Praying for International Students: Welcoming Students During a Pandemic

Editor’s note: Terry Dykstra is beginning his fourth year this fall as campus minister for RUF-I at Texas. Previously from Georgia, he’s married to Mary Rose and together they have a son named Arthur. 

As a campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship International (RUF-I) at  the University of Texas in Austin, I have the privilege of welcoming the nations and exploring the gospel with them. Each year, thousands of international students from more than 100 countries come to Texas to study.

It has been a joy to welcome these friends by picking them up at the airport, welcoming them into American homes, and creating opportunities for them to connect with each other, with Americans, and to experience American culture and share their home culture. We also have the privilege to explore the Bible with the students coming to Texas from all over the world! Normally, we meet weekly with a dinner provided thanks to the generous support of our ministry partners and have group discussions through the gospel of John or the parables of Jesus. We have an opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus with those who have never heard or read it, not to mention those in whose countries such exploration is prohibited.

Of course, this is how things were before COVID-19 hit.

Not only did the global pandemic sequester students to their apartments and laboratories, but a now –rescinded policy to deport students whose schools were going online to prevent spread of COVID-19 made students question whether they were truly welcomed and valued in the United States.

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We didn’t need a global pandemic nor a hostile government policy to threaten the appeal of America or to give the Church an opportunity to show the love and hospitality of Christ, yet God has sovereignly allowed both. And perhaps the opportunity for the Church is emphasized because of these things.

Student organizations like RUF International do not exist for the sole purpose of getting students involved in those organizations. They exist to bring students into the Church. They exist to bring unbelievers into the Kingdom of God.

This is always true, but with programming limits and reluctance to gather in large groups due to the pandemic our normal, ordinary hospitality – distanced and precautionary of course – might have greater efficacy in a time when face-to-face (not on-screen) interaction may be scarce. The Church has an opportunity to welcome the nations at a time when students may not be bombarded as much as usual by student organizations and on-campus programming. Due to social distancing and quarantine measures, students may also feel more isolation than normal as they are thousands of miles away from home without regular, physical gatherings to look forward to.

The Church can wisely welcome the nations into our homes, parks, and communities, showing them: “We’re glad you’re here. We want to know you, we want to have a relationship with you, and we want you to be a part of this community.”

It seems part of what God is doing in this season – and far be it from me to pretend I know God’s thoughts – is to destroy the idols of all, but especially those of international students. Since March, when COVID effectively shut down Texas and the rest of the U.S., I’ve been asking students: “What are you hoping for?”

Like all of us, they hope for a vaccine, for a return to normalcy. They hope they can still get a job or that they can go back home in the winter break or next summer at least. These are all good and worthwhile things. While some seem more imminent than others, none are guaranteed.

Contrast that with the hope of the gospel. A colleague says the Bible tells us “the true story of the whole world.” The Bible gives hope since it confirms things are not the way they are supposed to be, because evil is present. But rather than leave it up to mankind, God himself entered the world he made, subjected himself to mankind’s limitations, even death, in order to remove suffering, injustice, and evil from his very good creation.

This season has exposed our idols for the frauds they are; they don’t give hope or life. But there is a God, who made the universe and everything in it, and he gives hope to those who trust in him, without payment.

The Church has an opportunity to shine with the hope of Jesus Christ in the darkness of this global pandemic. While we may not have as many students coming this academic year, we still have many international students from all over the world in our communities. They are looking for hope, for fellowship, for relationships, and for rest. We have our homes. Many of us have yards. Here in Austin I’ve asked for volunteers to host small groups of students (two to four) at least monthly for an outdoor or distanced gathering, sharing dinner, tea, or just enjoying time together. My hope is that students will still experience hospitality, despite the loss of our normal events. My hope is that community will form and God will make himself known through his Church. Perhaps these and similar opportunities can happen anywhere!

Community and rest will be the most felt needs by students in this season. The Church is poised to meet those needs as God made us for community (and calls us into one) and demonstrated the gift of rest he gives to us and demonstrated from creation. Let’s pray that God would meet the nations in this season, and would mobilize our churches to welcome the sojourner in the name of Jesus. Pray for creative and safe solutions and approaches, both virtually and physically. As we all adjust to doing more work in the same spaces we have fun and rest, let’s pray for international students, who face tremendous pressure, to experience the freedom and opportunity to rest found in Christ.


How could your church welcome sojourning international students in this season?

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