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Archive for December, 2018

By Sandra Saunders

Working with international students attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) through the ministry we have at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (FBC) has been the most rewarding experience of my adult life. Instead of traveling to China, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Ghana, Nigeria, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, New Zealand, Austria, Egypt, Venezuela, Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and many other countries to see the world, I can meet these delightful and brilliant students right here in Richmond, VA.

VCU International StudentsMany colleges and universities throughout the United States make an effort to recruit international students so that everyone on the campus can gain new perspectives and personal connections with students from all over the world. The Global Office at VCU does just that through programs within the school, as well as reaching out to the community around the school to include everyone in welcoming the students to the United States. When I first started in this adventure, I learned that the office sponsors a “Global Café” on the first Friday of the month during the academic year. The VCU Global Office invites any community members to come, sit around a table, and share with these students. Some students are shy at first but then become more comfortable because they see friendly and smiling faces—people who are not their professors!

Several years ago Ralph Starling, Minster of Christian Invitation at FBC, became our liaison with the VCU Global Office which has opened up so many opportunities for our church to welcome the international students living close to FBC. The Global Office also calls on Ralph to host students, such as Fulbright Scholars, to share a meal and conversation around the table. This year we had students from Afghanistan, New Zealand, England, Austria, Mexico and India attending the dinner. The positive, long-term effect of those meals is that they are now “forever” friends, no matter the physical distance between the United States and the students’ home countries.

You might wonder what else we do with these students besides eat! FBC sponsors “English Conversation Classes” on Sunday mornings during the Sunday school hour and again on Wednesday evenings. Some of these students already have excellent English skills, but I think they are lonely and seeking “community,” and with us, they find welcoming faces and open hearts.

Each year Ralph organizes day trips to Virginia Beach, VA for the students. Osamah, our Iraqi friend, told me he had met Ralph just several weeks after he came to VCU when he went on one of the planned day trips to Virginia Beach. He said he came to First Baptist Church the very next Sunday because he wanted to meet more people like Ralph. He attended worship services, Wednesday night dinners and our English classes. He told me he had enjoyed several Thanksgiving meals in the home of Christy and Jim Somerville, meeting their extended families, and expressed how very special that was to him. I got to know Osamah better by taking him grocery shopping so he could purchase natural foods, such as natural honey. He is a very healthy eater and wanted to continue eating that way, if possible.

Another of our excursions is to Eagle Eyrie for a weekend. Students love to hike and inspect the area around our lodge there. One of our Saturday drives away from Eagle Eyrie has been to Peaks of Otter. This past summer, I watched as Sawsan, one of our international friends from Iraq, stood at the water’s edge and looked across at the mountain peak. She stood speechless, and after a few minutes I spoke to her and she remarked as she stood there, “This is just awesome!”

One of our Kazakhstan friends, Dauren, returned home for the summer between his two years here; he video-chatted me every few days, showing me his two-year-old niece and the things she was learning. They know that we love them enough to care about what goes on in their families’ lives in their individual countries. Some share family illnesses back home that concern them because they know we share in their concerns and hurts and we pray for them.

Besides grocery shopping and planning trips together, there are many times these students need to go to Washington, D.C. to their consulates or embassies. For those who don’t have their own transportation, we offer to take them. We also try to help with their transportation to doctor’s appointments.

FBC members who help with international student ministry, and have grown to love the students include: Carrie and Mark Larson, Linda and Louis Watts, Tom Harvey-Felder, Ann Evans, Helen Wood, Myra Clements, Barbara and Paul Hodge, Rob Reinstein, Jeannie and Jeff Dortch, and J.C. Gascón. Louis Watts has become an experienced furniture mover, physically helping the students move in or out of apartments!

I am so very thankful to be a part of this venture at First Baptist Church. This is my chance to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world!

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