For a group of volunteers in Bakersfield, California, engaging in cross-cultural ministry doesn’t involve crossing oceans.
Jerilyn Stewart is the coordinator of a ministry serving international college students on two campuses in Bakersfield. Stewart, who attends Laurelglen Bible Church, has been involved in ministering to international students for more than 20 years.
Her desire to minister arose after she took a class through the U.S. Center for World Mission that focused on the history of missions and effective ways to minister.
“[The class] showed you God throughout the Bible and his heart for the nations,” Stewart says.
Stewart talked with her husband about getting involved in international missions, but with children at home and their own business, she decided to look for ways to be involved in her home community.
Stewart began by hosting international students, but after a couple of years she wanted to get more involved. About 18 years ago, she began volunteering part-time with International Students Incorporated (ISI). The organization trained her and helped her launch the ministry in Bakersfield. She was also joined by others from Bridges International, the international student ministry arm of Campus Crusade for Christ.
ISI is a national organization, present on more than 670 campuses across the U.S., that has been training Americans to meet international students’ needs since the mid-1950s, according to their website. They equip volunteers, called Friendship Partners, to help these students adjust to American culture while introducing them to the gospel.
These Friendship Partners work to develop relationships with students while meeting practical needs such as rides to and from the airport, shopping trips for dorm supplies and opportunities for English language learning. Many volunteers also invite students into their homes for meals or take them out for coffee.
The ministry relies on the generosity of its volunteers, but Stewart says it’s “a very cost-effective way to do cross-cultural evangelism.”
For the last 12 years, Stewart has been volunteering full-time as a Ministry Representative. She now coordinates the pairing of students with Friendship Partners and plans group excursions, which have included trips to the mountains, the beach and to visit California’s giant sequoia trees.
Stewart is typically on the campus of California State University, Bakersfield four days a week. She also works with students at Bakersfield College.
On Tuesdays, Stewart hosts Tuesday Talk Time, an opportunity for the students to gather and learn about each other, American customs and other cultures while practicing their English language skills.
Stewart says a particularly special activity for many students is when they work together with their Friendship Partner to prepare a meal from their home country.
“It’s the most labor-intensive thing we do, but it’s also one of the best things,” Stewart says.
Currently, Stewart estimates there are around 50 volunteers or volunteer families involved. They reach around 200 students, although the involvement levels of those students differ. Some come regularly to events and meet one-on-one with Friendship Partners, while others may only attend an event once or twice during the year.
She says some students can be suspicious or wary at first, so they start by attending a group activity or meeting with their Friendship Partner on campus. She organizes a welcome party at the beginning of each year for students to get to know each other and the volunteers.
Providing a safe place
Stewart promotes the ministry by word of mouth and is always looking for new people who may be interested in befriending a student. She regularly has volunteers from several churches throughout Bakersfield, including five to 10 from Laurelglen Bible Church.
Julie Smaby, who attends The Bridge Bible Church, is one of the Friendship Partners recruited by Stewart. She first heard about the ministry years ago when she attended Laurelglen with Stewart, but at the time wasn’t sure about getting involved.
Then Smaby lived for three years in Los Angeles, where she was exposed to a multicultural work environment. When she moved back to Bakersfield, she realized she missed the diversity she experienced in LA and decided to get involved with the international student ministry. In the last year, she has developed relationships with students from Japan, China and Korea.
She and her husband have hosted students in their home for a few days at a time; other times they’ve simply taken students out for coffee to learn more about them.
This fall, Smaby has been paired with a student in her mid-20s from Germany who works for an international accounting firm. Smaby is an accountant herself; she says that Stewart does a good job of pairing students with volunteers with whom they share an interest or other way to connect. Smaby says many of the students are adventurous, and the ministry helps provide them with a safe place to experience their new culture and develop friendships.
“They’re very brave and courageous to come,” Smaby says. “They have a need for connection and a place to be and know that they’re safe.”
Stewart provides training for Friendship Partners at the beginning of the school year that focuses in part on awareness of cultural differences and techniques for building friendships and sharing faith effectively. She is also available throughout the year to answer questions and provide help with specific situations.
Volunteers share; God convicts
Stewart emphasizes the relationship-building aspect of the ministry. While the heart of the ministry is to share God’s love with the students, she says it is important for volunteers not to force conversations about their faith, but to instead build a friendship and offer the opportunity to discuss faith if the students are interested or have questions.
The two Korean students who stayed with Smaby and her husband for a few days were interested and attended church with them. Smaby shared with them what she believes and simply gave them the opportunity to think on it.
“Our priority is to tell about the Lord, and God’s part is to bring it about and convict them,” says Smaby. “We don’t have to convince them, just share what we believe and who God is.”
Stewart says, “This type of ministry is a great way to evangelize students from closed countries where it is impossible to do traditional missionary work.”
Smaby has found it fairly easy to build relationships with the international students.
“People are people in any culture,” she says. “You can always find a connection.”
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has two children.