Back in the mid 1970s I ran across a group of Christ followers who took living in community to a higher level by choosing to live together in one large house. They themselves were devoted to learning the deeper things of God, to being close disciples of Christ and living in His kingdom. They ate meals together, played together, and worshiped together. The named their home Dileram House which in the Farsi language means peaceful heart.
While being “missional” is a relatively new buzz and focus of doing ministry in America, these Christ Followers were intentionally living what it means to be missional 35 years ago. When they felt led by the Spirit they would invite folk to come and share in their lives. Often times it started on board the US Navy ship on which most of the men were stations, then led to invites to the home they shared, first in Formia, then later on in Gaeta Italy. It usually started with a dinner meal here or there. Sometimes the meal would be followed by some devotional type teaching or some musical worship. Then the invitation would become somewhat of an open invitation. It was up to the individual to decide whether to take part in the welcome of a shared community. I was 17 at the time and accepted their invite to spend more and more time, which was followed by an invitation to come and live and learn inside their community. I accepted and as a result I accepted Jesus.
I had arrived in Naples Italy on December 15, 1977 by plane. I was very young and immature at 17. Perhaps moreso than most. Once I had gathered my seabag I got direction on how to get to where I was going, After a 15 minute, heart stopping taxi ride I ended up at the train station. From there I took the hour long ride northward to the little town of Formia and caught another taxi, this one a much calmer ride, to the fleet landing where lie at berth the massive USS Albany. The Albany was a World War II heavy cruiser commissioned at the end of the war then refitted to rely on the more modern firepower of missiles rather than the fairly antiquated heavy gun. Her haze gray superstructure was tall and impressive and her hull was long, low and sleek. She was festooned with multicolor lights around her main deck as a herald to the coming Christmas and her mast lights twinkled high above the water in the crisp winter night.
I did not integrate well into ship life. I was lonely and confused and quite a bit afraid. Within a few days I ran afoul a gang of sailors who beat me to the point of needing medical assistance. I went to seek solace from the ships chaplain who literally screamed at me for bothering him. I was devesated and alone. This was a far cry from the life of adventure I had thought I was signing up for when I joined the Navy six months earlier.
.A week or so after Christmas I was approached by Jim. He asked to share space with me while we ate. It was a welcome relief to have someone want to hang around with me and knock some of the edges off of my loneliness so I quickly pushed out the other chair and invited him to sit down. He asked me about me. I don’t remember what I said, but his friendly manner was calming and he engendered trust with his calm and secure presence. Conversation turned to spiritual things for a bit. I had played church and thought myself to be an authority on such matters. He listened. My translation of that was that I was pretty competent spiritually while really not knowing much of the the Jesus of the Bible. He didn’t seem to mind.
Right away Jim began to join me regularly for meals on board the ship. He directed me toward a small Bible study that met at lunch time in the ships library and invite me to spend time with him and his family, as well as his extended family. They shared a three story villa just outside of Formia, about ten kilometers from the ship. He and his wife had a three children, Bonney, Jimmy and Elenor. They shared the house with another couple, Steve and Lynn Bassler who had a daughter named Arwen. There were two single men who lived there as well, Jeff Richards and Bob Razzi. Shortly afterward JIm’s cousin, Lissa, came and moved in with us as well. Everyone except the wives and the children, were enlisted men in the Navy who served in different capacities on board the Albany.
Through the course of the next 16 months Jim taught me about Jesus, the early church, and what it meant to be a disciple of Christ. Even more, he took the time to share with me the practical aspects of being a man. My education on manhood up to that point had been distorted to mean sexual conquest and self indulgence. I had arrived at this point in life socially awkward, obnoxious, and with little sense of manners or social grace. Jim taught me things about living with other people, how to have meaningful conversations, and basic gentlemanly etiquette. He even took me to his Italian barber, the experience which led me later in life to become a barber myself. In all, he chose to do life with me. He was very good at doing life and shared with gusto.
Being in a community setting was wonderful in that I received so much knowldge from every one there. Steve, who I shared a room with, was adventurous and not willing to allow the sun to set without first exploring and experiencing something new. Some days he would drag, nag, or otherwise leverage me out of my morning slumber to go to the beach, or to hop a train to some nearby town. Steve taught me to never waste a morning!
Kathy led our social times and shared meals with such a degree of grace and beauty that not only enhanced the atmosherics, but also encouraged and instructed. Though only a few years older than I was, I found myself wanting to please her, like a mom, by sitting straight and minding my manners.
Other guys there shared bits and pieces of knowledge that somehow managed to find their way deep into my being that colored and shaped the human that I would one day become. Bob taught me about photography, Jeff about home electronics, Steve about playing guitar and even more so the higher calling of using it in worship.
While there are so many things I learned, so many live treasures lovingly invested into one another, the truth of the mater was where I was concerned it would seem that it had all gone to waste. A lifetime of building distrust, learning that relationships were disposable commodities, and that the higher call of life was to serve ones own pleasure were not quickly overcome. Even in the face of the truest of motives I began to distrust those around me. The freedom I felt was soon chaffed away by the restrictions of the life of discipleship. I eventually began to long for the world and worldly things. I grew to distrust the instructions and the limitations placed on my by the leadership in community and eventually parted company. I did so dramatically, establishing a scorched earth policy that left little to return to.
