Thursday, March 6, 2008

An update from Brandon

Here we are in the month of march and its hard to believe its already here. It seems that the cold winter weather in Sicily has already stated to hibernate and spring feels right around the corner. Life in general has been busy.

I have been working on translating biblical materials for the church and our website and that has kept me busy enough. We are trying to build up an online library of material on the church, what a Christian is and should be, and how to truly follow God in our daily lives. People seem to check a “church” out online and find out who they are from the comfort of their own home and so we are really trying to build this site up. It is currently under construction but can be accessed and we have already had a few inquiries and contacts from this.

We also started doing distribution for the free English courses using the Bible that I’m offering at the church building. We distributed for about 3 hours and gave out about 500 flyers. From this one time distribution, I have two new students who are studying weekly with me. Both are mainly here for the English but I’ve found them both open to talking about anything.

Salvatore is one of my new students. He comes from San Cono, Sicily which is a small mountain village about an hour outside of Catania. He is 25 years old and doesn’t actually look anything like what most think an Italian should look like. He is about 5’8 and has red hair and a red beard. He is a student at the Linguistics school here in Catania and is studying to get degrees in both English and Spanish. His English is already pretty good so he comes to me mainly just to talk and practice his oral English. This is perfect for me because since he wants to talk, I feel free to talk about anything. Politics is his current favorite topic and he knows quite a bit about world politics and US politics. I have learned quite a bit from him about the Italian political system in comparison to the American one. He is very critical of most governments and loves to talk about all of the injustices that happen worldwide and how he would fix them. Using his since of injustice, I got him talking about religion and TRUTH. Not just any truth, but TRUTH. He is catholic by tradition but is not a practicing catholic. He is VERY open to discussion and so I’m hoping that we can push forth and see where things go. Please pray for Salvatore and his everyday life and for his walk towards faith. Pray that I may be a guide to the TRUTH that is Christ Jesus.

I have also been doing a weekly study with a woman in her 50’s named Lydia. Stefano Scibiglia, a member of the church here in Catania and a great biblical scholar, has been going with me and we have enjoyed our discussions with Lydia. Lydia is a Jehovah’s Witness and has been for about 30 years. Our first study with her she brought a young Jehovah’s Witness who was around 25. This other lady was a new convert to JW and she came along to listen to our Bible study. We really tried to focus on scripture alone in these studies. The first encounter went well with us agreeing to meet again as long as we would stick solely to scripture and not outside sources or man made documents. The second time we met, Lydia brought a different sister who had also been a JW for over 30 years. (My impression was that she felt she needed reinforcements because we actually knew more about scripture than most catholics that she has studied with before). This study went well but we ran into a wall on the issue of Who the faithful servant is in the Book of Luke. From this passage, the JW get their concept of the “directors” and the slaves and the reason behind the publications of the “WATCHTOWER” magazine and the regional directors and more. However, she agreed to meet with us again. (side note-- this is funny to me because JW are usually the ones who hound people about doing studies but this time it was US). This last time we studied, she brought in the big guns. She brought their “Preacher”. So we began an in depth study on the issue and we came to a crossroad. I’m not sure if they are planning on meeting with us again but it was a great learning experience for me. I hope and pray that God may open Lydia’s heart to the words of scripture and not simply follow after man. I hope and pray to see her again.

Our weekly schedule has filled up nicely in the past month or so. On Monday, I’m at the building from 9 am to 12 working on translating materials, keeping the doors open for walk ins, and working on English materials. At 6, Salvatore comes and we do our study for about an hour. In the early afternoon, I’m either back at the building or doing the shopping for Kristin (since we live on the tenth floor and she’s pregnant).

