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Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Commonwealth University’

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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Story by Chris Hillman. Photos provided by Chris Hillman, Mark Larson and Louis Watts.

If you recall Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” you might feel its theme of joyous international unity and world peace may be in the only place it works – the dream world of an amusement park. But at First Baptist there is a place where such lofty themes are being lived out.

calloutThrough FBC’s Ministry of Invitation, very special relationships are nurtured with Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) more than 1500 international students, from some 96 countries. Volunteer opportunities include being a conversation partner once or twice a month, temporarily hosting a student in your home, and building lasting relationships.

Ministry with InternationalsMy family now enjoys one of those relationships. Pamela Haney, VCU’s Student Engagement Coordinator, introduced me to Aso Quadir from Iraq. We began with brief telephone conversations, then lunch meetings, and ultimately family gatherings with my wife and six-year-old son, and Aso’s wife and two small children.

Pam’s guidance also led us to a different kind of hosting. Last year my wife, Resa, and I shared our home with 20-year-old Abdullah Alhumaid from Saudi Arabia. He was excited about living with a real American family while at school. Abdulla warmed our hearts and quickly became a welcomed addition to our family. We met his parents via Skype and will always remember Abdulla’s mother looking at Resa and with tears in her eyes, whispering, “May God bless your heart for opening your loving home and being an American mother to my son while he is away from us.” Then Abdullah introduced her to our son, Chasen, “Please meet my new American little brother.” Our family and theirs have grown in so many ways!

Ministry with InternationalsWonderful friendships continue to grow through FBC’s relationship with VCU’s international students. Ralph Starling, FBC’s Associate Pastor for the Ministry of Invitation, and members Louis and Linda Watts and Mark and Carrie Larson led summer activities including meals, trips to Virginia Beach, and a 4th of July picnic. Varied events are planned for the fall.

Ministry with InternationalsWhen a very appreciative international student asked Ralph why he shared his time and energy, he replied, “We’re just here to love you the same way that God loves you. We want you to feel welcomed in America, to help you have lots of fun, and make great friends!”

We can’t know all the results of these conversations and dinners, of sharing our homes and our lives. But we can be sure that the world is indeed smaller for us, for First Baptist, and for a number of VCU’s international students.

InternationalsSee related story:  A little more like the Kingdom of Heaven

Author’s note: Aso recently graduated and returned home to the Kurdish city of Irbil. Numerous atrocities have been committed in that city with the intent of driving out the Christian community. This distresses Aso, who is a devout Muslim, because he has many Christian friends in his home town. Please pray for the safety of both the Christians and Aso’s family.

Editor’s note: To be involved in this ministry, contact any of the following:
Louis and Linda Watts (804-794-9630)
Mark and Carrie Larson (804-658-4972)
Ralph Starling (804-307-4376)


Chris HillmanChris Hillman is in his third year at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He, his wife, Resa, and son, Chasen, have been part of Richmond’s First Baptist Church since 2011; he is currently serving as an intern in FBC’s Ministry of Invitation. Chris previously worked with the National Geographic Society, so ministering to international students comes naturally to him.

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By Wendy Starkey. Photo by Win Grant.

Valter SorrentinoI met with Valter Sorrentino one Wednesday night in FBC’s “Connection Café.” While we watched families come and go in the bustle of church activities, Valter shared with me how God was working in his life. Before we met, I was expecting lots of clear, concrete responses to my questions about where God was calling him. After all, he was called by God, right? As Valter talked, I was reminded that God’s call does not always include a complete picture.

Valter and his wife, Sandra (who is on the FBC custodial staff and volunteers with the three-year-old choir), are from Brazil. Valter volunteered in a prison ministry there for five years. Because of this work, others encouraged him to go into full time ministry. It took him five years to follow that direction, as well as work up the courage to tell his family.

During this time, Valter began dating Sandra. When they realized they both had a desire to come to the United States, they decided it was such a big move that each of them needed to pray before proceeding. Valter and Sandra eventually discovered they were in unity about the decision. And with Sandra’s family ties in the Richmond area and a Baptist seminary here, another part of God’s plan became apparent.

Valter and Sandra moved to the United States and were married at Second Baptist Church on October 14, 2006. While looking for a church home, they visited First Baptist and met Roberta Damon, a former missionary to Brazil. This connection made the Sorrentinos feel warmly welcomed and at home.

It is as if God were playing "connect the dots."Valter is still in the midst of his studies, considering a dual degree with Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). While studying, he also works two days each week at Bon Air Baptist on the custodial staff.

In listening to Valter’s story, I realized I could relate to his journey. There was not a Damascus road experience. There were many steps in the process – the calling into the ministry, the meeting of his wife, the mutual desire to move to the United States, and the family in Richmond. It is as if God were playing “connect the dots.” God put out the dots, but Valter takes the steps to link them together.

God does not always give us the whole picture but just enough so we will follow, and after that just a little more. Like Valter, it is up to us to connect the God-given dots in our lives. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21, NIV).


Wendy Starkey is married to Shawn Starkey and the mother of two smart and beautiful girls – Mahaley and Anna Carr. She is the daughter of Jim and Gail Markham. Wendy is a member of the Sessions Sunday school class and teaches the infant class at Bible Study Fellowship (BSF – a non-denominational, international Bible study).

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