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4 April 2019

International Friends

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 2 (May-Aug 2017): 40-43

Claire McConnell

Claire is the Archivist at the OMF International Center in Singapore. Before coming to Asia she taught mathematics and science in a Northern Ireland grammar school. She has enjoyed introducing many international students to her wee part of the world. She loves hiking—especially in the mountains or on the beach—and gardening.

For much of my life I have thought about the desires mentioned in Psalm 34:7—“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It seems clear that some of my desires were given to me even though I might have only expressed them to a friend and had never really asked the Lord for them. Other desires took a long time to come even after many years of praying. But there have also been desires that were clearly put into my heart and mind by the Lord. One such desire is the desire to care for those we often refer to as the strangers, foreigners, or sojourners in our land.

The Lord reveals his heart towards the foreigner in Deuteronomy 18:18–19 where we read that, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” God further instructs the Israelites how to behave towards the strangers in their land in Leviticus 19:9–10, 33–34.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. … When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

These verses are only a small sample of the passages that show God’s heart for those who are away from their home country, living in a strange land. He instructs his people to love them for two simple reasons. Firstly, because he loves them his people should reflect his character. And secondly, because the Israelites were once strangers in a foreign land, they know what it feels like.

This heart for the stranger is something that the Lord at many times placed in my heart along with opportunities to work with him and others to love those who were living as strangers in my land.

I became a Christian at a young age and not long afterwards felt that God was calling me to work in China. He placed in my heart a concern for people who lived far away in a strange land, a desire that they should know the good news about Jesus and be able to call out to him and be saved. In my late teens the Lord gave me the desire to pray and I was able to join a group of people who kept themselves informed and prayed for Christian workers in Asian countries, including China. That was in the 70s when the possibility of living and working in China was still unimaginable.

On going up to University in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1980, I found that students from many of the Asian countries I had been praying for were studying there. I was challenged and also excited. How could I pray for these countries and not get involved with those who were around me from these places? On my floor in halls lived some Hong Kong medical students who I quickly got to know and had great fun hanging out with. I joined a group of students from the Christian Union who with folk from local churches organised events especially for international students—“The International Friendship Association.” So during my four years at university I enjoyed the richness of living with and getting to know many Chinese and other Asian students. It was a great time to learn about their cultures, families, hopes and fears, and to eat and cook great food together.

As we shared the same joys and struggles of life as students, it was natural to share my life with Jesus with these friends whether they were believers or not. A number attended my wedding. My university experience was my first real opportunity to meet and get to know people from other countries and I learned that they were just like me in many ways but also different from me. I also learned that just as people from my home country could be very different from each other, the same was true with people from other places. One further lesson was the advantages of pooling student and church resources. As students, we were living and working together, so it was natural for us to do things together and to invite our international student friends along to events. The folk from the churches had resources, cars, church halls, and friends to help with catering. They were often older and wiser and able to give us younger, enthusiastic students good advice. We, as students, were usually only there for three years. They brought continuity to a constantly changing student population. And the students enjoyed getting to know these locals and spending time with real families.

After leaving university, I married and went to live on the north coast of Northern Ireland. For health reasons the door to Asia was closed to my husband and I but we continued to pray for Asian countries. Paul and I were both teachers and his school had a boarding department with pupils from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere. So we were able to support young people far from home.

One young Japanese boy, in particular, stands out as he brought us an understanding of the pressures on young people in Japan to succeed academically. He had not done well enough to get into a suitable university in Japan so he was sent to Northern Ireland with little English and was not able to go home until he showed success. We got Eva Glass, a retired missionary from Japan, to help him with his English. Eva was able to mentor him and share her faith. He was able to share his struggles with her in his own language. He frequently joined us for meals and Christmas family gatherings. When he went to university in London it was natural for him to join the student programmes at the church where Eva had served after retiring. There he found faith and a wife! It was a joy to meet his father, mother, and aunt, who, when their son got married in England after graduating from university, came over to Northern Ireland especially to visit us. We felt we had done little, but for them it was good to know that someone had cared for and helped their son so far from home. This experience showed me the benefits of working closely with someone who understood the culture and language of international students and the importance of linking young people with Christians who live in their new setting. It was wonderful to see how God built on what he had begun in a small way through us.

