Perhaps you have some international students on your course. Or you’ve noticed groups of East Asian students in your town or city. In 2019/20, there were over 500,000 international students studying in the UK alone.
So how can we welcome these international students in the name of Jesus?
We asked Ho, an OMF worker who grew in his relationship with Christ as an international student, to share five ways we can welcome international students. After 13 years’ involvement with OMF in various capacities in Japan, Ho now works in Northern Ireland alongside his wife Laura-Jane, helping international students meet Jesus there, while serving as DRM’s Mobilisation Coordinator.
How do you start to get to know international students?
Certainly, in the UK, people can contact Friends International or other agencies who work among international students. They will be able to provide the people with information about international students. However, it is always good to start with prayer, asking God for his leading and guidance as you go about your daily business.
Let me tell you a story of a young international student from Japan who had just arrived in England. She was struggling to find a place to buy a duvet for her new bedroom so that she could settle for her first night. It was late in the day, the sky was getting dark, and she began to feel anxious.
A local person noticed her and asked if she needed any help. This lady turned out to be a Christian and was able to help her find what she needed. They exchanged contact details. Sometime later, the Christian lady was able to invite this new student to attend her church and Bible study. After some months studying in the UK, the student returned to Japan with a great interest in God and the Bible. She then was very helpful to us when we needed to find accommodation in Japan when we returned to serve in a city that was totally new to us. What the Christian lady did in the UK blessed not only the international student, but also missionaries who had gone to work in her home country.
1. Be openhearted in your welcome and hospitality – go the extra mile
When I was an international PhD student in Japan, a local Christian Japanese family invited me to their home for dinner about once a month. They asked us to invite various international students one by one, and they became quite close to several of them. We helped them meet people from countries like Ethiopia, Indonesia, China and Nigeria. They kindly shared with us a comfortable home (something we didn’t have!), delicious food, fun conversation and a space to talk about the Lord too. We always went home refreshed and happy. This family made internationals feel special by celebrating birthdays, weddings or the birth of babies, and by showing care in times of sadness or loss too. Later when my wife and I were living in Japan, they visited us in the hospital when our older son was born and preparing food many times for us in our baby’s early weeks.
My wife and I opened our home to Japanese and international students in Japan. As well as inviting individuals or small groups, we had an open house on a Friday night for a meal, games, informal chat, and Bible reading. In order to make them feel at home, we prepared dinner and provided space to sit, chat and relax. Our living room was often buzzing with chat and laughter. Sometimes conversation ran on too late and someone would miss their last bus or train home. But at times like that when we gave them a lift home, we got to chat on a deeper level, learned where they live, and showed we care for them and their safety. God often gave us some more open conversations on the way.
When Christians go the extra mile, they live out God’s words that teach his people, ‘Do not forget to do good and to share with others for it is considered a pleasing sacrifice to God.’ (Hebrews 13:16).
2. Be genuine and interested in their life and culture
One time we gave our student guests a blank piece of paper to draw a picture describing themselves (birthplace, home, food, culture). It was fun to see each of them introduce themselves in the drawing. Everyone asked each other questions to find out more. We brought out the world map so everyone could point out their home and tell us more about where they came from.
As they felt comfortable coming to our house and enjoying the friendship, we gave them the opportunity to cook meals from their own country so that everyone could taste and enjoy. They were happy to share what they wished other people could know about their food and culture, and it provided us with a chance to know more about them as people. It created a comfortable atmosphere where people could enjoy one another’s friendship, share life more deeply with each other and get to know each other as real people.
3. Seek to be a trustworthy life-time friend, even when they move on or go home
A friend of ours once asked us, ‘Will I still be your friend if I don’t become a Christian?’
When we treat people as people, not projects, their door is more likely to stay open for true and trusting friendship. As followers of Jesus Christ, of course, we desire to see our new friends knowing and following Jesus Christ. It is the best gift for them to return to their home country with Jesus for their own salvation and so that they can in turn pass on His blessing to their wider family, friends, society, country, and beyond. However, whether they follow Jesus Christ or not, students appreciate keeping in touch with their overseas friends. It is not our job to judge or pressure them, but to keep showing love. What we see of someone’s response to Jesus now is often only one part of their whole journey, and God may work in other ways to lead them to know Him. Even if they don’t go home believing in Jesus, their experience of friendship with a Christian is likely to change how they think about Christians in their home country, and perhaps make it easier for them to seek God more later.
