At North Oak Community Church in Hays, Kan., sharing a meal provides the backdrop for relationship between church families and international students attending Fort Hays State University (FHSU).
It all began 30 years ago, when Rachel Ediger and her husband, Ken, who pastors NOCC, first came to Hays. Sensing a need and seeking to fill it, the Edigers began inviting international students into their home for meals and other family activities.
Today, as the ministry has grown, that passion has translated to others in the church, and together families reach out to international students through Sunday meals and a Christmas event.
“Loneliness (is) very definitely a challenge for almost every international student I’ve known,” Ediger says. “So really, what I would consider a minimal offer of friendship is very meaningfully received usually.”
As the group of students the Edigers invited into their home grew, “Sunday suppers” were born. Families agree to open their homes for meals and provide drinks. Ediger coordinates the food, making a schedule for the semester with four families providing food for meals each week. Ediger purchases paper goods for the meal with church funds, invites students and arranges transportation—all volunteers—to bring students to the supper.
Time in an American home can be rare
Sunday suppers are scheduled to accommodate students’ schedules and avoid busier times of year.
“It’s a chance for an international student to be in an American home, which is kind of rare sometimes,” Ediger says. “It’s really sad. A lot of students can come to America, and, especially if they only come in a one-year program, it’s easy to be here a whole year and never be in an American home.”
More than 300 international students attend FHSU, Ediger says, a majority of whom are Chinese. Many do not believe there is a God, but that is not to say they are anti-God, she says.
“Sunday suppers is one of the main things our church does to give the gift of hospitality and plant seeds of friendship and give opportunity to actually meet real Christian Americans,” Ediger says, adding that through the suppers, friendships are born, allowing space for deep conversations about faith to happen.
As many as 26 international students attend any given Sunday supper.
Families share their holiday traditions
Another outreach North Oak has organized the past two years is “The Christian Tradition of Christmas,” a Christmas tour of three homes, which Ediger advertises in FHSU’s international newsletter.
Students split into three groups and spend about 30 minutes in each home, during which families present a Christian American Christmas tradition. Traditions have included a discussion of decorations centering around a nativity collection, making Christmas cookies—students get to decorate a cookie, and sharing about Christmas music—students learn “Silent Night.”
FHSU’s international staff helps with transportation.
After the tour, students are given the option of meeting in North Oak’s gathering area to hear the biblical account of Christmas. Last year, everyone chose to stay for the message, Ediger says, during which Ken used a large nativity to explain the Christmas story and share about God’s love.
In addition to having three families open their homes for the tour, church people help as drivers and snack-makers.
The event has grown from 35 or 40 attendees the first year to 60 last year, and Ediger says she hopes to continue the event this year.
Friendships lead to faith discussions
Ediger says these events allow friendships with students to form, which can lead to opportunities to share about faith.
“The big events aren’t necessarily so much for one-on-one conversation, although at the Sunday suppers, many conversations are just opportunities to learn about each other and then oftentimes opportunities to share faith and how that fits into our life,” she says. “I’ve found most international students, even if they believe something quite differently, (are) very interested to know what we believe and why we believe it.”
Ediger first connected with the international student community through FHSU’s “Friendship Families” program, which pairs international students with local families. While that program no longer exists, Ediger and others have continued opportunities to get to know students through North Oak’s information table at FHSU’s back-to-school picnic, and by serving sloppy joes during another FHSU event.
Ediger says she sees the international student ministry as an opportunity to fulfill the mission mandate to preach the gospel to every nation.
“The world comes to us with international students,” she says. “Right here at home we have great opportunity with actually a lot more freedom than you might have by going and learning a whole other language in another country.”