In almost every country there are students who have studied in America and who are now opposed to the gospel of our Savior, sometimes as a result of unfortunate experiences in this country. Here is a guide to international friendship.
In the providence of God, it was no accident that among those who heard Peter's speech on the day of Pentecost were representatives of many different countries. Many of them must have returned to their own countries to spread the Good News. Undoubtedly they prepared the way for the ministry of Paul and the other apostles in the years that followed.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of international citizens temporarily in the United States and Canada for education. In addition, there are thousands of other visitors annually who participate in one government exchange program or another.
Many who come from overseas to study in North American universities are or will become leaders in their own countries. They will return to positions of strategic importance. Some of them come from areas which are closed to traditional missionaries. On their return they may exercise very great influence which could have a profound effect upon the spread of the gospel in the countries which they represent.
The possibilities are both negative and positive, however. Many international students have no vital contact with true Christians. They are not at all impressed by the nominal Christianity they see. They sometimes become bitter and cynical. In almost every country there are students who have studied in America and who are now opposed to the gospel of our Savior, sometimes as a result of unfortunate experiences in this country.
Positively, however, there are some who, during their stay, have been met by real Christians. They have seen practical examples of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some have come to know Him and have returned home determined to be a true witness for their Lord, like the Ethiopian finance minister (Acts 8:39). It is most encouraging to hear how some of them are now taking an active part in the work of the church in their own land.
Others have been greatly impressed by what they have seen in Christian homes, even though during their stay here they did not enter into a full experience of the new life in Christ. They have returned to their own countries favorably inclined towards Christianity and open to the message of the gospel. Barriers of prejudice have been broken down. In some cases they have become Christians after their return.
Many internationals consider our nation to be at least somewhat Christian. This gives us an open door to share the good news of the gospel, and to introduce them to people who have been truly transformed by Jesus Christ. For many of our friends, their time in the United States will be the only opportunity in their lifetime for this to happen.
Any experience which is different or unknown usually causes fear and often misunderstanding. This informal guide has been written to help Americans bridge the gap between the "known" and the "unknown." It gives the benefit of past experience in the field of international friendship and gives specific suggestions to those who desire to be "foreign ambassadors" for Jesus Christ at home.
Attitudes Common among Internationals
Desire for Personal Friendship in Depth
Because of tremendous diversity in cultural background, there are few statements that are true of all international students. However, research has shown that one thing common to most internationals is their desire, above everything else, to have in America at least one genuine friend among American students and families. "Friend" does not mean just a casual acquaintance who will say hello as one passes in the hall or street. Rather, a friend is one about whom a person would feel badly if contact were lost.
Desire to Learn
They have come primarily to study and time is important to them. It is most important they achieve their academic goals while here. Everything else must be secondary to this overall project.
Interest in Christianity
Many international students, because they think of America as a Christian nation, are interested in learning something of the essence of Christianity. This interest may be nothing more than cultural curiosity, but it generally results in an openness to consider the gospel as part of the total learning process.
Misunderstanding About Christianity
Many international students have had no vital contact with true Christians. They are not at all impressed by the nominal Christianity which they see. They are confused by the many different churches and denominations. Sometimes they have had contact with organized Christianity in their home countries and, in some cases, are disillusioned or confused.
Conceiving of Us as Superficial
Our tendency to be superficial is quite apparent to our international friends. They see it manifested in our friendship pattern, in which we have many casual friends but few close friends. In most other cultures one has few friendships but these are deep. One international student said, "You Americans ask, ‘How are you?' and never wait for an answer." They are distressed by lack of depth in personal friendship and by conversation that deals only with the superficialities of life. Many of them have faced war, starvation, unemployment and suffering of many kinds. Many are from developing nations that are struggling with great problems.
International students deeply appreciate kindness shown to them in a non-patronizing manner. Opportunities given them to enjoy experiences that would otherwise have been impossible for them are long remembered.
Realism About America
Racial discrimination in this country and our foreign policy often come under attack. There are things about America that are much admired also. We must be prepared for criticism and not react against it. While admitting our weaknesses, we can point out that we are working on them. "How do you like America?" is an embarrassing, overworked question that is best avoided until brought up by the students.
Barriers to Friendship
A Patronizing Manner
We must be careful not to give the impression to our international friends that we are just doing them a favor. They do not want us to do things for them but with them. They like to be accepted as equals and not to be looked upon as a special class. One of them said, "Americans are good hosts, but they are poor guests." We have to learn from them and beware of doing all the talking.