On Tuesday, I’m at the building in the morning until lunch. At 4, Kristin and I usually head in for one of our longer nights. We prepare our English lesson for the church members and print out copies for everyone. At 530 we have an English lesson with Giorgia D’Agostino. She is 16 and her family are members of the church and she is studying to become a Christian. She’s a wonderful girl who has a passion for Highschool Musical and the “Sister Act” movies. She has a younger brother named Fabio and a younger sister named Elisa. Fabio is 13 and Elisa is 6. They both hang around during our lessons and have picked up quite a bit of English. There parents are wonderful people who really take care of their kids. They aren’t smothered but you can tell these kids are loved. After the lesson with Giorgia ends, we have about 30 minutes before other members arrive for our weekly English/singing lessons. We spend about 15 minutes doing tongue twisters and reading verses in English while translating them into Italian. After this, we spend about 45 to an hour trying to teach them the four part harmonies. This is really quite difficult! However, we have a lot of fun and have really enjoyed each others company during this time. We laugh a lot and generally spend time together doing fun games and singing songs together. We have been averaging 10 to 15 each week which is more than I thought would come. It’s a great fun night!

On Wednesday my day is a lot like Monday as I work at the building until Salvatore comes. (Once more students sign-up, instead of translating, I will be doing more lessons). Thursday night is our weekly bible study at 730 pm. We have been doing a study on Revelation and its now coming to an end. After Stefano finishes teaching this study on revelation, I will be starting a new series on called “How to talk to others about your faith”. This study will be about how to begin conversations at work, play, school and more. It will also encompass how to study one on one with someone and a more in depth knowledge of scripture. I’m very excited about this opportunity. Please begin to pray for this class that it may help the brother and sisters here to become more evangelistic and open to sharing their faith.

Friday and Saturday change constantly. Saturday night is usually the night we go and visit the shut-ins and the sick. I’ve come to really enjoy this weekly time with the brothers here and its always encouraged me so much to visit some of these brothers and sisters who have lived full lives for Christ. It gives me great joy to hear them say that they cant wait to be home with Christ.

So, as you can see a lot has happened and a lot is happening! We are hitting the full stride of our work and we feel God is opening a lot of doors here in Catania. Please continue to pray for us, our unborn child, and the work that is developing here in Catania. God bless!


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An italian singing to me outside my window.

This morning we awoke to the usual sound of the workers working outside on our apartment walls. For the past couple of weeks they have been striping off all of the concrete stucco on the outside wall where our terrace is. We've had a problem with leaks (resulting in mold growing on our walls) in our bedroom and bathroom. They finally have all the stucco off (thankfully, no more jackhammers and drilling) and due to no insulation our house has been really cold the past 2 weeks. But thankfully they're getting this all done before the baby arrives. They will hopefully repaint our bedroom and bathroom for us as well. Yesterday they put a new exterior door leading to the terrace. When we have a downpour, water leaks through the 2 sets of doors and down our hallway. Our landlord was thinking about building a large sunroom off of the door or even an awning, but our terrace isn't level enough for that (bummer, I was really hoping for a sunroom). But as the alarm went off this morning and Brandon and I laid in bed trying to convince each other to get up when I heard one of the workers call a man "pinocchio"! They really do have people here with the name pinochio! Brandon said it has to be a nickname, but I heard what was said! Also, since the scaffolding, they use to lift materials from the ground floor, is infront of our window I awoke to one of them singing to me. Our blinds are closed, but it was funny hearing him sing some type of english pop song while working. It was like he was in his own little world.

Moving on, we have a new sister in christ, Valerie! It was a private baptism. She's a very shy girl and she only wanted her parents and boyfriend. Her parents are members of the church and her dad is a carabinieri (special police force) that deals with the mafia.

Brandon and Stephano met yesterday with 2 ladies (and a son) of the Jehovah's witnesses. One lady has been a member for 20 years and the other for about 6 months. They came together to discuss the book of Matthew. Brandon said the discussion went very well and I'll see if he can write more about it on here. He is out this morning with Stephano distributing flyers around several colleges for english lessons.

