it's impossible to explain how incredible this weekend was, but i will try. it could have possibly been the most encouraging and reinforcing times for me since i have been here as an avanti worker. i saw God working so hard in the hearts of YOUNG PEOPLE here in italy and i can't even explain how wonderful it was to witness.
so this weekend was the official florence youth retreat for the people high school age through mid-twenties in all the churches of christ of italy. we held this retreat last year in the beginning of september 2 days after ryan and i arrived in italy. that is where we quickly met and bonded with a lot of the "youth" of the churches here. i think we had 6 or 7 last year, and this weekend we had almost 25!!! over 30 including all the avanti workers. we have been planning for almost a month and it could not have gone more smoothly.
the bible school
we went to the bible school early friday morning to begin the final prep. we cleaned, cooked, set up like crazy until the kids started arriving that evening. at 7 we ate dinner together and then played real life clue.
angela had been working all week and had planned the most intricate and well thought out game of human clue that has ever been made! it was a blast!!! some of us avanti workers were the characters of the game and we were in charge of rooms that the 6 groups rotated between. in each of our rooms the groups had to do mostly silly challenges to be able to see a person, weapon, or room card. needless to say, we all had a ball and it was a great way to break the ice with all of the kids that we hadn't met before and just fun with all the ones that we were already friends with!
after that we all came together and had a devotional, we sang some new worship songs that emily had translated with her student lorenzo and then a high school student from rome, joele, led us in a devotional thought together. we shared prayer requests and prayed together and then just talked and played cards into the wee hours of the morning.
fun side note: since the harding students are here now and sleeping in the "dorm" rooms upstairs, all of us girls slept on mattresses covering the floor of the classroom and the boys slept in tents with air mattresses in the backyard. i hope the italians didn't feel too inconvenienced because i though the sleeping arrangements made it even more fun!
so saturday morning, ermenita and i got up and began laying out a "make your own sandwich" buffet and getting everything together for our outing that day, while ryan, emily, angela, and our honorary avanti member arnold helped debbie and david with their famous pancakes and bacon. we all ate breakfast together and had a devo (brought by peter) before packing up 4 vehicles with sports equipment and food for 30 people and heading to vallombrosa. vallombrosa is a little forest town about 45 minutes outside of florence and i think the photos will say enough about why we chose to spend the day there.
when we arrived to vallombrosa, we ate our picnic lunches together under a huge tree and then split up into 4 groups to translate different parts of the worship song "there's a stirring" into italian. we did this activity last year and it was one of my favorite parts of the weekend. i think i love it so much because everyone gets into it and seems to really enjoy it. i don't think american teenagers would have this much enthusiasm about translating a worship song into english. i just love to sit back and watch their brains go to work as they search for the best way to convey the words of this beautiful song about our God whom they love. it never fails that i forget what i'm doing and find myself just looking around at all of them and crying. anyway, after we did the translating, then we got to practice. beautiful doesn't even begin to describe the sound. if the weekend had ended right then, it all would have been worth it.
luckily though, it didn't! and after we practiced the song we set up a volleyball net that we brought and played volleyball together. we probably played for at least 2 hours, we just rotated teams: boys vs. girls, north vs. south, italy vs. usa, it was so much fun!
after volleyball we practiced our song a couple more times and then headed back to florence just in time to miss the downpour that hit vallombrosa. when we got back to the bible school, the kids had about an hour to freshen up while some of us avanti peeps started helping david and debbie with the meal. we grilled out with chicken, sausage and ribs (oh my goodness), we had salad, debbie made her loaded mashed potatoes, we made like 20 liters of home-made lemonade, and then had strawberry shortcake for dessert.
after the cookout, we had another devotional, this one brought to us by eric, and then we practiced all the new worship songs because we were going to teach them to the congregation sunday at church. after we sang for about an hour, everyone was exhausted. some of the group watched a movie together, david gave ryan a buzz in the backyard, and everyone crashed.
sunday morning was our monthly breakfast together before church. this was especially fun because not only were there 20+ italian kids for the members to meet, but it was also the first sunday that all the HUF students were at church and they were assigned members to meet and sit with. after our breakfast, as we all began filing into our seats in the chapel of our church, i soon started to realize that the room was absolutely packed. there was not an empty seat. not only was the church full to the brim, but some of the people that we love and pray that they will come with us to church had come: rosa (the cook at the bible school) and her husband felice, sandro (an employee at the harding villa) and his wonderful wife chiara, anna maria and her husband alan (awesome friends of ours), and massimo and andrea (2 students of the bible school). on top of those people there were about 10 random members!!!! wow is all i have to say.
i videoed as the kids and david got up to teach the new songs to the congregation and all i could do was cry. i was beside myself with joy and i could tell that so many other people were too! this is the church (as in people, not a building) that God intended, the first century church, the body of christ...family. it was. the singing was heavenly (led by ryan and giovanni) and the sermon that jim brought (translated by lorenzo) was by no coincidence on grace and so moving.
after almost an hour of meeting and talking to people after church, 100+ of us (huf students, youth retreat people, avanti workers) walked to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a meal together.
sadly after lunch, we had to say goodbye to all the kids that had come to the retreat (except 4 from rome who were stuck in florence until this morning because of a train strike). but i said goodbye energized and encouraged that these kids had been touched and strengthened and were going to back to their homes knowing that they weren't in this alone. they didn't have weather this "not being of the world" thing by themselves. there are other people their age that are doing it too.
sunday afternoon, angela, arnold, ryan and i took one of the harding vans to wash it (that was an adventure in itself) and then we all went up to the harding villa for a devo, dinner, and a piano concert. we topped off the weekend last night playing volleyball for a couple of hours with the harding students, which was a great way to get to know them.
i am so incredibly thankful for this weekend and everything that happened and the lives that were so touched. i know that God works in spite of us and he is more powerful than anything i can imagine, but i'm so thankful that he used us to be haven for these kids so he could touch their hearts in our presence. what an incredible blessing!