In our digital age it is easy to keep in touch with people through email, social media or of course through Zoom. Forming a mailing list or a WhatsApp/Signal group can help keep friendships growing. You may even be able to visit them in their home country. Usually, students who returned home are more than delighted by the chance to share their family and country with friends from other places. Such visits are much more exciting than cold tourism, when there is also a real relationship to enjoy.
Back in the 1980s the pastor of a local church welcomed international students to their home and church. Their relationship grew in respect and trust. After graduating the student returned to his home country and became a medical doctor working in a hospital, got married and had children. When their children grew up, one of them went to study in the same country and university where her father once studied. She was introduced to the same local church by her father and worshiped in that local church while studying. The blessing of that Christian friendship was passed down to the second generation and remains a family treasure as well as continuing the blessing for that local church.
4. Let them know you care, and pray for them and their family at home
When I was an international student, just a month after arriving, my mother passed away. Although I missed her funeral, I travelled home to Cambodia soon after. I was so sad and in shock, but it was a great comfort to me that a Christian man got up very early in the morning to take the train with me to the airport; he also came back to meet me when I returned from home. He did for me what a loving father or uncle would do, and it helped me so much to know I was not alone.
One Christian international student recently commented on how thankful she was to have received a text message from a friend, who used to host her, to let her know they were praying for her. She went on to say how important it is to her to be reminded that she was prayed for. The same student recommended having an occasional video call catch up to pray together because many international students face reverse culture shock upon their return home. It can really encourage them in the process of resettling if they have that kind of care and support from their host country friends. They will need help connecting with and adjusting to a good church or Christian community back in their home country.
For those who came to know Jesus while overseas this kind of link can be a lifeline. We never know what difficulties they are experiencing, whether temptation, pressure from family or the challenges of adjusting to life back home, and a timely chat or call can make all the difference. For those who don’t know Jesus the ongoing care you express will allow them to share with you when difficult things happen to them or their family. Your ongoing care remains an expression of Christ’s love, and God is the One who continues working in their lives after they move on.
5. Share your own life and story with them – introduce them to family and friends who can widen their circle and experience Christian role models and witnesses
A pastor in East Asia once told us that a big part of serving students is opening your life and home to them. ‘Make sure,’ he said, ‘you allow them to see what a Christian home is like – your marriage, parenting, how you work on difficulties.’ For international students who didn’t grow up in Christian homes, offering a Christian family role model is really helpful.
Some students have difficult relationships with their parents or have not had a father figure at home. When they see how Christian parents, particularly fathers, relate to their children, it can help them to want to find out more about God’s love. Of course, no family is perfect, and we must be honest and real about our struggles too. But by sharing our life and story, and how God’s grace is transforming us, we help them see the gospel of Jesus in action.
Please remember that people love listening to real-life stories. Most internationals also love interacting with the more senior generations and have a lot of respect for older people. Meeting grandparents and older relatives or friends can help someone feel much more at home as they will be missing people of all generations from home.
As we make natural opportunities for internationals to get to know as many Christians as possible of all ages, cultures, and walks of life, they can listen to stories of God’s grace transforming lives. They will see Jesus in a variety of people and have a sense of Christian community, rather than depending on one or two relationships. When they become followers of Jesus, they will have some real ideas about Christian life and home or role models, and will learn from a wider variety of personalities.
I hope that what I shared encourages you to pray more intentionally about international students living in your local area as well as helping you to act appropriately in your context as the Holy Spirit leads.
1. Find out who the international students in your area are, what countries they come from. You can do this simply by paying attention as you go about your daily business – as in the story of the Japanese student buying a duvet.
2. Find out what local churches, Christians and Christian Unions are doing in your area to reach out to international students. Offer to become a volunteer.
3. Become a personal friend to an international student or students yourself and offer hospitality and practical help to them. Don’t be afraid of asking them.
5. Pray and invite others to pray with you. OMF’s DRM team have a daily prayer feed in the PrayerMate app to help you, and can provide you with more in depth ways to pray on request.