Fighting the Good Fight: Profile of an Evangelical Missionary in Italy

By Sarah Laing 

A lighted cross.

A lighted cross.

ROME: A few blocks away from Rome’s central railway station, a man pauses outside a tiny, nondescript storefront. Not a lot is visible through the windows, and a passerby has to look carefully to notice the faded signage, which reads “CLC Ministries”.

“We had our first meetings in here,” he said. “When we first arrived in Italy, my wife’s purse was stolen, which had her Bible in it. We came here to buy another one, and the store manager turned into one of our closest friends.”

This man is Brent Harrell, a Protestant Evangelical missionary working in Italy. He counts that meeting as part of a long series of “divine appointments” that have led an American evangelical to spend 12 years attempting to missionize the world’s most Catholic country.

Harrell is back at the bookstore today to buy more Bibles to replenish the supply at the church he established in a suburb far from the city centre. He doesn’t have a great deal of money to spend, and so spends several minutes contemplating the various options — hard or soft cover, various translations. He confers with the young shop assistant, speaking Italian, that while fluent, could never be mistaken for a native’s, and still bears the rhythmic stamp of a mid-western American drawl.

After he’s chosen his Bibles, he spends a little time browsing in the two-shelf section for “bambini” picking out Biblically-themed coloring books for the Sunday school. In the store — barely 10 feet across — books fill all the available space, volumes about “Gli Ultimi Tempi” (The End Times) and “Battaglia Spirituale” (Spiritual Warfare) sitting alongside Italian translations of Christian literature heavyweights like Billy Graham and Max Lucado. There’s a tiny multimedia section, which prominently features VHS copies of a 1980’s concert tour by Italy’s only evangelical folk singer.

Harrell doesn’t visit the store often, as it’s a long way from the outer suburb where he ultimately “planted” his church, Calvary Chapel Roma. But this area of central Rome is where he and his wife worked until 2009, doing everything from street evangelism to working with students on the nearby university campus.

“We would meet in this bookstore, clear out everything from the middle, and pray together — and not even fill this space,” said Harrell.

“Now we have a church of 50 people — which is actually pretty large for an evangelical church in Italy.”

In person, Harrell has an intense manner, maintaining constant eye contact from beneath a black baseball cap.

“Italy is the greatest missed mission field in the world,” he said, swiftly downing a thimble-sized cup of strong espresso at a cafe nearby.

“If Jesus were to return today, only about 500,000 people in Italy would be raptured with him,” he said, referring to a belief held by many evangelicals that “true” Christians will be taken to heaven at the end of the world.

And as for the rest of Italy’s 60 million citizens — 90 percent of which are Catholic? According to Harrell, they will not be counted among the true believers when the last trump resounds.

“Catholicism is a counterfeit cult, a heretical sect, a demonic lie,” he said. “It’s an oppressive system that is so far from what Christ intended.”

“Instead, it’s all been built on a man name Peter,” he said, referring to the disciple whom Catholics consider the first pope.

Of course, the Catholic Church would disagree with Harrell’s assertion. Their official line is that while the Pope is the ultimate authority on earth, he is also the ultimate servant, living a life of obedience that points followers to God. In conversation, Harrell also refers frequently to the supreme authority of the Bible on all matters. This is another major point of difference with Catholic teaching, which assigns equal weight to “church traditions,” beliefs that are not found in the Biblical canon, such as prayer for the dead and the liturgy. (Interestingly, an appreciation for those traditions is often cited as a significant motivator for conversion to Catholicism by Protestants.)

Harrell is unabashed in his opposition to the Catholic church. In fact, it was his conviction of Catholicism’s enslaving power that spurred him to leave Boise, Idaho and come to evangelise the “lost” in Italy.

“God sowed it into my heart how desperate the situation was here. You have this country that is 99.9 percent Catholic, but has no concept of personal intimacy with God,” he said.

Harrell grew up in an evangelical Christian family, and eventually attended Bible college in order to pursue full-time ministry. He first became passionate about Italy after a brief summer mission trip in 1985.

