By Katie P., International Student Ministry Coordinator
When is the last time you had a really awkward conversation? Maybe you misheard someone. Maybe the person seemed to be nodding in agreement with what you were saying, only to admit that they weren’t sure what point you were trying to make.
I think these are the kinds of experiences that tend to come to people’s minds when thinking about interacting with internationals. That certainly was my first impression.
Breaking Down Barriers
After deciding to follow Jesus in 2011 at the beginning of my junior year in college, I tried serving in some different areas of Riverview Church, including the international student ministry. The ministry aims to reach out to the 8,000ish international students at Michigan State University, many of whom have never been to a church, never heard the Gospel, and need help adapting to life in the States.
At the time I got involved, I was studying foreign languages as well as taking courses in teaching English as a second language, so I figured it would be an easy fit. But it wasn’t. Before this, I hadn’t interacted much with people from other countries. There were lots of awkward exchanges due to language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. I didn’t feel like I was very effective at sharing my faith with the international students, and at times I wondered why I stayed involved.
But I stuck with it, and over time I started finding ways to communicate better with internationals by doing things like slowing down my speech and using less complex grammar and vocabulary. I started enjoying myself, and feeling more comfortable as I developed stronger friendships.
The biggest change in my perspective happened the summer of 2012, right before my senior year. I experienced for the first time what it was like to be an international student. I studied abroad in a country where very few people spoke English. Suddenly I was the one struggling to communicate in the local language, and I was the one accidentally offending people or making them feel uncomfortable when I failed to observe cultural norms. I was vulnerable.
Some people took advantage of me; there were times I was cheated out of money. Others rejected me as soon as they saw my skin; they assumed I couldn’t speak their language. Most nights, I went to bed exhausted because of the energy my brain had to exert to make it through the day. To add to everything, the food upset my stomach. And at times, I greatly missed my family and friends, who were difficult to stay in touch with.
Despite the challenges, overall I had a wonderful experience overseas. Countless people took the time and energy to teach me about their culture and teach me their language, even when that required them repeating themselves over and over until I finally would catch on to what they were saying. More often than not, people who could have taken advantage of me didn’t. For instance, I traveled by myself on an overnight train across the country to meet a friend, a woman saw that I looked lost trying to find my bed. We were complete strangers, but she showed me where I needed to be, invited me to sit with her and her friends, helped me find the people I needed to meet at the train station once we arrived, and even gave me a parting gift.
I was humbled. I returned with a greater sense of my purpose and a better understanding of how I could serve international students. The international students here face the same challenges I faced overseas: some people will see international students as people to be taken advantage of, others will just ignore them, and some will choose to take the time to genuinely welcome them. I chose to take the time to be more welcoming and help address the needs of international students.
Awkwardness or Opportunity?
Even now, about three years later, when I have an awkward exchange with an international student, sometimes I wonder if this is really what God wants me to be doing. Shouldn’t interacting with internationals be easy all the time if it’s what I’m meant to do? But then I remind myself of what God has revealed to us through Scripture, and I’m able to set aside my fears of inadequacy or my discomfort. Jesus commanded his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19), which inherently includes people different from ourselves; every nation has a different way of thinking and interacting. I also think of 1 Peter 4:9, which calls us to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” There’s no clause saying we should welcome and serve only to those who are like us.
If you, like me, catch yourself thinking “I don’t connect well with that group of people,” and use that as a reason to not form relationships, maybe it’s time to reflect on the reasons why. Not everyone needs to get involved with the international student ministry, just like not everyone needs to be involved with any of the opportunities we have at Riv. But I’d encourage you to get involved somewhere, and to choose something that’s a little bit outside your comfort zone.
I think the risk is worth it, because the opportunity is great. After graduating in 2013, I came on staff with Riverview in order to dedicate more time and energy into my relationships with international students. The results of the labor of myself and our team has been beyond encouraging as we continue to see:
- People who never heard about the Gospel before, come to faith in Jesus
- Non-Christian international students are bringing friends with them to church
- People feel loved and welcomed in our community, even as they have questions and doubts
To me, all of this makes it worth experiencing awkwardness. And besides, it’s not always uncomfortable! Our international group has a lot of fun together at events, we enjoy learning about each other’s traditions, family dynamics, and spiritual beliefs during our weekly small groups. In many ways, we’ve grown to feel like a family.
It all comes down to this: everyone needs to hear the good news about Jesus. By taking the risk of interacting with people different from ourselves, God is gracious to continually teach us how much we all as humans, as people, have in common. We all sin against God and need a Savior. Even if all you think you have in common with the people you meet is that you need Jesus and you’re breathing, you have an opportunity to connect. It might not always be easy, and it might feel uncomfortable for you, but I encourage you to consider the possible good that can come of sacrificing some of your own comfort for the sake of serving someone else.
If you’re interested in learning more about the international student ministry happening through Riverview and opportunities to get involved, you can contact [email protected]