illustration by Ralph Butler
The sun’s first rays cast their reddish tonalities through the gray, metallic structures of Rome’s Ostiense train station. On platforms 14 and 15 more than 150 sleeping bodies are scattered across the bare concrete floor. One hundred more sleep on a street outside, near the Termini train station, some as young as 14 or 15 years old. Dirty tents close by shelter dozens of other sleepers. These refugees from Africa and the Middle East are alone and hungry, sad and largely ignored. But each Sabbath and Sunday morning my team and I bring them food. Marian, Simona, Ulise, Gabi, Sami, Sergiu, Mihnea, Vali, Cornel, and the rest have thrown their hearts into this work. Their love for these forlorn, lost youth is palpable. As they talk, laugh, and eat with them, joy, and something else, well up together in my soul. For I see myself. These lonely foreigners from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Africa are on a journey, as I too have been, in body and in spirit, in years gone by.
Growing up Communist
I grew up in Communist Romania. I was not necessarily hungry for bread. Life was fine until my Orthodox father began to study the Bible and discovered the Sabbath. He stopped working on Saturdays. Furthermore, he found the Adventist Church and decided to get baptized. That started all the trouble. Shortly after his baptism, the government tried to compel my father to work on Saturday. He refused. He was arrested and imprisoned for three and a half years. In prison they chained him, beat him, and otherwise physically and psychologically tortured him. One Saturday morning, because he refused to eat meat, guards chained him, opened his mouth with iron pincers, and tried to force their hot pork soup down his throat. Anything was possible in Communist Romania. So his torturers tried everything to make him give up his faith. They didn’t succeed.
On a sunny autumn day he returned home. He was thin, but his face shone with joy. He was a winner—His faith had been victorious over the Communist army.
A Sudden Change
Despite my father’s experience and his faith, I continued to starve myself of spiritual food. I made no changes in my life. I was disrespectful toward him and sometimes laughed about his faith. I would go to church and join in the programs, but I didn’t know God. My parents prayed a lot for me. Once they told me to fast. It was an irony for me, and I made fun of them. I wasn’t interested in change.
Until the morning a strong, unfamiliar voice spoke out in the house: “Go and pray, because you’re walking a tightrope.”
I laughed, mocking my father and his God: “What kind of God talks to humans?” That voice had to be nothing but illusions and nonsense from my father.
Hours later I was to go through my life’s most dramatic, most explosive experience. I was preparing a bomb. Suddenly the Molotov cocktail blew up right in my hand. The explosion’s shock wave stunned me. My clothes caught fire, and now my father’s house was burning. The fire affected its electrical system, and my mother was jolted by electric shock. With the help of neighbors we put the fire out and my mother survived. But I suffered several burns and my hands were devastated. God had warned me that morning that I was in grave danger, but I had mocked Him and laughed. It was the last time I made fun of God. My life changed from that day on. I became a believer.
Healing and Commission
Several years later my father, Vasele Lupu, was hospitalized with a serious illness. When I went to visit him, he looked up from his hospital bed into my eyes and said quietly: “It’s not good news; the doctor says the cancer might have spread. But I have placed my life in God’s hands. I am ready to live or die as He wills.” We prayed together in that hospital room in Bucharest, Romania, and I left. Two days later when I returned to visit my father, I found him preparing to go home. “What happened?” I asked. “You were so ill!”
“I may have been dreaming,” he replied, “but after you left, I saw an intense light at the foot of my bed. A man standing in the light told me that God had a work for me to do. Later I asked my roommate if he had seen a bright light or heard a voice during the night, but he had seen and heard nothing. Surely I have been visited by an angel!”
We asked God to show us the ministry he had for us. We began, with one of my brothers, to visit Romanian prisons: Bucharest, Iasi, Târgoviste, and Timisoara, where Dad had spent several years as a prisoner for his faith during Communist times. He recognized many of the guards and remembered the insults that he had endured from guards and prisoners alike because of his faith. At one prison in southern Romania where my father had spent one year as a prisoner a guard recognized him and hurled new insults at him. My father and I began sharing with the prisoners messages of hope in Christ. That same day a boy who was in prison for his crimes asked me for a Bible. I gave him one, and when we left the prison, we gave another to a guard.
