As with a lot of things this year, the International Friends Bags ministry started with the question, “How can we do this differently?”
In the past, the bags — filled with hygiene items, snacks, school supplies, a Bible and a handwritten note — have been collected by Woman’s Missionary Union groups across the state and given to international students each year at the International Friends Retreat held at WorldSong.
“We have partnered with Alabama WMU each year to pull that off,” said Chris Mills, student missions mobilizer for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “The focus of that weekend each year is relationship building. Our goal is that these international students would deepen friendships with American students and that the American students would become more intentional at befriending those whom God has placed next door to us.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the retreat this year, Mills and other student ministry leaders began figuring out other ways to use the bags.
Some campus ministers reached out to their university’s international student office to see if they had a use for the bags in welcoming students to campus.
And many said yes.
“All of the Baptist Campus Ministries are kind of approaching it in different ways. In some cases, students are passing out these bags in a one-on-one relational context,” Mills said. “In other cases, they’re having opportunity to engage them through events.”
That’s what students at the University of North Alabama did Nov. 20 at their Thanksmas event — they invited international students for a Thanksgiving meal outside and gave them a chance to paint a Christmas ornament and talk with BCM students about holiday traditions.
And as the international students were leaving, the BCM students handed them a bag and asked them about their Thanksgiving plans.
Matt Daniels, UNA’s Baptist campus minister, said it created a natural bridge to build a relationship.
“What we found is that as students would ask, ‘What are your Thanksgiving plans?’ many would say they didn’t have any,” Daniels said. “It worked out where a lot of the students are now going to Thanksgiving with our students and their families.”
This sort of thing helps to “create student-to-student relationships so they can build on those relationships for the sake of the gospel,” he said.
Four times as many
Mills said that’s the goal, and even though they weren’t able to have the retreat this year, it’s possible their reach was significantly broader because of the way they were able to retool the ministry. Because they weren’t limited to the 100–125 bags they normally give out at the retreat, they’ve already given out more than 400 bags on campuses around the state.
“That’s been something we’ve rejoiced in, this unique opportunity,” Mills said. “It’s allowed Baptist Campus Ministries across the state to partner with international student offices and offered a chance to bless the students and love them.”
And Alabama WMU and Acteens groups have gone the extra mile to make it happen, he said.
Some universities’ international student offices have said they would take a bag for every single international student on campus, and area missions groups have risen to the occasion to fill that order.
Mills said too that the handwritten notes they include in each bag really make an impact.
“Over and over again, we’ve had international students say, ‘This just means a lot that someone’s thinking of me,’” he said. “It’s built a bridge.”
Gesture of love
Candace McIntosh, Alabama WMU executive director, said they know students will use up the toothpaste and the shampoo but that the gesture of love will last.
“That’s been good motivation for our groups to hang tough and be faithful,” she said.