Thinking of everything "American" automatically as best and looking down on everything foreign is a common temptation. We must be willing to admit some deficiencies in our way of life and receive criticism graciously. At the same time, we must genuinely appreciate and respect accomplishments and cultures of other countries. We must not think that something different, like eating with chopsticks instead of knife and fork, is inferior. Nothing creates more resentment among internationals than our often unconscious superior attitude.
Any Attempt to Force Discussion or Acceptance of Christianity
The first reaction of internationals to any kindness may be "what is your motive?" Perhaps they suspect that the person wants to convert them. It is therefore most important that confidence be established on a friendship basis and that any discussion of religious subjects be natural and not forced. If the approach really is tactful and not forced, and there is reality in our friendship, there may soon be an opportunity to share our faith in Christ. When they recognize that the continuation of the friendship does not depend on their acceptance of Christianity, they will be much more relaxed and free to objectively consider what we have to say.
An effective friendship can only be built if we are prepared to give ourselves to the students, spending time with them, and revealing in a personal way that we have their interests at heart. It is much better to get to know two students well, seeing them frequently over a period of time, than to casually and superficially know ten or twenty people.
Ignorance and Lack of Understanding
It is most important that we take the trouble to find out a little about other countries and avoid asking foolish questions. This can be done by reading up on a country in an encyclopedia and becoming familiar with a world map. The average American's ignorance of world geography is incredible, and leads to lack of confidence on our part, and loss of respect on the part of the international student. Familiarity with some basic facts, such as the capital city, the general geographical location, etc., will provide a real basis for gaining further information through conversation with the student.
We must be extremely careful to avoid unthinking questions which reveal assumptions of backwardness and inferiority such as "Do they wear shoes in your country?" or, "Do they have automobiles where you come from?"
Who May Engage in This Friendship?
Students on Campus: Those who are right on campus will have the most direct contact with international students. They will meet them in the cafeteria, dormitories, and classrooms.
Members of the University Community: While many undergraduates have done excellent work, graduate students and faculty members have certain advantages. The international student may be a graduate; in any case, he or she is usually older than the American undergraduate and has had considerable experience in life. Younger students may be conscious of the age difference and their own immaturity. The graduate or faculty member may have more in common with them and if they have homes, they will be able to use them to great advantage.
Local Christian Friends: Many community projects are organized for the purpose of introducing international students into homes. By contacting the International Students Office on any campus or the local community host friendship program, anyone can easily volunteer his home and services to entertain international students. Not being a member of the university community or not having a college education need not be a barrier to undertaking friendships.
Students want very much to meet all kinds of people from a variety of vocations and economic levels. Where they have seen the love of Christ in the home, they have gone back time and time again because of the friendship and reality found there.
Age is not necessarily a barrier. Students want to meet people of all ages. Students from Asia tend to have great reverence for elderly people. Children are a tremendous asset in breaking the ice and in enabling the students to feel at home. Many of them have wives and children at home or here with them and greatly appreciate the opportunity to have contact with small children.
When Friendship Can be Built
Contact with international students can be made at any time during the year, but the most effective time is when students first arrive, usually in the fall.
Contact should be regular, with the same student at least once or twice a month in a variety of situations, such as dinner at home, a concert, a ball game, a shopping trip, etc., and not just, for instance, at church or a Bible study discussion.
How to Establish Contact
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, or other Christian student groups, may be able to put you into contact with international students, and give you information about campus social events where you could meet international students.
Some InterVarsity groups have been able to participate in a "Friendship Connection" program sponsored by the college or university, and obtain the names of entering international students before their arrival on campus. They have written to the students, arranging to meet them on arrival, and have had a reception or buffet supper for them early in the term.
Other InterVarsity groups, with the help of Christians in the community, have organized tours of the local area for new international students. These students are met and signed up for the tour at an activities table during fall registration.
Often the college, university or a community group sponsors English tutoring, and is looking for people to help out.
If there is no InterVarsity ministry on your local campus, you may call the International Students Office of your local college or university, and inform them of your interest, and inquire about participating in a friendship, tutoring or hospitality program. Normally they are very grateful for any expression of interest. Some may appear guarded if your motives, in their estimation, are to "proselytize" rather than to help. Make love your aim. In some cases, it may take time to win their trust.
In some areas InterVarsity staff, alumni or friends have set up coffee-hour discussions, international dinners or investigative Bible studies on a regular basis in the home of a local Christian. These serve as a fine way for Americans to meet international students. They should be followed up through personal friendship between gatherings.
