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An Interview with Lisa Espineli Chinn - Part Three


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For fourteen years, Lisa Espineli Chinn was the National Director of International Student Ministry at InterVarsity. Recently she sat down with The Rev. Canon Andrew Gross to share more about what churches can learn about student ministry.

Click the links below for the entire interview:

Part One: From the Philippines to Washington DC
Part Two: From Accidental Church Planter to InterVarsity Director
Part Three: International Students Ministry
Part Four: Next Steps
Part Five: Marriage and Cross Cultural Ministry


PART THREE
International Students Ministry


What were some of the challenges you saw international students encounter that perhaps your other students at InterVarsity didn’t?

You can see a generation of early international students that came in the seventies and early eighties.  That was just the beginning of the Chinese students coming after the cultural revolution in the mid-seventies so they were a different, older group of students. They were like sponges. They had been sent to the countryside, the intellectuals, and now the doors were opened and they could see another side of the world. They were older and more serious. They grabbed the opportunity.  They couldn’t allow this opportunity to slip away. Then you have this undergrad and they are like, “Oh if it’s a party school that’s the school I’m going for.” So there’s a difference between the level of seriousness between internationals and the domestic students.

The challenges are the same of the seventies, eighties, and even now. It’s really, “How do you not only survive. How do you thrive? How do you flourish in a new setting where you are the outsider; where your English is not perfect?” You don’t really know what’s going on for the most part. Nowadays international students can watch YouTube. They can listen, and there are more resources at their fingertips to understand a culture from a distance, but to actually be there, and to actually experience the Americans around you is very different. They may not have a lot of economic needs. They are not as poor as in my time. I came with a one-way ticket.  Some of the students we work with not only came with round-trip tickets, they get tickets for Thanksgiving break and spring break. That’s how different our students are today. 

They are also different in the places that they come from. In the seventies the Iranians were one of the top. Now China is number one followed by India. Saudi Arabia is way up. Its number three as far as Muslim students coming from one country. It’s a rising number. So the challenge for the church is: First, to see internationals, and not look past them. When Jesus said, “Look at the field,” you know for me Jesus is wanting us to see this crowd of international students.  They are harassed and helpless like sheep without a Shepherd spiritually, and physically too sometimes, and culturally. It’s hard to understand the American style of life. After a while they understand, but my job is to be an interpreter of culture to international students. I explain. Sometimes I try to excuse American behavior, or the other way around. I become a cultural broker, as it were, in order to bring cultures together so that their American education is not just cerebral, but cultural, and so that they can engage. They have so much to give, and Americans have so much to offer. If there is a safe welcoming place for that to happen, then we’re halfway there.  That happens in the church. That happens on campus. That happens in community. There’s so much we can do.


For churches that are close to a college campus what are some first steps that they can take if they have a call to a ministry like this?

I think one thing that they can do is to go and sit there, and just walk around. Look and see. What is it that you see? Don’t engage, just observe. If this is the people group that God is calling me to I’m going to sit there and watch this people group and learn what they do.

Then I would do a prayer walk. Say, “Okay Lord, we are across the street from this campus. Our heart is stirred. We want to do something.” I want people whose hearts are broken for those who don’t know Him. The world has come to your doorstep. Are you going out your back door instead of opening the door to welcome them? I think it’s a spiritual preparation rather than, “Oh, ok, let’s have a program.” I would rather have the groundwork of spiritual preparation. I would rather a church to enter into it because this is a missionary call, rather than something to talk about at the Diocesan convention. Do that spiritual preparation. Find out what is happening. Do a little research. What is really going on there? How are international students being served? In many places, in big universities they have an international student advisor. That’s their full-time job so it may be good to also ask, “Is there anything for the Church to do that we could offer? Is there any way I can help?” Now, a word of warning: you can’t just walk in there and they will give you a big open door. At first there is suspicion about our intentions, so we’re already marked that we have an agenda.

It’s important how we enter the conversation. Some have more success than others. We are here to give international students a safe, welcoming place. These are the things that we can offer. We can offer rides from the airport. We can do a furniture giveaway. We can be the cultural informants for them. We want to love them. Love the strangers in your midst, that’s clear from Scripture.

Find out what other groups are present on campus. There could be InterVarsity, there could be Cru, Chi Alpha, etc.  All kinds of people are working with internationals. Seek a way to partner.  Sometimes they just need a church who has a building and they say, “Really? You will let us use your building?” Offer that place as a safe, welcoming venue for international students. If you have members who want to engage then get to know the students. 

At Truro we had a monthly potluck dinner.  We had volunteers pick up students from the subway, and drive them. You had all kinds of activities throughout the year, so that’s how we were able to bring the world to the church and the church to the world, because you cannot love people you do not know. Really it’s just in your head that you are loving them. You have images of a Muslim student in the news or that part of reality is painted for us, but then you meet a freshman named Mohammad. He’s 19. He has not been to an American home, and you bring him to this home and then you introduce South Carolina’s state dance, “The Shag,” and he is standing there like “Am I supposed to hold this lady’s hand and dance?” and I grabbed his hand and I said “Hey, I’m like your mom. Let’s do this.” It’s just… how would I put it… if we were the hands of Jesus extending this love, it could be that hand, just helping this young Saudi student know, “It’s safe here. You can have fun here.” You should have seen his face. He was just having fun. It was a first experience for him. We want to unlock the process so that the good experience they have with Christians will build into other good experiences that will lead to a curiosity about the Gospel and an irresistible attraction. “Why?” they ask us. “Why do you do this? Why do you love us? Why do you spend time with us?” They are just amazed, and we say “Because God has loved us we have experienced being loved and that’s why.”  Without sounding weird and spiritual, they don’t understand that language, but this is the language: we have been loved first, and that’s why we are able to love.


There is no particular outcome except to share Gods love.

Yes, and I think sometimes in our world and the Christian world the word “love” is too generalize, too diluted, but you know when a student says, “I have felt love in this room,” then you realize you have underestimated love. “I was loved by these people who I don’t know.”  If you’re alone in a culture that is even magnified in the person’s heart. I was a stranger and you brought me in, you know Matthew 25.


Click the links below for the entire interview:

Part One: From the Philippines to Washington DC
Part Two: From Accidental Church Planter to InterVarsity Director
Part Three: International Students Ministry
Part Four: Next Steps
Part Five: Marriage and Cross Cultural Ministry

Lisa Espineli Chinn will be a plenary speaker at Assembly 2017 in Wheaton, IL (June 27-30, 2017).  Click here to learn more and register for Assembly 2017!