Tonight we have an english lesson with Georgia and later on this evening we are getting the congregation together play some english learning games and to start teaching them the 4 part harmonies of hymns as many of them didn't grow up hearing 4 part harmonies like we have in the states.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

a crazy week

Well, Brandon did a good job explaining the history behind St. Agatha's day, but let me explain to you what it's really like on the grounds. There has been a week of non-stop fireworks. And we thought New Year's was bad, oh no, this is much worst. Around 6:00 pm fireworks start going off on the hour, every hour, till about midnight. If you've ever seen a firework show at Disney World or Washington D.C., times that show by 50 and you get a Catania firework show. This lasted about a week. It was nice a first because we can watch the whole show from inside through our living room windows, but at the end of every show they shoot off a type of "onion bomb". All you see is a small blink of light, about a size of a star, but then out of nowhere comes this great sounding "BOOM" like a loud cannon being shot off. It's so loud that the glass in our windows shake. This happens at the end of every firework show for the last 5 minutes. Then as it got closer to St. Agatha's shining day, they would shoot off fireworks at 2am on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday!!! Not only that, but those lovely "onion bombs" that seem to be their favorite, went off at 4am those 4 days!! 4AM!!!! Then at 6am the church bells start going off like it's a war zone and telling everyone to run for shelter but really it's "rejoicing for St. Agatha" and calling everyone to Mass for Tuesday morning. Thankfully, now, we have had much quiet mornings.

On a side note, Brandon has been a wonderful husband with getting all of our insurance and doctor's appointments straightened out. After several visits to many offices and waiting in lines for hours, we now have everything taken care of. The baby is doing good. Momma is "feeling" the first signs of morning sickness but no actions have been partaken...."yet".

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

hree days of cult, devotion, folklore, and tradition, that stand almost alone in the world.

Only the Holy Week in Seville, and the corpus Domini ceremony in Cuzco, Peru, may be compared in terms of popularity, to the festivities that since five centuries bave immutably been held in St. Agatha's honour. For three days, Catanians and tourists swarm in the streets, numbering to almost a million. During those intense days, Catania turns into one and only crowd marching behind the Patron.

( Three incredible days )

The 4th and 5th of February stand out among the three days of festivities, when St. Agatha passes through then eigh bourhoods on her silver carriage (Catanians call it, specifically, "fercolo" or, more commonly, "vara").

The first day of celebration, the 3th of February, develops itself into three distinct moments: the long and solemn Midday procession for "the offering of wax" to which civil, religious and militar authorities all attend bearing the standards of the City, the Province, and the University. Leaving St. Agatha' s (the Church of St. Agata alla Fornace ) to the Cathedral, the procession cuts through two lines of a huge crowd. Eleven "candelore" (large candleshaped structures), symbolizing the guilds, and two carriages belonging to the old Catanian Senate, bring up the rear. In the afternoon, at 3.00 PM, St. Agatha's international cross-country race takes place through the old and new streets of the town-centre. Finally, in the evening, later than 8.00 PM, grandious fireworks are on display in piazza Duomo.

The following night is spent sleepless by tbousands of Catanians, who crowd the Cathedral at dawn in a strongly emotional atmosphere, for a first meeting with "their" Saint. St. Agatha's image, waving amidst the crowd, is firstly brought to the high altar, than on the "vara" by devotees wearing the "sacco" (a white alb): its bust, covered up with jewels bestowed by sovereigns and celebrities (there also is a cross wbich was donated by composer Vincenzo Bellini), rises and falls amidst a cheering crowd.

The carriage carrying the reliquary-bust and the finely wrought silver casket containing other relics, starts covering the route crossing through Porta Uzeda, then passing through via Dusmet, the distinctive feature of which are the arches holding up the railway: beneath them, once there was the sea, just close to via Biscari, where St. Agatha supposedly was born. The route from piazza Carlo Alberto to piazza Stesicoro is eagerly awaited: we are now in places tbat are extremely dear to Catanians; in these ancient sites, Agatha men with imprisonment and martyrdom, dying in atrocious sufferings. There, it is anotber spectacular moment: thousands of devotes run and drag the heavy carriage along a slope (salita dei Cappuccini), stopping once halfway to pay homage to the Sacred Gaol.