As the years passed, the guard who had insulted my father became willing to listen to his testimony. His heart was touched, and he accepted Christ as his Savior. He is now a Seventh-day Adventist. My brothers Doru and Savel are both pastors. Recently someone came to one of their churches and asked to be baptized. This man had known Christ for many years, having come to know Him through a Bible he received in prison. He was the very person I had given the Bible to. He too is now a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Florea, another inmate, was baptized along with him, and the two now work as evangelists. They have built up a small group of 20 people.
After a few years of missionary work in the prisons, my brothers and I decided to become pastors. After my theology studies and pastoral service in several districts, my work has brought me to Rome, Italy. I carry on my heart the many years of my father’s prayers for me, and the unusual experience by which a patient and loving God abruptly terminated my mockery, humbled me, and called me to His work. In His kindness He has made me a witness to many special experiences.
I think of the past five years during which I have sacrificed my vacations and money for Africa’s people in the Kalahari Desert and Kongola, Namibia. Particularly, I have been touched by the Kalahari Bushmen, so simple and poor, and yet of such great heart. The Bushmen receive you in their shed with joy, and they listen for as many hours as you wish to talk to them. Amazingly enough, I met the It Is Written team in that place. Together with them and other volunteers we built wells with solar pumps. Then we built a small church at Tsumkwe. Collaborating with one of my colleagues, Pastor Sorin Neacsu, of ADRA Italy, and volunteers from Rome and Turin, we have built in the Caprivi Region a school, a clinic, and an orphanage. During these five years I have fallen in love with the continent and the children of that region. God’s special help has enabled us to invest thousands of euros on behalf of orphans living there. We ourselves cannot explain how we are able to invest so much, since we didn’t have any kind of resources. Our gifts seem to us like just a few cents, and we have not missed our holidays, for we have lived through amazing years in which God has given us great family times together in ministry.
Challenge in Rome
Africa has not been our only challenge. In Rome we experience as many surprises as we do in the Kalahari Desert. Italy has become an immigration destination for people of such varied nationalities as Russia and Romania, Peru and Brazil, Ghana and Sudan, the Philippine islands, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Immigrants bring needs and challenges. They are searching for a home, for a job, and, not least of all, for God. Because the Italian Union has been proactive in establishing ethnic church communities, companies of 30 or 40 persons have quickly grown into churches of thousands of people. Rome’s six churches include three for native Italians, along with one each focused on Filipino, Latin-American, and Romanian communities.
Responding together to the great missionary challenges of our city, we teamed up with Pastor Shawn Boonstra, then speaker and director of It Is Written. Our churches distributed more than 600,000 invitations; several articles appeared in the press; there were ads everywhere. The effort was, I think, unprecedented in Rome. Then four short days before our opening presentation it was halted by a hidden hand. Our work and prayer through those four days became more feverish than ever. We had to redistribute tens of thousands of flyers, and the furor generated new television interviews and more newspaper articles. Glory to God, on the opening evening there were more than 600 attendees.
A young student at the Orthodox Theology Institute, already assigned his parish and on the way to the priesthood, learned from Elder Boonstra’s biblical preaching what previous study had failed to show him. He decided to give up his parish ministry, and he is now a member of our church in Rome.
While the facts of my life and this story whirl in my head, I’m heading with my volunteers to Termini Station. Dozens of hungry people are waiting for us there. The sun’s red beams are clearly visible now. The once-sleeping youth are already awake. In a few moments the police will be here to clear them away. We must hurry to feed them. This is all that they will eat today. One of my colleagues recently dared to ask one of our friends on the sidewalk if she was hungry. She started to cry. Silently. As he handed her a package, he could see big tears rolling down her cheeks.
People have largely forgotten to cry in Rome. But we are still received with tears and joy. It is the same joy that we met in the Kalahari. It may or may not be the same feeling that surges within me when I think of where God has brought me from. It may or may not be that the hungry youth we serve here will learn, as I did, that there is a God who speaks to humans—not merely about their present, but about their future. Maybe the bread in my hand is a bomb. n
Lupu Corneliu Benone is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Rome, Italy. He and his wife Irina have two children, Bianca and Matteo.
Lupu Corneliu Benone is a Seventh-day Advenist pastor in Rome, Italy. He and his wife Irina have two children, Bianca and Matteo. This article was published June 13, 2013.