Sara Patterson is from Wylie, Texas and is a junior Christian Studies major with minors in English and Communications at Ouachita Baptist University.
Service, curiosity and fulfillment mark the life of Jon Blaylock, a member at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock and a volunteer for the International Friendship Outreach (IFO).
With locations in Little Rock, Conway, Russellville and Fort Smith, the IFO helps international students by providing transportation starting from the initial airport pick-up, temporarily hosting students between semesters, giving apartment furniture and appliances and organizing opportunities for friendships to grow between internationals and Americans.
Blaylock began volunteering with the IFO in 2015 by hosting two international students in his home. It was through this experience that Blaylock realized food is a valuable tool for bonding between cultures.
“At that time I was under the impression that people wouldn’t want me to make their food. They don’t want some bad version of their home food when they go to a new country,” Blaylock said.
With this doubt still in his mind, Blaylock attempted to make a recipe for the students he was hosting and found it to be a success. This sparked Blaylock’s passion for what he calls culinary missions.
“That started my journey… people actually do want you to make their food, it’s really special to them. There’s a lot of people who don’t know how to cook their own food so anything that’s close to home, a bad version of their own food from home, is amazing,” Blaylock said.
Along with cooking, moving furniture is a focal part of Blaylock’s service.
“My focus is on the basic needs like trying to make sure they have a couch and a bed,” Blaylock said, “When I get to a place, I want to be able to sit down and I want to be able to sleep at night, and I want to be able to eat something I can eat. We really need that stuff. I try to make sure people are not struggling with that stuff.”
Over the years, furniture has been passed down by the international students to those who come after them.
“We have all these students who have furniture so when they move, they offer it back for free in the group. It’s kind of a beautiful thing, that’s kind of one of the great stories I would say is when the students see what we’re doing and they begin to contribute back to it, either while they’re here or when they leave. That’s a great thing,” Blaylock said.
Blaylock has learned that providing for the students’ basic needs naturally leads to satisfying their deeper needs. Once the students are comfortable in their new life, they become more comfortable with meeting new people.
“I want them to still live the way they live but us to be able to share that together. I share the way we live with them as well. Make those connections, open those doors,” Blaylock said.
Seventy-five percent of international students never go inside an American’s home while in America. IFO volunteers respond to this disparity by finding intentional ways to show hospitality.
“If we’re going to show them the Christian life… come to our house. That’s one of the best places for us to share with them,” Blaylock said.
The IFO also fosters community through conversation club, group trips, friendship partners and Bible studies.
Conversation club takes place on Thursday nights and begins about two weeks into the college semester. Churches get involved by providing meals for the group, and some church volunteers even end up staying for the fellowship.
“Through that it opens a door… they come to provide the meal and then when they see what’s going on they fall in love with it,” Blaylock said.
After the group finishes eating, table groups go through a list of ten questions to get to know each individual and their culture.
“There are some questions there that are deeper and speak to faith, maybe something about what you believe, there’s usually something about family, there’s usually something about where you’re from. We all learn something about all the countries that are represented,” Blaylock said.
When it comes to trips, IFO groups typically go on a hike at Petit Jean Mountain State Park, a trip to Lake Ouachita, a canoe trip, a hike at Pinnacle Mountain State Park or Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area, a picnic by the river at Maumelle Park and the newly-added soccer tournament each year.
Friendship partners provide a one-on-one relationship between an international student and an American volunteer. The smaller dynamic helps international students feel connected in a place that can otherwise feel lonely.
“This can be a great place but it also can be lonely for some people,” Blaylock said.
Lastly, the group does a Bible study hosted by directors Josh and Courtney Kwekel every other Friday.
For Blaylock, the Kwekels’ leadership encourages and enables him in his service.
“It’s very fulfilling to be led and just to follow something. I am a helper, I like to serve others and help others generally. When you can do basic things at a much deeper level it’s just really a blessing for me,” Blaylock said.
While Blaylock has met and served numerous international students from vastly different countries, his global experience actually makes the world feel smaller.
“To me, learning all these things, all the experiences, it really makes the world a smaller place. I’m very analytical so I’m finding this network… I see all these ways that people are connected and very similar, but they have no idea that they are,” Blaylock said.
From many years helping international students, Blaylock has gleaned unexpected blessings. He often finds that not-so-coincidental coincidences occur when he is doing IFO work.
“It’s like everything in life you could think of that could happen, all the little things that happen, they just work together all the time. To me, it just really makes me tick. This is not work for me because it is such a huge blessing,” Blaylock said.
One of the frequent coincidences Blaylock encounters occurs when he helps international students move into their apartments. Much of the time, a student will need the exact type of furniture that another student is getting rid of on that same day. These overlaps don’t just make Blaylock’s tasks more convenient, they ultimately affirm God’s hand in his service.
“It’s really neat how it all works together. My life is very full with that,” Blaylock said.
Blaylock’s volunteer story is only one of many. There are numerous ways that Americans can use their individual gifts and interests to serve with the IFO.
“You really can do whatever you want to do. It’s not like we have five things we do and you can pick one of those five and do it. I want everybody to feel encouraged to try something, whatever it is, and they’ll probably find something they’re comfortable with and there will probably be something that they never thought was important… that would be very meaningful to someone else,” Blaylock said.
Specific needs for the IFO include furniture donations, church sponsors, people willing to help with transportation and people willing to give their time to form relationships and minister to international students.
For individuals interested in the relationship and ministry aspect of the IFO, they should be ready to learn about different cultural backgrounds and become aware of how those relate to each person’s perception of faith.
“People want to know us and know what we believe more. Sometimes they want to try to win us and I’m comfortable with that, I understand that. For anybody who gets involved, it’s going to be a journey. I definitely think people have a lot to offer that they don’t realize,” Blaylock said.
If you or your church are interested in getting involved with the IFO, contact directors Josh and Courtney Kwekel at firstname.lastname@example.org.