Note: My first attempt at posting this had issues. A revised version is available here:
This is my reflective report of our recent two-week teaching tour of Parma, Italy and Ljubljana, Slovenia. I try not to rehash too much of what I already wrote above. When I refer to specifics from previous posts, I will provide direct links to them, so you can refer to the details, if you are interested.
Robin and I have had some interesting and intense experiences in life, but I don’t know if anything to this point can compare to these two weeks away. What follows is relatively lengthy, but I could have written much more. So here we go!…
I really didn’t know what to expect as Robin and I prepared for our trip. This would be our first time in continental Europe. We would be with all sorts of people we never met before in cultures we had no experience with and languages we didn’t know.
Our prayer was that we would be a blessing, which happens to be the key concept in the Bible overview seminar I was due to teach. We are so grateful for how he answered that prayer. More than that! Not only did he use us to bless others, we were the recipients of blessing upon blessing.
For years, whenever the topic of visiting faraway places would come up, Robin would always say that she wasn’t interested in seeing the sites. What she wanted to do was connect with the people by visiting in their homes and chatting in cafes. So she was disappointed to learn that we would most likely stay in hotels or similar accommodation rather than with the people. But God had other plans! Due to various circumstances, we stayed with our hosts in both places. This gave us lots of opportunity to get to know them, which wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
Upon arrival, it wasn’t long before we began to intensely connect with all sorts of people. You may have already seen this picture of Robin from our first full day in Parma, getting to know a new friend from South Africa. She had lived in Italy for a year many years before and was visiting for a few weeks (click on photo to see larger version):
One morning while I was getting up, Robin was already up and visiting with our hostess. I could hear them talking without making out the details. When I heard Robin heartily laughing, I began to cry with gratitude over how much of a good time my wife was having being blessed and being a blessing.
While we didn’t go with the goal of site seeing, we were constantly overwhelmed (in a good way) by the uniqueness and beauty of wherever we were.
The first place we were taken was in the town of Fornovo, where we were staying (half our south of Parma, which is an hour south of Milan). It was to see an old church built around 900 A.D.:
We are not a fan of church buildings, per se, but it was really something to see a building as old as this one. The presence of the cars on the cobblestone streets, driving in narrow passageways added to the special ambience. Here’s one of our Italian host’s quotables: “The cars will drive very close to you, but don’t worry. They won’t hit you.”
We found Italy so…Italian. Here is Robin standing on the balcony of where we were staying:
A typical street in Parma:
Or how about two naked men wrestling over a fountain by a bike rack?
We made so many new friends on our trip!
We might disappoint some people that we didn’t see the insides of too many churches or that we only went to one museum. We visited the inside of one church in Parma and quickly walked through another in Venice. Yes, the frescos (paintings on plaster walls) were fascinating. The religious paintings and sculptures were extraordinary (using real gold makes all the difference!). But what really struck me was the exaltation of death. Growing up in Montreal, we are sort-of used to a certain kind of Catholicism, which is not as prevalent in English Canada. But what we saw in Italy and Slovenia was a few notches up the scale. What I teach in my Bible seminar is that God’s plan through Abraham’s descendants and fulfilled in the Messiah is the undoing of death, not a new religion focusing on it. Not only are there massive elaborate and realistic crucifixes everywhere, there were all sorts of dead people buried right in the church itself. In Jewish tradition, not to mention the Bible, death is removed from the community, not brought into places of worship. I wonder what effect this obsession with suffering and death has on a culture.
We did see an amazing mosaic in a church in Parma: the incredible international mix of people of the congregation where I conducted my seminar. Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano was started by people from the Dominican Republic. The majority of the people there are Latinos from the Caribbean and South America, but the services are in Italian. The young man leading worship Sunday morning was from Brazil (Portuguese being his first language).
The seminar in Parma went really well. It was attended by about 20 people, who seemed to appreciate what I had to share. Pizza was provided for lunch on the Saturday. Everyone had their own box.
After speaking at the service on Sunday, we went to the pastor’s home for dinner. In Italy one needs to remember that the pasta is not the main course.
On the left is the pastor of Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano, Aldo Cerasino with his daughter, Rebekah and his wife, Mariela. Next to me is Francesco Abortivi, the director of Progetto Archippo, the organization that sponsored the seminar. He was also my translator. Next to him is his daughter, Francesca and his wife, Alessia.
Read more of my reflections about this unique community here: http://alangilman.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/blessings-to-the-nations/
Squeezed between our times in Parma and Ljubljana, Robin and I had a 44-hour getaway in Venice. It was a short, but much needed, time to ourselves.
Venice is different from anything on earth we have ever experienced. From the canals, to its antiquity, to the number of visitors from all over the world, it was a wonderfully stimulating, but significantly refreshing time.
Here is Robin on the famous Rialto Bridge (which we forgot to take a picture of). On the right you can see a Vaporetto (Water Bus), the main public transit system in Venice. Next to it is a Gondola.
As recounted in the blog, the most significant thing that happened was in the Jewish ghetto and our encountering the group of students from the American School in London. We will never forget the blessing of hearing their teacher speak words of honor about our people in a place of such shame. Read more here: http://alangilman.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/venice/
If you are interested in learning about the Venice Ghetto, a good resource is the Virtual Jewish History Tour of Venice: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Venice.html
When the suggestion to go to Ljubljana, Slovenia, first came up, I had to look this country up, since I had never heard of it before. Most people haven’t. Robin was a bit embarrassed when in the introductions to one of my talks there I mentioned this, but it turns out to be something Slovenes are very aware of. Our blog provides a pretty thorough overview of our time there (http://alangilman.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/slovenia/), but here I would like to share more about some of the people themselves.
Our host, Chris Scobie, the pastor of the Ljubljana Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Sabina, were very intentional in setting up times for us to spend with specific people. What a blessing that was! The first evening we were there, Pia, a young lady from the church, had made a gluten-free pie for me (everyone everywhere was so gracious regarding my dietary issues). We thought we were just going to her place to pick up the pie, but instead we were invited into to her third floor walkup (good exercise!) for tea. There it was again: Robin’s wish getting granted)! What a privilege to be invited to a stranger’s (now friend’s) home to get to know each other.
The next day we went with a young couple, Rok (don’t forget to roll the “R”) and Polona, to the town of Bled, one of the most popular destinations in the country. We spent most of the time with me walking with Rok and Robin walking with Polona sharing our lives together.
At one point Rok and I came upon some craftspeople who were selling their wares outdoors. I greeted a lady selling wool products with the Slovene “Dopper dan” (good day). When she responded in Slovene and I told her I just spoke English, she exclaimed with a big smile, “You said ‘Dopper dan’ and you only speak English!” It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day sometimes.
The next day after the second and final session of my seminar we were taken out by a young lady by the name of Sergeja (remember the “j” is pronounced like the English “y”) for lunch and for a walking tour of downtown Ljubljana. It was the first time I had Chinese food with a side of coleslaw just like Robin makes (the coleslaw, that is). We hardly sat down before Sergeja leaned across the table, looked intensely at Robin and almost demanded, “Explain to me how you do all those children.”
We talked a lot about our family throughout the trip. We would tell them that we are not a typical Canadian, Jewish, or Christian family, and then explain how God has blessed us and has provided for us. God doesn’t provide what we need until we need it. It’s not always easy, but always worth it!
With Sergeja at Ljubljana Castle
One of the things that Sergeja took us to is a plaque in front of the Ljubljana City Hall in downtown Ljubljana. The father of the Slovene language is Primoz Trubar, a Protestant reformer in the 16th Century. The Counter Reformation in Slovenia was very violent and “effective”. All Protestants were expelled from the country, except from a small north-east corner. And they burned all the Protestant books, except for the Bible. While all Slovenes know Trubar as the father of the Slovene language, they are not aware that his motive in establishing the language was so that they could read the Bible.
Hear Sergeja reading the plaque in Slovene and English: http://youtu.be/EIdeyXAIWRA
The next day, Sunday, was one of the busiest days of our entire trip. After speaking twice in the morning, a lunch was prepared for us and a few others at the church. We then spent the afternoon with another young couple, Andrej and Lydia, and their two-month-old son, Elijah. Andrej and Lydia are associated with ACCI as we are and are in process of starting a congregation in the north part of the country.
They took us back to downtown, Ljubljana so I could get a picture of the Slovene Parliament building, but I have to admit I was a bit disappointed, since it was so new (technically described as “modernist”).
Seeing this building emphasized to me how Slovenia is one of the world’s oldest new countries. While the current republic was officially established in 1991, its history goes far, far back.
I thought the Parliament would look more like this:
Speaking of far back, after seeing the Parliament, we happened upon some ruins going back to Roman times.
