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Foreign missions at home

Some churches and ministries are preaching the gospel to the world by reaching out to international students in America

Foreign missions at home

Joel Mercer teaches English as a Second Language. (Robin Rayne/Genesis)

Angie Mercer wondered if she was the only person freaking out in the hospital room. The others—an international student from China, his pregnant wife, and his mother—wore stoic expressions. The mother-to-be was deep in labor, yet the doctor had not arrived, and the understaffed nurses were busy elsewhere.

The student’s mother, an obstetrician-gynecologist in China, tightened her lips and told her son in Mandarin all the things that needed to be done, right away, and the son interpreted her recommendations to Mercer, who quickly relayed their needs to the nurses. After many active years serving in international student ministry, Mercer learned enough about Chinese culture to know that her foreign friends were more anxious than she was—they just didn’t show it.

This was 2009 in Atlanta, Ga., five years into Mercer’s and her husband Joel’s involvement in international student ministry. The birth of this Chinese couple’s baby—a healthy boy named Andy—was the fifth delivery Mercer witnessed with her international friends. In this case the couple, both Ph.D. students at Georgia Tech, called Mercer around 5 a.m. from the hospital for help. Mercer rushed over to serve as their advocate, since none of them were confident in their English or familiar with the American healthcare system.

The couple were not Christians, nor did they profess faith in Christ while in Atlanta. But they attended Mercer’s church for Sunday service and the Sunday school class that her church offers for international students. After they graduated, the couple continued sending Mercer Mother’s Day cards. Although they’ve gradually lost contact, Mercer hopes the couple will remember that time a blond, twinkly-eyed Christian American woman had given them a voice (with a Southern twang) when they felt they had none—and perhaps the next time they encounter another Christian, they would be inclined to listen to the gospel.

Reformed University Fellowship

RUF students at Lake Day.  (Reformed University Fellowship)

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS have been attending American colleges in never-before-seen numbers. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of international students in the United States spiked from 500,000 to more than a million. (The numbers declined some in 2017.) China sends the largest group of students, followed by India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—which means many of these international students are atheists, Hindus, and Muslims.

Although the majority of international students don’t profess faith in Christ before they return to their countries, those who experienced positive interactions with local Christians hold favorable views of Christianity and the church, said Douglas Shaw, president of International Students Inc. (ISI), a Christian organization that ministers to international college students. These students tend to become influential leaders in their native lands as politicians, educators, and executives.

Yet according to ISI, about 75 percent of international students never step foot into an American home—an incredible opportunity lost for churches to welcome the nations, said Al LaCour, coordinator of Reformed University Fellowship International (RUF-I), a PCA campus ministry. In 2004 when the Metro Atlanta Presbytery sent LaCour, then a 56-year-old church planter and pastor, to start an RUF chapter for American students at Georgia Tech, the university ranked No. 20 for having the most international students among U.S. campuses but didn’t have a single campus ministry exclusively for international students. LaCour founded the first one with RUF-I (aka International Buzz) and after 30 years of church planting, switched his ministry from local to global missions. 

The 70-year-old veteran pastor now oversees 15 RUF-I ministries across the nation. Part of his vocation involves “poking eyes” (as former RUF coordinator Tom Cannon termed it) at PCA churches and conferences so church members can discover a field ripe for harvest: Just as God commanded Israel to welcome the foreigner, God charges the church to practice Biblical hospitality, which means to love strangers like family members.

Most local churches think of global missions as sending out missionaries overseas, which requires tremendous funds and skills and commitment, but the welcoming of foreigners who are here requires only a love for Christ and a willingness to make room for new relationships, LaCour said: “It’s one of the most cost-effective ways to fulfill the Great Commission.”


Although the majority of international students don’t profess faith in Christ before they return to their countries, those who experienced positive interactions with local Christians hold favorable views of Christianity and the church.

SOME CHURCHES HAVE caught that vision. St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Atlanta made a commitment as a church to serving international students in the city. The decision came when the church’s missions department was going through some restructuring and looking for ways to be more strategic in doing missions other than sending money overseas. Trevor Williams, volunteer coordinator of St. Paul’s missions team, said the lightbulb flicked on after hearing LaCour’s definition of Biblical hospitality: “We’re nine blocks away from Georgia Tech. So we had to ask: Why aren’t we doing more with the international students?”

St. Paul’s now partners with RUF-I and local churches of other denominations to organize events and provide services for international students such as airport pickups. This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, members of St. Paul’s took 36 students and visiting scholars on a tour around the city’s MLK Jr. National Historic Site. The day ended with a home-cooked Vietnamese lunch at St. Paul’s sanctuary, where senior pastor Tolivar Wills gave a short speech about the significance of MLK Jr. Day: “What drove Dr. King was the belief that all humans are made in the image of God.” For many of these students, it was the first time they had ever stepped foot into a church. Some came back, and several became Facebook friends with Wills and other church members.

Williams said it’s hard to measure the impact of the MLK Jr. trip, but such events are already blessing church members with more opportunities to serve globally. Any additional developments with students, he said, is just gravy: “We don’t count our success with conversions, but see it as fitting into the context of what God is already doing. This is long-term missions.”

