Only God could have hatched this cooperative, multinational plan to rescatter seeds of the gospel in this nation of forgotten faith
By Peter Burgo
If you’re planning to write an article on Italy, it stands to reason that a trip would be in order, non sei d’accordo? Unfortunately, my budget responded, “Vorrei, ma non posso.” So instead, I drove to Olive Garden and took the “Tour of Italy” for some inspiration as I researched the Alliance work that is starting to “take root in the boot.”
When we think of places in dire need of the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, we tend to focus on areas of the world rife with conflict, suffering and disaster, and where access to the gospel is scarce. Our recent denominational strategies for completing the Great Commission focus primarily on parts of the world like North Africa and north and central Asia, where the resounding Muslim call to prayer smothers any faint whisper of a distant chapel bell. We seldom attribute the same level of spiritual desolation to places like Western Europe, where Christian cathedrals decorate the landscape. But God continually reminds us that spiritual need is not confined to geography. Postmodern and post-Christian philosophies have all but snuffed out the dynamic evangelical presence in most of Western Europe. But God is reviving His Church there. And only He could have orchestrated the events leading to an Alliance presence in Italy.
The Alliance family in Italy currently consists of five small congregations in Rome, Ancona, Bologna, Mirandola and Tione di Trento. These bodies comprise mostly Latino and Filipino immigrants, with only two of the five groups speaking Italian. Four of these works started independently, with no knowledge of the existence of one another; each fellowship believed it represented the only Alliance presence in the country. But God was clearly scattering seeds for a new era of evangelism and outreach.
In May 2011, Rev. Vernon Rehmann, then regional coordinator of Europe and the Middle East for the Alliance World Fellowship (AWF), called for a meeting in Florence of Alliance workers in Italy. Representatives of all the works at that time participated, and a fresh excitement filled the air.
Since 2012, key pastors from Peru and Ecuador have been visiting Italy and started promoting Alliance work there to their national churches. Dr. Miguel Palomino, director of the Alliance Latin American Graduate School of Theology (FATELA) and chair of the International Commission on Theological Education of the AWF, wrote of a new era of outreach to immigrants in Europe: “It was not too long ago that the Alliance and other denominations began looking at the immigration wave as a movement designed to bless the global North. It is no secret that western Christianity has dramatically decreased lately, and observers acknowledge that evangelical immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America feel called as the ‘chosen carriers’ to accomplish a mission in reverse.” This mission is now unfolding with fresh vigor in several key locations throughout the country:
The current work of The Alliance in Italy is relatively young. It began with a public worship service in Rome in 2008. After spending a year in Spain, Renato and Leonor Antinori, an Alliance missionary couple from Lima, Peru, were sent to Rome to start a new work. They served in Italy for nearly three years before returning to Lima. Marty and Gloria Banzhaf, a Peruvian-American couple with rich experience in cross-cultural ministry, answered the call to step in and lead the church in Rome. The Banzhafs are supported by churches in Lima and ministry partners in the United States.
The Ancona church held its first public worship service in December 2010 and has grown to more than 70 people. Pastor Mario Pereyra, who studied at the Alliance Bible Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has lived in Italy with his wife, Alejandra, and four children for 12 years. A welder by trade, Mario started his ministry as a bi-vocational pastor. He and his family speak fluent Italian, which allows Mario to preach with great power and clarity. He also has recruited two Italian lay workers to help shepherd the congregation. Alliance churches in Latin America are providing financial support for the Pereyras, enabling them to serve in the ministry full-time. Pastor Mario is also the president of the newly formed Alliance national church in Italy.
This is a new church plant started earlier this year in a small town without an evangelical presence. A layman shepherds this group, and the congregation in Ancona is providing oversight. The two churches held a baptismal service on July 5, 2014, with five people from Mirandola and seven from Ancona publicly proclaiming their newfound faith.
This congregation ministers to Filipino immigrants who have settled in the city. It is led by Lea Rodriguez, a graduate of the Alliance Graduate School (formerly the Alliance Biblical Seminary) of the Philippines. Of her bi-vocational ministry in Bologna, Lea writes, “When I look back on how God brought me to this place, all I could declare is this, ‘How awesome and amazing is my living God.’ I came to Italy for a job, not actually for the ministry. It was June 2009 that I attended the Alliance [Filipino congregation] here in Bologna, and they asked me to help in the ministry as an associate worker. So without hesitation I accepted.” Although the ministry is slow-moving at times, several people have accepted the Lord. The congregation currently meets in a hotel and is praying that God will provide a permanent worship location where ministry can be conducted throughout the week.
Tione di Trento
This work began in fall 2010 and is located in a small town in the Italian Alps that has never had an evangelical church. The key Alliance leader there, Hector Peñafiel, is a committed layman and well-trained evangelist from a large Alliance church in Ecuador. He, his wife, Cristina, and his family are actively sharing their faith at work and in the community, visiting new believers and sponsoring periodic evangelistic events. They hold worship services in their home.
