The hot Venetian sun fills the upstairs room where the teenagers are discussing their upcoming activities. They’re using hesitant, mispronounced Italian, broken English, and some French, so the communication can’t help but break down.
Finally, one of the American boys turns to an Italian boy and translates into German. “Capito!” (understood), the boy replies, and the Young Men/Young Women group continues its discussion.
In September 1985 the Venice Italy Stake was created and the Vicenza Italian Branch and American Serviceman’s Branch were united to become the Vicenza Ward. Together, the youth of the ward are striving to strengthen their testimonies, grow in the gospel, and become united while overcoming language, cultural, and national barriers that in many parts of the world could seem insurmountable.
Vicenza is in northern Italy, where cultures have been blending and languages have been mixing, not for centuries but for millennia. In the shadow of the Alps, on the site of an ancient Roman camp not far from the Brenner Pass into northern Europe, Vicenza has been a trading area and cultural melting pot since the third century B.C.
Vicenza was first conquered by Romans, then by barbarians sweeping out of northern Europe to topple the Roman Empire, then by several medieval city-states, and then absorbed by the Venetian Republic in the 14th century. In the 1800s, it was conquered by Napoleon, then controlled by Austria until it became part of the new Italian nation in 1848.
The young men and women of the new Vicenza Ward are like the city itself, a montage of backgrounds, personalities, and nationalities. There are Americans whose fathers are stationed at a nearby military base, Italians from several areas of the country, and a German-American family. The youth are enthusiastic and bi- or tri-lingual, and strive to bridge the communication gap that separates them as much as the cultural differences.
With such diverse backgrounds and languages, Church lessons are different and more condensed than they are in a typical ward. When a missionary is not available to translate a lesson, one of the youth may try to help. But since the young people are more familiar with colloquial terms or schoolbook Italian or English, translating gospel concepts can be quite a challenge.
Some of the newer and younger youth find it difficult as well as distracting to wait for the translation, and they lose their train of thought. The older students, however, most of whom are studying languages, find this a challenge and a benefit.
“I really like how it helps me learn English better,” says Denis Evolani, a 15-year-old who is fluent in German and French and is currently studying English.
Most of the Americans are studying Italian, but many of them are new to Italy and don’t understand much. “I wonder sometimes why I can’t stay where I want to be, where I can understand the language,” says Donna Kennedy, whose family recently arrived in Italy. “But though it’s difficult now, I know that when I leave I’ll wish I didn’t have to.”
Athena Dayley, a senior at the American High School, is often the translator for the Young Women. She finds it challenging but fun. “It is so neat to be able to talk to someone in another language,” Athena says, “but translating at church is really hard, and I get flustered at times and can’t remember what is being said or comprehend the meaning of what I’m translating. All I’m doing is parroting words.”
But the youth have discovered that sometimes spiritual moments transcend the language barrier.
“I seldom cry at movies,” Athena says, “but at girls’ camp the Spirit was so strong that even if I couldn’t understand the words, I couldn’t help but have tears in my eyes.”
American Marc Dayley, 15, who attended the Young Men camp in the Alps, agrees. “You can feel the Spirit so strongly when someone is speaking about the Church, even if you can’t understand the words,” Marc explained. “Listening to other testimonies at camp really strengthened my own.”
The youth activities are very difficult to plan because school schedules for the Italian and American nationalities are very different. The Italian youth go to school six days a week, from 8:30 to 12:30, while the Americans attend school on post five days a week, 8:30–3:30, with many extracurricular activities and sports lasting until 6:30.
The Italians observe “riposo,” when shops and businesses close from 12:30 to 4:00, then reopen until 7:30, and the people often enjoy activities from 8:00 to 11:00 P.M., when most Americans are studying. Stake youth activities are often scheduled on Italian holidays, when American students must go to school. The large boundaries of the stake force many youth to commute an hour by train, so it is very difficult to schedule seminary or activities during the week.
“There are not as many youth activities here as in the States,” says Marc. “But I like the ward dances we have had where we’ve invited other youth from the stake, even if it’s more challenging to flirt with girls in a foreign language.”
Some activities, like volleyball, soccer, dancing, and camping, are universal, and can be enjoyed equally by all; while others, like scripture chases, Church knowledge games, and drama, are far more difficult because of the language problems. Food is another thing. Some youth are hesitant to try pumpkin pie, hot dogs, pizza romano (with anchovies), and other foods that may look or taste different. Yet they usually try some of everything and generally admit they like it “a little.”
These youth enjoy an opportunity to live in Europe and to gain an appreciation of another culture, whether it is the Americans viewing priceless Renaissance art or the Italians learning to play football. But they admit that it’s hard at times to be a member of the Church in Italy.
“In the States, most people know what the standards of the Church are, so it’s easier there,” Donna explains. “Here there are more temptations because they don’t know automatically what you stand for or what to expect from you.”
“It’s hard here,” Athena adds. “School activities are set up on Sunday and everyone plays soccer and goes to the movies. Here you’ve got to set your own standards for yourself and stand by them. It has strengthened my testimony.”
But despite the challenges, the youth are growing in unity, not just as a ward youth group but as citizens of the world. This was brought home forcibly to the young women when they participated in an activity that was conducted worldwide. They tied their written testimonies to balloons and released them into the Italian skies.
“I thought of all my friends in Arizona,” Donna said, “and I felt close to them, even though we are far away.”
Living in the mission field, or anywhere in the world as a Mormon youth, is not always easy, nor is gaining a testimony and understanding other cultures and people. But in the Vicenza Ward, the youth are learning to help each other by appreciating each other’s differences and reveling in their similarities.