Top: Artist’s conception of what was originally on the site
Bottom: Robin checking out the ruins
Afterwards we headed back to our hosts’ for a brief rest before we went to dinner at the home of some people we met at the church. It was in this in-between time that Robin had a rare experience: She felt “peopled out.” After almost two weeks of almost constant intense, intimate conversation with so many new and delightful people, could it be that Robin was actually peopled out? But we had a commitment, so off we went.
We didn’t want to leave! We spent all evening around the kitchen table of a delightful family of five (Boris and Tanja, 18-year-old Sara, 17-year-old Rebeka, and 13-year-old David), hearing of God’s miraculous work in their lives and getting to know their hearts. How I wish I had a video of Boris telling us how God turned his life away from crime and violence. Among their other interests and involvements, it was really something to learn how they are involved in the only crisis pregnancy center in the whole of Slovenia (http://www.sara-center.com/).
What a day, but we weren’t done yet! We were up early the next morning to drive near the coast to a Teen Challenge addiction recovery home for men. I shared with about 12 men there my troubled upbringing of an anxiety-filled life, being abandoned by my father, and my complete self-centeredness as a young person oppressed by continual panic attacks, but that Yeshua completely transformed my life. I told them how my own brother at Robin’s and my wedding told me, “You’ll never make it!”, because he didn’t’ understand the miraculous changes God had made in me. I also explained how at times I too think I will never make it, but whenever I find myself gazing over the pit of despair, God pulls me back again and again. I told them I don’t know why it is more difficult for some than for others, but facing the pain and trusting in God no matter what is worth it.
When I was finished, one of the residents, locked eyes on me. The others were leaving to attend to their duties, but he kept staring at me. So not knowing what to do, I eventually got up and offer my hand to him, but instead we ended up in a warm embrace with him thanking me for what I said. Later I learned that he was only on day four of going off heroin cold turkey. To think that something I said might have encouraged him overwhelms me – just like so much that happened over the previous two weeks.
We spent the remainder of our last full day in Slovenia having lunch by the sea and then we needed to pick up Pia, the young lady who made me the gluten-free pie at the beginning of our time there, to take her back to Ljubljana. Again, we thought that we were just going to pick her up, but no. We were invited in to have something to eat and drink and to chat (when God answers a prayer of Robin’s, he really answers prayer!)
Here is one of our last photos of Slovenia taken from Pia’s parents’ balcony overlooking the coastal town of Izola.
This photo doesn’t fully capture the beauty to the view of a country that surprised us and captured our hearts.
Thank you to our hosts, Francesco and Alessia in Parma, and Chris and Sabina in Ljubljana, Gruppo Christano and the Ljubljana Pentecostal Church for welcoming us so warmly. Special thanks to all the other people who blessed us with their hospitality and generosity in so many ways. To Tony Hedrick of ACCI (http://www.adventive.ca/) who connected us with these places and Anne Hinrichs, also of ACCI, who helped prepare us and encouraged us so much in this new endeavor. Thank you to Matt & Ashlie and Carl & Merry for staying with our kids while we were gone. These two couples enabled us to give ourselves to this time with great peace of mind. Thank you to the various ones who contributed financially to help make this trip possible. And much thanks to those who prayed for us through it all. Most of all, praise be to God for his incredible blessings, for protection for us and our family, for new friends, and amazing surprises everywhere we went.
I wasn’t planning of sharing this, but if you are someone who has gotten this far, you deserve one more story.
We had a 7 a.m. flight from Ljubljana to Frankfurt where we had a four-hour layover before our flight home to Ottawa. The flight to Frankfurt was the only time was sat three across. Every other time it was just Robin and me, window and aisle respectively. When I started chatting with the man next to me, I learned that he worked for a major Slovene book publisher. His job was to secure foreign rights to books in order to publish them in Slovenia. “I have written a draft of a book,” I told him a little sheepishly “that uses baseball as an object lesson of life.” I said this assuming that Slovenes don’t know anything about baseball. But my seat mate replied saying that he had played on Slovenia’s first baseball team and even trained to be an umpire. So we had a delightful time talking baseball and some of the concepts in my book. Perhaps I need to finish it. I think I know who I will sell the Slovene rights to!
