From its beginnings in North America, InterVarsity has had a deep concern for all students and especially internationals. With only a handful of traveling field staff in the early years and the priority of pioneering an entire new student ministry, very little staff energy could go to international student ministry. But over time this vision expanded in InterVarsity.
There was a strong belief in students reaching fellow students with the Gospel, including and especially international students. Therefore student-led groups were the primary base of outreach to internationals, though staff were there to supplement their efforts, give encouragement and training. Most notable of these staff was Paul Little who briefly led a national department of ISM in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it was not until 1981 that a permanent ISM Department was established in InterVarsity and the ISM staff team began to expand.
The tradition of outreach by campus Christian groups or “chapters” continued through the 1980s and the annual evangelistic holiday conferences or “Houseparties” for internationals continued to be led by staff, volunteers or faculty at InterVarsity’s major training centers, Bear Trap Ranch in Colorado (now owned by Foundation of the Heart Ministry), Cedar Campus in Michigan, and many more sites in Canada. Discipleship of Christian internationals continued, as always, to be enhanced by the Urbana Student Missions Conferences, which drew hundreds of Christian internationals together every three years.
I continued to direct or speak at Bear Trap and Cedar Campus Houseparties and was deeply impressed when a Muslim student from Iran studying in South Dakota came up to me after one of my evening messages looking very agitated. He’d grown up in Qum, a place he described as “Khomeine’s birthplace and a very conservative Muslim area.” He’d wanted as a teenager to become a Mulla (teacher) and considered himself very religious. But he’d become very disillusioned with what Khomeine was doing back in Iran and felt that he now needed to reject Islam entirely. Without a religion to believe in, he felt empty and lost. However, in his heart he could not bring himself to believe in Jesus as God, for all his life he’d been schooled against this. Could I help him believe in Jesus as God?
I did my best to show him from scripture and with illustrations why and how God could be fully Divine and fully Human at the same time. He said, “I will decide before we leave this Houseparty and let you know!” I didn’t hear from him for two weeks after that, so back in Madison I wrote him a letter asking how he was doing in his religious pilgrimage toward Jesus. He wrote back, “Dear Brother Ned…” and praised God for bringing him not only to believe in Jesus but to be baptized that week in a local church there in Vermillion, South Dakota!
International Student Ministry Department
New initiatives were begun in the 1980s. Bob Fryling had become the National Campus Ministry Director and wanted to bring more diversity and multi-ethnic ministry specialists into the organization because of the increasing ethnic diversity of the campuses nationally, especially in urban centers.
This led to my appointment in 1981 as the Director of a restored National Department of ISM. My original vision was to create a new body of staff workers with a focused ministry among internationals within the larger ministry of InterVarsity. We needed "ISM focused" staff in each region and on each local staff team. In the 80s we succeeded in getting an ISM staff into about half of the Area staff teams. This is still an ongoing project within ISM.
InterVarsity now has numerous paid staff with international students as the primary focus of their ministry. This is more a reflection of the InterVarsity organization’s commitment to cross-cultural ministry at all levels than it is to my efforts, though my presence and establishing an ISM Department nationally clearly gave sanction or “permission” to the field to move ahead with more confidence in an otherwise difficult area of ministry.
Additionally, nearly half of InterVarsity's regular field staff are known to be either personally involved or have campus groups with some internationals involved within them. This may seem surprisingly gratifying, but when you consider the large number of campuses that InterVarsity serves in the USA, the numbers pale in some respect to the overwhelming task still ahead. ISM is “on the map” in InterVarsity, but not with an ISM focused staff in every area and not with international students involved in an IV student “witnessing community” on every major campus.
We have a very long way to go in mobilizing InterVarsity students to cross-cultural friendship and witness! Considering the fact that we have an annual turnover of at least 25% of InterVarsity students, it is probably bordering on the miraculous that so many of our students do learn to reach out cross-culturally.
Developing Resources for ISM
To resource this growing ministry in the 1980s our ISM Department worked closely with our multi-media branch, twentyonehundred productions (“2100”), to develop a landmark 30 min. show called "Friends," which ended up getting amazing exposure to a total of over 75,000 delegates in 4 Urbana Conferences from 1984-1993. Though slide-tape formats are out of date as a type of media, it was converted to a video format and has been seen by probably a few hundred thousand believers in churches and other groups all over North America. A new twentyonehundred resource was introduced at Urbana 96 entitled “Bridging the Gap,” as an educational and training tool for students and community volunteers.
