For a while now, Beth Gardner has been working on different ways to reach out to international students at the University of South Alabama (USA). She and others at USA’s Baptist Campus Ministries (BCM) have tried some things but had trouble finding an effective way to reach those students.
But this year God opened a door to build relationships that she would have never seen coming — emergency pillows. And it started with a simple request.
“The global office asked us if we could pick up a student from France at the airport,” said Gardner, USA’s Baptist campus minister. “My husband and I picked up three students that night.”
Pillows and blankets
They realized as they were checking the students into their residence halls that the students had shown up with only one checked bag and a carry-on for a whole semester. That meant they had no room for sheets, pillows, towels or anything like that.
“It was around 10 p.m., and we told them we would be back,” Gardner said. She and her husband scrambled to round up some pillows and blankets from the BCM office and BCM students.
“What started out as ‘I’ll pick them up’ has just opened up many opportunities of connecting with them, Gardner said. “We were able to meet a need and establish a friendship.”
In the weeks that followed, Gardner and several BCM students took the students out for meals, invited them to play games like Frisbee and brought them medicine when they got sick. Gardner also invited them over for a meal and game night at her house so they could experience what it was like to be in an American home.
And the BCM has a plan for the fall semester — they’ve partnered with churches, organizations and others to prepare welcome packages of food, bedding, fleece blankets and pillows for international students.
“It’s not a project, it’s people — it’s our BCM students incorporating these new friendships into their lives and planting seeds,” Gardner said. “Meeting a need in their life is a huge connecting point for us, and I just love seeing how our students have taken hold of this.”
Chris Mills, student missions strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM), said that sort of ministry is happening through BCM on campuses all over the state.
“That’s why BCM exists, and it looks different on every campus and in every context,” he said.
BCM groups hold weekly worship meetings, something that is “vital” and “provides an opportunity for students to come together to praise the Lord for who He is and what He’s doing,” Mills said. But it also involves students actively discipling others, being involved in outreach and going on missions.
“BCM seeks to train students to see their campus as their missions field as they’re in classes,” he said. “We want to open their eyes to the opportunities all across the world and take advantage of the season of life that is college.”
Mills has watched that happening for years in his SBOM role, but he’s getting an even closer look this year as he serves as interim Baptist campus minister at Auburn University at Montgomery.
‘Live out missions’
“At one of our meetings with the student leadership team, one of the students said, ‘I’m just a missionary disguised as a nursing student.’ It was amazing to hear how God was challenging them to live out missions right where they are,” he said.
Gary Brittain, Baptist campus minister at Jacksonville State University (JSU), said he’s seen that kind of outreach happening on his campus as well — and the nursing students are a big part of it there too.
At the beginning of the spring semester, BCM decided to host a monthly lunch just for nursing students.
“We decided rather than having a lunch for whoever may come, we would try to do some things to intentionally reach specific segments of the student population,” he said. “A couple of nursing students in the BCM helped me pick the day and the time to make it convenient for them and their peers.”
And it was successful. At the very first one, 29 nursing students showed up.
“We have also been trying something like this with the JSU football team, and we want to just keep going,” Brittain said.