Heledd Job writes from Italy
What has it been like in Italy? It really depends who you talk to. My experience ministering to students in a relatively young international congregation in Torino is completely different to those ministering in largely elderly communities in the worst hit Lombardia and Veneto regions, or those in the much less affluent South.
From my perspective, one of the big challenges is fear; both of the virus itself but also of the social and economic effects. Though initially there might have been a feeling of solidarity and “we’ll get through this together”, it didn’t last long. The “andrá tutto bene” (it’ll be ok) rainbow posters on the balconies have nearly all disappeared. There have been visible displays of anger from some areas of the country as people who are not able to work are facing real worries about how they will pay their rent and put food on the table.
Another big challenge has been the isolation. In a culture that is so relational and family-oriented, it has been painful for people to have to stay within their own four walls. Even as lockdown eases, the masks, social distancing and lack of physical contact is causing real loneliness and I think we will see it have an effect on people’s mental health for a long time to come.
Fear and isolation have had a real effect on international students too. Many have returned to their home countries and those who have stayed have found themselves very lonely. With classes all online and regulations that mean they spend nearly all of their time in their rooms it has been incredibly isolating. Though nothing is decided yet, the universities are talking about all classes being taught online for the whole of the next academic year. If that happens, we are likely to see many more students return to their home countries. In the meantime, the uncertainty is causing even more fear.
The online church community that we have tried to maintain through Zoom, WhatsApp and other means, has been a lifeline. There have been wonderful moments of connection as we have shared, prayed, studied the Word, celebrated birthdays, and played games. Some relationships have deepened as we have faced this crisis together. New people have joined or moved inwards from the fringes, as being online has made church more accessible. We have helped each other to find refuge in the Lord, our fortress, who has brought hope and joy into the fear and isolation.
Sadly, however, the whole situation has caused some to withdraw from the church community. Though there are wonderful stories of ways that God has opened up opportunities for the gospel in some of the hospitals, and we rejoice in that, the more general picture has not been one of increased openness. Rather, people are just trying to survive.
Please continue to pray with us for Italy, that the church would be able to point to Jesus as the unshakeable, unchangeable safe place where we can find comfort and true hope for the future.