InterVarsity Press books were developed as "books-of-the-day" at Urbana 84 and 87, including “Internationals at Your Doorstep” (by Lawson Lau) and “China at Your Doorstep” (by Stacey Bieler and Dick Andrews). These were groundbreaking steps for InterVarsity and a significant ministry to the churches and other parachurch movements. Another InterVarsity Press book project we worked on with a team of 7 staff, “Passport to the Bible”, was released in August 1999 with 24 cross-cultural Bible studies designed for international “seekers.” This Bible study guidebook has sold thousands of copies, to the astonishment of all of us. (InterVarsity Press initially questioned its “marketability” as targeted to a “niche” international audience).
One of my greatest delights was being part of the formation of the Association of Christians Ministering to Internationals (ACMI) in 1981, which provided in its annual conferences, a resource for training new staff and volunteer workers. It was invaluable to InterVarsity staff and volunteers in reaffirming our ISM vision and calling, and helped keep us all from discouragement or growing "weary in well doing” by relating to the larger body of international workers.
As a Board member of ACMI in its early years I watched it grow as its annual conferences were held in a different city in the USA and Canada each year. Many paid staff of churches and mission groups or volunteer ISM workers who were not attached to an organization found a home in ACMI. Many of us in the larger organizations with an ISM Department were able to join hands speaking and giving training seminars to the benefit of others both within and outside our organizations who came to the annual training conferences. ACMI has gone a long way toward bringing all the Evangelicals together and instilling a new vision for prayer and cooperative ministries at local campus levels.
In 1987, a first “ACMI Consultation” of leaders in ISM nationally met in Denver and presented papers summarizing their organization’s or denomination’s ministry to internationals. This led to a hunger for more of this level of sharing, and another of these was held a few years later in Houston. In the early 1990s, more than 20 of the leaders of the larger organizations working with internationals began to meet together at the International Students Inc. (ISI) national offices in Colorado Springs. We called ourselves the “Cheyenne Mountain Gang.”
In the late 1990s Paul Cedar of Mission America invited us to form an “International Student Ministry Track” and meet with hundreds of pastors at their annual meetings. Besides “networking” a lot of practical things have resulted from these leaders gatherings. For example, the expansion of the International Bible Society’s grant of free English and other language Bibles for international students...and the distribution of tens of thousands of copies of the “JESUS Film” in many languages to our staff and volunteers for give-away to individual internationals on the condition that follow-up requirements be met.
Importance of Christian Internationals
Perhaps one of the most significant ministries InterVarsity sponsored was the national triennial “Conference for Christian International Students and Scholars” held immediately following each Urbana at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Begun in January 1988, following Urbana 87, this conference consistently attracted over 400 Christian internationals representing over 70 countries of the world. The 2001 conference surprised us all with 870 representing 80 countries! There were 20 plenary speakers and 80 elective seminars in this conference. Many students commented that this gathering of fellow believers was a “taste of heaven” for them and much needed preparation both for going back to campus and after that going into places of work around the world as ambassadors for Christ and workers in His Kingdom.
It is a remarkable thing that so many Christians from other cultures feel comfortable enough (or are spiritually desperate enough) to identify with a largely American organization in order to have their spiritual needs met.
Partly for this reason, and because it fits with our ethos and new InterVarsity Purpose Statement, we have begun to “reinvent” ISM in InterVarsity since 1995. We have a new vision these days for establishing “International Student-led Witnessing Communities.” We have begun to recognize the need for Christian internationals to receive discipleship training, grow in their evangelism skills, gain leadership experience by actually being leaders and become prepared for reentry into their home cultures. All this happens best in student groups where they can learn these things together.
Many internationals (Christian and non-Christian) feel more at home in a non-North American cultural group. It is a well-known fact from sociological studies that most internationals on campus drift into sub-cultural groupings of their home culture by the end of the first year on campus here. Some move off campus into apartments where they can cook their own kind of food, most often with other students not only from their country of origin but if possible from the same linguistic and societal group. This is not just "cocooning." It’s survival in an otherwise inundating North American cultural context.
For Christian internationals, study abroad in North America is a kind of spiritual as well as cultural starvation unless they are fortunate enough to find or create a home-cultural Christian group of some kind. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have seen "sister" groups develop along ethnic lines on most of the major university centers. Many have formed larger networks and organizations, hold annual summer conferences and keep in touch by email, even with returnees!
The spiritual "trade-offs" for such groups, however, are significant. Perhaps without realizing it, they miss some opportunities they might otherwise have for significant input from gifted Christians outside their monocultural campus group or network. Some need leadership training or counseling ministries a qualified staff level person might provide. Others need the cross-cultural mission stretching that only comes by immersion in another culture. Some need the opportunity for reconciliation experiences with those outside their cultural group.
