In 2011 our church began to participate in an outreach program to the International students at the University of Texas, Dallas. The program is called, Friendship Partners. Mary Beth, one of our members, headed the program for our church; she is a professor in the business school at UTD. Her husband’s job had taken her family to China just a few years earlier. She brought back with her a love for International students, particularly Chinese students and a burden for their salvation.
The program is designed to give foreign students the opportunity to interact with an American Family. Those who serve as partners help foreign students learn about our culture, and help them meet the challenges a new culture presents.
Early that fall semester, Mary Beth began to recruit members of my church to take a student. She approached me one Sunday at church. I told her I would think about it. It was a difficult time for me; I was exhausted; I didn’t think it would be possible. I had just finished executing my father’s estate. I had been with both my parents every day of my father’s six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The day he died, my brother Mark had a 7-hour surgery to remove a stage four brain tumor. After my father died, I was responsible for my elderly mother, who lived just a few doors from me. And soon after I took on some of my brother’s business affairs.
My brother was in the last weeks of life when Mary Beth approached me to be a partner. My mother was in a rehabilitation center after surgery. Everyday I visited her; I accompanied her to rehab and we shared a meal. I really didn’t feel I could take on one more thing physically or emotionally.
Yet I wanted to be a part. I felt the Lord really wanted me to do this. In fact, my family and I had been the recipients of just such an outreach. Much earlier, Larry, our two daughters and I had moved to Paris, France. We were apprehensive about uprooting our family and moving into a culture so different from our own. Our pastor told us of a family we had known early in our marriage. They were serving in Paris as missionaries just minutes from where we were going to live. They helped us find an English speaking church in Paris, showed us where to shop and so many practical things, not to mention all the encouragement and support we needed at the beginning of what turned out to be a great adventure. I wanted to be able to do what had been done for me.
With much trepidation, I agreed to be a Friendship Partner. I share this because we all live busy lives. Most of us are not looking for anything else to take on. We feel overloaded as it is. And sometimes we do need to say no. But when opportunities come our way that have eternal value, the Lord will make a way no matter our circumstances.
I decided I would include my friendship partner in my life as my circumstances permitted. I would not neglect my own family for my partner, but I would include her when I could. The first day I met Jennifer was a busy one. She could only meet in the afternoon when I was scheduled to pick up my grandson from Kindergarten. She agreed to go with me. I will never forget her smiling face as she approached me. We began to share with each other as we made our way in the car to my grandson’s school. As we sat in the carpool line, I learned about her family and her decision to come to Dallas to do a masters degree in finance. In the middle of our conversation, I got a call from my youngest brother about Mark’s declining health and certain decisions that needed our help.
I had no intention of sharing all the difficulties in our family with Jennifer. But there it was. When my grandson got in the car, he had gotten in trouble for kissing one of the girls in his class that day. Jennifer thought that was hysterical. She then began to tell us both what school had been like in China and about the things that had gotten her in trouble. Both sorrow and gladness was experienced in the car the day I met my friendship partner. It was not planned it just happened. And what barriers that might have kept us from being close were miraculously removed as we shared happy times and tragedy. When I took her back to school, before she got out of the car, she said to me, “I am not a Christian, but I will pray for your brother and your family.” I began to pray for her.
That day was just the beginning of many days when I simply asked Jennifer to join me in the activities of life – activities like visiting my mother, sharing family meals, and holidays. She sent me an email shortly after attending our Thanksgiving dinner that year. In it she spoke of seeing our family come together after the loss of my brother Mark and spoke of how touching that had been for her.
By far, the most important part of my life I shared was church. Many of the Chinese students had been told that in order to understand American culture, they would need to understand our religion. Several of Jennifer’s roommates and friends began to visit our church. We began a Sunday School class just for Chinese students. Many of them had very deep questions as they began to learn about Jesus, His offer of salvation, His teachings, and His work on the cross. One Sunday our pastor hosted a question and answer session. It was well attended, and many deep questions were asked and were answered.
I came to realize that most of these Chinese students had grown up without any religious belief. When they had questions about why there is life or how it came about, they had turned to science for the answers. Some were from families who had passed down their Buddhist beliefs, but far more had no belief system at all.
I will never forget the night we sat in my car long after the symphony concert was over. Jennifer asked me to explain the Trinity to her. How glad I was for the Bible studies that I had had which prepared me for that difficult concept. That spring on Easter Sunday, one of Jennifer’s roommates was baptized by immersion in a local Chinese church.
Jennifer continued to come to my church and joined a Bible study at the Chinese church. One day I shared something cute my granddaughter had said to me. Jennifer began to cry and said, “When I have a child, I will take her to church so she will be a good person.” It gave me the opportunity to explain that being a Christian was not just about being a good person. It was about relationship with Jesus.
Another time, Jennifer and I were sitting around my daughter’s kitchen table. My granddaughter’s birthday party was just winding up. My daughter’s friend, Kelly was sharing a moving story about her 4 year old niece who was battling cancer and was in the process of being healed. Again Jennifer began to cry. Then she shared the memory of a childhood friend who was very ill. The school never explained why the little girl stopped coming to class, but when Jennifer saw her friend’s mother holding a new baby, she knew the little girl had died. (China has a one-child policy.)
That day Kelly shared not only the gospel, but also all the Lord had done through her niece’s illness to minister to so many people. She looked Jennifer square in the eyes and took her hand and told her of God’s love for her and her friend. Only the Lord could have planned that.
Two years after our first meeting, Jennifer completed her masters degree and graduated. That Easter, she told me she had prayed to God for salvation.
Her parents came for her graduation. They stayed in our home for about a week. It was a very special time and a very emotional time. There were lots of tears, because even though Jennifer was scheduled to fly back to China just after graduation, she had not decided if she would return or stay in the states. In the end she returned to China. I still see her waving at me from the car that took her to the airport as they pulled away from our house. But that has not been the end of our relationship; we continue to stay connected through email and Face-Time.
In his first letter, Peter tells us to be ready to give an account for the hope that is within us. The Friendship Partner Program is not meant to be used to proselytize. It is a program of friendship. But becoming a friend is about building a relationship and sharing who we are. As we share with others who we are, it is only natural that we share Him who makes life worth living. As we reach out to the strangers amongst us, we have a wonderful opportunity to welcome and befriend them. Who knows; we may be doing more for world peace and understanding than any number of other official efforts. More importantly, we have the opportunity to share the love of Christ and the hope that is within us which has eternal value that will live beyond our time here on earth.