These and additional photos are available in Robin’s Europe 2013 photo album (you don’t need a Facebook account to access it): https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152027693018474.1073741825.672958473&type=1&l=b0cfa84c6a
As we prepared for our trip, we felt we had some reasonable expectations for Italy. After all, Italian culture is ubiquitous, through the large Italian diaspora and through TV and movies, not to mention how many common things in the western world come from Italy. Sure, there were still lots of surprises, but nothing like the surprise called “Slovenia”. Slovenes (not Slovenians) themselves are very aware that most people outside their country not only don’t know where it is, they have never heard of it, often confusing it with Slovakia.
But what a hidden gem of a country it is! From the spectacular geography of mountains and oceans to the people to the food to the history, it is place deserving of much more attention.
I am currently writing this during our layover at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, on our way back home to Ottawa after two incredible weeks. Upon returning, I hope to write a fuller reflective report, but for now, I will share a few photos of the Slovene portion of our trip.
Our time in Slovenia began when our host, Pastor Chris Scobie, a New Zealander, living in the capital, Ljubljana, picked us up from the train station in the Italian border town of Trieste and drove us to the Slovene seaside town of Koper.
This is Chris and his Slovene wife, Sabina, who was my interpreter for the seminar.
The next day (Friday), a couple from the church in Ljubljana took us to the town of Bled, not far from the Austrian border. It is a favorite destination for Slovenes with a castle on top of a high Hill (behind us) and an old church in the middle of the lake. No motorized boats are allowed and sometimes you might find the national rowing team practising here.
One of our great discoveries was how much Slovenes love cream cakes, especially the Bled Cream Cake. We had some at the very place where it was invented. We were one day early for the 60th anniversary.
Here is my piece, along with my one of several espressos I had on this trip:
That evening began my Bible overview seminar, which continued through Saturday morning. This photo is from the Sunday morning service where I spoke two more times. The young lady was one of my interpreters. It was she and her husband that took us to Bled. For many Slovenes, we were the very first Jewish people they ever met. The people were so receptive at I shared how true biblical faith is deeply rooted in God’s promises to the Jewish people .
On Saturday afternoon, we were taken to downtown Ljubljana. We were so struck by its beauty and interesting old architecture .
Our tour guide was another young lady from the church. We really hit it off together as we did with so many:
I will leave it at that for now, as we need to find our gate for our departure. Thanks for following us on our adventures. Stay tuned for further reflections and perhaps more adventure.
(Note: This post was written on Thursday, October 4) There is no way to fully express the experience called Venice, even though we were only there for about 44 hours. Old, water, elegant, boats, Italian yet filled with people from everywhere, more water, big (much bigger than I expected) and busy, all sorts of boats, historic, did I mention water(?), too much to see in a lifetime, boats that I have never seen before….and water.
Much of what we saw and enjoyed, you can read about in travel books and hear from others. It’s all true. We didn’t have time for the major museums or to explore the classic art in the innumerable churches, and we decided to skip the gondola ride. But every narrow alley, every canal is a treat. Our hotel was on a skinny long island called Lido (Beach), which is a ten minute walk from a beautiful public beach on the Adriatic Sea, and a short vaporetto (water bus) ride to the center of the city.
The highlight of our time happened in the Ghetto. In the middle ages throughout Europe, Jewish people had to live in designated neighborhoods called ghettos, where in some cases they were locked in at night. The word ghetto originated in Venice. Currently, there are a few remaining synagogues and other Jewish establishments still there, though there are only a few Jewish people left in the city. There is also a Jewish museum, which we did see. I will let Robin take it from here:
We were walking through the main square of the getto, and I saw a group of teens, so I listened and a teacher was speaking English. One of the students read a paper on the history of Venice, and another read one on the history of the ghetto. And then another teacher began talking, to “fill in the gaps” about the ghetto and the Jewish people. It was so respectful, honouring, and moving that I was in tears. The group moved on, but I decided that I wanted to find that teacher to thank him (if I could possibly do so without breaking down).
Alan and I found him nearby, and I tried to tell him how much I appreciated what he said. At first when I told him we were Jewish people from Canada, he was worried that somehow he had caused offense. He was very sweet and humble, but we made him understand that far from being offended, we really, really appreciated what he said, which really blessed him to hear.
We can’t say we were surprised to learn that the teacher was a believer. He was leading a group of students from an American school in London, England. I don’t know if I can convey the impact of this unusual encounter, but it has to do with hearing words of honor and respect in the midst of a place that symbolizes great shame. So many yearn to hear such words spoken to them. Our people need to hear such words from men like this teacher.
