Although we were raised with a healthy awareness of the world and a respect for other cultures, China was never really on our radar. That is why it was so surprising that my first trip there in 2001 and my wife’s in 2002 created such a deep and profound impact on our lives. It is not an exaggeration to say that those experiences changed everything from where we consider home, to the trajectory of our work, and to the makeup of our family through the miracle of adoption. On those first trips, our hearts were unlocked, and something buried deep was released.
It seemed funny to us at first that everyone who visits China does not necessarily come back with a longing to return and desire to move there. The fact is, we absolutely loved our trips to China and inevitably, two-week excursions to visit and serve with long-term workers just were not enough. We wanted to be those long-term workers! So, we did what China-smitten people do. We moved there for one year which actually turned into seven. There is still not a day that goes by that we do not reflect on those experiences with warm hearts.
Upon our return to America, we found that our passion for the place and love for the people only seemed to increase. Even though we left China, China never left us. As followers of Jesus, I think it is important we take a closer look when our hearts seem always to go in a certain direction. As the years began to stack up in America, we were reminded that the love we have for China is tethered to a calling, and even though our next step did not include a return to China (the place), God was still calling us to China (the people). We had to do something about that. So, we did what China-crazy people do. We launched a brand new campus ministry for international students from China at the beginning of a pandemic.
With our task settled and our timing flawless, the only thing left for us to consider was what to do next to actually build a ministry of this type from the ground up. Historically, a common avenue to develop meaningful relationships with international students was to meet felt and physical needs. Some furniture, an English lesson, and a ride to the grocery store was enough to get things rolling. However, the world has changed. Today, many Chinese students arrive in America and catch an Uber to their furnished apartment where Door Dash is waiting with dinner. Students possess a familiarity with US culture and life as well as the resources and information to make it here just fine.
However, what is harder to come by are unique opportunities to experience local places and connect with local people. Unfortunately, it is often the case that students come away from their university experience here in America disappointed because their time was primarily spent in classrooms, labs, and dorms while their connections were only with the Chinese student community on campus. We began to think there was room in that space for us to create unique events and make meaningful connections to help enrich the Chinese international student experience. To do this well, we have naturally drawn on our seven years of experience in China—tutoring, teaching, and spending time with students to inform our approach. Lessons learned and experiences gained in China are being put to good use in our work on campus.
When we lived in China, we taught English on university campuses and used that platform to promote hikes and camping trips for students to get outdoors and practice English. We did it because we love the outdoors and have learned that our yielded passion and love can be an incredible way for God to accomplish his purposes in powerful ways. It was amazing to watch students bottled up in the classroom come alive outside with some fresh air to breathe and a fresh vantage point from which to view the world.
Every ministry has a primary on-ramp for engagement, and we have decided that for us there is none better than outdoor adventure experiences. Through our events and excursions, students are able to travel off campus and outside the city and access a release valve from the pressure and grind of education that dominates the lives of Chinese young people. An added value is the fact that active environments outdoors are also an extremely effective vehicle to form interpersonal bonds. Conversations seem easy and natural when you are walking along a trail, setting up a tent, or taking a break between climbs on a rock wall.
These types of events are evidently beneficial to our bodies and our minds, but there is also a spiritual component involved. Many people, including my wife and myself, are wired in such a way that the beauty of a sunset or the splendor of a forest can point to the Creator in ways that the inside of a classroom never can. As if that were not enough, we also discovered one additional benefit that initially we did not see coming: using the outdoors as a primary source of engagement with students is virtually pandemic proof! During year one, the only thing we could do was go outside with students—but thankfully, that had been our plan.
Some of the fondest memories we have from our time in China are when our friends invited us to their parents’ flat for dinner. There we would share a home cooked meal, drink tea in front of the TV, and play mahjong after dinner. Those nights were special. It is difficult to match the intimacy reached when you are the guest in someone’s home. In just a few hours friends can start to feel like family. All I know is that when we hopped on our scooter to head home after those evenings with our friends, we felt connected.
Among international student ministry workers, it is commonly understood that the majority of international students who come to study in America never share a meal or even step foot inside an American home. Some put the number of those who never get that chance at 70% or higher. This creates a huge opportunity for us as followers of Jesus to have deep and meaningful impact in the lives of international students. A critical part of our strategy is to open our home and share meals with students and encourage those in our sphere of influence to do the same. Through our outdoor adventure experiences, we are able to create breadth in our ministry, but it is in our home around the table where we experience depth.
When we moved to China, we attended an international church that we loved dearly. I will always remember one of our first Sundays there because it taught us a valuable lesson about collaboration. Two of the leaders, with over 40 years of mainland ministry experience between them, invited us to lunch with their families where they shared openly, offered help, and even expressed interest in what we were planning to do. Over the next seven years in that church, we found that we could retain our autonomy, but we never felt alone.
In our current ministry context, there are numerous established international student ministries with rich history, favor, and reach, and we have come in with a determination to ask questions and learn from them. Thankfully, they are willing and open to work together with us as well. If we remember that the work is God’s, there is room for all of us, and we can be released to collaborate, coordinate, and develop partnerships that bring out the best in us and the best in others.
If our time in China taught us anything, it is that any meaningful work for God’s kingdom is rooted in prayer. As we wrestled with our love for China and our calling to the Chinese, it was prayer that gave us the courage to take the leap and start this new work. As we strategized and determined what to do, it was in prayer that we found the wisdom to create a plan. As we struggled alone through the early days, it was prayer that brought people alongside us to share the burden and join the work. As we move forward in anticipation and excitement, we know it will be prayer that brings us into all the good things God has in store.
Image credit: Jon Kuert