by Rebecca Cheng
My husband and I were enjoying a coffee date when he spotted a young Asian woman walking and carrying drinks, stopping every few feet to reposition her beverages. He nodded toward her, asking me to see if we might help her. Perhaps her desperation and my Asian heritage moved her to accept help from strangers as she readily agreed to a ride back to her school dorm.
She had arrived in America the day before and had walked more than half a mile to buy drinks, but the return trip to the high school was increasingly difficult with two cases of beverages. With the plastic casing broken, individual bottles were falling off the top set of drinks as she tried to balance her beverages and watch her footing through snow piles and ice scattered across the parking lot and walkways.
I know God gave me this student to befriend. Within the week we invited her and two of her classmates to our house for a home-cooked Asian meal. She was Korean and her two Chinese friends were among nearly 30 international students living in the school’s dormitory. Many had just arrived in America that week.
Even as the young woman was carrying water back to her dorm, God was arranging a friendship that would offer “living water” to a group of international students, many without the hope of Jesus. We were able to give them a sense of family here in America while their own families were far away.
Love and Hope
Through the years we have opened our home at Christmastime and other occasions to students from South Africa, Japan, and other Asian countries. When our children were young, the college students were mesmerized by them and by the wonder of Christmas as we shared our home, our Christmas traditions, and meals with them. In turn, some of them cooked their native cuisine for us and shared their hearts and beliefs as we shared ours. Whenever we could, we were happy to make the sacrifice to host international students, learning that when we open our hearts and lives to others, we were more blessed than those to whom we offered hospitality.
Ministering to Internationals
Many international students are homesick, lonely, and miserable during their four years of undergraduate study in America. Some stay even longer to attend graduate school. More and more, international students are coming to our country to pursue higher education. In fact, some of the world’s future leaders may come to Western countries before returning to their homeland.
Today many international students come to America to attend high school. Some are even younger, their parents making the sacrifice of money and distance to provide a quality education for their children in hopes of securing degrees and careers their country may not be able to offer.
Many international students live in dormitories that close for Christmas and other holiday breaks. Travel to their home country is prohibitively costly, so they must find affordable housing or someone to stay with during these breaks.
Where to Begin
If your church does not have a ministry to international students, you can be instrumental in starting one. Check to see if you can partner with a local ministry. If not, present the idea to your church’s leadership. If you are near a college or boarding high school, you’ll find multiple opportunities to minister to international students.
You don’t have to wait for the holiday season to begin your ministry. Befriend students by having your church host a game night or welcome party for the students at the beginning of each semester—when they might be most inclined to establish new friendships.
Learn about the home countries of the students. Most students would welcome a home-cooked meal and an opportunity to visit in an American home, a reminder of their own homes.
Most international students are eager to practice their English, learn American idioms and customs, and feel welcomed and loved. If you have young children or pets, many may enjoy that. However, some students may be afraid of domestic animals if they did not have them in their own home. Be sensitive to the needs of your particular students. Like our own children, they are uniquely made and each one has a different love language.
Once you have established a relationship, maintain regular contact. Imagine your college student was living away from home. How often would you want to interact with her?
Watch for signs throughout the year that might indicate a student is homesick. Some Asian cultures observe a Mooncake festival in September or October. Other Asian countries (such as China, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia) celebrate the lunar New Year anywhere between December and March on our calendars. Still others (Laos and Thailand) celebrate their New Year in April. Islamic calendars mark the New Year in November or December. Inviting international students to commemorate their special celebrations provides another opportunity to offer them hope and share the good news. This is a time when family may be missed the most, and special invitations may be readily received.
If you’re hesitant to invite an international student into your home, include another American family in your celebration. Between the two families, you can share the work of providing the meal, allowing the student to interact with many different people. Be careful not to overwhelm students with too many adult Westerners, however.
Some ministries allow families to host students by inviting them for a meal or two during the holidays. Some students may be living off-campus in apartments but will have little to do during the holiday season. Your church could invite these students and their families to a celebration.
Bless the Nations
God blesses us so we can bless the nations. We can do this in our own home without heading overseas and out of our comfort zone. We can model the Christian lifestyle in a Christian home to some who may have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ. What better time to offer hope than at Christmas.
Since we lived overseas and far away from family for many years, we made it a point to “adopt” a family wherever we were. Singles, students, young couples without family nearby—these are people with whom we can celebrate the Christmas season. Setting up a nativity set so we can explain Luke 2 and the birth of Jesus Christ is always a part of our Christmas traditions.
Overflowing with Christ’s Love
Christmas is about hope—a perfect time to offer hope to those outside our families who will not be able to repay us. Showering international students with love can offer them a small glimpse of the love and hope Jesus Christ offers us. We can share our holiday traditions with them—making Christmas cookies or a birthday cake for Jesus, offering food to the homeless, or providing an Angel Tree gift for a child of a prisoner. As we share our lives and traditions with international students, they can’t help but be touched by our warmth and by God’s love.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Rebecca Cheng is a pen name.
International Student Ministry Resources
(working with Chinese students)
(Currently working with students from Japan, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Mainland China, and Thailand)
More Facts about International Students in the U.S.
• The U.S. hosts more international students than any other country in the world.
• The top six countries that have students who study in the U.S. are: China, India, Korea, Canada, Taiwan, and Japan. They total 56 percent of our international students.
• The top five host states are California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
• The city hosting the most international students is New York City.
• The top fields of study by these international students were: business and management, engineering, physical and life sciences, and math and computer science.
Additional information may be found at: