Conway churches break denominational barriers to love international students

by Lisa Falknor

Jesus said they’ll know we are Christians by our love. In a place known as the town of colleges, Conway, Arkansas, 12-15 churches from different denominations unite for one goal: to love international students.

“It’s breathtaking to watch it happen,” said LaJuana Magee who founded the International Fellowship Outreach (IFO) 30 years ago. The IFO links church members and students from other countries to form what they call a “Forever Friendship.”

“We who are knee deep in this ministry, we often say, ‘This is how we think the church should operate,’” she said.

Christians who push aside denominational titles to serve others show a positive side to Christianity. “We thought Christians fought,” LaJuana said one student told her. “We’re seeing a whole nother side to Christianity.”

“Students from around the world see Christians only as the media portrays them,” LaJuana said.  “Their concept of Christians is the total opposite of what they see when they get here.”

 

Originally, LaJuana founded IFO in Little Rock.  But, Conway’s influx of internationals led to an IFO chapter there 15 years ago.  Conway gets students from all over the world, said LaJuana, even from countries through the 1040 window—the unreached, restricted, closed group of people to the Gospel.

Bit Stephens, Metro Campus Minister, said the same loving spirit she sees each week at the IFO gatherings in Little Rock is also in Conway. “The partnership of churches in Conway working together provides the international students a beautiful picture of the Body of Christ. The unity displayed and consistency of the Gospel have built a solid foundation of ministering to internationals.”

IFO meets at Second Baptist Church (2bc) in Conway. “Second Baptist is an incredible blessing to international students by enabling them to use their facilities every Thursday night for IFO,” said Ryan Scantling, Conway Campus Minister. By offering their student center for 6 years, the church is “thinking larger than themselves.”

Over 200 internationals and Americans meet each week at 2bc for six weeks at the beginning of each semester ”to reach the nations right here in our own backyard,” said Kyle Seal, 2bc discipleship pastor. “IFO is a citywide effort with multiple churches that come together,” he said. “We can have a far better reach for the kingdom of God through partnership.”

Churches are screened well to make sure they’re biblically based, said Conway Director Mi-seon Seong. The IFO in Conway offers the same ministry to internationals listed on the Little Rock website:  airport pickups, temporary housing, help with English skills (called Conversation Clubs), American Friendship Partners and “the Christian faith for those who are interested.”

“We work with a public school, so we do not share the Gospel directly” said Mi-Seon. Still, they do make an impact. One IFO atheist international told a local pastor recently, “There should be a God when others work together like this to love strangers.”

For seven years, Stan Young, senior adult 2bc pastor, and his wife Becky have loved internationals through the IFO Conversation Clubs and by hosting students in their home. “I’m praying for an opportunity to share Christ,” he said. “The Lord has put two Chinese siblings in my home for 3 weeks.”

Stan said he’s had the privilege of baptizing 3 Chinese students and one French girl. “We have the advantage of seeing our Christian faith touching people in different parts of the world–people we’d not have the opportunity to directly minister to otherwise.”

And, with the recent Wall Street Journal international student enrollment numbers for the US exceeding one million last year, the opportunity has never been better. LaJuana said God needs more churches to love international students. “I’d say to our sister churches in other places: lock arms and do what’s being done in Conway,” she said.