Missionary Diary: Growth and Flexibility in Italy


Jessica Cowell and her husband Simon are sent by CMS, the Church Missionary Society, to work with university students for GBUs (University Bible Groups) in southern Italy. They live in Bari, in the heel of the Italian boot, with their four children and have been in Italy for five years.

A new Year ! Although for us in the northern hemisphere, it’s only the second half of the current academic year. Still, a break and the start of 2022 gives us a moment to reflect on our plans and expectations for this new period.

In some ways, it feels like it’s starting the same way it did last year – new restrictions, new anxieties all around us, parent chats exploding to 150 unread messages when you’re not watching, discussing the type of mask children should wear, among other things.

But it’s actually very different here in Italy. This year, when we know many more people with COVID, most of them are at home and eager to test negative to get back to school and work. Last year, many of the cases we heard about involved people in hospital wondering how long they would need physiotherapy to breathe well again. We are grateful to God for his mercy in this!

What do we do when half of our leaders and children can’t come this week?

This week we are juggling the resumption of activities that – before Christmas – had been held in person for a few months. But now many people are COVID positive or just sick. So are we going to go online for our little church or do we have to keep an in-person option now that we have five international students who need us to translate into English? And do we have enough computers for that (and people to run them)?

Simon writes to our GBU student leaders: “Let’s meet and plan the next session – wait, both are COVID positive so I guess we are doing it online!

God has certainly taught us to be flexible in recent years, even before COVID. I think it is easier this year to look forward to the possibility of continuing to do many things in person, even if we expect that many other activities will again be prevented by the need for caution.

However, we are certainly planning excitedly for this year, nonetheless. God developed the GBUs in Bari last year, and because they have met regularly in person over the past few months to study the Bible, the group is now ready to plan a week of college evangelism activities. What will it look like? We’re not sure yet – but how exciting that even in these difficult times, God has given us these brothers and sisters to work with and share his love in places where he is not widely known. Until two months ago, one of our students thought he was probably the only believer in Christ on his entire campus. It was a huge encouragement for him to find out that was not the case!

I will also sit down to plan our children’s church program for this half of the year with one of our ex-GBU students who is now a laborer and part of our local church. She’s sick today (COVID-negative), but we thought it best to see each other next week anyway. One of the items on the agenda of this meeting will be: what do we do when half of our leaders and our children cannot come that week? But compared to this time last year, when we were never even able to run a Friday night children’s church program, it’s great to build on an already existing base.

I have made one less afternoon commitment for the next few months, which I am happy about as I anticipate that we will continue to have periods of isolation or return of children from school for various illnesses. For us, this year is about adjusting our expectations and planning for the practicalities as much as possible, but then continuing to trust in the Lord and serve Him in all the ways, large and small, He puts before us.

On that note, I’m going to grab my Bible while the baby is still sleeping and the kids are in school so I can start this year listening to our Heavenly Father, hopefully more than the media!

PS Tonight a message popped up in the chat of one of our children’s classes at school. So now our daughter will have to self-isolate for the next ten days as a contact. It’s time to put into practice the flexibility of expectations I just wrote about!

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