It was an unusual opportunity. A new role, just ten hours a week, had been created at my local church and now it was my job to help our congregation welcome the nations through a ministry to international students.
We began with a small group of volunteers and students. Sixteen years later, in cooperation with other local churches, we offered friendship, practical helps, and Bible discussion groups to more than 1,000 students each year.
These international students were eager to have friends. And they brightened our lives with their ideas and cultures. We learned so much from one another.
Consider some of their stories.
A student from Sri Lanka arrived wearing a cross necklace. When I inquired about it, she quickly responded, “I am a follower of the Christian God.” I asked if she had ever read the Bible or knew anything about Jesus. She said “no” but she had been praying to the Christian God and he frequently answered her prayers. She was eager to find out more about him.
Three students from Iraq were grateful for our friendship. In getting to know these guys, we learned they came from the cities of Ur, Babylon, and Nineveh! This prompted many meaningful discussions together.
Another student from China came already eager to serve in the ministry. Her grandfather, several generations back, had been led to Christ and discipled by Hudson Taylor. Her family was still walking with the Lord.
At one sports night in the church gym, a group of students from Saudi Arabia invented a game bouncing a soccer ball from their heads and feet into a basketball net. It was fun to watch and cheer them on.
Welcome parties were held at the beginning of each semester. It was common to greet students from more than 30 countries. But there was another element in this picture. Members of our local congregations joined in from every age group. From babies to senior adults, every person had value and created a sense of extended family for these lonely students. By God’s grace, the nations and the generations came together!
This is a low-cost ministry with big impact. Singles, couples, and families welcomed students into their homes for monthly meals. Unneeded furniture was donated and delivered into empty apartments. A Friday night fellowship was held in a local home and Bible discussion groups met on the college campus. A little made a big difference.
Global hunger is a very real problem. But spiritual hunger is every bit as real. Many of these students are truly hungry for the spiritual food and drink we can freely offer even after they return home.
Last year, I studied the Bible via video conferences with a student who was only here one semester before returning to her country. She had many questions and is now reading the Bible for the first time. Here are some of her responses:
“It is really interesting. Very astonishing what Jesus said.”
“I read book of Mark in one day! It was such a thriller, Paula! I had to keep turning the page to see what would happen next.”
“Matthew is my favorite book so far! Is it your favorite too?”
“I am completely fulfilled by reading the Bible. So thrilled with it. I use all my free time on this. I use breaks at work for Bible nutritious information, even reading on the subway. I need to know what happens next!”
“I’m in love with the Bible so I start to devour the Bible. So awesome to get stories and messages from God!”
This young sister read through the New Testament twice in 2019 and is now deep into the Old Testament. She is continually startled by the things God is saying. Her awestruck responses cause me to read with new eyes and ears as well.
God’s gift to us is the opportunity to touch the nations and be touched by them in a very warm, close, and personal way. With a bit of coaching and some practical experience, people of all ages in our churches, including children, can grow in their ability to engage in respectful conversation with people of different viewpoints, to cross cultures with kindness, and to enter into the lives of internationals with genuine care just as Jesus did.
In the context of these relationships, I Thessalonians 2:8 comes very naturally, “We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”
One volunteer put it this way, “We love our students! They have become part of our family. I wish I could express how much they have enriched our lives.”
Currently, there are more than 1.5 million international students in North America. Many are eager to make friends. If you have considered reaching out to international students, the Association of Christians Ministering among Internationals (ACMI) can help you get started.
ACMI is a network of professional and volunteer international student ministry workers, churches, and organizations in North America. Visit our website acmi-ism.org to join this community, find helpful resources, and learn about our national conference (Dallas, May 30-June 1).
May God may be honored among the nations as we are faithful to welcome future global leaders and influencers in His name!
Paula Parker is executive director of the Association of Christians Ministering among Internationals (ACMI). Formerly, she was the director of international student ministry at EvFree Church in Fullerton, California.