Even though my more or less formal study of sacred art in Rome under the tutelage of Michael Schwartz concluded on Wednesday, I still had a couple of more commitments today. Just after lunch I left my family to meet with the president of the Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Italy, Anna Maffei. I am not sure if I have clarified how I became acquainted with Anna, so let me explain. Two or so years ago, when I began planning for this sabbatical, I contacted Rob Nash, the global missions coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and asked him for help. He put me in contact with Anna, whom he came to know through shared work with the Baptist World Alliance (more about the BWA later). My primary concern was to locate suitable and affordable housing for a three week stay in Rome. Through a flurry of email exchanges Anna suggested I rent from her sister, Adrianna, which is exactly what we wound up doing.
Even though we have been here for well over two weeks and our time about to wind down, due to my heavy schedule and Anna’s we were only able to meet Thursday afternoon. The headquarters are just above the Rome Baptist Church where I worshipped Sunday. The offices were rather ordinary with modern, inexpensive office furnishings arranged beneath what looked to be a rather old, coffered ceiling that was at least a few hundred years old. As I said earlier, the denomination (although that is not a term used much outside of America) of Italian Baptists belong to the Baptist World Alliance. The BWA represents Baptists all over the world, including our own church family of First Baptist of Augusta. In fact our church provides support to the BWA in our budget directly as well as through the CBF and over the years ministers and laity from our church have attended its “congress” which meets every five years.
Anna is a pastor, but has taken a leave of absence for the past six years until she completes her final term as President, which is a full time job. When I asked Anna if there were many women serving as Baptist pastors in Italy, a country I equate both politically and socially as conservative, she said only about 1/3 of Baptist pastors are women! Since Baptists and most other Protestants are very much in the minority, there is little time for squabbles and infighting, especially the kind we have suffered from for so long in our own country. Instead, the Baptists work alongside other communities of faith for the spread of the gospel and the betterment of the “least of these.” Coincidently when I entered the offices earlier in the afternoon they were completing a press conference announcing their intent to work with other persons of faith in serving the Romany people (gypsies) in Italy. Like everywhere else in Europe, the gypsies are an oppressed minority group, often denied opportunities for work, education or healthcare. Therefore, she noted, many of the beggars and petty thieves throughout Rome are gypsies trying survive. This past winter, for example, gypsy children were living out on the streets of Rome, beneath the imposing shadow of the Vatican. The irony was not lost.
As we talked and discussed the situation of Baptists in Italy she ruefully noted that they were in dire need of church plants in Italy and has had no Italian speaking Baptist churches started in the last 20 years or so. She asked me rather directly “how could we help?” I honestly do not know and the prospect is overwhelming because I suspect Italy’s shortage is the same throughout Europe. Not just Baptists, but Christianity in general is suffering a decline. If you want to go where Christianity is thriving, one needs to look in the nations of the southern hemisphere as well as in Asia.
On the way out I thanked Anna once again for all her help and support to me in helping us settle into Rome as “temporary locals” and promised to stay in touch. I climbed another flight of stairs and briefly met with the pastor of Rome Baptist Church, Dave Hodgdon. He is a fine fellow from Colorado and along with his wife has served this vibrant congregation for over 12 years. As I mentioned in an earlier email I have an affectionate past with this church, becoming acquainted with the church when I was a college student and met the missionaries who planted it in 1963.
Near five in the afternoon I caught up with Amy and the boys along the street known for Rome’s finest and upscale shopping. Aaron had some euros burning a hole through his pocket and I promised to accompany them as we walked in and out of familiar name brand stores such as Nike, Adidas, Timberland, Gucci and Aaron’s favorite – Lacoste. Later on we wandered and enjoyed the sites and sounds of the city and met the class for a celebratory meal. They will be boarding a plane for home on Saturday, while we will have a few more days before our time here comes to a close.
Augusta should be proud of its University, the many fine students who attend, and the exceptional faculty that make up the ASU community. I have enjoyed getting to know and relate with these students as a guest and observer. The dinner was a fitting way to share highlights and observations of our time and studies beneath the Roman sky and al fresco dining.
We only have a few more days left and while I am looking forward to getting back home and seeing our church family, we have many things we want to squeeze in before our flight.
In the meantime, ciao!