When God opened Ben’s* heart to the nations and called him into ministry, he naturally assumed he’d be serving as a missionary overseas, preferably in one of the harder places. Instead, he finds himself part of a team that works with international students and refugees in the very city where he grew up.
We asked Ben what advice he might give American Christians who want to build relationships with international students, and particularly Muslim students like those with whom he works.
“My biggest encouragement is to show up,” he simply said. “God has done the heavy lifting in bringing them here from places like Saudi Arabia and Libya and Iran, some of the least-reached places in the world, and these are future leaders in their country. Just show up in their lives.”
Practically, what can we do? “One of the biggest needs or opportunities is to open their homes. I find that this is doable for a lot of Americans—to actually host an international student.”
Most universities around the country have programs that match international students with host families who may take the student in to live with them, host them on holidays, or simply connect with them regularly during their time in the U.S. In addition to university-based programs, ask others in your area about international student ministries which may be based in churches or connected with Christian organizations.
While cross-cultural training is helpful, openness to learn and faithfulness in friendship are the keys. One family serving alongside Ben hosted four Iranians in their home for a Thanksgiving meal. Four years later they are still connecting with these students on a monthly basis. “It’s opened a whole world of Iranians to them. They aren’t ‘in ministry,’ they are just laypeople with a heart for Iran. And now they have a real dynamic ministry with Iranians.”
Many Muslim students see the fear reflected in the media and sometimes in the eyes of Americans, and are scared about what may happen to them. “My phone was blowing up on election night with calls and texts from Saudis wondering, ‘What does this mean? Are we going to have to go home?’” As Ben points out, we in the American church have a unique opportunity, especially now, to open our homes and lives to internationals who live among us. Ben urges us, “Pray that the church would see this as an opportunity to be ambassadors for Christ.”
» Read more about Ben’s story.
* Name has been changed.
“One of my passions is backpacking, rafting, anything outdoors really,” explains Jon*, a Pioneer who serves among unreached people in the US. But do those passions have anything to do with missions? Jon has found they do. Many of the internationals he works with are young men from North Africa and the Middle East. Some of their families are just a few generations removed from desert-dwelling Bedouin nomads. Before oil was discovered in their countries, they lived a very simple lifestyle. Backpacking may not be part of their culture, but they know what it is to go out to the desert, set up tents, and spend a couple of days in the wilderness, away from it all.
“And for the guys, they like adventure. They all come wanting to explore this country and end up sitting in class most of the time. Most don’t have cars, and they are bored!” The hiking and camping trips Jon organizes for international students give them something exciting to do.
These trips also provide handles for volunteers who want to get their feet wet in international student ministry. They have the chance to make new friends. Some end up bonding with the students on the long road trips, forming relationships that develop further from there.
Getting away from homework, routine, and the business of daily life also encourage greater reflection and foster deeper connections than one can find in the city. “Something amazing happens around the campfire,” says Jon. “Almost always the conversations turn to faith.”
* Name has been changed.
“We looked at opportunities to serve in South Asia or the Middle East, but God directed us here, specifically to our home town,” says Ben* and adds with a smile, “It’s the one place I told the Lord I would never go. I never had the vision or creativity to imagine what God would do with the unreached here… to strategically open doors that wouldn’t be open if we were overseas.”
“My story is similar to a lot of folks who are working with diaspora peoples… I had to swallow my pride,” he says. “We’d told everybody God has called us to the Muslim world. I thought I’d be a Rambo missionary and go to the hardest places. It has taken number of years to see the long view. Now I’m grateful that God has kept us here, and for the fruit we are able to see.”
The journey began when Ben, his wife, and their small group from church decided to host a game night at the house for international students. “A Saudi student was among those who showed up. The very next day, he called and asked if he could move in with us to improve his English. The next thing we knew he was living with us! He became like part of our family. And, a few weeks later, he said, ‘My cousin is coming from Medina [Saudi Arabia]. Can he sleep on the couch for a few nights until he finds an apartment?’”
Through their relationships with these two young men, a network of friendships opened to Ben and his family. In the several years since then they have been able to form meaningful connections with hundreds of Muslim international students. They participate in the students' lives, host them for meals and take them on outings. Along the way they live out the gospel in their midst and share scripture with those who respond and want to know more.
Please pray for Pioneers like Ben as they walk through these open doors.
Though Ben serves with Pioneers and has the training and vision for a long-term gospel ministry among students like these, he’s glad to equip and work hand-in-hand with volunteers who may have little such experience. We asked Ben what advice he might give American Christians who want to build relationships with Muslims students and other internationals. Read what Ben had to say here.
* Name has been changed.
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