In the evening, the run takes place downtown: via Plebiscito, Fortino, S. Cristoforo. There the festivities are felt in a different way: all private houses are open and well-lit, coffee-houses are crowded all night long. Music is heard coming from everywhere, Streets are crowded with stalls and booths where all sorts of sweets are sold, and mobile grids where horse meat is roasted. Balconies are well-lit, kiosks are strewn with flowers and embellisbed with St. Agatha's effigy, while shop-windows display artistic reproductions of the "candelore". Almost at dawn, magnificent fireworks welcome the Saint on her way back to the Cathedral passing through Porta Uzeda again.

( Spectacle and devotion )

Just few hours of sleep: in the late morning of the 5th. of February (the climax of the festivity), a Pontifical Mass is celebrated by a specially invited prelate.

The Saint's image travels along another route, through the old town centre: the carriage proceeds slowly along the elegant via Etnea. The eleven, richly adorned "candelore" lead the procession, being followed by 700 devotees holding torches: then the white river of devotees follows. They all drag the "vara" and sing the praises of the Patron ("We are all, all devotees. Citizens, long live St. Agatha!"). The City bell tolls, announcing the Mayor's homage to the Saint. The stream of people puts on a protracted and fascinating tableau vivant. In the evening, people crowd together again in piazza Borgo, in order to attend further fireworks (also known as "the fireworks of the evening of three"); soon after the crowd follows and escorts the "candelore" in an "endurance race" along the slope of "salita di San Giuliano". Time goes by, and the setting sun gives way to the night: St. Agatha patiently awaits for the end of the contest, at the crossing of via Etnea and via di San Giuliano: it's the "final pull", that should bring the festivity to an end, with an enthusiastic applause of relief. The race is an event mostly reserved to young people: strong arms and sturdy legs are needed to drag the several tons of the "vara". Partaking to the race is a mark of love and devotion that should non be underrated: doing it in "one go" allows to draw favorable auspicies for the year, since the real New Years Day in Catania falls on the 5th of February; once, contracts and deeds were actually started or delivered on such a date.

( Martyrdom and the old town )

Catania, brought back to life after every eruption of the Etna volcano, has bestowed some of the most beautiful churches and monuments to the Patron. On the inside of "S. Agata al Carcere", the III century remains of the gaol, where St. Agatha faced her martyrdom and death, are still to be seen. The Church of "S. Agata alla Fornace" (in piazza stesicoro) and "S. Agata la Vetere" (the first Cathedral of Catania, and supposedly the first burial-place of the Saint) are non far. Many other places in Catania keep alive the memory of St. Agatha: "Badia S. Agata", the "stele" in piazza dei Martiri, the fountain in via Dusmet, the Norman-baroque Cathedral.

Precious relics, as such as the bust and the casket bearing the signature of Di Bartolo, are preserved in the Basilica, but the real centre of the cult of St. Agatha is the Church of the Sacred Gaol. On the inside, besides the dark cell where the Saint was imprisoned, a lavic slabbearing St. Agatha's footprints can be seen. The prison, an embankment, was part of the buildings of the Roman praetorium, close to the residence of Quintianus, Agatha's persecutor. Upon the high altar, a large panel dating back to 1588 and bearing Bernardino Niger's signature, portras St. Agatha at the stake. Next to the Gaol, a highly revered lavic stone bears St. Agatha's footprints. A plaque of the XV century and portraying St. Agatha can be seen in the sacristy, besides memorial stones, bas-reliefs and an old epigraph: "Noli offendere patriam Aghatae, quia ultrix iniuratum est" (Do not offend Agatha's nation, "cause she will avenge all offence).

( Candlemas, a baroque feast )

"Almost all Sicilian feasts are baroque" says historian Giovanni Lanzafame. Writing about the eleven "candelore", he defines the so called "annacata " as "baroque on the move ". Baroque moving through a baroque city as devised by Vaccarini after the 1693 earthquake.

