by Alex Burger
Alex served short term with Centro Agape in Rome, Italy, during his gap year.1
Taking a gap year and serving in short-term mission, I experienced many new things and I have been blessed. I am 18 years old and a first-year student at university in York studying Sport Business Management, and slowly finding my own path.
At the beginning of the year. I took the decision, which I consider one of the most important of my life, to be baptised after having followed a series of one-to-one studies with my church leader, Fred. This enabled me to rediscover and learn the principles that are so important and yet often forgotten, notably God’s love for us. I planned to take some time off to go and do some missionary work during my gap year. Initially, I intended to go to the Philippines but Covid-19 and a typhoon badly impacted my host family and that plan was no longer possible. However, thanks to Echoes International and their network I quickly found an alternative option, which I am delighted to tell you about. Through FirstServe, Richard Harknett put me in touch with Todd Kincaid from International Project in Rome, Italy. Todd and his wife are American missionaries and in partnership with their local Italian evangelical church, they founded Centro Agape.
The most challenging part of this experience was probably the one I was not expecting, which was raising support for the internship. For my initial plan to go to the Philippines the biggest cost would have been the travel but for my new destination of Rome, it was the higher cost of living. Last summer I trained for the BAFA, a four-week diploma course that is necessary for working with children in France. This enabled me to take up a post in the local primary school and holiday club – it was my first work contract! I took the job in order to save some money but I also needed to get help from friends and family. Through this whole process, I realised how much God was with me. Seeing the support given to me, which was sufficient for my stay and even more, was so encouraging!
My first few days in Rome were the hardest because I could not speak a word of Italian and I felt like I could not go anywhere without someone to help me. In addition, the work done by the centre involved much more communication than I had imagined. However, at least the leaders and the volunteering team were all English speakers, so I was not completely isolated by the language barrier.
Centro Agape aims to help migrant families and refugees by offering activities such as language lessons in English and Italian, food and clothing distribution, games and homework help for children and Bible studies. The centre works solely with volunteers and is open to anyone who wants to join. It has welcomed people from more than 70 different countries but it does have a more predominant south Asian population. Most of the people I met were Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Peruvian.
The work I had the most pleasure doing was bringing food to people’s houses and sharing a meal with them but also trying to share the gospel or a story from the Bible. I also really liked the outreach work, which consisted of going out to various places in Rome, including refugee camps, the city centre and parks. We talked with people, praying with them or for them, and tried to get them interested in coming to our Bible study. Of course, there is a lot of rejection but even when there is just one person interested in what we are saying, it’s very rewarding. I was given some tips on how to approach the subject with people, like sharing your testimony in 60 seconds with six words, which helped me, especially in the beginning, to build confidence.
Usually students come for an internship of around six months but the team were very flexible with the idea of me staying for only three months and I was grateful to be able to join the team. On a personal level, I think it was the perfect amount of time to stay. I was able to progress significantly in Italian, I certainly made contacts and even a few friends. Most importantly, I have developed habits that include God in my life, which I can continue to apply.
The work I had the most pleasure doing was bringing food to people’s houses and sharing a meal with them but also trying to share the gospel or a story from the Bible.
During those three months, I was able to visit a few churches but there are two in which I felt particularly well hosted and included. I joined a large church that has an ambition and drive to attract student-aged people. The service is in Italian with live English translation, so I was able to follow without any big difficulties. I felt that the strongest point in this church was the fellowship. I joined one of the life groups that meet every week and it was definitely a highlight of my week.
The second church I attended was located right in the centre of Rome, so naturally there were a lot of short-term members and international visitors. I joined the student group, which had up to 20 members. Somehow, even though we were from all over the world with such different backgrounds, we shared a strong connection and had a lot of blessed times together.
I met a few people in the centre whose stories inspired me. One of those people, who I will call Michael, was born and raised in Pakistan in a Catholic family. He had a stable upbringing but he decided he wanted to move to Europe. He went through Libya, which he said was the worst experience of his life. He faced threats and got beaten up a few times. Then he travelled with 600 people on a boat that should only carry 30 and he saw some people fall overboard. Michael arrived in the south of Italy and spent five years travelling through the country before ending up in Rome. He came to the centre quite early after arriving in Rome and he said the centre helped him immensely with the language and administration. Nine months later, he owns a barber shop right across from the centre. After a lot of discussion and Bible studies, I was overjoyed to witness Michael’s baptism!
Another inspiring testimony I heard was that of my colleague, M. He was born in Bangladesh to a Muslim household. In his very early twenties, he decided to go to London to study. At the end of his studies, he stayed and travelled in Europe but he was an illegal migrant. After a year in Germany, during which time he gave his life to God, M was arrested one night and the police took him straight to the airport, taking barely anything with him. He was sent back to Italy and the police were supposed to deport him from there. However, the police never arrived and when M left the airport, the first person he crossed paths with was Todd. M has worked with the centre for five years so far.
This whole experience has been enriching and fortifying. What I take away from my time in Rome is the fellowship I was able to have with so many people and the different cultures and religions I encountered. I realise how little I have been exposed to diversity in my youth. I feel much more confident going into university having experienced all this and, most importantly, with God by my side.
- for Alex and other young people serving in short-term mission
- for the Centro Agape team and their witness
- for the migrants to hear the gospel and open their hearts to the Lord.