Robin Rayne/Genesis

Joel and Angie Mercer with students.  (Robin Rayne/Genesis)

IN CORNFIELD-SURROUNDED MUNCIE, IND., where the racial demographic is less diverse, churches such as the Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) team up with ISI, Cru’s Bridges International, and the Friendship Family program at Ball State University to reach out to international students. WPC provides a Bible class every Sunday morning to international students using Bible study curriculum from ISI and Bridges, and church members extend the relationship by inviting students to meals and providing transportation to airports, supermarkets, and doctor’s appointments. The church also started a furniture donation program when a student from Kuwait asked a church member if he could borrow a used mattress. When other local churches learned about the furniture program, donations poured in: Beds, desks, and dressers overfilled the church’s garage until two pastors had to open up their own garages.

When Hope Robinson, who runs the furniture program and Bible classes, first got involved in international student ministry, she had no knowledge of or interaction with other cultures. Now she and her husband visit graduates and professors in China who need spiritual encouragement. Robinson said some church members were at first anxious about approaching foreign students: Would they understand us? What do we talk about? But as church volunteers interact with these students, they realize that ministering to international students is similar to building regular friendships, Robinson said: “You’re just being a friend. … God does the work. We are His hands.”

Unlike many American students jaded toward Christianity, foreign students are generally curious about the Christian faith and open to discussions about religion. RUF-I’s weekly “Dinner and Discovery” event at Georgia Tech attracts about 50 students each week. A recent gathering drew students from all around the globe for a catered Mexican-American dinner of chicken fajitas, salsa, and tortilla chips. The students then divided into table groups, where volunteers from local churches led discussions on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

One table included a married couple from France, a Muslim from Turkey, and a graduate student from China. None of them were Christians, but all engaged actively in the discussion about anger, heart issues, and love for enemies. When they read Matthew 5:20 about the hypocritical righteousness of the Pharisees, the Turkish student asked, “Why do we say the Pharisees don’t love God even though they obey God?” The French student had an issue with Matthew 5:22, in which Jesus tells the people not to be angry with a brother or sister: “But you can’t stop yourself from feeling anger. I think it’s more logical to say, ‘Do not act in anger.’” To which the Turkish student piped up, “Ah, but if anger in the heart is not resolved, it builds up and your action will reflect that at some point, no?” Later the Chinese student asked why Jesus would tell people to settle matters with someone who has something against them: “If it’s the other person who’s angry, not me, then what’s the point of trying to reconcile?”

Table leaders and campus ministry leaders often reach out and meet one-on-one with students who show interest. That’s what happened with Sam Zhu, a 24-year-old electrical engineering graduate student from China. Like many other international students, Zhu decided to attend “Dinner and Discovery” because he was bored and it seemed “interesting.”

Zhu remembers that the first event was so packed that the food quickly ran out—a bad first impression on any Chinese. Then the white-haired man sitting beside Zhu turned to smile at him, and soon Joel Mercer and Zhu were engaged in a lively conversation about the Bible. That night Zhu, who once regarded the Bible as literature, left craving more spiritual food, while Mercer had trouble falling asleep from excitement—he knew a seeker when he met one, and Zhu was one. 

Later Mercer invited Zhu to Westminster Presbyterian Church, and Zhu continued attending after his first visit. Zhu, an expert in mathematical formulas and scientific theories, said certain Biblical concepts such as Christ’s resurrection and grace flummoxed him. So he kept asking questions, and Mercer and other Christians took the time to answer them. The ultimate “sinker,” Zhu told me, was his acceptance of God’s grace: “The fact that God wants a personal relationship with me? That’s beyond my understanding—that’s grace.” In July 2016, Zhu was baptized in the same church. Among those celebrating with him were Angie and Joel Mercer, other Christians who befriended him, and his non-Christian college friends. When he graduated last May, the Mercers took him and his parents out for brunch.

It was a whirlwind of activities for the Mercers that graduation week, as it always has been since they began working with international students 14 years ago. They’ve attended numerous graduation ceremonies, family meals, going-away parties, and baby showers for the international students they have befriended over the years. In the last 11 years since they started weekly ESL classes in their church, they’ve served more than 900 students from 30 different countries including Iran, Ecuador, Chile, and Japan. 

Last year, the Mercers traveled to South Korea and China and visited more than 30 international students whom they met through their ministry. One former ESL student, now a brain surgeon in China, woke up at the crack of dawn to catch a three-hour train ride to meet them for brunch in Shenzhen. He had started reading the Bible the Mercers gave him. He said it brings him peace. Later as they took a walk by the Shenzhen River, Joel Mercer explained the gospel to him. 

The Mercers, who both grew up in the culturally homogenous, racially segregated Deep South, later marveled, “Who would have ever imagined we would be doing this?” They didn’t have the linguistic skills or the training of traditional missionaries overseas, but they knew how to practice fine Southern hospitality—and found themselves reaching people of various nations and tribes.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 04/05/2018 01:43 pm

    ESL classes are a wonderful way to reach people from foreign lands. I attended a church that still does them, and my mother, who taught them, has developed long-term relationships with people from completely different cultures and religions. Most of the students may not return to their homelands, but they have friends and family with whom they communicate.

  •  Cavanaugh's picture
    Posted: Wed, 04/11/2018 11:34 am

    i would have thought that the WORLD "style guide" would call for referring to women carrying babies as "mothers" - not "mothers-to-be".