Published December 1, 2020
Ministry during the time of a global pandemic has presented its share of challenges for Kentucky Baptists. For the eight regional campus ministers of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, obstacles are evident immediately.
The restrictions many universities impose on group gatherings have resulted in fewer opportunities to schedule activities to meet students and forge relationships that will result in gospel conversations.
One facet of the Kentucky Baptist Campus Ministry is to share the gospel with international students — many who travel to the U.S. from countries which are predominantly Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. Cooperative Program giving by churches enables the KBC to have eight campus ministers across the state to witness to international students who have never heard the gospel.
Tommy Johnson, regional campus minister at Western Kentucky University, said the decrease in international students was first noticed last year. "We had a continual increase over the last 10 years — that was until last year when we started seeing it go down. It's down even more so this year."
He notes that WKU mirrors what other universities are experiencing. The impact of COVID, plus reducing or eliminating ESL (English as second language) programs, has been a factor in the declining number of international students.
"In general, we like to connect international students with families from our Kentucky Baptist Convention churches for hospitality. A great majority of our international students never get to enter an American home. We connect with churches — it's a great plus for international students wanting to experience our country. And it often leads to gospel conversations and invitations for them to our churches." The level of involvement from families varies. "Sometimes families will adopt a student."
Colin Wood, campus ministry associate, has primary responsibilities involving international students at WKU. He and his wife, Sarah, have "found some of the best times with students are when we have them in our home. I personally value that," Wood said.
Wood echoed Johnson's observations about various levels of involvement by host families. "Not all families are the same. Some families express an interest in helping by telling us to let them know if we need something, but they don't necessarily take any additional steps. It's nice when people volunteer and then actively take steps to serve. We love to see someone who has never done it before to volunteer and give it a try and have a strong interest in it."
Wood and his wife have used various methods to recruit host families, putting out a call to different churches inquiring about people who would be interested in hosting students, and have been successful in linking international students with host families from KBC churches.
There are factors to consider that most people would not immediately recognize. For instance, some international students don't drive, so it may be necessary for the host family to pick up a student and transport them. "There are a certain amount of logistics required — connecting with the host family, connecting with the students and putting them together.
"We always encourage people to keep in mind the kind of foods they serve. There's no problem with turkey or chicken, but Muslim students don't eat ham or pork, so we encourage families to be considerate of dietary restrictions. It just takes a little conversation with the families. We also ask how many students they are willing to host.
"Once it is worked out, they have a good time. We have families who are very hospitable, and the students enjoy it," he added.
The goal is to encourage long-term relationships. "We try to encourage them to meet at first in a non-formal setting. They might meet in a restaurant or coffee shop rather than go to a family's home where they may not know what to expect.
"We want to be sensitive to where the students are. An Asian is usually very open to going into an American home. It's sometimes a little trickier for Arab students. They tend to find their fun and social connections with students like themselves.
"It's a challenge to know how to reach them. I would encourage a family to invite two or three Arab or Muslim students, so those students will feel more comfortable. We want families to define what they are comfortable with — but we do like it when families step outside their comfort zone. We have families who request only girls or only guys, or students from this country or that country. We try to meet the requests. We understand this year that COVID has made people uncertain, so we'll draft a survey and ask what level of involvement people are interested in. Those answers may be 'not at all,' 'meet in a restaurant but not in my home,' or refer to a health point of view. We have some who say they would love to meet a student and provide food, but they are not comfortable having a student in their home.
"From the student side, we ask they respect the family. We try to encourage social distancing. We want to abide by KBC and church expectations for groups and we have to be wise from the university side as well. We want students to say they have had a positive experience and we don't want to cause alarm for the university."
Josh Skipper, regional campus minister at Northern Kentucky University, agrees with his counterparts — "It has been a weird year; we've had a lot less involvement than normal." In past years, students from Korea and Japan have comprised a major part of the international student population, but that is down significantly this year.
"Mostly we are working with students from Nepal, where Hinduism is the dominant religion and strongly influences social studies and politics. Buddhism is practiced by some groups there as well."
Skipper said the ministry there works with internationals through Discovery Bible Study. "Scheduling can be difficult at times since they are on a different calendar," he said.
Skipper sees similarities in the work at NKU with what Paul saw in Acts 17. "There are few Christians in Nepal, so when they hear the gospel, they respond as the people in Acts 17 did when they listened to Paul and said, 'We want to hear more.'