Looking back on my life, I can often see that God closes and opens doors for different kinds of service during different times and seasons. When the educational environment in Asia changed and fewer students came to board at our local school the school decided to close the boarding department. Thus another time of rich opportunities to interact with Asians came to an end.

Of course the opportunity to pray for and support others working with Asians never closes. And through this time we continued to pray for OMF and for our friend David Strachan who was working with international students in Belfast through International Student Christian Services. One day David phoned to say that he had met a student from China who was moving to our town to study for a PhD. He gave me her address in halls and told me I was to go and visit her. Anyone who remembers David knows that when he asked you to do something you did it. I can still feel the nervousness I had when I stood outside the door in halls. What would I say? How would she react to me? But that was the start of a number of years of working with PhD students from China and their families at our local university.

And so in the 90s, our home became a place for these students and families to gather, to eat and, to have fun, with everyone bringing different Chinese dishes. When newcomers from China arrived at the university, they were brought along to the next gathering at our home. Picnics, barbeques (often in the rain), and making jiao zi (with flour everywhere), highlighted the great times of fun and sharing life together. As I was at home caring for a young family, I had time to meet up with the spouses of the students to help them improve their English and later to study the Bible together. Each year we organised a Christmas party and dinner with all the traditional games and food. We invited our friends back on study leave from Taiwan to come up to our town and share the meaning of Christmas in Mandarin with our Chinese friends. The Christmas “Nine Lessons and Carols” service at church was also a great opportunity to share the good news as we followed the readings and sang the carols together. I realised just how helpful it was to have a printed liturgy or readings for those with English as a second language.  It was also a joy when some of the families started to organise their own events and invite us along. From the beginning, God provided like-minded Christians from our church and other churches in the area who enjoyed having the Chinese families to their homes, helping to cook the Christmas dinners, and organising other events. This was something God was doing and we were just doing our part—together.

Making jiao zi with Chinese students

But more changes were coming. As I went in and out of the university I began to notice that the PhD students from China were not the only strangers. There were more and more undergraduate students arriving from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, USA, Canada, Europe, China, etc. I felt a strong pressure from the Lord that we were to care and reach out to these strangers too. To be honest I was a bit overwhelmed at this prospect and not sure how it would all fit together. However one by one the people we had been working with began to graduate and move to other parts of the UK or Canada, return to China, or simply get jobs in the area. And so, as that opportunity began to fade, this new opportunity to reach out to a much wider group of students began to grow.

It was instantly clear that this job was too big for one church or family to organise, we could not do this alone, and God provided the people needed to establish the new ministry. He first provided a friend who worked at the university and was prepared to put the time and effort needed to get things started. The idea was to work alongside the university International Office to link hosts from local churches to students who wanted to join the programme. We would match one or more students to a local family, couple (retired couples or “empty nesters” make great hosts), or individual and then they could work out together how often they would like to meet.

I have always felt that bringing a young person into your home is both a privilege and a great responsibility as it puts them in a very vulnerable position. So from the beginning we were careful not to use this as an opportunity to preach or pressure the young person in any way. That is one reason I preferred to send the students in twos or threes so they might not feel so isolated and it was also easier for hosts to interact with a couple of students as one student might be quieter than the others or not have such a good grasp of English.

We called ourselves “International Friends” as our desire was to provide opportunities for local people and students to become friends. Over the years many friendships have formed, extending to the families of students. Often host families were invited to graduations, sometimes to represent the student’s family who could not be present. After graduating and returning home, many students have come back to visit their hosts and hosts have gone to visit the students in their home country.

While hosts were told to be careful not to put pressure on students, the students often asked about their hosts’ motivation for taking part in the programme and about their faith. Many asked to go along to church with their hosts. Events were organised so that the students and hosts could get together to visit local landmarks, take part in traditional Irish dancing—a Ceilidh—on St. Patrick’s Day, and enjoy a Christmas dinner together. This dinner was provided by a local business through their Christian ministry. At some of these gatherings we would have Christian presentations but always made it clear when inviting the students that this would be part of the programme.

Christmas dinner with international students

We built a close and wonderful relationship with the people in the university International Office who invited us to share at the induction meetings for new students twice a year to explain the programme. We also joined some of the induction events. In the early days, before it was possible to sign up online, they put our registration cards into the student welcome packs and helped to collect and pass these on to us.