I spent several years pursuing everything that the world finds value in. I lived in a manner similar to my upbringing and did life not quite as successfully as I thought I would. I could never escape the truth that Jim and the others made so clear while in community that Jesus was real and that life in Christ was real and worth it. I eventually came back to follow Christ and though I have sinned I am still securely and unashamedly His.
While I was pursuing the worldly life, but even more so once I returned to Christ, I often went back mentally to the relationship I had with Jim back in Gaeta. I remembered conversations, teachings, and just the pure fun of being accepted and loved while doing life. Even as I moved onward and inward in life and in crazy love with my Savior, gaining some knowledge and wisdom along the way, my core desires in Christ, the things that I value in Kingdom living, all had tangible roots in that brief time on the western coast of Italy.
Having never known my biological father, Jim in a short period of time became that figure for me. I did not recognize it at the time. I even distrusted it at times. Kathy as well became the model of graciousness that had been lacking from the women in my life previous to encountering them. My own mother passed away suddenly just a few short months after my time with Jim and Kathy. My step father passed several years later on. While I had always lovingly recalled the relationship I never made any paternal or maternal connection in a spiritual sense until just this past week. Here is how that took place; as I have been in the process of taking my place in the community of faith in which I serve and in the community in which I live, I have found myself more than ever recalling and implementing those things that were modeled for me in community. Today the buzzword among Christ Followers is “missional”. I resonate with that word. It is what I was taught in community by Jim, by Kathy, and by every intentional teacher who came through our lives back in the day. While practicing hospitality and wanting to take that to even greater levels I decided to write a blog entry. This started out as that blog entry. My intention was to share the results of what was lived in that house in Gaeta and how it had impacted so many lives. I wanted to leverage the testimony of my experience and its ultimate result in order to encourage, equip and do the living Great Commission. That was when the Holy Spirit pulled alongside my vessel and fired a salvo that broadsided me.
In writing my blog I had decided to try once again to try to find Jim and Kathy using the internet. I have been trying since the very beginning of the internet, but never had much result. I decided to try social media first and typed in their names. The very first response was an image that I instantly recognized of Jim in his Navy Salt and Pepper uniform next to his lovely bride. I was there during the time when that picture was taken. I instantly fired off a friend request. As soon as I did I began to remember how much hurt I had inflicted when I left. I had often rehearsed my apology and plea for forgiveness should I ever encounter Jim again. My friend request was answered in a few moments. I quickly messaged back, simply, “blast from the past, eh?” I waited for a few moments, wondering what would be the reply. I imagined it would be somewhat guarded, given my history of not being a “safe” person, relationally. I was hoping that he would reply, wondering if he would. The next few seconds passed like hours. It was then the message came back, “Kevin. You rascal! We have been looking for you for years”.
The wind was knocked out of my sails. My apology seemed feeble. I sat there in front of my keyboard feeling much like I would imagine the prodigal son felt as his father wrapped a robe around his shoulders and placed a ring upon his finger. Not only had I wanted to come home, spiritually, but the father of the story had been looking out the window, forgiveness already in place, anxiously hoping one day to see his son on the horizon heading homeward. I cried a bit. Bitter sweet tears of joy and regret all rolled together like some emotional sushi roll.
Perhaps I am reading more into the situation that what is really there. Perhaps not. Whether that was the case in the natural or not, it reminded me in real and living color of the reality of what God is doing and has done for me. When I have wandered away in the past and squandered all He has given me, He as waited anxiously. He has looked high and low for me. “For the Son of Man has come to seek, and to save, that which was lost.” It has new meaning for me. Rather than the basis for a stirring homily it is a real live event that I am getting to live through.
The last few days have been an internet flurry of re-connections with many of the people who meant so much to me back then. They are friend requesting and posting and tagging photos from back in the day. I feel as though I have been welcomed to a true homecoming feast. The fatted calf killed on my behalf and the celebration well under way.
In our all too brief time chatting online I told Jim how it was his influence that eventually led me to many of the longings and leanings that I enjoy in my life today, including my focus in ministry as well as my career as a barber. His response was that God was showing him that it isn’t necessarily what we think we are teaching that makes the biggest difference. Humble! That’s the way I remember him too.
My goal was initially to convince and encourage intentional co-living in community as a means to live missionally in our local area. I have no intention now. I am emotionally blown away and deeply stirred in a way I cannot remember having been stirred before. I am looking forward to today, tomorrow and the future as I get to explore ways to reconnect and be a blessing to those who blessed me so greatly, even at great expense to themselves. My intentions are all gone and I am just sharing these events to encourage you along your path. Perhaps this message is about a means to lead people to Christ. It may well be about forgiveness and acceptance. It might also be about telling those who have made a difference in your life that you are indeed grateful. There are many good messages you can glean from this story. i know that every couple of hours I see a different lesson. As you read this just keep in mind that I am writing as a means to process all the goodness that God has poured into my life. Goodness that I did not invest in. Goodness that I did not earn. Simply goodness. You can call that grace too. Amazing grace it is. Be blessed!