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Short term service leads to long term commitment


July 30, 2004
- by Dan Dyck


l-r: Donna, (Luca, Sara, Emily) and Jason Martin want to continue their mission work in Bari, Italy.

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Syracuse, Indiana— A young couple with a passion for outreach in Italy, a pastor who inspires enthusiasm for international mission and missional church thinking, a supportive congregational partnership, and a new relationship with a sister mission agency have combined to create a new international ministry for Mennonite Church Canada Witness.

Jason and Donna Martin (Community Mennonite Fellowship, Drayton, Ont.) have been doing full time “friendship evangelism and church planting” in Bari, Italy since November, 2001, with Virginia Mennonite Mission Board (VMBM). What brought them there was a series of short term international mission stints and a sense that God was calling them to this work.

Missional church thinking motivated Community Mennonite Fellowship to seek a partnership with Mennonite Church Canada Witness – the congregation wanted to intentionally broaden its mission and connect with MC Canada Witness. Janet Plenert, executive director of MC Canada’s International Ministries, said, “It’s exciting to be able to respond to a congregation’s vision for ministry in a way that both strengthens and enables it.”

Jason’s passion for international mission work was inspired in good part by short term mission experiences in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Albania.

But it was an experience in Ukraine that cemented his dream. “Seeing how ‘ordinary’ missionaries were, and seeing I could be one, recognizing that they weren’t superhuman Christians but that even I myself could be one,” gave him the confidence to move forward, said Jason, who had for a long time sensed a calling and intrigue with the culture and language of Italy.

Jason’s wife Donna was not convinced about service in Italy. Her passions were with Latino people, having participated in short term mission assignments in Belize and Brazil. But common to both was their experience at Community Mennonite Fellowship. “[Pastor] Willard Metzger has played a very significant role in both our lives in discipleship,” said Donna.

Although Donna at first said, “No way!” to Italy, they committed to pray and discern together. A short time later, despite not knowing any ministry or church workers in Italy, they suddenly found themselves preparing for a ten month period of discernment in Bari. They returned to Canada, more convinced than ever that God was calling them to Italy.

A two-year Canadian pastoral internship for Jason and some challenges in getting a religious service visa did not subdue their zeal. They have now been permanently located in Bari since November, 2001, supported in part by their home congregation in Drayton and VMBM. Now, MC Canada Witness is stepping in to help support them.

Though the Martins say that Italians are naturally suspicious of one another, Donna observes parallels to Canadian society. “People [in Italy] are searching for acceptance, belonging, love, and a place to trust.” Jason clarifies. “There is great need despite popular opinion… it’s a first world nation just like Canada and the US but there is a great spiritual void there. People are fed up with organized religion. They want to see a personal God, and we believe through our relationships we can offer that to them.”

The couple wisely recognizes that transforming lives is not only about tallying saved souls. “We don’t see the people as a project. We want to treat them as people and love them. That’s what we have seen has helped us reach people,” says Jason.

The parents of three children (Emily,7; Sara, 6; Luca, 3), the Martins are just as eager to share the hospitality they offer to Italians with North Americans. They invite and encourage guests to visit their home and ministry Bari. “Would you like to be part of joining with us to change lives in Italy?” asks Donna.

The Martins raise the bulk of their own financial support for their work, and also invite prayers for their ministry. Contributions can be sent to Mennonite Church Canada Witness, care of the Martin family. Mennonites have been actively involved with mission work in Italy since 1949 through VMBM. There are six congregations in Sicily, and a few emerging congregations on the mainland.

Sidebar: Lucia’s story

Lucia (pseudonym) is a twenty-something year old Italian women about to be baptized in the Italian Mennonite Church this fall. An only child raised by Christian parents, Lucia sought fulfillment through music, fashion, and the acceptance of friends. Lucia continually pushed away the church’s attempts to reach out to her.

Lucia’s interest in fashion proved to be a turning point for her life. Visiting another congregation with a desire to start a clothing manufacturing business as a ministry, Lucia was “…struck by their simple faith in God,” said Jason Martin, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker. It was a watershed moment for Lucia when she realized that faith in God could fill the emptiness she felt.

More recently, a short term mission trip to Albania ignited a new passion in Lucia for sharing the love of God with others: “That’s what I love, that’s what I want to do. I want my friends to come to know Jesus,” Lucia reported to Donna Martin.

Lucia’s gifts in sewing and fashion design have spilled over into graphic design; Lucia has produced a new Bible school pamphlet for children. Lucia continues to grow, through Bible study and challenging the status quo. “She’s so willing to serve, it’s so exciting to see,” said Jason.