The World at Our Door

What would you do if you met a future president of a rich African nation? Bow before him? Stammer? Try to introduce him to the governor?

If you’re Terrell Smith, an InterVarsity international student specialist in Madison, Wisconsin, you invite him over to play the table game Jenga with your kids.


Yes, really.

For Smith and other international student staff around the country, playing table games, sharing a meal, going to a movie, explaining the idiosyncrasies of English, helping with a move or just going out for a Coke are all ways of relating to international students. It’s called “friendship.” And, future president-of-one’s-country or not, every international student studying in the United States could use a friend.

According to Fred Wagner, an IV staff, the number of internationals on campuses has mushroomed in the last four decades. “In 1956, there were 30,000 students, and in 10 years, it doubled,” he explains. “In the next decade, that number doubled. And in the next decade, it doubled again. It’s the fastest-growing segment of the college population." Today, there are over 750,000 internationals on campus.

Many of these students are their countries “cream of the crop.” In contrast to that almost blasé disregard many Americans hold for a college education, these students and their homelands honor it as a precious and valuable commodity. Students from foreign countries who come to the U.S. to study frequently return home to high-ranking careers in government, education, the military, foreign service and industry.

But for now, they are students. And like all students, they have some very specific needs. That’s where ministry “rubber” meets the international “road” for InterVarsity.

“It represents a group like InterVarsity with a golden opportunity to step into the breach and attempt to meet some of the most basic needs that all human being share,” Wagner elaborates. “And they have very practical physical needs. They need to get oriented and figure out how the city works. They need to know how the university works. What we’re attempting to do is address the physical, social and spiritual needs of these international students.”

Serving the lonely in Portland

Wagner notes that at Portland State University, a commuter school, the campus becomes a virtual international “ghetto” on weekends. That makes it very difficult for the 800 internationals left behind to make friends and socialize with those who could most help them acclimate to American culture.

“It’s a very lonely existence for people who have uprooted and come here, cut off from their natural friendship networks, their families and all symbols of cultural familiarity,” Wagner reflects.

Most people would expect the university to help these students acclimate. But many higher education institutions have had to cut back on student services due to budget constraints. At Portland State, this situation opened a door for Wagner and InterVarsity.

Budget cuts left the international student office without the ability to address any but the most basic needs of the many internationals on campus. “So we took the time to establish and build healthy relationships with the university and the international student office,” Wagner says. “It got to the point where they gave me an office in their office. We’re there two hours a day to serve the students. We offer one-stop-shopping.”

In a situation like this, everyone comes out a winner. The university provides Wagner with office space, referrals and a telephone receptionist to take messages. Wagner steps into the university’s garb by serving the students. He picks them up at the airport, helps them find off-campus housing and orients them to Portland.

Together, the university and InterVarsity co-sponsored a “Welcome to Portland” dinner each fall for about 300 students. While he admits he needs to exercise tact and good judgment, Wagner points out that he'd been able to have a Christian keynote speaker each year. “They’ve been able to refer to their faith and yet do it in a sensitive and caring way that articulates our motivation as a group of Christians to reach those who are strangers.”

Introducing … Jesus Christ!

Practical considerations like these serve to open the door to friendships with internationals. Many times, these friendships lead to an in-depth examination of God’s Word through Bible study.

Love for these strangers prompted Ellie Laehn to join InterVarsity staff at North Carolina State University in Raleigh in the early 1990s. In her first two years she worked hard to get to know the internationals on her campus and train students to lead effective international Bible studies (IBS).

Laehn’s IBS student leadership team at that point consisted of five students claiming Germany, Malaysia or the U.S. as home. They coordinated Bible studies, a Friday-evening meeting and follow-up for the group. Volunteers staffed some of the international Bible studies. These studies tended to be small and intimate, giving those attending a chance to get to know each other well and ask all the questions they want.