A variety of workers lead these churches, some with more training than others. They are, for the most part, a perfect illustration of what Alliance founder A. B. Simpson called his “irregulars.” None had ever pastored a church before, but God has given them a heart for evangelism, and they are doing a remarkable job making meaningful connections. As the current outreach ministries continue to grow, the team in Italy has its sights set on new works in Genoa, Milan and Florence. And if they ever decide to plant a church in Tuscany, Venice or Naples, alife’s budget will just have to recognize its editor’s “special calling” to join these “irregulars” in that vital outreach.
THE SPAIN CONNECTION
During the early years of Alliance ministry in Italy, its sister church in Spain played a pivotal role in the support of these young churches. Culturally and linguistically, there is an obvious connection through the many Latin American immigrants who live in Italy and Spain. Three key churches in Madrid sent pastors and short-term teams to Italy on multiple occasions. The National Church Committee in Spain views these connections as an opportunity to encourage the workers in Italy and let them know that sister churches in Spain are praying for them. It has also helped to ignite a greater passion for missions among the churches in Spain.
THE ROLE OF THE U.S. ALLIANCE
Given all the natural connections between the local churches in Italy and South America, the U.S. Alliance has sought to find ways to partner with Latin America, while encouraging Latin missions to take the lead in Italy. Because of this, there are no currently no plans to send long-term church-planting missionaries from the United States to Italy.
AWF and U.S. leadership decided that the best contribution the U.S. Alliance could make, at least initially, was to send a more experienced missionary couple who spoke Spanish and could come alongside our younger lay pastors in Italy for mentoring and pastoral care. Doug and Naomi Ord, with many years of missionary experience in Colombia, were invited to fill this role. They arrived in October 2012 and have had a significant ministry visiting, encouraging and ministering to workers in these young congregations.
“It is a privilege to come alongside pastors and their families, to listen to their hearts, to encourage them, to pray with and for them and to raise awareness of the great need in Italy,” say the Ords. “The economic crisis has driven people to desperation—and in their desperation, Italian ‘Millennials’ are coming to Christ. God is at work as never before. Last month, for instance, a number of young people came to talk with Mario and Alejandra—and gave their hearts to Christ! Martin, a former pastor’s son, is on a professional soccer team. He’s been talking to his teammates about Christ, and, through his testimony, these young people are seeking the Lord. There is a GREAT NEED for discipleship of these new believers.”
Deeply wounded from family dysfunction, broken relationships and alcoholism, Omar, a Muslim, began to hear violent voices that urged him toward suicide. His friend Martin told him about the Alliance church in Ancona, where Martin’s uncle, Mario, is the pastor. Omar met with Pastor Mario, who described how Jesus had delivered him from deep pain and brokenness. Omar accepted Jesus and started down a path of inner healing. “The Lord has given me peace, joy, love and a new heart. He fortified all my weaknesses, has deleted all my trauma, sewed up all my wounds, has given an answer to all my questions, taught me to live and has made me a better person and complete,” beams Omar. “Today He uses me to help people who are in a situation where I was and to give hope to those who have none.”
Concerned that her toddler son, Antonio, was avoiding physical contact and not talking, Philomena sought medical help. After having been told that Antonio was mentally retarded, Philomena was encouraged by a Catholic friend to seek a divine miracle from the Virgin Mary at a special mass. Months after the mass, Antonio remained unchanged, and Philomena was overwhelmed with despair. Then one day at work, she met the family of Roberto Sorbo, the worship leader at the Alliance Church in Ancona. They urged her to speak with Pastor Mario. The first Sunday they attended the Ancona church, Philomena noticed a distinct change in Antonio. “I saw my son socialize for the first time. It seemed that he knew the brothers in the church all his life,” she recalls. “I had never asked Jesus to heal my son, but He did it because He knew that in my heart I longed for it.”
Antonio is now 4 years old. His mother often hears him talking to God. “Thank you, Jesus, that I’m here.” “Jesus, take my hand!” He sometimes even offers spiritual advice to his sister: “Anna, don’t do that, because it makes Jesus cry!”
“Antonio is our miracle,” says his mother, “and all the church family loves him very much, because in him we have experienced the power of God.”
The emerging story of The Alliance in Italy is a beautiful example of more than a century of investment in the building, maturing and unleashing of Christ’s Church. The Alliance in North America sent its first missionaries to South America in 1897 to establish a gospel presence. Today, Alliance churches throughout Latin America are flourishing and setting their sights on Europe and other parts of the world where Jesus is acknowledged only as another historical religious figure. By His Spirit and in His power, the name of Jesus will again be elevated above all names in this nation of enduring beauty and forgotten faith.
Contributing to this article were Raymond and Mary Ebbett, Alliance field leaders in Spain, and Doug and Naomi Ord, Alliance international workers in Italy.