By Bill Bray, Special to ASSIST News Service
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (ANS, September 2, 2015) – Classes began late this week at most of the 3500 North American colleges which have enrolled 1.13 million international students this year. Christians in local faith communities are welcoming them in a grand way.
This 14% increase in 2015 reflects a 50% increase since 2010. This easily makes the US the world’s most popular destination for international education. Christian ministries and churches are especially active in welcoming all students – and especially internationals.
And the welcome is a lot more than ice cream socials on the lawn or picnics.
Many international students come from atheistic or oppressive states where constitutional freedoms of speech, press and religion are not celebrated or honored. As a result, some look forward to meeting Christians openly for the first time and are seeking out people of faith as friends and host families.
This is especially true of Chinese and students from the South Asian lands like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
Here at the University of Virginia, a coalition of local churches and international student outreaches have banded together to personally welcome as many of the students as possible. Spearheaded by community volunteers, the welcome includes four organized opportunities for friendship with Americans.
The four program areas include: (1) long-term relationships with hosts and host families, (2) hospitality of all kinds including greeting, transportation and shopping, (3) social events such as picnics and holiday parties, and (4) a wide array of educational and spiritual offerings – including Bible Study and prayer meetings in English, Chinese and other languages.
Besides many “English as a Second Language” (ESL) groups offered by local churches such as University Baptist and Trinity Presbyterian, they also provide many classes and worship opportunities in languages spoken by students. This includes Hindi, Malayalam, Mandarin, Nepalese, Spanish and Swahili.
This year, at least 21 local churches and several of the 30 traditional campus ministries are offering small “discovery groups” to students. During the Student Activities Fair sponsored by Student Council on the day before class began, most of the 29 faith-based exhibitors were offering such Bible study groups.
An estimated 200 such Bible “discovery groups” are being organized at the University by Christian student groups. Many are held on the grounds in dorms, class rooms and at the famed Christian Study Center on Chancellor Street.
The most ambitious such group, the Student Bible Study Fellowship sponsored by OSM, offers an intensive 40-lecture course that lasts for two semesters including “days in the Word” during campus breaks. Student president Anna Eisenstein, like most student-led groups, is holding the organizing meeting during the first week of classes.
Her group, she says, is not a “typical sharing group” that deduces the meaning of Scripture by inductive study, but “a college-level, traditional lecture followed by Q&A.”
For the first time, a student discovery group for Hispanics is being offered by campus ministry Cru. Called Destino, it reflects a growing trend among international students to organize faith-based ethno-linguistic clubs. In addition to UVA, the program has spread to a total of eight other campuses this fall.
Covenant Church of God has retained a full-time staff member, Alexander Baby, to develop their weekly meeting for South Asians. Several other churches offer group studies in Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Nepali, Spanish, Swahili and other languages.
Another local church, Trinity Presbyterian, is offering a weekly Mandarin Class every Sunday where Chinese can have “honest conversation about God and the Bible.” According to Kevin Sawyer, the class provides a place “where the familiar life and culture of Mandarin speakers can be shared in common life together.”
For decades Christian hospitality and fellowship was mainly offered to foreign students by two groups, International Students Incorporated and Overseas Students Mission. Both were formed by UVA alum Bob Finley and have spread to hundreds of campuses. (Mr. Finley, class of 1944, has retired from student work, but still serves as the Chairman and Founder of the locally based non-profit organization, Christian Aid.)
However, the “friendship movement” he began informally after WWII continues to influence the University itself through the International Student Office and the Lorna Sundberg International Center as well as the hospitality efforts of over 81 other groups. These include 21 churches, 30 members of the Grounds Ministry Association, 22 student clubs and organizations including the non-denominational International Hospitality Programs (IHP).
Many of the secular, humanistic programs of the University are also indirectly inspired by the influence of Bob Finley on the University.
This has now been supplemented by programs from several other national sponsors such as Bridges International, a division of Cru that focuses on organizing groups led by Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asian nations. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship is also reaching out to internationals on a number of campuses through their huge Urbana 15 career conference and an international students track sponsored by International Student Ministry.
* A community prayer group, the Operation Esther Prayer Circle meets every Friday at the Well House Café to pray for the faculty and students at UVA, international student leaders and outreaches at the University of Virginia by community groups. Meanwhile the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is looking for a full-time “chaplain coach” to work with international students and organize athletic tours to East Asia.
* Such prayer groups are being organized across the USA and Canada and are networked through the International Student Day of Prayer November 17. It will be celebrated at almost all of 3500 university and non-degree institutions in the USA and around the world.
* Immediately following International Student Day in the USA, an annual Thanksgiving “Set-An-Extra-Plate” outreach will help bring hundreds of thousands of international students into the living rooms of Christian “hospitality host” families.
Photo captions: 1) A gathering of nations. 2) Enjoying the open air. 3) Fellowship and fun. 4) Bill Bray.
About the writer: Bill Bray, 68, is a retired foreign correspondent and frequent contributor to ASSIST News Service. He specializes in covering international student ministries and foreign missions. He has traveled to over 65 countries as a missionary journalist to report on missions and development ministries, returning to some countries as many as 30 times over the years. He can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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