ACROSS ARKANSAS – At midnight, Stephanie Habenicht heard a knock on her door at her Little Rock home. Habenicht pulled on her robe and looked outside. There stood her adopted college students from India holding a birthday cake and presents. The Indian students wanted to share with her a tradition from their country: the race to be the first ones to wish their loved one a birthday greeting.
The Habenicht family is loved by the many international students they adopt through their church Parkway Place Baptist Church in Little Rock where Habenicht serves as children’s minister. “They’re considered part of our family,” she said, “They even asked to be included on our 2017 Christmas card picture.” Her involvement with internationals began when she worked alongside fellow church member and Baptist Collegiate Metro Minister Bit Stephens volunteering at the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM). Then, Habernicht’s personal interest increased after she attended a 15-week class called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. At the close of the course, many shared how they felt God’s call to another country. Stephanie learned something different: “I learned you do not have to go to another country and minister somewhere else because God brings them to us.”
The Open Doors Fact Sheet published yearly by the Institute of International Education listed 6,455 foreign students enrolled in Arkansas colleges in 2016. Top five universities which had the most international students in 2016 were University of Arkansas, 1,722, Southern Arkansas University (SAU), 1,408, Arkansas State University, 1,086, University of Central Arkansas, 695 and Arkansas Tech University, 422. The leading places of origin for foreign students in Arkansas included India, 27.3%, China, 11.8%, Saudi Arabia 10.3%, Nepal 3.7% and Japan, 3.4%.
An accurate count of internationals not enrolled in colleges is harder to find, said Jamie Naremore, international church strategist at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. “The position I’m in focuses on discovering all people groups in Arkansas, helping churches find ways to engage them in their different contexts.” So far, since June, he’s identified at least 127 people groups in Arkansas. “We’re not a homogeneous society where everyone looks the same anymore,” he said. “We need to recognize there’s starting to be more internationals among us–that’s part of God’s plan based on Acts 17:26-27. That verse says that God orchestrates the movement of people so they have opportunity to seek Him and find Him.”
“We’re blessed to have the nations coming to Arkansas,” agreed Arkansas WMU Executive Director Debbie Moore. Moore looks for internationals weekly at the places she frequents like the grocery store. Rather than prayer walking, she goes “prayer stalking.” “My best Iraqi friends I met in a Container Store,” she said. “After 25 minutes, they invited me to tea.” Moore said we have a responsibility to share Christ with them and our own lives too. “I pray for Arkansas Baptists to not be afraid and to desire to get to know them as people. They need real Christian friends.”
As a staff member with the College+Young Leaders Team at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and a BCM minister in the Metro area, Bit Stephens has a heart for all students–but especially those from other countries. She said she hopes more people will intercede for internationals like Moore does. “I really want to get the word out there about PRAY 7:09,” Stephens said. Started in August 2017, PRAY 7:09 is based on Revelation 7:9 which says that a great multitude of “all tribes and peoples and languages” will be in heaven. The challenge is for Christians to pray on Tuesdays at 7:09 a.m. or p.m. for the nations God has brought to our doorstep. ”A lot of people have no awareness that they’re here,” said Stephens. “Prayer will bring awareness.” Most internationals come from places where missionaries can’t go, she said. “Prayer makes a difference.”
“This is our open door to the nations,” said Moore. “We’ve got to do something quickly. We do not know how long they’ll be allowed to stay here.” Recently, the Saudi Arabian government changed their scholarship study abroad requirements. “It’s politically driven,” she said.
Already this past fall SAU has seen a significant drop in Indian international students as reported by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Enrollment fell from 1,031 to 539.
Lisa Falknor writes for the College+Young Leaders Team at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and is the northwest Arkansas correspondent for the ABN.