“There was a man in the Venetto region who had been a Catholic, but was then saved. He wanted to start an evangelical church in the north,” said Harrell, who went to Venetto to help with three other American missionaries.

“I remember him saying that to be Italian is to be Catholic — and it’s got nothing to do with God,” he said.

That level of cultural entrenchment proved to be one of the greatest obstacles Harrell and his wife faced when they moved to Italy three years later in 1999.

“People would say to me ‘I’m atheist, but I’m still a Catholic’ ,” he said. “It’s part of their identity, and the indoctrination is deep seated.”

The Harrells arrived in Rome with no plan, no Italian and just one contact. When he speaks of this time, Harrell compares himself to Abraham, who was called by God but with no idea of where his faith might take him.

After working in Rome’s center, that faith took Harrell and his family (which now includes three children) to the outskirts of the city, to a suburb known for drug dealers and poverty. There they started a church, which was affiliated with Calvary Chapel, an American evangelical fellowship that sponsored the Harrells’ mission work.

Just 0.1 percent of Italy’s of population identifies as “evangelical,” and are separate entities to the country’s mainline Protestant churches, which evangelicals widely consider to be only slightly better than Catholicism. Harrell knows of about 150 “Bible-believing” churches in Italy, most averaging around 20 members.

“We’re cushioned from it a little in a big city like Rome, but in these smaller villages, when evangelicals arrive, it’s like the wicked witch coming to town,” said Harrell with a rare laugh.

“They’ve been taught for so long that you cannot be saved outside the Catholic church. They steer clear of us.”

This distrust surprised the Harrells, who found most Italians to be a lot less open than movie stereotypes would suggest.

“They’re superficially friendly, but they are actually very sceptical and critical, and take a long time to open up,” he said. “It’s an ancient culture, very slow to change.”

“Slow” is also how Harrell describes his conversion rate, a process which he likens to a farmer cultivating a field, with a long interval of waiting between sowing and harvesting. Large events like tent revivals would not work in Italy, said Harrell, who prefers to focus on building relationships.

“There’s a woman who attends our church now who also had a child in my daughter’s class. We would just talk casually about our beliefs, and finally a year later she was saved,” said Harrell.

According to Harrell, the conversion process is actually hardest for those who have been practicing Catholics (which is about 30 percent of Italians).

“There was an older woman who would come to our church, and be in tears every Sunday she was so moved. But she also kept going to Mass — that guilt is a hard thing to get rid of,” said Harrell.

When explaining his take on the gospel to Catholics, Harrell often quotes John 3:16, which in the New International Version translation reads: “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only son so that all men might be saved”.

“It shows how much God loves all people, and how he desires them to have the free gift of eternal life,” said Harrell. His explanation of the christian faith heavily emphasises the idea of grace, rather than “works” to obtain salvation.

“No Catholic will ever say they are going to heaven for sure. They can’t be certain they’ve earned it yet,” said Harrell, who repeatedly asserts the simplicity of the ideas he preaches.

Along with abandoning some fundamental beliefs about the way to eternal life, a Catholic converting into Harrell’s church has to give up something dear to many Italian hearts: praying to the Virgin Mary.

“They’re taught that God is this stern father, and Mary is a nurturing mother, almost a co-redemptress with Christ,” said Harrell.

“But I always say to them – if Obama was your father, and could give you anything, why would you go through some other intermediary to talk to him? It’s the same thing with God.”

Harrell and his family are in Italy on missionary visas, which he calls “a miracle,” given what he sees as the Italian institutionalised suspicion of non-Catholics. While they haven’t faced significant personal hostility, he mentions “subtle persecution,” particularly when dealing with bureaucracy.

“We run into roadblocks, like lost paper work. And we have sub-par status to the Catholic Church, since we are only considered a non-profit organisation.”

Still, Harrell is sanguine about these perceived difficulties.

“Christ told us that we would be hated and suffer for him,” he said. “Whether we reach millions or just a few, I’ll keep following Jesus”.

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