By Thom Thorton
Campus Ministry Specialist, Vanderbilt University, Nashville
The final words from Jesus to us before the ascension, as recorded in Acts 1:8 commands us, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (HCSB) For centuries, our primary missions initiative has been to go and to take the message of Christ to the ends of the earth. While this is a beautiful calling, what if we could also take the gospel to the ends of the earth without ever leaving our own community?
College campuses across our state have seen a rapid increase in the number of international students enrolled in both undergraduate and graduate programs. At Vanderbilt, the international student population has grown by almost 25 percent in the last 10 years. Currently, we have 1,810 international students at Vanderbilt University from 117 countries. This represents almost 15 percent of the total student enrollment at Vanderbilt University.
Baptist Collegiate Ministries and our local partnering churches have an amazing opportunity to impact our world through ministering to students who have been placed in our communities while they pursue their educational goals. Many international students’ first experience with Christianity will be while at college through a relationship with a fellow student. At the BCM at Vanderbilt Place, we have seen several international students accept Christ over the past few years. Many of these students have returned to their home countries where they can share the message of Christ with their families and friends in places where few of us would have access. These decisions were nurtured through the ministry of engaged students and supportive churches taking seriously the call to be witnesses.
The BCM at Vanderbilt Place is involved in several different ministries to reach and impact international students. The university initiates some ministries, like First Friends, while others are BCM outreach initiatives. Each of these ministries, whether from the university or the BCM, has the goal to develop strong friendships, to be open to discussion and interaction, and to encourage the sharing of the truth of the gospel in grace and love, through our words and through our actions.
First Friends facilitates cross-cultural exchange through friendship, connecting Vanderbilt University international students with Americans on and off campus. An annual program coordinated by International Students & Scholar Services (ISSS), First Friends begins each academic year as hundreds of students travel from around the world to study at Vanderbilt University. International students join First Friends to experience American life and culture. At the same time, they bring unique experiences from their home countries that they are ready and willing to share with new American friends.
The BCM at Vanderbilt Place has developed relationships with several international student organizations and international ministries. Our outreach team works with the Malaysian Student Organization, using our building and kitchen as a space for preparing meals together. We work with AACF (Asian American Christian Fellowship), a ministry of InterVarsity, providing space and support for their outreach and worship services. We provide rides for Chinese students for the celebration of Chinese New Years and host events at the BCM for various international student groups.
If you or your church are interested in being more involved in ministering to international students, contact your local BCM director or your association. There are international students across our state who can benefit from connection with loving and caring Christ-centered men and women and BCM directors are always ready to partner with local churches that want to see the message of Christ advanced. While never wanting to discourage anyone from going on mission, let me also encourage you to be engaged in the missions God has brought right to your door.