This ancient scroll was on display in the Jewish museum in the Ghetto square:
This morning we traveled by train to Trieste which is located at the north, eastern corner of Italy, where it borders Slovenia, and where we were picked up by car for the drive to Ljubljana to start the final leg of this journey. Details to follow.
According to the Torah, the raison d’être of the Jewish people is that we would be a blessing to the nations (see Genesis 12:3). It is overwhelming to me (in a good way) that Robin and I could be in Italy and have to opportunity to be a blessing in a multi-nation congregation. The congregation in which we served yesterday (Sunday) itself is an interesting example of how one nation can bless another. One could say that it has its roots going all the way back to 1492, when Christopher Columbus (an Italian!) began his search for a new route to the Far East. One of his stops on his first voyage was the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which today is home to both Haiti, where are daughter Sarah is being a blessing, and the Dominican Republic. The Italian congregation that invited us here is called “Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano” and has its roots in the Dominican Republic! There are several people from that country who are part of this congregation currently, including the pastor’s wife. From time to time leaders and others from the Dominican republic come to visit.
Something I stressed when I spoke there yesterday was how one people group being a blessing to another people group not only goes back to God’s promise to Abraham, but first came to pass when Yeshua the Messiah sent out his early followers to the nations. The Gospel breaks down the barriers between peoples and draws us together as brothers and sisters all worshipping the God of Israel (note: click on photos for larger versions).
The first song was the English song “Our God”, which we knew. They may have done it for our sakes. Here is a panoramic shot of the worship team. Sorry, it’s not the clearest shot, but Robin’s new phone has this feature, and I think it is cool. The worship leader is from Brazil. Most of the songs were quite lively. After the worship time, everyone is encouraged to hug each other (lots of kissing; of the appropriate kind, of course!).
Tomorrow Robin and I head off by train on our own for two nights in Venice before we go to Ljubljana, Slovenia, on Thursday.
Thanks to all who have been praying for us. Please don’t stop now! Continue to pray for our family while we are gone and for our time in Venice and Ljubljana.
Last night (Friday), this morning, and afternoon I presented my Bible overview seminar in Parma. Translation into Italian was provided by our host Francesco Abortivi. About twenty people attended (see below) and it seemed to go very well. I really enjoyed working with Francesco, and the people were very attentive as I explained how the Gospel is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible. I will be speaking again at the normal Sunday service and Robin will be sharing with a group of ladies in the late afternoon.
Pizza was provided for lunch:
Yesterday was our first full day in Italy. The first session of my Bible seminar is this evening (Friday) and continues tomorrow morning and afternoon. I speak as well in the regular Sunday morning service. Robin’s talk is on Sunday afternoon.
We are staying with new friends in Fornovo, which is about a half hour outside of Parma. Yesterday morning we got to see a bit of Parma. This is me and Robin standing in front of a palatial municipal building.
The ancient churches with the abundance of frescos (paintings painted on the plaster walls, the other old buildings, and narrow streets told me we are really in Italy, not to mention my first capaccino at a sidewalk cafe (the cafe pictured here with Robin doing one of her favorite things: getting to know a new friend (visiting Parma from South Africa).
Almost every street had an interesting view:
Later in the afternoon we went to Torrechiara, one of the many castles in the region. It was first built in 1464.
I will never think of “a man’s home is his castle” or “I am king of the castle” in the same way again!
While most of the castle’s room were empty, the houses within the protection of its walls are occupied:
In the evening we went to a last minute church meeting in the place where the seminar will be held. A man from Holland who recently retired after over 40 years with the organization “The Navigators”, about twenty of which were in Northern Italy, was leading a trip with several of his long-time supporters, also from Holland. At one point he was interviewing one of his Dutch companions, asking questions in Dutch and then translating both the questions and answers into Italian. Our host was sitting with us, quietly translating into English. Sitting behind us was someone else translating into Spanish for another visitor.
This particular congregation is predominately Latin American, but Italian speaking. There are people from such places as Spain, Brazil , and the Dominican Republic, some Africans , and even Italians! Both Robin and I, for a long time, have had a heart for the gathering of nations, but didn’t expect to experience it to this extent in Northern Italy.
If you are a praying person, please be praying for us as our formal teaching begins tonight.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
– Psalm 119:105 (ESV)