Open Doors, Open Hearts

Unity forged during the pandemic leads to a harvest of souls in Milan Italy

Open Doors, Open Hearts

Unity forged during the pandemic leads to a harvest of souls in Milan Italy

As thousands of people waited Oct. 29 for the doors to open at the Mediolanum Forum for the Noi Festival with Franklin Graham, longtime missionaries Sam and Joan Fiore sensed that God was about to do something amazing. They’ve served for more than 40 years in Milan, planting churches and evangelizing in a country that at times has been called “the missionary graveyard” because of the scarcity of spiritual fruit. 

“Back in the old days,” Sam said, “we might have one convert in a year.” Even today, although the missionaries have seen more people come to Christ than earlier in their ministry, many people simply are not interested in Jesus, and evangelicals still make up less than 1% of Italy’s population.

But Christians in Milan had spent two and a half years in work and prayer, and they were about to see a harvest many had dreamed of, but few had really expected.

Photo: Logan Rayan/©2022 BGEA

What had led to such a moment?

“Everything started with the Cremona hospital,” said Antonio Marino, mobilization director for
the Festival.

How COVID Opened Doors

COVID-19 hit the region of Lombardy, Italy, like a bomb. In a single day, Feb. 21, 2020, the hospital in the city of Cremona, not far from Milan, went from zero COVID patients to dozens. Soon, patients lined hallways waiting for beds. A waiting room was converted to a hospital ward. For the next month, hospital staff responded heroically, but the patients just kept coming.

So that March, Samaritan’s Purse airlifted a 14-tent, 68-bed field hospital to Cremona and converted it to a specialized respiratory care unit for those suffering with COVID-19. A team of doctors, nurses, technicians and specialists worked to save lives and relieve the pressure on Cremona’s hospital staff. Over the next two months, the field hospital treated more than 280 patients and saw the vast majority recover.

But the field hospital also accomplished something that might seem surprising: Churches were inspired to start working together. And doors that had been closed for decades began to crack open.

The tents of the Samaritan’s Purse Emergency Field Hospital in Cremona during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo: Matt Rath/©2020 Samaritan’s Purse

Divisions have been a prominent part of Italy’s church landscape for many years. In 1972, lack of cooperation among churches derailed a potential Billy Graham Crusade in Rome.

“I worked at the Cremona field hospital,” Marino said, “and we all asked this question: Why is it so successful? Many people came to faith; a real revival started. We found two reasons. The first was that when you preach the Gospel alongside acts of mercy, it is powerful. The second was that we were all coming from different denominations, but we were united—united under the flag of the cross.”

In the aftermath of that experience, Marino said, pastors who had never talked to each other started to get to know each other and pray with one another.

That newfound unity led to more than 520 churches participating in the Noi Festival. The very name, Noi, was fitting; it’s the Italian word for We.

In addition, thousands of believers were praying. Many filled out I Am Andrew cards with the names of people who did not know Christ. They prayed for those friends, looked for opportunities to share the Gospel with them and invited them to the Festival.

At least one Christian saw a loved one come to Christ even before the Festival. Cecilia Rodriguez, who served as a Festival counselor, wrote the name of her daughter-in-law, Lorena, on her card. “I wrote her name down two years ago, and I’ve been praying,” Rodriguez said. “And in the meantime, she has accepted Jesus as her Savior.”

How God Opened Hearts

On the evening of the Festival, dozens of buses brought believers and many unsaved guests to the Forum. Officials at the Forum said the crowd was a facility record. The atmosphere was electric as Dennis Agajanian played guitar in his masterful, flatpicking style, and as musical guest TAYA, formerly of Hillsong United, led the people in praise. Gesù, Gesù! Grazie Gesù! (Jesus, Jesus! Thank You, Jesus!), the crowd shouted repeatedly.

TAYA leads in worship.
Photo: Logan Ryan/©2022 BGEA

“There are many here tonight with hungry hearts,” Franklin said as he began his message. “Many people have been searching for peace and purpose to their life. And I’m here to tell you, tonight you can find that peace and that purpose to your life. Tonight, you can put your faith and trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.”

Photo: Logan Ryan/©2022 BGEA

Some people were ready to respond immediately. One counselor sitting in the crowd said: “When Franklin was speaking—not at the invitation but even before that—people were getting up, saying, ‘I want to go. I want to go and accept Christ.’ I would say, ‘You have to wait; the gate [in the aisle] is closed.’” She saw three people near her pray and fill out follow-up cards even before Franklin invited those who wanted to receive Christ to come forward. When Franklin gave that invitation, hearts were open and ready. Hundreds responded.

One young man who prayed to receive Christ was a 15-year-old named Eric. He said later, “It was kind of the completion of something that has a lot of pieces. This night put all of the moving parts together.”

Martina, a 23-year-old in her final year of study to become a dentist, also committed her life to Jesus Christ. “I couldn’t wait,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know anything. It was a very spontaneous decision, but felt like I was waiting for this for a long time. I was super excited that it was happening, but it was not like a normal excitement. It was something—I was feeling emotions that I really can’t describe in words. It was amazing.”

And a woman told her counselor that prior to the Festival, she had had a dream about accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. She had an idea of what it would be like, but when she went forward, it was different. “I was thinking it would be a moment of victory,” she said. “Instead, tonight was a moment of surrender.”

Photo: Logan Ryan/©2022 BGEA

In all, more than 700 people responded to the invitation, with more than 370 of those registering first-time decisions for Christ.

Sam and Joan Fiore, the longtime missionaries, were thrilled by the great harvest they saw in their beloved, adopted country.

“It was the answer to every prayer that we’ve ever uttered,” Joan said. “It was just wonderful evidence of the faithfulness of God. You could sense the presence of God here; it was tangible. And then, when the invitation was given, hearts were ready. People were hungry to receive Jesus.”

Two days later, mobilization director Antonio Marino was still in awe of how God had worked. “I am still in a state of astonishment and great wonder,” he said. “For the first time, the Italian [evangelical] church was united. There were no denominations or subgroups, but one people of God shouting together, Gesù, Gesù!

“It was an extraordinary day for my people, and looking around I can sense an enthusiasm in the Italian [evangelical] church that I’ve never experienced before. Everyone in Italy is talking about what happened through the Noi Festival. My prayer is that everything we have experienced over the past two and a half years may ignite a new awakening, a new revival, to the glory of God.” ©2022 BGEA 

Cremona Reunion

Just before the Festival meeting Oct. 29, hundreds gathered at the Forum for an emotional reunion between the Samaritan’s Purse team and the patients and medical staff they served in Cremona during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors were overjoyed to see patients who had been critically ill in the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital now fully recovered. Because of what happened at the field hospital, evangelical churches invited Franklin to come back and preach the Gospel.

Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/©2022 BGEA

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