Starting an International Student Ministry

18 Jul

Ingredients to start an international ministry

1 pot of coffee (and some decaf teas for persons coming from cultures that don’t do caffeine.)

2 bags of chips

3 American Volunteers

Table and chairs


Like many institutions our international population continues to grow at the University of Illinois. We consistently are in the top 5 largest international student populations at a public school with over 8,000 during this past year alone. Ironically, for many international students this has made it harder to engage American culture or even to make any American friends. Research has been done on the self segregation that can happen to some of these cultural or racial groups that often runs counter to the University’s efforts at diversity. A case in point is our Korean population of over 1,500 students. With extremely active Korean language student associations and churches, many students can go days if not weeks without meaningful interaction with the broader culture. This and the subtle racism that undergirds it has been documented in Nancy Abelmann’s research entitled the “Intimate University.”

A piece of our challenge as campus ministries is to provide settings and programs that can embraced the wonderful diversity of all of God’s children. One of the ways we do this at our Wesley Foundation is by hosting an International Coffeehouse every Friday evening from 4 to 6pm. We brew a few pots of fair trade coffee, set out several bags of chips or snacks and prepare to welcome the sojourners in our midst. This ministry is not evangelistically focused but instead is grounded in the numerous biblical indicatives to offer hospitality. Other than a few announcements about upcoming ministry events, our time is unstructured and is simply a time to meet new friends, share cultures and practice English. We work with the International Student Services office, the Intensive English Institute and the cultural student organizations who send a steady flow of students our way. Pumpkin carving, Easter Egg Dying and other holiday oriented events draw an even larger crowd.

Of the several areas of my ministry where I work, this is one of the easiest to run. My American volunteers find it immensely rewarding simply to chat and share cultures while international students simply flock to our welcoming program. Many, but certainly not all, of our international students then become involved in our other ministries and activities and enrich everything we do. If you are interested in starting your own international ministry I would be happy to chat about both our successes and failures.


Rob Kirby is the Campus Minister and Associate Director at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois. He has been serving there since 2003 and is blessed by the incredible ways that the love of God is being made known to the diverse campus community. He has served as President of the Religious Workers Association which brings together over 30 different interfaith ministries that serve the University of Illinois. In addition to traditional campus ministry, he is also passionate about ministries with international persons and equipping students to be in service to the community and world. Rob recently spent a year of Sabbath and spiritual renewal with his wife and three children as he worked with the Christian Care Foundation for Children with disabilities in Nonthaburi, Thailand. Rob also loves wood working, hiking, skiing and camping.

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