Under the high altar in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore one finds the Catholic faithful revering pieces of wood that are supposedly from the manger of the Christ child. Throughout Rome one is confronted with the skulls of Peter and Paul, tombs of the apostles, a piece of the cross, Peter’s prison chains and a number of other counterfeits in an attempt to authenticate the Catholic Church’s claim to be the pillar and ground of the truth. Patron saints are listed prominently in Italian calendars and each town, big or small, honors them on their respective day. Italy is a country filled with relics that continues to enslave people with dead works and tradition. Although it is estimated only about 40 percent of Italians are practicing Catholics there is no denying that Italian culture has Catholicism at its root. Those shackled by an institution based on reaching God through self-effort as well as the many Italians uninterested in religion must hear the simple message of grace, how God saves sinners who are too broken to save themselves through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But as the apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, “how shall they hear without a preacher?”
The Planck family arrived in Rome on December 29, 2011 to begin studying the Italian language, glean from veteran missionaries, and gain a better understanding of the culture that they might live as Italians in order to win Italian minds and hearts for Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-22). Although the entire country is in need of missionaries, Stetson sought the Lord’s will as to which specific region and city the Lord would have the Plancks begin their ministry. After several survey trips to various regions and cities, consideration of areas with the fewest concentration of gospel preaching works, counsel from various pastors and missionaries, and ultimately direction from the word of God and the Holy Spirit, Stetson felt the Lord leading him to the city of Verona in the Veneto region of Italy in July 2014.
The population of Verona is over 260,000 and ranked second among cities of over 100,000 souls with the fewest established gospel preaching churches. The Veneto region itself approaches 5 million souls and is one of the least reached areas of Italy. Stetson felt impressed to begin in a city of at least 100,000 people as the smaller communities seem to be more closed to foreigners. In addition, the Plancks have found life in a larger city to be suitable to their personalities and needs as a family.
Verona has been called the Rome of the north due to its Roman ruins and amphitheatre. It is the second largest city in the Veneto region (after Venice) and one of the most prosperous in northern Italy. Certainly not desiring to be led by ambience or attractions, the Plancks felt a connection to the city upon their first visit and Stetson began to pray if it was God’s call.
Within 6 months from their initial visit to Verona, an American businessman called Stetson after finding his contact information as a Baptist missionary to Italy on-line. The businessman said he travels to Verona often and wondered if Stetson knew of any Baptist churches in the city. At the close of the conversation dealing with the great need for the gospel in Verona the businessman said, “If you’re looking for a Macedonian call, this is it.” Stetson wasn’t seeking a vision from a “man of Macedonia” as Paul received in Acts chapter 16 but it did confirm the need for the gospel and a desire for a Baptist church. There have been other contacts as well from Italians in Verona expressing the need for missionaries to their city. Also, a missionary in southern Italy called Stetson to let him know of a man moving to Verona from his village and his openness to the gospel.
Ultimately Stetson desired leading from the Holy Spirit through the scriptures as to which city to begin their ministry. Debating whether to stay in Rome, move to Verona or another city the Lord would reveal, Stetson prayed earnestly one night in late October 2013 as he and his family were visiting Verona to seek the Lord’s direction. Earlier in the evening the family passed one of the city walls near Piazza Bra and noted an inscription on a plaque from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The quote read, “There is no world without Verona Walls” (Non esiste mondo fuor dalle mura di Verona). The quote was replaying in Stetson’s mind as he opened his Bible to spend some time alone with the Lord before bed. He began to pray for peace and direction through the scriptures. He didn’t know how the Lord might speak to him to affirm or deny Verona specifically in the Bible but he repetitively prayed for peace. He opened the word of God to the book of Psalms and began to read. He again prayed for peace in knowing if Verona was to be the city or if the Lord would have them stay in Rome or go elsewhere. As his heart sought the peace of God he read Psalm 122:7, “Peace be within thy walls.” The context of the psalm is Jerusalem but the Lord impressed upon Stetson that He was giving him an answer through His word. Stetson had been reflecting on Shakespeare’s quote about Verona walls and now as he sought for peace in following God’s leading he felt impressed that the Lord was saying that the peace he was searching for was to be found within the walls of Verona.
Although the leading to Verona seemed clear, Stetson desired something from the Lord in regards to moving from Rome. The Lord blessed the Plancks with good friends in Rome and several people mentioned to Stetson about starting a church in the “Eternal City”. Rome ranked twentieth among cities in terms of population to gospel preaching churches and the Plancks were developing some relationships within their neighborhood. The greatest difficulty in leaving would be to part from their friends. As Stetson and Sandy considered the emotional cost of moving from Rome, the Lord once again provided direction. Stetson read in a book something that stirred him in reference to Luke 14:25-26. The author said, “if there is no cost in going forth for him, something is wrong and the move is not a spiritual move.” The Lord provided closure. Stetson had complete confidence the Lord was calling his family to the city of Verona.
The Planck family desires to see the Veronesi and other Italians turn from idols to the living God, to be transformed by the gospel and live in the power of Christ’s resurrection. They are expecting God to do great things in Verona and they are excited to see what will be accomplished for the sake of the gospel in Italy.