Ten huge "candelore" and a smaller one, now lead the procession. A candelabrum in memory of cardinal Ventimiglia comes first, being followed by the "candelora" (decorated with four griffins at the basement) offered by the inhabitants of San Giuseppe La Rena. Then the candelabrum of the Floriculturists follows, in Gothic style, portraying statues of Catanian martyrs and bishops: once it was tooped with a bouquet of flowers, now replaced by a bow.

The "candelora " representing Fishmongers comes next: it is in rococo style and bears votive offerings and a statue of St. Francis of Paola, patron of fisbermen and sailors. The other "candelore" represent Greengrocers (it bears a bust of St. Agatha), Butchers (it displays a small bouquet of flowers), Makers of Pasta (an eighteenth-century candlestick), Grocers (in liberty style, decorated with characteristic caryatids at the basement), Bakers (the heaviest, carried by twelve people, instead of eight, and displaying human-heigbt statues of angels), Vintners (carried by ten people and displaying four lions and griffins at the basement).

( An international cult )

The cult of St. Agatha is non strictly Catanian: the Saint is venerated all over the world. St. Agatha is the Patron of 44 italian municipalities, and 14 of them bear her name. Besides, St. Agatha is among the Patrons of Malta and S. Marino. In Spain, she is worshipped in Andalucia and in Jèria (Valencia). The chapel in Barcelona where the Catholic sovereigns welcomed Christopher Columbus back from his first trip to America, is dedicated to St. Agatha. A peculiar tradition takes place in Zamarramal (Segovia): on the 5th of February, women are the masters of the city. In Portugal, St. Agatha is the Patron of Agueda. In Germany Agatha is the Patron of Aschaffemburg. In France, St. Agatha is venerated in Le Fournet (Normandy). The cult was grandiosely celebrated in Costantinople, while in Greece the Saint is extremely popular, specially in the Aetolian region. Even in India, in Viayawala, a cult of St. Agatha exists, and in Argentina, where sbe is the Patron of firemen. The cult is widely spread in Italy, specially in Lombardia, but also in Rome, Florence and Naples.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

You would think it would be simple.....

I recently have spent a lot of time in three different places around our little neighborhood in Catania. I've spent a lot of time at the grocery store, the post office, and the USL medical center. Since my new found need to go to these places has put me there a lot, I've started to notice some things about these places. They all have one major thing in common. Old ladies. There are cute ones that make you want to help them carry their bags, smug ones that look as if they have run a farm their entire life and don't need your help, and lost ones who seem to not really understand whats going on at all in life at that moment in time. I'll explain.
I was in the grocery store yesterday at the WORST time one can go there. 1130 am. BAD time. This is when all the old ladies come out to get lunch materials for their families. We dont have big Wallmart's with 50 check out lines. We have one small little grocery store called SMA and it has exactly 8. Of course, they don't have enough employees to have all 8 open so I can comfortably say there are only 3. After figuring out that this was a bad time to be here I proceeded to only get the very basic of what Kristin needed for lunch instead of getting food for the whole week. I tried to quickly get in line. I was still behind at least 6 people. Some old, some younger. ALL seemed to be in a terrible hurry UNTIL they got to the cashier lady. It is a bit of an Italian custom to know EVERYONE you see and the grocery store is no different. So they stop and talk while the person behind them gets annoyed.
Heres where the old ladies come in. They always try to cut ahead of everyone else! I was standing in line and I put my basket down on the floor so as to not have to hold it the whole time in line. I started talking with a lady in line about the upcoming St. Agatha festival in town. The next thing I new, a sweet old lady, I use this term loosely right now, pushed my basket with her leg and slid in front of me. There was no room so she proceeded to lean against me and make me go back. She even turned around and asked if I didn't mind not crowding her. I was amused. I chuckled to myself and let it go.
Then I saw another old lady looking at the candy that you always find strategically placed on either side of you once you get close to the conveyor belt. She was looking intently at the candy and was acting like she was going to buy something. My turn had finally come and so I reach down and grab my basket to lift it up on the conveyor belt and when I look back up, this sweet old lady had put her things on the conveyor belt and smiled at me saying, "Devo andare a casa a preparare la cena.Tu capisci, vero?" Translated this means, "I need to go home and prepare lunch. You understand right?" The problem was it wasn't just me she was jumping ahead of. It was about 10 people behind me which included OTHER old ladies. They did not like this at all.
Needless to say, I now watch everyone like a hawk in the grocery store lines. If someone has only one thing to buy, or less than me, I try to let them go ahead. It has become a game for me to watch and see how many old ladies will try to cut ahead of others. It really is a fun game. I now do my best to just let them go ahead. I give in. It seems they would have gotten ahead of me either way.

