Two friends’ obedience to the Great Commission impacts internationals in Russellville

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Chances are you have never heard of Ellen Harrison or Natalie Burk until now. But many in Russellville, Arkansas know who they are. Harrison and Burk are active members of First Baptist Church in Russellville. Both are married with children, have lots of friends and are heavily involved in the community through church, schools, kids’ sports and other activities.

Harrison and Burk are good friends who share a passion and a commitment to obey the Great Commission and reach the nations. God is using them to help lead a movement that is literally impacting the world.

Harrison and Burk, along with their husbands, Nate and A.J., serve as City Coordinators for the Russellville International Fellowship Outreach (IFO). In just a few short years, they have helped build a ministry that impacts students from all around the world and now involves over 70 volunteers from at least seven different churches in the Russellville area.

Ellen Harrison and her husband, Nate, participated in several international mission trips when they were members at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. When they moved to Russellville and joined First Baptist, they wanted to continue to travel each year. Harrison says God began to convict them both about the need to do ministry at home. “To go overseas once a year is great, but if we are not doing it here on a day to day basis, what are we doing? Why is it okay to come home and settle back into our lives?” They prayed for new opportunities and eventually got involved in “Worldwide,” First Baptist Church’s ministry to international students.

Natalie Burk and her husband, A.J., have four kids. A.J. has been on mission trips to Africa, but Natalie never felt comfortable leaving the kids. Burk knew she wanted to be involved but she didn’t know what missions looked like as a young mom. Then she heard a sermon by college pastor Justin Myrick. He shared that they did not have to leave Russellville to fulfill the Great Commission because the nations had come to Arkansas Tech University (ATU) in Russellville. Burk and her husband prayed about getting involved in “Worldwide.” In the fall of 2014, they participated as a family and were immediately hooked.

Through this experience, God began to grow both families’ passion for international student ministry. They wanted to do more but didn’t know exactly where to begin. As they were praying, Burk was invited by Debbie Moore, Women’s Missions’ Specialist at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, to go to Brooklyn, New York to minister among Muslim women. Harrison volunteered to go as well. While in Brooklyn, they worked together to build relationships with Muslim women as they taught English, basic life skills and arts and crafts. Both Burk and Harrison knew they wanted to do something like this back home in Russellville.

Upon returning home, Debbie Moore connected them with Teresa ‘Bit’ Stephens, International Student Consultant at the ABSC. After Burk and Harrison shared their vision with her, Stephens introduced them to International Friendship Outreach (IFO). The format used by IFO was exactly what they had been looking for. Stephens put them in contact with IFO leadership and from there IFO Russellville was born.

IFO Russellville has combined with First Baptist Church’s “Worldwide” to offer six weeks of “Conversation Club” each semester. Conversation Club provides an opportunity for international students to meet with volunteers to eat and to practice their English. These trained volunteers engage the students with simple “get to know you” questions that almost always lead to a spiritual discussion.

Another component of IFO Russellville is what they call “Friendship Partners.” Volunteers go through training and “adopt” an international student. They agree to meet with this student monthly, make contact weekly and pray for them daily. They also participate with the larger group in a special activity each month.

IFO Russellville works with ATU to provide a “Welcome to America Party” each semester for the new students. As soon as students come to ATU, as part of their orientation they are taken on a tour of the city. After the tour they come back to First Baptist Church and eat lunch. Harrison and Burk enlist volunteers to provide care packages for each of the students. Students are provided information about IFO and Conversation Club. They also meet people who are interested in serving as friendship families. At the end of the meeting, students have the opportunity to sign up to be “adopted.”

Harrison and Burk have worked hard to build something that is both reproducible and sustainable. Even though IFO Russellville meets at First Baptist, Harrison and Burk are quick to point out that this is not just a First Baptist thing. Because they lead busy lives, they rely heavily on other volunteers. Their desire is for this to be a way that the whole body of Christ can reach and love international students. They say there are plenty of opportunities for anyone with a desire to get involved.

“Not everyone can adopt a student or have students in their home all the time, but they can do something,” Harrison says. Volunteers can participate in Conversation Club by teaching English or providing a meal. They can give rides to and from the airport or take students to the store. Volunteers are also needed to attend special events, pray and give financially. Harrison and Burk point out that there is something for everyone, no matter their age.

When asked what motivates them to do this ministry and to get others involved, Harrison and Burk are both quick to quote Leviticus 19:33-34 which says, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

Harrison says that there were over 300 international students at ATU during the 2019-2020 school year. She points out that these students are some of the brightest and the best from their respective countries. For them, the opportunity to study in the United States is a big deal. They are under a lot of pressure to keep their grades up and perform, so they study all the time. Their value is often found in their academic ability.

At the same time, most international students that they have met are also very family oriented and miss their relatives back home. “One of the biggest needs these students have is to know they are cared for and that they have value outside of their grades. Most of these students need a person to just kind of look out for them,” Harrison said.

Harrison notes that many international students have little to no knowledge of the Gospel. She warns of the need to be very careful in sharing the Gospel with internationals because their first instinct is often not to trust you. What they hear about Christians is not always a good thing. Harrison says, “If you want to reach them, you have to earn the right to be heard by them.” Burk says the way to do this is to love them and show them Jesus, “Include them and do life with them. Take them with you wherever you go. Invite them into your home. Let them cook, hang out, do laundry.” She says it’s important to let them see your availability as well as your vulnerability.

Although challenging and often time-consuming, this experience with IFO and international student ministry has been a real blessing in their lives. Both Harrison and Burk agree that having international students in their homes has made their lives richer. They say it has been a great opportunity to teach their children about missions.

“Our children love it. They want to have international students in our home,” Burk says. She says meeting the students and hearing their stories has helped her kids learn to see people as God sees them, as image bearers of Christ. “They love people. They see them and appreciate their differences. They don’t care about language, skin color, etc. They just want to know them and be around them.”

Thinking about this journey that God has taken them on over the past few years, makes both friends smile. At one time the command to “go and make disciples of all nations” might have seemed overwhelming, but not anymore. Burk sums it all up when she says, “God has brought the nations to us. We don’t have to leave our own community to do this ministry. God just made obedience to the Great Commission really easy.”

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