"Our international students from Nepal are unfamiliar with the gospel. We want to have relationships with those students. Giveaways we were able to do this summer opened the door for us to have deeper relationships with students and have gospel conversations. They are looking at the Bible and seeing what it says about God and man and how the Bible points them to Jesus. They tell us, 'We have never heard that before.'"
Skipper recalls a Muslim student from Jordan who was "very receptive" to a conversation in mid-October. "I don't know if he had heard the gospel before," Skipper observed.
"In the past, events such as an international dinner have been held, but that can't be done because there are so many (COVID) restrictions. We cannot have big groups and big meals. Our best way to connect is through relationships — in the places we go, where we eat, classes — we want to befriend them and share Jesus right where we are. In the past we did open air evangelism, but can't now because of the (campus) restrictions.
"We expect those international students will be stuck in their dorms during the (Christmas) break. Churches in our association are good at helping out. We'll look at ways we can provide some meals and gift cards for students who are here. We have Bibles and gifts we can give them."
Brian Hinton, regional campus minister at the University of Louisville, noted that group gatherings have been curtailed as a result of the COVID situation, but a meet and greet was held Oct. 14 for the purpose of "getting to know students and having gospel conversations." Because of COVID, attendance dropped to 11 people — in normal times, 30 or more would be expected.
Those "meet and greet" events serve as icebreakers for students involved in Baptist Campus Ministry to interact with nonbelievers. It also helps serve the purpose of pairing BCM students with international students for the ultimate goal of having gospel conversations.
Hinton said the BCM has English Cafe where international coffee is brewed. Students help internationals learn practical English to help them have conversations. The goal, of course, is to turn it into a gospel conversation. The cafe is billed as a "fun support group where you can learn English and American culture with native speakers."
Hinton said UofL has students who are from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Sweden and various African countries. The university recruits international students for its rowing team, which practices in the Ohio River. Those students recruited for that sport receive full scholarships.
Many internationals at UofL are in graduate level programs.
"They are respectful and willing to listen," said Hinton, in his third year as the campus minister there. "It takes a while for them to respond. I think their friends and peer pressure push them away from Christ. It is the relationships we foster that open doors. I recall a Buddhist student we had who said she was considering Christianity for the first time. I think they have been taught misconceptions about Christianity."
The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays present unique opportunities to minister to international students.
"For the holidays, typically several churches in the area have members who offer their homes for international students to stay during the holiday. We connect the students with the host families," Hinton said.
Danny Currie, regional campus minister at the University of Kentucky, noted that the number of international students is down this year, in part due to the pandemic.
"Because of COVID, there is not as much personal interaction as there has been in the past."
Each year a CONNECT Conference is held that brings together hundreds of international students from Kentucky colleges and universities to make new friends, celebrate culture and learn about the Christian faith. COVID resulted in that conference being canceled this year. "That necessitated the mission of that conference to be conducted at each campus," Currie noted.
There is a language partners program which helps connect with international students. The BCM pairs a student with an international student for the purpose of mentoring, helping them with the English language and "seizing opportunities to share the gospel."
Currie said the international students he talks with have a curiosity about Americans as well as Christianity.
"My experience has been that there seems to be an interest in Christianity from a cultural standpoint. They are curious, they want to know how to connect. They think the U.S. is a Christian nation — that's especially the case with Asian students.
"We are able to share the gospel and they are open to listening, but they think that when they have an academic understanding of it, they are satisfied. They listen — not to be converted — but to see what makes Americans tick. But we believe in the power of the gospel and that God can do anything with the seeds we plant."
UK doesn't have a formal program to pair people with international students during the holidays. "We usually leave it up to our students if they want to invite international students for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Internationals seem to be pretty cautious about spending time away from home."
Jonathan Clark, regional campus minister at Murray State University, noted that COVID has "reduced significantly the number of international students." He said funding decreases for ESL programs has also been a factor.
"We partner with some of the local churches for International Homestay. When international students are not traveling to their home countries but have to be off campus, we help find hosts from local churches — with the intent of being a gospel ministry," Clark said.
"We have a lot of our students take internationals home with them for an extended holiday, especially during Thanksgiving."
Also during the holiday, a missionary couple from New York City drives a 15-passenger van to Murray with international students. The Murray State BCM hosts the group, providing space for Bible studies and other activities.
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