Michelle Woods laughs at the idea that her Saturday outings are a “ministry.”
“I just spent the day shopping with a bunch of girls. That was fun,” she exclaimed.
Ministry, after all, is presumed sacrificial in Woods’ mind. Woods, a member of Padre Island Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, contends ministry is not shopping and lunching with a gaggle of college girls on a bright, brisk Saturday afternoon. Where’s the sacrifice in that, she asked?
Woods lives on Padre Island, just across the John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway from Ward Island, home to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. There are just over 10,000 students enrolled, including 480 internationals from 67 countries. Most of the international students do not have cars and are at the mercy of a bus system that does not serve them well, Woods said. Providing transportation to these students gives her the opportunity to fill a need and engage them in spiritual conversation.
It had been a month since Woods last saw the students when she pulled up to their dorms and apartments one Saturday early in November to ferry them around town. Her daughter’s homecoming activities and the unexpected death of her father-in-law took the family in different directions throughout October. Woods said she missed her time with the young adults she has come to consider friends.
Their few hours together that day—trying new dishes at the Asian Fusion Bistro and perusing the aisles of the Asian Market and H.E.B.—were filled with laughter, encouragement, and timely insertions of the gospel.
Woods is a latecomer to an international student outreach initiated by a woman who knew many of the students at the TAMU Corpus Christi campus. The woman suggested, in order to have a richer cultural experience while in the United States, the students should visit a church. Woods’ sister, Marlene Mills, picks up the willing students on Sunday mornings and takes them to a local church, The Summit, with a large international student ministry.
Transportation services extended throughout the weekend, ferrying the co-eds to local shops not on any bus route. During the summer break from her job as a dyslexia facilitator at Seashore Charter Schools, Woods took on the role of Saturday driver at the request of her sister. She had the free time and thought it would be fun, assuming it would only last until she went back to work in the fall.
But then she was hooked.
About a dozen students, primarily Chinese, take up Woods’ offer of taxi driver and escape from campus for a few hours. Though the number of students varies each week there is a core group of three to four female students who regularly accompany Woods. That Saturday, after the month-long hiatus, four young women piled into the car excited to see Woods and each other. Their conversation slipped from English to Chinese and back, punctuated often with laughter. Behind the wheel Woods listened to the exchange and beamed, happy to be the catalyst for the encounter.
Ma Dai Xi, “Daisie,” is Nebraska born of Chinese parents. Although her father’s oil industry job kept the family moving around the U.S., Daisie’s upbringing was so deeply rooted in Chinese culture she is most at home with the international students on the campus. In fact, 200 Chinese students attend the school.
Nancy Chang, 31, of Taiwan and Yanqing Kong, 32, known as “Echo,” are MBA graduate students. Daisie, 19, and Yonglin Chen, 20, known as “Annie,” are studying marketing.
Daisie and Nancy are Christians grateful for the fellowship of the new church home and the small Bible study group on campus that brought them all together. Echo and Annie (many international students take on Anglo-sounding names) are not believers but their introduction to the Christian church and its people has been positive.
“In China I heard about church but I never go inside,” Echo explained. “I saw church as old people and old buildings.”
A gregarious resident of Shanghai and the only one married among the four, Echo is amazed by the kindness and openness of the people in her new smaller and slower-paced environment. And it is here where she first heard about Jesus.
And though she does not yet have a clear understanding of the gospel message—she said she believes all religions are basically the same—she recognizes a unique characteristic of Christians.
“Religion is just religion but I think Christian is much better,” Echo said. “The way they treat us is different.”
Annie agreed to attend church in Corpus Christi though she presumed it would be boring. Raised to be self-reliant, her family does not claim any faith nor did they ever venture into the one church in her hometown. But her misgivings proved unwarranted as she enjoyed the worship music and found the sermon unexpectedly touching.
The pastor spoke from 2 Timothy 1:7. Though her new environment did not make her fearful, Annie admitted she missed her family. Learning God gives his people a strong spirit was encouraging, she said. Being invited to a Bible study and spending her Saturday afternoons with Woods has made Annie realize she just may have an extended family in Texas.
Like a mother, Woods’ feelings for her international friends swing between concern and joy as she frets over their wellbeing and the choices they make while watching them take baby steps toward understanding the Christian faith.
Woods said she now realizes she does not have to go to China to share the gospel. The students from there are aware their government keeps things from them, especially notions about religion. So they are curious and receptive to the message Woods and others have to share. Their Saturday afternoons together, though not exhausting or gritty, provide the perfect forum for a free-flowing conversation about all that matters to the students from the trivial to the profound to the eternal.
“My father told me, ‘Nobody will ever listen to you if you don’t meet their basic needs,’” Woods said. “Because I am meeting that need they are willing to listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”