By Travis McCormick
Although much of our efforts in international missions have been hampered by the recent Covid-19 pandemic, we know that current events did not catch God by surprise. He knew that Spring Break mission trips would be cancelled, and summer trips would be placed on hold. He knew all about the travel restrictions and the economic issues. Yet His command remains the same: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…”
God opened a door for Ben Coulter, pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Magnolia, to share the Gospel with Matias*, an international student who came to SAU from Europe. Like the other state universities in Arkansas, the COVID-19 pandemic forced SAU to conduct classes on-line after Spring Break. While American students went home, many international students like Matias were unable to return to their home countries. His country was under strict lock down and Matias had to remain at SAU. God used this situation and Ben’s faithfulness in developing a relationship with Matias as an opportunity to bring him to faith in Jesus Christ.
Matias is not the only international student in Arkansas facing these kinds of burdens. Open Doors reports that over 6700 students came to Arkansas during the 2019-2020 academic school year from countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, China, Nepal, and Japan. The students left their home and had to adapt to a new culture with strange customs in order to study at the state’s colleges and universities. Many of them came without knowing anyone.
That’s where International Student Ministry (ISM) comes in. ISM is a cooperative effort by Arkansas Baptists to share the love of Jesus with these students by offering friendship, meeting physical needs and introducing them to the Gospel. ISM, part of the ministries of the Baptist Collegiate Ministries, connects churches and international students together in various settings in an effort to foster relationships. The personal connections then open the door for Gospel conversations as their connections deepen.
Ben was introduced to Matias by Dario*, an international student from Central Asia who had committed his life to Jesus in the summer of 2019. Dario and his wife invited Matias to attend Immanuel on a Sunday and introduced him to Ben. Unfortunately, the visit did not go well. Matias told his friend that as an atheist he did not believe “any of the stuff he heard” and asked them never to invite him to church again.
That one visit, while seemingly unfruitful, gave Ben an opportunity to be a friend to Matias. Ben saw him often on campus, struck up conversations when he could, and attended many of his games to offer support. They continued like this for much of the school year. Ben knew that building relationships takes time, and he was willing to take however much time was needed. This is the nature of ministry to international students.
And then it happened. The COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country and eventually into Arkansas. Matias was quarantined on campus with other international students who could not return to their home countries. The relationship Ben had taken time to build was now ready to bear fruit. Ben received a message the next Saturday saying that Matias wanted to come to church and that he was interested in reading the Bible and knowing more about Christianity.
The following Sunday Matias watched Immanuel’s service online. That same week, Immanuel Baptist Church and BCM Campus Minister Mike Sandusky delivered pizzas to the students remaining on campus. They gave Matias a pizza and a study Bible. They prayed with him, encouraged him to read the book of Matthew, and agreed to call once a week to discuss what he read and answer any questions.
Later that week, Matias sent a text saying that he was feeling down and really scared. He said, “I feel like I have no control.” That opened the door for Ben to share how none of us have control, but we trust in God who has all control.
The two continued to talk throughout the week and Matias became hungry and eager to know more. He read the Bible, along with all of the study notes, sometimes 20-30 pages at a time. Ben asked him if he was thinking about following Jesus. Matias explained his realization that following Jesus meant it was going to cost him something and he needed to know more about the Bible before he could make that commitment.
Ben walked him through the Gospel and explained about repentance and the need to place his faith totally in Jesus. And that night, the former atheist committed his life to Jesus. Ben says, “It was really incredible in the middle of quarantine and social distancing to see God move in that way.” Matias is scheduled to be baptized at Immanuel the first Sunday they are able to meet together again.
Any church of any size can engage in ministry to international students. There are no issues of resources, worship styles, buildings, or any of the other matters that often affect our planning or ministry strategies. The major requirement is, like Ben, being faithful to build relationships with these students. Getting to know them, care about them, share your heart with them – these actions are the currency of ISM. Ben can testify to the power of greeting an international student at church and then being faithful to pursue a relationship.
Baptist Collegiate Campus Ministers, pastors and local churches have served on the frontlines of ministry to international students for many years. Reports are coming in from churches and college campuses across the state of international students whose lives have been transformed by the Gospel, even now during this COVID-19 crisis. These young men and women are choosing to follow Jesus and they are helping to lead their friends and family to faith in Christ.
Matias’ story is just one of many that you will hear about in the coming days as we explore more ISM stories. God has brought the world to Arkansas. In the midst of social distancing, self-isolation and travel restrictions God has given us an incredible opportunity to obey His command to reach the nations through International Student Ministry (ISM). And you’re invited to join us as we see how Arkansas Baptists are making disciples of all nations on the campuses of Arkansas.