I hadn't expected to be sipping herbal tea with an Iraqi, an Iranian and an Eritrean (a country bordering Sudan, Ethiopia… basically it’s a troubled area) on a Thursday night in Sunderland.
I’d gone to the Northern city, where over 17,000 students spend their university years, to serve and encourage the local churches in the area in their crucial role of reaching and loving students.
Usually my job involves talking to British students about sharing their faith with their mates.
The vast majority of local churches who are engaging with student mission do so with British students in mind, and understandably so.
We want to be brilliant at connecting with our own culture and we don’t want to ignore all the thousands of home-grown students yet to know how good this Jesus news is that we have to share. They speak our language, they went to similar schools to us perhaps, we at least have some common ground right?
Yet many of us are aware there is an incredible amount of opportunity and potential for student mission with those studying with us from abroad. It just feels like a bigger ask to try reach them too, when we struggle to reach our own mates who share our language and culture. Being in Sunderland on that Thursday night in February reminded me once again how, with very little effort in terms of fancy branding and clever complicated schemes, international students can be gathered and befriended by local church communities who are willing to actually engage.
Bethany City Church
Bethany City Church in Sunderland host a café alongside some keen folk from other churches and each week they get a crowd of students who don’t know Jesus, showing up to play football and table tennis, drink coffee and eat together, practise their English and be offered prayer. I joined in with this café during my #fusionroadtrip visit and had a very natural, interesting and passionate conversation about Jesus and faith with each person I had the privilege of sitting with. We had so many different backgrounds and expressions of religion there, God-chats were normal simply because it was obvious it would be a relevant and interesting way to connect.
I actually found it much easier sharing Jesus unapologetically with the international students and asylum seekers (they both found home here in the church cafe), language wasn’t a major barrier and to be honest I enjoyed listening to their stories and letting them practice English. I got a student along with me who goes to the cafe’s host church but is British and more local and had never thought to come to an international cafe before. She loved it. In fact she was amazed at how much fun it was meeting people from so many different places.
What would it take for you to chat to your international housemate or course mate and ask them to teach you about their culture and country?
How easy would it be for your local church student stuff to include an occasional cafe-gathering where everyone made a special effort to invite international students we live around to come for a “proper brew” (an education in itself)?
Broadly speaking, the UK church hasn’t yet stepped up into being a home for international students.
Some do some stuff, most don’t know where to start.
My local church hasn't got it sorted for one. But I reckon, like with any person from any where, maybe the best place to begin is to actually see and love the one person in front of you and reach out, make friends. I guess big crowds in cafes starts there.