One volunteer-led bible study brought together two Korean women who wanted to bring along a friend “just to listen in.” The Friday-night meeting, also volunteer-led, focused on bringing internationals who want to ask questions … “and get real answers.”

Laehn herself met weekly with a young married woman from India, outside the auspices of the Bible study group. As her conversation partner, Laehn helped this woman perfect and expand her English. “Through our casual times of talking, my friend has asked questions that have opened doors for me to tell her about Jesus,” Laehn said. “In the spring we talked about why Christians celebrate Easter. It is a joy and privilege to tell someone who has never before heard about Jesus.

“I’m excited to see international students coming to our Bible studies and asking sincere questions,” Laehn continued. “Several are very interested in learning more about Christianity and are asking hard questions. As members of the IBS befriend these internationals, they are being “loved” to Jesus.”

Muslims in the Midwest

Befriending internationals means seizing a unique opportunity in their lives. Many international students come from countries which are closed to the gospel. This means that their time as students in the U.S. may be their only chance to hear about Jesus Christ. Terrell Smith pointed out that 14 percent of the international students at the UW came from Muslim countries, many of which do not allow Christian missionaries.

To facilitate Muslim-Christian dialogue, Smith partnered one year with Muslim student leaders at five Midwest campuses. Speakers from both backgrounds each took 25 minutes to respond to topics like “Jesus in the Quran and the Bible” and “Religion and Science, Truth and Civilization.” The floor was then opened up for questions, which often went on for two hours or more.

More than 1,500 students attended these dialogues. Over 350 New Testaments and Gospels, as well as other types of Christian literature, were distributed to Muslim students.

As a result of this, Smith saw Muslims open up to Christ at the University of Wisconsin. After the UW Christian-Muslim dialogue, one speaker asked him for a modern translation of the Bible, saying he wanted to understand it. Several Muslim students wanted more information about the Bible. One night, Smith found himself at a table, drinking Turkish tea with several of these students. They talked about the Bible for more than four hours, examining what Jesus said about holiness, forgiveness of sins and his own role as Savior.

One student asked Smith if he had confidence in Christ. When Smith said that he did, the student replied sadly, “We Muslims have no security of salvation.”

A home away from home

For international students, American holidays can be the loneliest times of the year. That’s why Christians reaching out to internationals can make many new friendships during those times. Each Christmas, InterVarsity hosts international “houseparties” at camps around the country. Guests get a chance to ski, hike, relax and just wind down from the stress of school. At the same time, through simple “sing-along” worship times and conversations with Christian staff workers, they can begin to understand just who Jesus is and what he can be to them.

During the school year, some InterVarsity staff coordinate monthly international dinners. After a potluck dinner (often consisting of dishes from several different nations), students talk about Jesus in small-group Bible discussions. The dinners promote mutual understanding and respect. But they also get international students out of the “student ghetto” and into real American homes. There they interact with Americans of all ages and really see how U.S. citizens live. And even in a foreign environment, they are offered a home away from home.

This explains why Terrell Smith invited his African friend to play Jenga with his kids. Smith met “Emmanuel” through the student’s involvement with InterVarsity’s UW Madison graduate chapter. After striking up a friendship, Emmanuel began to spend time with Smith’s family.

Eventually, Emmanuel confided his plans to one day become president of his home country. “My first reaction was “Yeah, sure,” Smith remembers sheepishly. “But then I realized that it could really happen.” Not only had Emmanuel’s father already run for president once, but he was one of the country’s top generals and a member of a ruling tribe there. Emmanuel’s high hopes had true substance, and he was giving them wings with his education, a realistic plan and a method of achieving his goals.

Needless to say, Smith was honored by the realization that a possible future president of a powerful African country was playing with his children. By obeying Jesus’ command to love the stranger, Smith had a chance to influence that country’s future.

You never know how God may use these friends in politics and government,” Smith marvels. “But these are normal people who like to do normal things. They are looking for friendship and love. And we’re called to love the strangers in our midst.”

All 750,000 of them.

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