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From Italy to the Ozarks

From across the Atlantic, one Chi Alpha group experienced missions on their own campus.

For Chi Alpha students at the University of Arkansas, traveling abroad on short-term mission is a commonplace one-way exchange. But this year for the first time, an international student missionary team came to them.

When Arkansas Chi Alpha staff pastor W. Justin Overton led an outreach team last year to northeast Italy, he invited the Italians to visit their campus. Six students from the Italian university took him up on the offer.

Led by AGWM missionary to Italy Kurtis W. Denton, five Italian students, along with Denton’s university-age daughter, Ariana, came mid-August to minister on the Fayetteville, Arkansas, campus.

The 13-day mission of the University of Padova (Padua) student team in Fayetteville overlapped with Welcome Week, the University of Arkansas’ launch of the 2023-24 school year as students returning to campus were joined by more than 6,000 incoming freshmen.

The big welcome coincided with sorority rush week.

"Swarms of girls who looked the same and dressed the same were doing activities together,” says Denton, 47. Denton notes that European universities don’t have such social organizations. “For (the Italian students) it was like walking into a film. They’d only seen this in movies.”

Indeed, Overton, 35, knew from his own team’s visit to Padova that the Italians would be in for a culture shock. Of Italy’s 58.9 million people, only around 650,000 are evangelical so they’re accustomed to being outnumbered.

“Nearly always they’re the only one in their schools,” Denton says. In contrast, evangelicals abound at the University of Arkansas. Chi Alpha is but one of an array of evangelical church and parachurch organizations.

“For our students to see such a large group of students who were believers was very encouraging for them,” Denton says of the Italians.

Some outreach methods won’t transfer to that part of Europe partly because of infrastructure. While 32,000 students live in or near the University of Arkansas Fayetteville campus, composing a third of the city’s population, the University of Padova’s buildings and 77,000 students are spread throughout metro Padova, which has 700,000 people.

Denton notes that Italy’s evangelicals are conservative. Evangelicals there don’t get tattoos; pastors never preach in jeans and T-shirts. Women cover their heads in church. Italian churches don’t have flashing lights or fog machines.

When the Arkansas team ministered in Italy last summer, the U.S. students respected the differences. Before the group left for Italy, one guy with long hair told Overton that he would get a haircut to avoid offending the Italians.

They work hard and take their faith seriously. Because schools and many jobs in Italy follow six-day work weeks, their faith costs them their one free day. Spending Sundays in church means they can’t play sports.

Under the Italian dictator Mussolini in the 1920s and continuing until the early 1950s, Pentecostal churches were underground. Police carried out raids on churches, confiscating Bibles and hauling pastors and believers alike to prison.

While government persecution ended midway through the 20th century, today’s persecution is social. Denton says his Assemblies of God church tried to buy a shopping center that had been abandoned for 20 years but the owner wouldn’t sell to them because of their faith.

During the Italians’ mission to Arkansas, the Chi Alpha students from both sides of the ocean helped with student move-ins to their dorms. Outreach activities such as a luau, volleyball, cornhole, and midnight glow-in-the-dark capture the flag games included Italian students sharing their testimonies in English. Each Italian partnered with an Arkansas Chi Alpha student leader as they hosted the semester’s first small groups.

The campus Chi Alpha house turned into a giant escape room themed as a New York City Italian restaurant. The Italians gave lessons on how to speak with hand gestures.

Overton says the trip aimed to impart Italians with a heart and vision to reach a university campus for Christ. To that end, the students experienced what US university ministry looks like, all the while understanding that outreach may not look the same in Italy.

“The goal is to establish disciple-making students who will go back and hopefully disciple students,” he says.

The Italians brought many strengths to Arkansas. “We were amazed by their culture of community. The Italian church is just a close community of believers,” Overton says. “They truly live life together. We wanted them to come and bring that culture of community to our ministry. We want to see that at the University of Arkansas.”

Young Italian evangelicals aren’t embarrassed about their faith, Denton says. “They’re willing to step out and talk to people about Jesus.”

Overton notes that the Italian church knows how to pray. While Chi Alpha always goes on a prayer walk before Welcome Week, “We asked the Italian team to lead out on that,” he says. “We wanted to get as much of their incredible culture of prayer as possible.”

Additionally, Chi Alpha’s leaders asked the Italians to lead them in corporate prayer. Several Italians also led devotionals and all shared their testimonies publicly.

For the Italians and Arkansans alike, the trip helped develop a sense of global Christian community.

“The team has already seen our reality in Italy,” Denton says. “I think they’ll have a lot more people applying to go to Italy next year.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.