After meeting or obtaining the names and addresses of particular international students, it is important that a specific personal invitation be extended. It is not enough to say, "Drop around and see me sometime." If you have already met the student, the initial invitation could be by telephone, but this should be followed by a specific written invitation so as to avoid any confusion. If you have not met the student, it is usually best to write a letter first and then follow this with a phone call. It is quite important that the student know how you got his or her name. Wherever possible, arrangements should be made to pick up the student where he or she lives. Otherwise, arrange to meet each other at a place you're sure is well known to your international friend and easily reached.
Once you have contact with one international student, this person may introduce you to a number of other internationals as well.
American students can meet international students in cafeteria lines and in classrooms; they could also visit one of the international clubs on campus. Many campuses hold cultural events or an international fair, excellent ways of making natural contacts. Non-students are often welcome as visitors as well. Again, contact the International Students Office for information on local international clubs and events.
How to Develop Friendship
The best way to understand what a student from another country would appreciate is to put yourself in the position of having arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, without knowing a single person and with very limited financial resources. Try to imagine the things that would be absolutely new and strange to you, what information you would appreciate having and what experiences you would like to have while there. This will lead to some very definite conclusions. Food, language, laundry, transportation and lodging are some of the most obvious problems.
Take your friend to places of scenic, historic, cultural and professional interest. A drive in the country is a most welcome relief from the pressure of a week's study. People studying in a particular field are always interested in meeting others from that same field. A visit to a factory or a farm can be most interesting and helpful. Parent teacher meetings, labor union meetings, etc., are all usually of interest.
Ask your friends if they'd like to cook some food from their countries some evening. They often appreciate the opportunity to have a change from American food, and will appreciate your interest in sharing this with them and learning something new. If there is a restaurant serving food from their particular country, be sure to visit it with them.
Include them in your regular activities as an individual or family. If you're just going for a walk, or to a basketball game, or shopping, or to a concert or lecture, include them. They will want very much to see the inside of an American home. Ideally, they should come to look upon your home as a home away from home. The things that we take for granted will be of great interest to them, such as how we wash our clothes, heat our houses, etc.
The kitchen can often be a place of deeper friendship than the living room. Be sure to include a trip to a supermarket for recent arrivals.
Share their interests, such as photography, etc. Learn as much as you can from them about the educational system in their country, the role of women, distinctive food and eating habits, and family life. Be sure to inquire if they have pictures of their families, and write to their family if this is appropriate. In short, learn about every aspect of life just as you would want to learn in a different country and as they want to learn about America.
Remember that simple things, such as how to use a laundromat, bus routes and fare, the names of foods and how to select them in a cafeteria, and other seemingly simple things may be a great mystery to them. They will appreciate help as long as it isn't given in a condescending or patronizing manner.
Be alert to help with English. After you've gotten to know them, suggest that they write down words and phrases they don't understand. Idioms can be particularly confusing, like "hot dog," "I gave him a hand," "what's up," "what's going down", "don't have a cow", etc. In conversation be sure to speak distinctly and slowly, but not loudly.
Learn a few words in their language. Most students are delighted to teach phrases in their language, such as "hello," "goodbye," etc.
Find out what the national holidays and festivals are in their countries and send greetings.
How to Witness
We have emphasized the danger of forcing religious discussion. However, if we are praying for our friends every day, the Holy Spirit will give natural opportunities to share with them what we have found in Jesus Christ. Personal conversation will usually develop very naturally, often in response to questions they may ask us about our faith or our ideas on various matters. Discussion about such questions as the meaning of life, life after death, how a person can have fellowship with the living God, how one can have moral power, etc., can be very profitable.
When international students are in your home to visit, carry on your normal customs, taking time to explain briefly what you do and why it's important to you. Explain briefly that it's your custom to give thanks for food and then say grace as always. If it's your custom, read a passage of Scripture (in a modern version if possible) and perhaps make one or two comments about it and discuss any questions that may arise. This is not the time to preach a sermon. When you pray, don't single out your friends and pray for their conversion. However, if appropriate, pray that their work or studies may be successful and that their families may be preserved and blessed of God in every way.
We should never insist that our friends come to church with us, but we should invite them to come and encourage them to do so if they show interest. A church social event may be a good non-threatening first time exposure to the people in our church. If they attend worship services with us, the service should be explained in advance. And if possible, prepare the people in church beforehand. Our friends should be given a warm welcome, but never "buttonholed" or asked in public if they are Christians. It is important to realize that churchgoing, in itself, is usually not enough to give them a clear picture of the gospel. Frequently their English comprehension is not sufficient to grasp the totality of the message.