On the happiest note of my life, Kristin is pregnant!! We are really excited and cant wait for this little blessing from God. Please pray for us in our continued work here and all that we do and become. God bless!

Monday, January 21, 2008

We off to Florence

Tomorrow we leave for Florence for the next 3 days. We have an appointment for our permesso di soggiorno. Let's hope this is it so we don't have to fly up there again. It is basically a type of green card. It will also be nice to visit with David and Debbie Woodroof who are the new directors of Avanti Italia. David was my boss for 7 years as I worked for the Media Center on Harding's campus and is also a close family friend. When I was studying abroad in Florence of summer 2004, I had the great blessing of having them as our faculty for the following 3 months. So we all shared our first italian experiences together. HUF was what ignited that fire in me to come back to Italy, maybe it did the same for them too. But before we go, I just wanted to post some pictures and video of our brothers and sisters here in Itlay.

Here are some members of the Catania Church:

Fiorentina fans vs. Catania fans :

Our new brother:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

English/Bible studies

How many Italian men does it take to install an air conditioner/heater wall unit? Apparently 5. That has been our morning so far. It's been entertaining watching them argue and repeating "aspetta! aspetta!" which means "wait!" while a couple recline on our couch making orders to the other workers. As you just read, our gracious land lord is installing an air condition/ heater wall unit in our living room for us. It can get pretty hot here in Catania and he's doing it well in advance before the blistering summer heat strikes us (which will probably be in a few weeks).
Last night we had a bible/english lesson which was scheduled with one girl, Georgia, but then it turned into a lesson for 3: Georgia's father and Stefano Scibiglia. Georgia is a 16 year old brilliant girl. She is almost fluent in french, and knows a little bit of japanese, chinese, german, and russian. She has had 11 years of english (since kindergarten) and is in need of practice in pronunciation, understanding, and writing. She has weekly bible studies with Stefano, a wonderful evangelist, as she is studying to become a christian. Her parents are members of the church and right now she is studying to, Lord willing, make the greatest decision in her life. At the same time, our new sister, Nicoletta, who was just baptized a month ago, is continuing her studies with a fellow member of the church AND brought along her boyfriend whom she is hoping will become a brother in Christ! Last sunday we spoke to Nicoletta about it and she is praying diligently that her boyfriend will have an open heart and accept the Message that has changed her life for the good.
After Georgia's study with Stefano, her father decided to sit in on her lessons with us as well as Stefano. Our english lessons went very smoothly. We took the first 8 verses of Mark and had them read out loud, one verse at a time, while correcting their pronunciation and explaining certain words to them. Georgia's dad just listened in and followed along in his italian bible while Stefano decided to surprise us with his knowledge of english. We also gave a little historical background about the writer, Mark, which they were fascinated with. We then had them re-read the english verse in italian and vice versa to practice their translating skills. For homework they are to read out loud the verses again as well as writing it and then to translate a passage in James 1:2-6.
As we were telling the history of Mark, I realized how blessed I was to have had the opportunity of studying at a christian university as well as a christian highschool. The new testament and old testament surveys, as well as studies on individual books such as James and Hebrews, and the Gospels, have enriched my mind with the historical knowledge (as well as knowledge for "the way" to live life that leads to our eternal life with HIM). In our study last night, it was their first time to hear that Mark was actually a surname and that John was his first name. We will continue to share historical background of the books with them and Brandon is doing the best he can in his time between students to translate historical biblical material for them.