By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
KNOXVILLE — Carly Jiaxin He of China visited the Baptist Collegiate Ministry Center at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville with her friend, Ladda Reed, who is from Thailand.
She felt comfortable as she enjoyed the luncheons for UTK students and met other students, even internationals just hanging out, playing ping-pong, and relaxing on some of the sofas.
Reed told Jiaxin He about “Coffee and Conversation” for international and American students at the BCM which Jiaxin He visited. Soon she was attending regularly, making a friend of her partner, practicing English, and getting to know America. She and Reed began talking about Jesus. Her mother was a Christian but she wasn’t.
Today, just about a year later, Jiaxin He is a “follower of Christ,” reported Samantha Hawes, associate campus minister, UTK BCM. She also is the international ministry coordinator of the BCM and lives in one of its apartments.
Jiaxin He is one of several international students who have become Christians in the past two years through the BCM, said Hawes. One of the main factors is that the BCM started offering Coffee and Conversation through its partnership with Bridges International, a Christian ministry at UTK for internationals.
About 50 students, half internationals “from all over the world,” said Hawes, and half “American” BCM participants, gather at the BCM weekly for Coffee and Conversation, she reported.
As two students sit across from one another for several weeks and converse, “friendships begin to blossom,” said Hawes. Then the international student often invites the American to their house for a meal.
“Hospitality works in many, many cultures,” she noted. In fact, people in other cultures are more likely than Americans to invite people into their homes, she has learned.
Cultural festivals for the two groups also have been held at the BCM center.
UTK student Hannah Willoughby found time in her busy schedule which includes studying for degrees in nuclear engineering and Japanese to be the international ministry leader for the BCM last year. She befriended a group of athletes from South Korea she met through the BCM and Bridges International. They were in Knoxville for six months.
Soon Willoughby, from Georgia, and other BCM participants, saw several of the South Koreans attend Bible study at the BCM and go to church with them. Also Willoughby, who speaks Japanese, became close to one young man in the group who also spoke Japanese and was not a Christian. Though he has returned home, the two are still in touch and Willoughby is still talking to him about becoming a Christian, said Hawes.
Many Muslims are also in the mix of internationals in and out of the BCM, she added.
Hawes and her husband, Kyle, became close to a family from Saudi Arabia through the BCM. For about a year, the couple developed relationships with the Muslim family, which includes two young boys. Hawes even was invited to an all-female gathering of Muslim women with the wife and the couple hosted the family for Thanksgiving dinner.
Hawes is still in touch with the wife though the family returned to Saudi Arabia.
“These weren’t my Muslim friends. These were my super cool international friends,” she said. “The friendship didn’t feel any different than any other friendship,” Hawes explained.
As they became close, that “changed everything about how we were able to share the gospel and able to be seed planters in their lives.”
Thankfully, Bridges International needed Americans to help them and a place on campus to meet, observed Hawes. The BCM has a “plethora of Americans” and a center on campus, thanks to “Baptists who give to the Cooperative Program,” she added. Credit also goes to Daniel Williams of Morristown who helped start the partnership while a UTK student and BCM leader. Williams is now a journeyman missionary through the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
Rodney Norvell, BCM UTK director, reported, “The world has come to Tennessee. The potential is incredible, but we have to take time to see those around us.
“International students are so grateful for interaction with Americans. … They are often very open to visiting church with you, but you need to offer to take them. Many do not have cars so they are eager to travel off campus and see things,” he observed.
The campus minister also noted that “most internationals are very open to talking about spiritual things and they do not become offended if you ask to share what you believe, but also be ready to listen graciously to their ideas about faith.”
“We know that these labors are producing fruit,” said Hawes.
“We’ve been called to reach the nations.”