For non-Christian internationals, it becomes imperative that they see the Gospel "incarnated" in the lives of people as well as hear the verbal proclamation of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. On campus this becomes highly effective if the "incarnational witness point" is an integrated Christian group, where the usual power of witness by fellow country-persons is augmented by the astonishing power of Christian love across cultural lines. Integrated evangelistic group meetings and small group Bible studies are good places for this to happen. Internationals expect at least some Americans to be Christians, but they don’t expect to see love between cultures. Some internationals have become Christians because of the unusual love of American Christian roommates or families who have welcomed them into their homes and family life and genuinely loved them. Many more become Christians because of the witness of those from within their own culture, where the shock of discovering Christ in the life of one of their own is enhanced by the Gospel being more clearly articulated in their own mother tongue and thought forms. It is a rare and powerful witness indeed when both of these things happen at once and where the body of Christ is seen to be a multi-cultural expression of God’s love!
Some Personal Satisfactions
It is an exciting thing for me personally to be part of this new vision for gathering together on campus many of the otherwise disaffected internationals that would remain lonely or isolated without a cultural group they can feel more “at home” in. I look forward in coming years to helping InterVarsity develop this new emphasis, and suspect it will soon be reflected in our census figures as a new breakthrough for us.
As I approach the years when I may not be able to accomplish as much physically, I find that the vision for “loving the stranger in our midst” (Leviticus 19:33) continues to grow in me. Memories of past personal ministries with individuals are sustaining to me, especially those who have found flourishing ministries of their own and where the ministry vision has multiplied in their lives. Some international Christians became my lasting friends and went on eventually to become missionaries and Christian leaders.
For example, a Christian from India, came to UW Madison to work on his PhD in Agriculture. A mutual (missionary) friend brought us together and we became good friends and prayer partners. I introduced him to a monthly dinner-plus-Bible-study for internationals. He became so excited by this approach to ministry that when he transferred to a graduate program in Virginia a few years later he began an evangelistic Bible study ministry of his own at that campus. He left there to become a college teacher, but carried with him this vision for international student outreach as well as starting a mission educational project in his home country.
Again, a student from Uganda came to UW Madison for a PhD in Sociology. I met him as the leader of the African Students Christian Fellowship and we became close friends and prayer partners. At one point a few in our church helped him become reunited with his wife and family in Africa (having been forced to leave them behind for the four years of his study here). This saved him from quitting his PhD and, as it turns out, essentially salvaged a life-long career of his teaching in Africa. He secured a teaching position initially in the University of Botswana, where he also pioneered a new student ministry for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He went on to teach at the University of Natal in South Africa and continues to look for ways to extend the Kingdom of God as a teacher and church leader there.
Passing the Baton
As I moved toward retirement years it became obvious that the directorship of a ministry like this needed to pass on to those who can carry it into the distant future or as long as it is needs. God has been faithful not only in giving me this opportunity to share in His work, but also in preparing others to “take the baton” and carry it to the finish. The transition of the ISM Directorship in InterVarsity took place in August 2000 when Lisa Espineli Chinn accepted the invitation to take my place. It was thrilling to see God choose a person with the precise background, gifts and preparation needed to not only carry on the ministry but move it significantly forward in the InterVarsity context. As a woman in leadership, InterVarsity immediately looked up to her as a model of women in a leadership role. As a Filipino-born American with work experience and student ministry experience in both countries she brought new credibility and sensitivity to the whole vision of cross-cultural ministry.
My hope is that in coming years, not only InterVarsity, but all of God’s people involved in higher education, will find that in “loving the stranger” on campus, they are actually not only obeying Jesus Christ but loving Him in loving the stranger. Perhaps even then it will still be a surprise to us all when we stand before the Master and he says: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me...just as you did it to one of the least of these...you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35, 40). May God give us all His grace and wisdom to form loving relationships with internationals and to introduce them into cross-cultural relationships and groups where they can see the love of Christ displayed in all its ethnic diversity and power!
Ned Hale was Director of International Student Ministry (ISM) in InterVarsity from 1981-2000. This article is a more detailed version of his plenary panel presentation made to the annual conference of the Association of Christians Ministering to Internationals (ACMI) on June 1, 2001 entitled “Appreciating our Past 20 years: God’s Sovereign Work”. (Some minor edits have been made to keep the article updated with the ministry of ISM).