She spied them in the jewelry aisle. Their dress was a little out of place in an Alabama Walmart. The two women were covered from head to toe in long, black hijab dresses and headscarves. The petite grandmother made an abrupt U-turn with her shopping cart and screeched to a halt next to the Muslim women.
“Hey there,” the grandmother said in a deep Alabama drawl. “I really like the henna pattern on your hands. Did you do that?”
The Egyptian women looked down at their dye-stained hands and then stared at Anna Speir in disbelief. Was she really talking to them?
Speir was used to the blank stare, followed by a look of relief and then words gushing out. Most internationals she encounters are lonely. And believe it or not, many are from the same unreached people groups (less than two percent following Jesus) among whom IMB missionaries live and work around the globe.
The grandmother smiled when she spoke about finding these unreached people groups in her own Alabama town.
“God is bringing the nations to us,” she said. “What are we going to do about it?”
Speir’s question is an interesting one. Most of us are not seminary-trained missionaries, ministers or pastors. We don’t speak multiple languages, nor are we familiar with other cultures. How can we reach the 41.3 million immigrants and internationals living next door with the gospel?
I decided to throw this question out to the social media world for some discussion. What came back was amazing—example after example of ordinary people following Christ’s commandment to reach the nations. A men’s group in Kentucky made weekly visits to the same coffee shop and now the Indian owner joins in their Bible study. A Kansas farmer took a Chinese student out to work the field and told about Jesus’ sacrifice.
Ministering to internationals in the USA is as simple as locating them, finding out their needs, and serving them with the love of Jesus. Obtaining a visa is not a problem. Overcoming government opposition to missionary activity is not an issue. God moved these people across the globe to be our neighbors just so they have the opportunity to hear the gospel.
See how people throughout the United States intentionally engage internationals in their communities:
LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION!
Two women stood at the back of the room, silently praying for God to give their new friends dreams of Jesus. In front of them, women from many countries went through the ritual prayer to break a day of fasting—standing, bowing, prostrating and recitating. Until two weeks ago, Abigail Elizade, Massachusetts, had no idea this mosque was practically in her backyard.
She “googled” it!
The schoolteacher wanted to learn more about Ramadan, so she went straight to the source—an Islamic center. They offered classes to outsiders in an effort to build relationships with the community. Elizade grabbed a friend and they began a month-long adventure in learning and understanding the Islamic faith so they would know how to share their own faith.
“We were going there to keep our mouths shut and learn all we could to help us be better prayer warriors,” Abigail admitted. “But we fell in love with these women from different countries and we couldn’t keep Jesus to ourselves.
“They were amazed that we didn’t get anything from God for being nice to them,” Elizade said, noting that Muslims believe in a “good works” system. “We found that on a personal level, it’s not threatening at all to share your faith because they are your friend and you took time to listen and get to know them.”
Becky Gilbert, Georgia, didn’t want to spend her retirement years sitting at home. She looked around the community and saw a growing Ethiopian population. She approached the director of the Ethiopian Community Center and asked a simple question: How could she help meet a need?
The leaders of the community saw immediately that this retired schoolteacher was exactly what their children needed. They asked her to tutor the kids and get them ready for school. Four years later, this tutoring program is a two-week camp before school starts.
This year, they had more than 100 students and 50 volunteers doing everything from prepping snacks to teaching. The program even features a class for parents called “Parenting in America.”
“The Ethiopian community knows that we at Rehobeth Baptist Church love them and their children,” she said. “Meeting a real need opened doors for ministry in their community. The tutoring program has led to a growing and thriving Bible class.”
For the past 40 years, Women on Mission groups from several churches in Kentucky have been filling a need every Wednesday morning as part of an international friendship program. They offer things not found in most English-as-a-Second- Language programs—crafts, driving lessons, cooking with ingredients found in America, sewing, singing, Bible stories, etc.
Patricia Reaves found her niche in this program 20 years ago in the preschool department. She takes care of the children while women from all over the world get that “adult” time every mother craves.
“I’ve found that babies cry in the same language,” Reaves said about the 25 to 30 babies and preschoolers they have each week. “This is a great way to connect with moms. A lot have never left their children because they don’t have family nearby to help. So we can give them a safe environment to take a break.”
LOVING YOUR NEIGHBORS
Building deep relationships with internationals takes time, just like with any other friendship. For Dean and Lisa Sides, Alabama, this process started in the classroom helping medical students with terminology. The couple said they don’t bombard the students with the gospel. They take time to learn the culture of the students and ask God to show them who is seeking Him. Lisa admitted that she’s often surprised at who God brings to them.
“The last person I’d have expected came up to me after class,” Lisa said about a student who wasn’t a faithful attender of the study group and never appeared interested in God.
The student, however, surprised the Sideses when she said, “Every time I come to class, there is such a peace here. Where does that peace come from? Is that from your religion?”
The medical student explained that her mother and grandmother prayed to Buddha, back home in China, desperately trying to find this same peace but he never answered. The student put her arm on Lisa’s shoulder and said, “I want that peace! I want to know your God.”
God orchestrates opportunities for all people to hear His message. Now is the time for the church to reach the nations in their own backyard. It’s obvious by these examples that methods will vary. But the basics stay the same—using both actions and words to communicate Jesus’ love and sacrifice.
Will you love your international neighbor? (BP)
Susie Rain, IMB