This article was written by Teresa “Bit” Stephens, Arkansas Baptist State Convention ISM Consultant
ABSC International Student Ministry Fall 2020
International Student Ministry (ISM) in Arkansas has stayed the course and even intensified for many ISM workers with respect to COVID-19 guidelines. They have learned to implement regular ministry outreach to international students utilizing social distancing, mask wearing and adding virtual connecting opportunities.
The Fall 2020 Open Doors reports 5,799 international students attended Arkansas colleges and universities. This report runs from fall of 2019 through the spring/summer of 2020. Most of the students originated from India (12.1%); China (11.6%); Saudi Arabia (6.1%); Bahamas (5.6%) and Japan (5.0%). Our top five universities for international students are the University of Arkansas (UofA) at Fayetteville with 1690; Southern Arkansas University (SAU) at Magnolia with 939; Arkansas State University (ASU) at Jonesboro with 719; University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) with 620; and University of Central Arkansas (UCA) at Conway with 554.
The immediate onset of the COVID pivot brought creative outreach to help meet needs of internationals who were handicapped with their need for food, support, and community. For example, ASU, SAU, UALR, UCA, and Arkansas Tech University (ATU) Baptist Collegiate Ministries, in partnership with churches and local ISM organizations, such as IFO (Central AR) and iReach (Fort Smith), brought immediate meals and/or sacks of groceries to these students and remained a strong support base for them. ISM volunteers around the state also transported students to and from the airport. For the few that returned, they helped coordinate quarantine needs.
The fall semester provided opportunities for more creative ideas and constant evaluations on best practices to reach those students who were isolating themselves because of fear of COVID-19. Utilizing outside settings, they provided social distanced events such as welcoming events and games in parks and sport fields. These events often included individually packaged meals from local eateries or pre-packaged snacks for the students.
Regular events such as Conversation Club and Discovery Bible Studies for internationals have continued virtually and/or in large gathering areas where regulations can be accommodated. They were also able to provide many small group meetings with outside activities such as hiking, canoeing and outside games. Connecting students to church families or college friends continues to be the mainstay of developing friendships and providing healthy community.
We are fortunate to have Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) staff specifically investing in internationals and mentoring other American students to engage them, as well. Logan Moore works at UA Fayetteville, Paige Branham at ATU, Bekah Gulledge at Metro BCM in Little Rock, Caleb Wunstel at Conway BCM, and Colt Booth at Henderson State University BCM. We are also thankful for the many students engaging with international students. At ASU BCM there is an ISM leadership ministry team that specifically ministers to these students.
There are other significant unique ministries to international students such as Waylon Tay from Malaysia who became a Christ follower through the BCM at UCA and Sunny Gap Baptist Church in Conway a couple of years ago. As a UCA BCM student leader, Tay now leads other internationals and Americans in a small group. James McCormick, a baseball player at University or Arkansas Rich Mountain Community College in Mena, is reaching out to the international students on the college soccer team, engaging them in Gospel conversation and connecting them to BCM and the local churches.
As a result of ISM in Arkansas, reaching out to the 5,799 internationals around the state, at least eight have given their hearts to Christ and most have followed through with baptism. For example, Ben Coulter, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church (IBC) in Magnolia, has watched God draw international students to Himself through friendship, studying the Bible and attending worship. IBC Magnolia and several other churches in Arkansas along with BCM’s have caught the vision to reach internationals and send them out with God’s heart for the nations. International students are prime candidates to go out as missionaries. They already know the language and culture. It is our responsibility to offer good discipleship, training and equipping as they leave our universities and go back out into the world.
The intentionality of a loving International Student Ministry sharing the Gospel was brought home when the Little Rock community experienced the death of a dear international friend. “Katie” had given her heart to Christ in 2017. She died from a tragic car accident in September of 2020, on Labor Day while returning from a Bible conference she loved attending. The impact of her love for Jesus reached deep into the Chinese and American community. Her greatest burden was for her family to come to faith in Christ. She shared with them the difference Christ was making in her life. Her story continues to have rippling effects while many are hearing the Gospel for the first time. Many others who had wandered from Christ have returned with a resolve to follow Him with passion and purpose as Katie modeled.
The urgency to minister to international students may be at its peak. May God raise up more workers to engage these future world leaders.