian student who considered himself an evangelical Christian and grasped the concept of salvation by grace through faith only, not by works. We met another two to five students (forgive me for not knowing exact numbers, as it was hard for me to keep track of the students contacted by other members of my group) who could be considered practicing Roman Catholics because they attended mass a few times a year. We met three to six students from other countries, or whose parents were from another country, who considered themselves either Protestant Christians or Eastern Orthodox Christians. One of these students was already involved in Agape Studenti. The rest were not involved in any Christian student organization or any local church. The majority of the students we met were Italian students who had been baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church but had not been to mass in years.
It may come as a surprise that Christian international students who come to Bologna don’t make more of an effort to get involved in a Christian group. However, this makes more sense given that many of these students can’t find a Christian group of any kind.
Although there are a few protestant churches on the outskirts of the city, there are only two in the center of the city, and both of these have fewer than 100 in attendance per Sunday. This is in a metropolitan area of around 1 million people and a city center of around 100,000 people.
In addition, to my knowledge, there is only one interdenominational Christian student organization at UB, Agape Studenti. I heard of a Catholic student organization, but this organization seemed to have a low presence on campus. Out of the 300 students whom we had conversations with outside of Agape events, we met only one who was an active member of any religious student organization (in his case, Agape Studenti). Given the extremely low presence of religious organizations on campus, it’s easy to understand why Protestant Christian students coming to the University of Bologna don’t know where to turn to find fellow believers. Part of my job was to find those students and get them involved in Agape.
In order to find interested students, we had to meet students. There was no easy method for meeting students; we just had to start conversations with strangers. One of the easiest places to start a conversation was in line to get food in the cafeteria. I always started with “Parla Inglese?” (Do you speak English?) To which they usually answered “Sí.” I then asked what food I should get. After they answered that question, I introduced myself in the manner I explained in the first paragraph. When I met students in other places, I had to start with a different question, or just introduce myself and start talking. They were often confused at first about why an American started talking to them randomly, but they were willing to continue in conversation. They usually asked why I was in Bologna, which gave me an opportunity to explain a little about Agape, and possibly about my faith.
Telling students about my faith in Jesus wasn’t always easy. At some point in the first conversation, I usually got a chance to ask students about their religious beliefs. I only met two students who didn’t believe in any god at all. Most students said they believed in a God but didn’t see any point in practicing the religion they had grown up practicing. They had gone to mass regularly as a child, but the ritual prayers there felt meaningless. The idea of a personal relationship with God was a mostly foreign idea to them. The message of the Catholic Church was that a personal relationship with God comes through regular attendance of mass. Because Italian students did not feel any joy or connection to God through this participation, they usually stopped participating after confirmation.
By the time I met them, they usually felt resentment towards the Catholic Church for various reasons often having to do with positions on sexuality. They had very little knowledge of the Bible, but what they did know tended to follow a pattern: Jesus taught good morals, and the Old Testament has scientifically incorrect teachings and defunct morals. This was usually a good avenue for me to share what I believe about the Old Testament – it shows the brokenness of humanity and points to a coming savior – and the New Testament – Jesus is the savior of all who repent and believe in him. These concepts were mostly foreign to Italian students. A few times I asked what they had been taught in confirmation class. None of them could remember.
Through the difficulties of having to share my faith day after day to new people who didn’t understand it, a passage which guided me and gave me encouragement was the story of the woman at the well in John chapter 4. Jesus started his conversation with the woman with a simple command, “Give me a drink.” The woman questioned why Jesus would talk to a Samaritan such as herself. When Jesus says he has what she needs for eternal life, she seems to miss the point and is instead interested in finding a way to avoid coming to the well again. When Jesus shows her that he knows her past, she realizes he is a prophet.
However, she is determined to create a division between herself and Jesus. She says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” She creates a division between “my people” and “your people” with her words, and she points out a difference between them that was not even relevant to what Jesus was talking about. However, Jesus is unfazed. He says the truth of why he came, and how she can have a personal relationship with God. Three times the woman pointed out the divisions between their societies, but Jesus focused on how to end the division between herself and God.
I found myself in similar situations often. I wanted to tell students about the Living Water, Jesus Christ. When I brought up my faith in Jesus, they brought up the hottest topics of the day which divided us, usually having to do with homosexuality, or the Catholic Church being hypocritical in some way. When they found out I was American, they wanted to hear my opinion on the most recent American news, of which there was always too much. I learned to not get wrapped up in politics, or get defensive, but focus on the task at hand. After the woman at the well tried to create a division, she realized what Jesus’ true message was. She went to the town to spread the news of what Jesus had done for her. I tried to do the same. I have access to many resources, and I know my Bible well. However, I try to keep my initial message simple when talking to students: look at what Jesus has done for me.
At the beginning of the trip, we decided as a group that if even one person accepts Jesus as their savior as a result of our mission, our mission would be a success. It seemed like a good goal at the time, but now I view the mission differently.
According to statistics we kept during the mission, we initiated conversations with 372 different people (not all of whom were students). This doesn’t count people we met at Agape events who were previously involved in Agape. We had 270 spiritual conversations with students (conversations with the same person at different times were counted separately). We presented the gospel 63 times.
We saw zero decisions for Christ. Even though we didn’t have any decisions for Christ while we were there, I still saw evidence of God’s working in the lives of the students we met. We connected several Protestant Christian students to Agape, giving them a safe place to profess their faith in Jesus and giving them a resource to help them spread that faith to others. In addition, our final Sunday in Bologna, two UB students attended church with us at a local Protestant church.
On a separate occasion, one of the students I met bought a Bible and read all of Genesis in five days. He told me it was beautiful. Over the course of the trip, I had several students express interest in getting together to read the Bible with me.
Our final week in Bologna, Agape hosted an event to which we invited all of the friends we made during the mission. At the event we discussed the meaning of love, focusing on its meaning in John 3:16 and John 13:34. Around 25 UB students attended, and they were all introduced to at least one Agape staff member. Earlier in the trip, we had several previously agnostic students show a genuine deep interest in our message of salvation through Jesus. However, I do not consider the trip a success for these reasons. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” Back in November, I realized God wanted me to go to Italy this summer. Because I love God, I trust He is working for good in ways I can see and in ways I can’t. Therefore, I consider the trip a success.