In our last post, we spoke to members of Hopera Church about faith communities and artists in Rome. As a second part of the conversation, contemporary theatre/art director Luca Papa shared his story of coming to faith through the church.
I am an artist.
Before I came to know Jesus, I was already fighting against social injustice; but I was always the centre of my life, and self-centred in my aspirations and my desire to control things. I really liked the figure of Jesus, but only at the historical level. I was the artistic director of a company with my wife, Serena, who was an interpreter and took care of the organizational part.
At the age of 26, I started to follow my very experimental artistic research, and this gave me some notoriety. But it also exposed some problems with my ego, as I started being very demanding with my students and interpreters. I began to shut myself up in my art more and more. Art was my God, and I lived in the continuous frustration of seeking results.
After my first film “Revolution” (a work of experimental video art made against abuses of power in Italy), stains began to emerge on my body. We thought it was a dermatological problem, but after a week, there was a big black bruise on my stomach. We went to the hospital and I was told that it could be leukemia. You are meant to have 240,000 platelets in your blood: it turned out that I only had 2,000!!
The doctors could not explain how I was even still alive! I was given a week to wait for further results and that week of waiting was crazy. I started thinking about my life, the things I took for granted such as walking, drinking, my wife’s eyes, her kisses, eating. I was letting my life pass without fully experiencing it.
I told the artists I was closest to that I wanted to create a work to thank God. They were incredulous
But, when the results arrived, I was told that it was nothing serious and after a short period of treatment, my blood levels were stable again and I was out of hospital. Incredible! The first thing I did, once I was out, was to cry for joy with my wife.
Immediately, I called all of the artists that I was closest to in my company and I told them I wanted to create a work to thank God for giving me a second chance in life. They were incredulous, they could not believe I was doing a work of thanksgiving to God. I completed the piece in one night and there, for the first time, I had an experience of God. After that experience I was like a different person. People did not recognize me anymore; I wanted to help people and my art took a very social turn, focusing on the suffering of the most needy.
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We continued taking our art in this direction, and this led us to move to Tenerife for 5 years, where we partnered with a high school to develop an educational project. It was at this point that I decided to create some work that was more explicitly spiritual, focusing on Jesus. I wanted to find people with real faith for this project, and I spoke to our neighbours about it. Our neighbours were a 60-year-old couple, Raul and Olaya. Raul told me that he wasn’t religious, but he knew God personally and invited us to go with them the following Saturday to their church.
On 13 September 2014 we entered the church for the first time and were very perplexed. We were used to Catholic rituals, but at this church, the music was played in a modern style and the people prayed for their friends with ‘a free voice’. After the service, we met the pastor and talked to him about our proposed film project. He was immediately interested and put his church at our disposal both to use their space and to involve people from the church in the various roles.
After that time in church, I started to ask my neighbour Raul a thousand questions about God and about Christianity. He was a retired former Civil Guard agent, responsible for training the recruits, and even in the kingdom of God he was starting my training!
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One day, Raul and Olaya invited us for dinner. Serena did not want to go because she knew that faith would be talked about the whole time, so she pretended to have a sore throat. When she found this out, Olaya asked me if she could go and talk to Serena and she ended up praying for her. Although we found this a bit strange, when she prayed, we felt an indescribable feeling of peace. Later that night Serena found herself crying for no reason, which was very unusual for her.
I had thought that the whole thing was a theatre, that it was all fake. Then, to my surprise, I saw my wife charging towards the preacher
During the time of worship, I realized that Serena was crying again. I did not understand. I said to myself: but she is an atheist! The preacher spoke in Spanish and I only understood about 25% of it, but at one point in the talk, he asked if anyone needed prayer. Many people started going forward and as he prayed, there were many strong reactions, people crying and falling over. I had seen some things online about extreme charismatic experiences and I thought that the whole thing was a theatre, that it was all fake. Then, to my surprise, I turned to see my wife charging towards the preacher. When he prayed with her, she started crying in a way I’d never seen her cry before.
It was clear that something extraordinary was happening, so I said to God: “if you are there, show me!” and I too went forward to the preacher. When he prayed for me I felt a great fire inside, I fell on the ground and began to laugh, full of joy. Looking up to the sky, I had the feeling that I had finally found it, that now I understood everything!
After all of this, Serena and I prayed with the pastor and we both accepted Jesus into our lives. I don’t think I even knew what I was saying, but I know that from that day, our lives have completely changed. I left behind my biggest fears and my obsessions. Serena and I looked at each other differently – our love was growing and improving every moment. After only a month I was baptized in the sea, and I was actually born again, to a new life.
A year later, we returned to Italy and began to talk about our experience to our friends, family and our entire artistic group. Many, seeing our passion and the real change in our lives, have decided to believe, and many young artists have come to the faith. Now we have a group called One, which started because we felt we needed to live out our faith in a completely new and fresh way.
At One, we aim to make God known to young artists. We do not use religious terms, we do not have a denomination, we focus on three things: Jesus, singing to him, and prayer. This has generated a unique love for God. Now in the group there are about twenty young people, some of whom also come to Hopera, our church. They still remain artists, but with a very healthy and passionate Christian imprint and their enthusiasm has a positive effect on the whole community.