by Regin Guttesen
Some time back our son Noah asked me, ‘Dad, where are we from?’ You see, I was born in the Faroe Islands. My wife, Heidi, was born in the United States. Noah was born in England, while we were at Bible College. Megan and Trisha were adopted from the Philippines. Emma, our youngest, was born in Italy. And, just to add to the confusion, we all travel with Danish passports!
The Region that doesn’t exist
We live in Molise, located in the south of Italy. Molise is one of the smallest regions in Italy with a population of only 320,000 people. Because of its small size and apparent cultural insignificance, this lesser-known region is commonly called ‘the region that doesn’t exist’.
Molise is also one of the poorest regions, with an unemployment rate of 40%, but it is the ‘spiritual poverty’ in Molise that is truly staggering. A scarce 0.1% of the people are gospel-believing Christians. Of the 136 towns and villages in Molise, only four have a gospel-believing church. That means we are surrounded by 132 towns and villages with no gospel witness. For centuries these towns have been left in spiritual darkness, with the black clouds of tradition and formal religion hovering over them. This is ‘home’, where we feel called to be.
Behold, a Church is Born
We moved to Italy in 2003 with the dream of planting a church. The first few years were spent learning the language and trying to get to grips with the culture, while looking for a needy area to begin living out our calling.
In 2006 the Lord led us to Molise and in 2008 we had the great joy of seeing a new church born. Together with our co-workers, we had been doing evangelistic Bible studies in the home of a family with two adult children. After months of weekly studies, the mother and her children each made a profession of faith! We immediately started Sunday night house meetings in their village. This was the start of the church that we later named La Fonte (The Well).
The following year, we had our first baptisms and dozens of local people attended the event, probably out of curiosity. Nevertheless, they came and saw an evangelical baptism. That had never happened before in this village – ever.
Slowly, a few more people started to attend the Sunday house meetings and two single workers joined the work. In early 2011, we felt the need to move into a more public place. So, right in the centre of town between the two main Catholic churches, our first hall was opened.
To give you a feel for how good God has been, we are now a church of 50 people and have recently moved into our third hall out of a need for more space. God has provided us with a spacious structure, enabling us to dedicate a section of the building to a care room for the needy in our community. The hall is strategically located, allowing us to effectively reach into several towns.
Community, Communication & Communion
Our approach has changed countless times as we have learned along the way. Early on, we learned to focus on relationships, on people more than programmes. To cultivate meaningful friendships. Not to think of ‘evangelism’ as events, but as a way of life. To dare to share our life, not just our literature (2 Cor. 3:2).
We see our simple strategy as a three- circled target, with each circle representing an area of the church’s ministry: community, communication and communion. The mission is to see lost people being reached in our community (the world), through communication (the gospel) and being brought into communion (the Church).
We have been given a tangible way for the world to see Christ’s love lived out among us!
Community – As full-time Christian workers we try to make every effort to become part of the community and encourage all members of the assembly to do the same. To go out there! To make friends. To use our gifts, training and experience.
Communication – Out of those new connections, a few might eventually show interest in what we believe. A typical question is, ‘What’s the difference between us and you? Between Catholics and evangelicals?’ Well, it’s a start. Some may become interested in exploring the Bible. A few years ago, Pope Francis encouraged all Catholics to start reading their Bibles. The ladies in our church picked up on this and began doing Bible reading groups with their Catholic friends, who were eager to follow the Pope’s exhortation!
Communion – Out of the few who show interest in the gospel, even fewer actually come to faith in Jesus. However, what a thrill every time it happens! It is always a special time for the church when baptisms are performed and the regenerated testify that they are no longer children of this world but children of the Creator of the universe. What a joy to see people being brought, through the gospel, from a secular community to a sacred communion.
A Blessing in Disguise
2015 was a turning point for us. A handful of local believers moved away or left the church, and all our co-workers moved on. We were discouraged and felt like we were starting again from scratch. However, God was about to change our ministry, and our lives, in a way that we’d never anticipated. The migration crisis hit Europe, bringing an influx of refugees and migrants to Italy. Dozens of refugee centres were opened in our area and, for a time, Molise had the highest percentage of asylum seekers per capita.
We had no experience nor any idea how to help the thousands of new arrivals in our region. But, convinced from the Word, we wanted to represent the heart of God in caring for the ‘stranger’ (Deut. 10:19; Mt. 25:35). In the politically and racially charged environment, our little church reached out to our new neighbours. In doing so, we met resistance from the local community, from friends and, sadly, sometimes from fellow Christians. As we began to see people coming to church, Sundays were chaotic as languages and cultures struggled to mesh. But the persecution without and the discomfort within only unified us more as a church.
As we have walked this unknown road, we have seen God bless the church in ways we never expected. He has provided men and women of great faith and gifting, from whom the church has benefited greatly. Men, women and children from countries as far apart as Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela have become part of the La Fonte family, and God has blessed our witness in Molise. We have been given a tangible way for the world to see Christ’s love lived out among us!
I Will Build My Church
People often ask how we are received in these towns. The answer is, ‘It all depends on the local priest!’ In many towns we are received with scepticism and sometimes even hindered from doing activities. However, in the town where the La Fonte church started, we have had wide open doors from day one. Don Antonio, the town priest, has been generous and supportive, even to the point of encouraging people to send their children to our meetings and activities during the holy mass.
When Don Antonio was a young man attending seminary in a city far from home, he met a couple who took him under their wing. They opened their home to him, fed him, loved and cared for this homesick young student. The caring couple were evangelical believers and they left such an impression on Don Antonio that he never forgot. So, when we came to his town 40 years later to open an evangelical church, he wanted to return the favour. We have wide open doors to plant a church, all these years later, because a couple chose to practise simple, biblical love towards an aspiring Catholic priest.
I tell this important story because it is so descriptive of the work that we have the joy of being a part of. Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’ (Mt. 16:18). The Church is His and He intends to build it, using people who practise hospitality, using refugees, using unlikely people just like us!