I write as “we” because from the beginning this was a joint venture between many churches in the area. One church could not sustain the number of hosts needed, as more than 190 students registered some years. Nor could one person undertake all the administration needed to match students with hosts, recruit new hosts, and organise events. Thus a group was formed with members from the different churches to share out all the work and to pray together. One major benefit of this cooperation was that the programme was not dependent on one person’s vision, or one church’s resources—a reality that has brought stability and continuity until today.

Looking back, and at the time, I was certain that this was something that God had brought into being. He opened the doors at the university, he prompted the students and hosts to join the scheme, he gave the resources needed financially and in all the other ways. He gave us the opportunity to love the stranger and he grew that love in our hearts. So many hosts have testified to the joy they have had in getting to know these young people. Many of the students’ parents have thanked the hosts for giving their children a home far from home, and for being there for them during sickness or other difficult times. God has used these to bring some to know him or to open their hearts and desire to know more about him.

With the changing needs of a family growing up I went back to teaching full time and had to move away from direct participation in the organising group, a difficult and painful decision. After a number of years of normal family life my husband Paul died suddenly while we were on a family holiday. And just less than two years later I married Walter who had worked as a missionary in Taiwan. It was he and his wife Karen who had come to help us with our Chinese students. Karen had also died suddenly, about six months after Paul.

After we got married, Walter and his girls moved to Northern Ireland and a couple of years later he served as one of the pastors of the Belfast Chinese Christian Church. This church was very keen to reach out to Chinese students at the university and often had students come to their services which were held in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. We helped to organise outings to local places of interest, Walter taught English and the Bible, and of course we put on a Christmas dinner. It was here that I really saw the importance of helping students to integrate their new Christian belief with their home language and culture.

This was powerfully brought home to us one day when we gave a young student a lift from our home town to visit the Chinese church for the first time. She had joined the International Friends programme and had become a Christian through her host’s church. But in our conversation that morning she made a very shocking statement: “I want to do my Christianity in English. I don’t want it to be contaminated by my own language because that is contaminated by my home culture.” Not sure if we had really understood her meaning, we asked some questions and she explained, with examples, the negative feeling she sometimes got from reading the Bible in her own language. The words conjured up pictures in her own mind which distorted the meaning she got from reading them in English. We knew that this would be a problem when she eventually went back home and that she was clearly oblivious to the cultural overtones in the context in which she had heard the good news. It would be important for her to learn and study the Bible in her own language, and experience church life more fully in a context closer to that that which she would find when she went home. Otherwise the gap would be very difficult to cross. At that point she neither saw this need for herself nor wanted to make the move, even occasionally, to a Chinese church. She enjoyed the local church and, understandably, wanted to stay there.

Our friend’s situation revealed a real tension between the desires that some international students have and some other needs they have but may not be aware of. On the one hand, they often prefer to meet up with Northern Irish families, improve their English, learn about the local culture, and visit local places of interest. This is good. And it is also good and often easier for local churches to reach out to and engage with students. But on the other hand, students who have become Christians need to prepare for the time when they will return home so that they can more easily fit into the churches that are there. It is therefore essential that local churches and ethnic churches work together. Chinese and other ethnic churches know and understand the culture and language and can support local churches by effectively communicating the Christian message and preparing students to enter the church cultures in their home countries.

Reflecting back over my experiences through the years I can see that God uses many people in many different ways to reveal his heart of love to these strangers who have come to a foreign land. Christian students, whether in their home country or as international students themselves, can share their lives and their faith in a natural way with their fellow students. Church members can open their homes and lives to students and others who are strangers living among them. You do not have to be an expert in the stranger’s culture or language to show love, and it is fun learning about their culture first hand from your new friends. Simply sharing real life with its joys and struggles and openly showing how Jesus walks with you through these is a powerful testimony to our living Lord. Many of these folk will have come with all sorts of preconceptions about the Christian faith and God, whether positive or negative. Others will have absolutely no thoughts about these things at all. All need to see faith—real and alive—in our lives. And that takes time.

Walking with foreigners can bring great joy, but it can also become a painful journey at times, particularly as we see dear friends return home, whether they have come to faith or not. And at the end of the day, some of our friends will embrace the gospel, some reject it, some misunderstand it, and others simply ignore it. After all, these were the types of responses Jesus got. Their response, however, is not our responsibility. Our part is to delight in the God who loves the stranger and desires people from every nation to love him and faithfully share that love with them.