In addition, there are concepts, such as God's being a person rather than an impersonal force, that are totally foreign to many internationals and often have to be explained in several ways and with various illustrations before they are comprehended. The need for personal discussion of what has been said is most important, to be sure that comprehension is adequate.
One way to foster such discussion and comprehension is through the coffee hour or dinner meetings mentioned previously. At these, international students and Americans meet together informally for a social time. Then someone gives a ten or twenty minute presentation of some basic aspect of Christianity, or there could be an investigative Bible study. During this time there is a discussion in which people are free to exchange ideas and to ask questions.
Over a period of a year, such topics as, "What is God Like?," "Who is Jesus Christ?," "Why Did He Die?," "The Nature of Man," "What is the Basis for Right or Wrong?," "The Good Life," "Can there be Peace in the World?," "The Fact and Meaning of the Resurrection," "What is Christianity?," "How to Become a Christian," etc., could be discussed.
It is essential that the one speaking be qualified to do so in terms and expressions that the students will understand and to be prepared to answer questions that may be asked. This person must also be one who will not react to criticism and disagreement, and be willing to let adherents of other faiths present their points of view if they desire.
Where monthly discussions have been held, weekly Bible studies often have been arranged for those who show interest, and these have been effective.
International students also should be encouraged to participate in the relevant activities of the local InterVarsity group on campus. Conferences and other events for internationals are held throughout the United States and Canada during academic breaks, and over Christmas and New Year's. While these conferences are planned for international students, your participation is both invited and needed as well. Details on these conferences are available from InterVarsity’s International Student Ministry.
At the appropriate time it would be good to give your international friends a copy of the New Testament or of the entire Bible in modern English. A modern translation is essential for your international friends' understanding. It would also be good to give them a copy of the Scriptures in their own language if they don't already have one.
These can be obtained at nominal cost from the American Bible Society. Books and booklets that are relevant and understandable might be of real help to your friends, and should be given to them as seems appropriate. They should not be flooded with literature, however.
It is most important that, if your friends should indicate they are not at all interested in Christianity, you nevertheless continue the friendship, thus demonstrating to them that you're genuinely interested in them as persons. Our objective is not to convert people. Only God the Holy Spirit can do that.
It is our privilege to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ in a human life and to share verbally the good news of the gospel. The result we must leave to God, but we must be faithful to the commission He has given us to befriend these students the whole time they're in this country and then to continue to correspond with them when they return home.
Tips on Hospitality
An invitation should be clear and definite. If possible, call for the student at his or her residence. It is most essential to learn to pronounce your friend's name correctly in advance. If you're not quite sure, ask for it to be written out and to be pronounced for you so you can practice it until you can say it correctly.
It is sometimes better to invite two students for the first visit rather than just one, since they're much more at ease with another friend present. It's often good to invite a student who has been previously entertained in the home, along with a new guest. Wives or husbands and children should certainly be included also.
It is important to realize that students from certain backgrounds have dietary restrictions. Muslims and Jews do not eat any kind of pork or ham and could be quite offended if it were served in their presence. Hindus and Buddhists often do not eat beef; some may be strict vegetarians. Lamb, chicken and scale fish are the most universally accepted forms of meat to serve. Catholics might not eat meat on Fridays. It may be that your particular guest may not practice any of these restrictions, but it's best to observe them for the fast visit and then to inquire as to whether they are observed. Serving a variety of rice, vegetables and salads is a safe beginning.
Rice is a staple food all over the Far and Middle East. Students from these areas very much appreciate the opportunity to eat it. You can easily learn from the students what kinds of food they prefer. Don't force them to eat or urge them to eat things that may not appeal to them. However, in some cultures it is impolite to accept the first invitation to have more, and food should be offered more than once.
Don't feel you must entertain elaborately. Students appreciate anything that is done nicely for them. Generally, they don't like to be considered as special guests but prefer to fit into the regular routine. Be sure to invite them back. Students can be frustrated or confused by one time experiences of hospitality. They would like to penetrate more deeply into American life through the eyes of one person or family that they can get to know well. The students may feel a sense of failure in some way if they are not invited back a second time.
Above all, be spontaneous and never look upon international students as a curiosity. Approach your guests in the spirit of the learner.
When Students Leave Your Area
When students return home or transfer to another campus, contact should be maintained with them by correspondence. Christmas or New Year's greetings should be sent. Whether or not to send a small gift will depend on the nature of your relationship (a sense of obligation to respond in kind is strong in some cultures).
See InterVarsity's International Student Ministry
This article was previously published as Guide To International Friendship.