Southern Officers Forge Authentic Community in Northern Italian Corps
By: Laura Poff
Lts. Chris & Jessica Welch were commissioned with the Friends of Christ session in 2012. After serving for several years in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, they were transferred to Jessica’s home country of Italy where they current serve as the corps officers in Torre Pellice, a town in northern Italy. Recently, they started an internship program to bring in young adults for a period of one year to assist in leading life skills classes, working in the newly-opened café and using their skills and talents to build a stronger sense of community within the corps and within greater Torre Pellice.
We spoke with Lt. Jessica Welch about the internship program, her work in Torre Pellice and the importance of community:
1. Tell us about your corps in Torre Pellice.
Our Corps is one of the oldest Corps in Italy! Lots of history there. We are situated right in the center of Torre Pellice. We have Sunday Services, Bible Study, Baby Song, and twice a week we open our Rishop – it’s like a Thrift Store, but more like a bazar or Church fundraiser. Once a month we give out food parcels to people as part of our social services.
2. What are some of the unique challenges in this corps and in Italy?
Many struggles are the same, like changes of officers or having to “hold the fort” without an officer for a while. The differences are certainly the fact that in Florida we had staff to manage and a substantial budget to work with whereas here we have neither! Donations do not come steadily and so we have the task to build a reputation, seek needs that are not yet being met, build relationships with the community, and find donors! Exciting!
3. How did you come up with the idea to start the Gap Year program?
The inspiration for this came out of my longing for community. If I had to pinpoint when it was birthed in me I would have to say in Berlin… where my family moved when I was thirteen. Those first months were incredibly hard for us but they brought us together. I can still see the six of us sitting around the dining room table, the food long gone, talking about life, laughing uncontrollably, and sharing our hearts. When I moved I lost all that. I mourned it. And then with time I started recreating it in my own life after getting married. The Lord gave me this passion for authentic and meaningful relationships and for gathering people around the table. I craved a safe place to be my true self, to heal and mourn and grow… and place to meet Jesus and be changed. Without realising it, what I craved became what my life was going to be about.
Two verses spoke to me and confirmed this vision: Acts 2:42 and 46
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”(MSG) and Romans 12:5-6,9-10 (The Voice): “We become together what we could not be alone… Love others well, and don’t hide behind a mask; love authentically. Despise evil; pursue what is good as if your life depends on it. 10 Live in true devotion to one another, loving each other as sisters and brothers.”
4. How will this ministry impact your corps?
When we came here we asked God what His vision was for the Army here. We asked ourselves, if the Army were to close down here, what would be missed? What is a need we can meet? The Lord spoke of the outcast and the lonely and of discipleship. The basics, really! He gave us to see this place as the heart of the community, where anyone and everyone finds a home and a family. We saw people of every age coming for lunch every day and then staying for skill classes like budgeting or flower arrangement, chess, computer, or English. Children coming for after school activities and homework club. Families coming for Bible Study, Alpha Course, and Baby Song! We dreamed of Celebrate Recovery, Praise Meeting in English, and a Friday night meal. In one word:Family. In two words: Relationships: meaningful, deep, and authentic. Discipleship: Bible Study, mentoring, and evangelisation. The dream is not to have those who meet needs and those who are on the receiving end. We all have skills and we all have needs. We want to invite the whole community to participate in this. The florist might come teach a class once a month but she lives alone and would love company for lunch. The single mom needs help with her kids’ homework but she is a math genius and can offer budgeting classes. Here, everyone finds a place to blossom and grow and be.
5. Why do you place so much emphasis on the importance of community?
We were created to be a body. It’s through fulfilling our purpose as the body of Christ that we become more like Christ: iron sharpening iron, carrying each other’s burdens, finding and being a family through authentic and vulnerable relationships. The enemy has been very good at isolating us. We hide behind masks, believing that we should have it all together. I believe in holiness on this earth and the work of the Holy Spirit in me… But I also believe that I need other people’s honest testimonies of failures turned to victories, of brokenness turned to wholeness, of independence turned to surrender, and of sin turned to freedom. We can only shape and encourage each other if we are willing to lay down our masks. We can only share our testimonies of what Jesus has done in us if we are willing to share our stories. That’s why community is so important and I believe it is why the enemy makes us often run from it. As believers, we have community in our DNA, we were meant to live as a Body, and we can invite others into that by creating a space that is safe, loving, life-giving, and welcoming.
6. How has having a community impacted your life and ministry?
Having people with whom I can be authentic with has helped me grow, a lot. It has given me the tools and the support to confront the old self and the accountability and the joy to put on the new self together. There is such freedom in being able to pick up the phone and saying, I really struggle with this personally or in my ministry, would you help? The lie is that I have to have it all together, the beautiful, freedom giving truth is that there is so much more joy in journeying together!
7. What do you think other corps could learn from your example?
For me, the invitation was to go back to the basics. It meant uncluttering my life and my schedule so as “to live to win souls and make their salvation the first purpose of my life…” What did that look like for this Community? I think we’ll find that real relationships are a big need for our generation… that and discipleship/mentoring. And the two go hand in hand.
8. Is this a ministry that could have an impact on corps in the USA South as well?
I think that many Corps have the space to start a Community Cafe… But more than ‘yet another program’ it should simply and naturally come out of spending time with others. This kind of Community can happen wherever two and more people come together with a thirst for Kingdom life, authenticity, vulnerability, and Christlikeness. It can start with four or five people who come regularly over for dinner, and with whom we build relationships and explore God’s Word. It does not have to be big. The sweetest moments for us where when a small group gathered in our home in Florida… we worshipped together, prayed, and then shared a meal. God really blesses us when we are willing to open our homes and our lives to others. Opening the Cafe is simply a way to invite the whole Community to participate!
9. What else would you like to add?
We would like to thank everyone who donated towards our fundraiser! We could not have done it without you! If you feel led to support the Cafe and our interns or if you are interested in coming for a short mission trip or for a year, please feel free to contact us: email@example.com