Robert P. Harting, Jr.
How much would you give for a home-cooked meal? That was the question our international student posed after she and her family shared Thanksgiving with our family. Her answer was $100 worth of appreciation for our hospitality to them as they got better acquainted with their new surroundings. Giuseppina and her family from Venezuela are just one of the reasons why the Harting family of Middletown, Delaware, continues to participate in the host family program for international students at the University of Delaware.
How many people reading this article are still living in the first home in which they were raised? How many are residing in the same town, or county, or even state? Many of us as Americans have gone through the uncertain experience of moving between communities, with all the adjustments that that entails. Some would describe that experience as exciting, while others would describe it as scary. Most people, however, feel lonely during some phase of the transition.
"All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" An experience of loneliness is not unique to international students. God's Word is full of people in transition, and that challenges us with the question of how to minister to them. Abraham was called from Ur to the Promised Landa land he never possessed. Abraham died as an alien and a stranger in a land that he was supposed to inherit. Later, his great-grandson Joseph was sold as a slave into a different land, and that's only the beginning. Peter sums it all up when he reminds us that we are "aliens and strangers in the world" (1 Pet. 2:11).
Our neighbors are lonely when they first move in, and sometimes even longer. Some move to find greener pastures. Others displace themselves by choice, due to a desire to further their education. One knows little about the background of college students, especially when they hail from another country altogether. One student came from Nicaragua and had the image of burned bodies in her psychethe result of a political coup. Another student, Nadia, who was a roommate of my wife, Linda, during her undergraduate days, had come from Iran. She attempted to remain incognito during the Iranian crisis in 1979. When Nadia attended an Inter-Varsity event, she told Linda to "tell them I'm from Turkey."
When we first moved to Middletown, we established our own Thanksgiving tradition. Even though the University of Delaware was not part of our immediate community, we inquired about the availability of international students. We were assigned Jaime from Ecuador and Jaiyung from China. What a pair they made! Jaime was the head of agriculture in his country and was taking graduate courses in that field. When we arranged for him and his partner to tour a working American farm in our community, he was delighted.
Jaiyung, on the other hand, did not want to have anything to do with farms since he was all too familiar with forced farm labor back in mainland China. "I've hoed too many plots" was his excuse. On the other hand, it was a delight to take a new look at our own world through the eyes of this young Chinese man who was still acquiring ability in English. Playing with Christmas trains, or bowling for the first time, or even going for a walk around town could be a lively event with Jaiyung.
At one point in our stroll, he spied a directional sign with an arrow on it. When Linda attempted to attach a word to the symbol, he got all excited as he grabbed the back of his collar and said, "You mean Arrow like my shirt." He would be overwhelmed with the variety of choices in our small-town grocery store. "How do you decide what to eat?" he would ask. Later our gastronomic limits were tested by a seven-course Chinese meal he prepared for us the day after Thanksgiving, a meal that included a whole fish, head and all. Jaiyung could also become excited about the things of the Lord. He would ask Linda, "When did you know God indeed?"
It doesn't take much to touch a lonely heart. Each fall we would be assigned a new student and then given their phone number in order to get in touch. On one occasion, we were given the right number, but a different student was already living at the other end of the line. That was okayPing, who also came from China, was welcome. He graciously accepted our invitation, and a whole new world opened up as he eventually came to the Lord. After twenty-five years of communism, Ping could not comprehend how we could talk to him about God. But we kept on talking, which led him to hope that he "could believe in God like you some day."
Ping met with the director of Inter-Varsity at the University, Will Metzger, on a weekly basis, just going through the Bible. Linda was confident that he would respond, even though he felt like he was wasting Will Metzger's time. He had to be assured that the time devoted to him was part of Will's calling as a college worker and that it was definitely not a waste of time. Ping kept in touch, even through the Tiananmen Square crisis and despite his hesitation to be captured on video camera due to possible repercussions back home. Eventually, Ping's hope to believe in God was fulfilled, not only for himself, but for his twin brother, Ming, and other students, and their mother and father. As they had the opportunity to come to the United States, they came to the Lord. Ping recently married, and now he and his family are involved in a Chinese church.
How can we come alongside lonely people, people who are just moving in? What can we do to reach outside of our own lives to folks like these? For our international students, it might be as simple as orienting them to Wal-Mart or taking them to McDonald's for the first time. Having people over for a meal, whether it's your kind of food or theirs, is a natural place to start, since food is a common denominator in any culture. In order to come alongside anybody, we have to remind ourselves of what it was like to go through what they are experiencing. How did people reach out to you when you first moved in? How did the folks in the congregation take you in and make you feel welcome?
Beyond food for the body, we all need nourishment for the soul. Paul points out that the first quality of love is patience (1 Cor. 13:4). With international students, it takes patience to listen in order just to understand what they are saying. Patience is required to assimilate their cultural perspective while they are assimilating yours. Wipa, a young lady from Thailand, was extremely respectful and quiet. When we took her along to visit family, she was shocked that a child, even an adult child, would contradict in any way the pronouncements of one's mother. But this is America, isn't it? Maybe we have a few lessons to learn from our Thai visitors.
As we patiently open our homes and open up ourselves to all the lonely people, wherever they hail from, we are reminded of who we really are"aliens and strangers in the world." Do our visitors sense that we can be transparent with love for them? The more we interact with them, the more we realize how little we really know of what they have gone through, of what their eyes have seen.
Is the Lord developing in us the heart, the commitment it takes to devote our time to a person who is attempting to fill the spiritual void in his life? As aliens and strangers praying for those opportunities, we must watch out and prepare for more excitement than we might expect. As we open ourselves in prayer and open ourselves to others, students and other lonely people will be drawn to us, and they will notice a difference.
How can we support those who are attempting to cope with new and unfamiliar situations? The Lord will enable us to respond as he leads us into new territory. As Jesus has suggested, all it may take is "a cup of cold water in my name." After all, we are marked for eternity. Taking that perspective should move us to take the plunge, to make waves. As we cast our bread upon the waters, it does keep coming back to us fuller and fuller. Reaching out to unreached peoples is as simple as placing a phone call to the international host coordinator or dean of students at your local university.
The author is the pastor of Grace OPC in Middletown, Del. His article is based on a talk given by Mrs. Harting to the Community Women's Bible Study at Grace OPC. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2000.