‘Life-giving’ trip builds bridge between international students and the gospel

Connecting cultures to Christ

When Jessica Ren began reaching out to churches in Houston about partnering for a weekend mission trip, she was initially met with silence. 

Ren, a member of Arlington Chinese Bible Church who works with international college and graduate students in the Metroplex, wanted to plan a trip that would move her students, most of them non-Christians, out of their comfort zones and expose them to the gospel. The attraction for most of the students was a tour of Houston’s Johnson Space Center and time to hear from NASA Flight Director Ed Van Cise.

“It’s about planting gospel seeds,” Ren explained, “and what better way to do it than combine it with an opportunity to see a place like NASA?”

Ren finally connected with Bruno Molina at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, who put her in touch with the convention’s Asia consultant for Houston, Michael Liga. It was Liga who reached out to Tyler McKinney, pastor of Shadycrest Baptist Church in the Houston suburb of Pearland, which ended up being exactly the church and pastor Ren had been praying to find.

“God had laid it on my heart to pursue college ministry, and it’s just difficult in our setting because most of the colleges are community or commuter colleges,” McKinney said. “I knew it was something God wanted us to do, so about February of last year I started praying about it.”

Once they were in touch, Ren and McKinney discussed details of the trip over the next couple of months through Zoom while he worked on finding host homes in the church. Eight families volunteered to host the group of students Ren would bring from DFW.

“It’s a miracle that God provided all the lodging—the best … precise matching for our group,” Ren said.

A group of international students (opposite page) from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex recently had the opportunity not only to visit NASA in Houston, but to connect with believers at Shadycrest Baptist Church in Pearland. Through these interactions, many students had spiritual conversations and heard the gospel. Submitted Photo

According to Ren, three quarters of international students never set foot in an American home while they live and study in the U.S. She said some students shared after the trip that they were a bit hesitant when they were first matched with their host homes on Saturday night. After eating dinner in their homes and engaging them in conversation late into the night, however, the students opened up to talk about their lives, families, and beliefs.

“They cannot understand [why] all these people who do not know us [would] open their homes to host us. For non-believers, this is surely very hard to understand,” she said. “But all of them feel they are loved.”

The connections made between the families and the ability for the host home families to share the gospel so directly with the students is what made the trip such a resounding success, McKinney said.

“Most people don’t even have their neighbors in their homes,” McKinney said. “So it was just beautiful the way our families connected and shared the love of Christ with these people who had never had any interaction with any Christian families. … It was life-giving to our church.”

One poignant encounter shared by both Ren and McKinney was the interaction between Alex, a post-doctoral student, and McKinney’s mother, Janice, who just a week before had discovered that her breast cancer had returned and was classified as stage four.

“It was like a revival for the church. They’re fired up because of these international students that they’re hosting."

“As they talked, my mom shared what was going on with her. And when [Alex] got back to Dallas, he told Jessica that [with all that my mom] was going through with her joy and the way that she approached life, that he had seen true faith,” McKinney said. “It was incredible. I mean, we’re asking God why, or just struggling through the reality of what it is, but God immediately showed us part of the why.”

McKinney changed his sermon text that Sunday to preach on the woman at the well in John 4, keeping in mind that he was going to be speaking to an audience with little to no understanding of the gospel. 

“Think about how different this is to this Muslim girl, about how Jesus treated women, how He valued people and how He brought them up,” he said. “It was just a beautiful opportunity to share who Jesus is.”

From Ren’s perspective, the trip could not have gone better, especially as it exposed the students to the love of Christ. 

“Now they not only hear, but they see with their own eyes and experience the love of God through these people,” she said.

McKinney expressed gratitude for the Lord’s sovereignty in connecting him with Ren.

“God worked it out and put us together. [Jessica] had never done one of these, and I’d never done one,” he added. “So it was just kind of a unique pairing that God worked out.”

Liga, the SBTC consultant who put them in touch, thanked God for the opportunity and for the gospel seeds planted, not just with the students, but also with the church.

“It was like a revival for [the church],” Liga said. “They’re fired up because of these international students that they’re hosting. It was like a mission trip for Shadycrest Baptist Church. They’re looking forward to [working with] another ministry with a [similar] mission or the Asian ministry with the SBTC that they can connect with.”

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