You may have heard it said that “The world is at your fingertips.” Well, when I participate in International Student Ministry (ISM), the world can literally give me a hug. Cross culture relationships are cultivated in my kitchen over meals, refined by road trips, and sweetened by many life -changing experiences. These friendships are possible because men and women decided to become international students and study abroad. They leave their families and friends to brave the 100-degree temperature mood swings Nebraska has to offer.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.
Imagine understanding about 30 percent of the English language and trying to get through college. Add that language barrier to the standard college student’s problems of grades, money, relationships, time management and homesickness. Imagine the trials. Now, imagine graduating, perhaps even with your master’s or Ph.D. degree. All that joy is then surpassed by the fear that you would not be able to find a job post-graduation in the USA because you cannot find anyone who would sponsor an international work visa.
This is a very standard story for many international students. Now, take off those shoes and put yourself into my shoes.
Imagine being born in America and raised in Thailand. You develop good relationships with international students simply because you relate with them, but you are just different enough. Listen as they tell you how blessed you are to be an American citizen. Feel them long to stay without fear of being sent back overseas. Watch as your friends exhaust all possibilities to find a job that would pay for a work visa. Experience the tears of frustration these highly-qualified work candidates have as their time in America comes to an involuntary end. If your passion is in pouring your time and effort into their lives to help them become more like Christ, you will then also see them return to their home where it is possible they don’t know a single other Christian in their entire small city. (By small city, I mean over 10 million people.)
Now, give me back my shoes and ask yourself, “When they are forced to leave, how do I continue to develop relationships from the opposite side of the globe?”
One answer we came up with in ISM was as simple as 1. 2. 3.
123 people. These 123 folk were from China, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Canada, Saint Lucia, Iraq, America, and 4 wonderful people from Thailand that showed up to a conference in Omaha that we like to call Bridge Builders. (I didn’t make up the attendance number, it just happened to be perfect for my use.)
The concept behind the Bridge Builders Conference is simple; we build bridges. Was that the sound of your mind being blown, or was that you saying, “John, reorganizing words is not being descriptive!” Okay, I know, but sometimes the idea is just that easy to understand.
The conference was focused around an idea, that those who work with international students are building bridges: relational bridges between us and new students, between them and Christ, between like-minded ISM workers in the USA, and between countries around the globe.
We gathered for a few days to sing together, pray together, eat together, and to share with each other the joys and trials of our ministries. We shared together what we have found to be best when interacting with international students, and what we hope to see as we move forward.
While we cannot easily provide a legal way for an international student to stay in America, we can build a network of relationships. So, if, and when, my wonderful friends have to go back to their home country, I can know that there will be likeminded people near to them who will understand what they’ve experienced. We can help them to connect with people in their home countries who can help them to continue their relationship with Christ.
So, I will keep building bridges to cross over and give a hug to someone from the other side of the globe.