An Interview with Allen and Jeanette Stewart, Victoria, Canada

I wonder if we could ask how your involvement with international students began?

It all began after a trip to visit churches of God in Myanmar and India in 1998, when we saw the eagerness of the children to speak English at Faith Welfare Trust children’s homes. At that time, hundreds of international students, mainly from Asia and Mexico, were coming to Victoria to learn English at the burgeoning number of private ESL (English as a Second Language) schools and at the University. Jeanette had been exposed to missions and foreign lands from early days: her Grade 1 teacher left to go to Ethiopia; relatives worked there; she learned about other cultures during church and home visits of UK ‘Lord’s Servants’ who were working in Africa, India and Myanmar; and Chinese Christians briefly lived with the family. Allen saw many internationals in cosmopolitan London and Manchester, and became close friends with a Japanese student as they studied together for a year.

After we retired to Victoria, we noticed some churches were attracting university-age students with free evening ESL classes, ‘potluck’ dinners (where everyone randomly contributes), and Bible studies. And so our work began! For most Fridays over the last 17 years, it has been our privilege and joy to have potluck dinners and Bible studies with students from around the world. They come to our country to learn English and experience Western culture – but God is bringing them to us to let them know how they can have a relationship with Him! Most are very open to our friendship, the opportunity to meet new friends, speak and hear English and learn about our culture – which has such a large Christian history and influence. It’s wonderful to be able to share freely with young people who are so attentive, respectful and truly appreciative of the help and care we can give them in their time abroad.

If anyone wanted to start this kind of outreach, is there any special training required?

You don’t have to have special training or even follow a prescribed curriculum – although there are good ones available online. You just need to have an open heart, a desire to connect – using simple words and slow clear speech (my challenge!), and patience to help them understand – all in the comfort of your own home or church building. We have not gone to any of the schools to reach students, because this is more complicated with today’s regulations and reactions to Christianity. Currently ours have all come from informal encounters, personal small business card invitations, word of mouth, and they then bring friends. After friendly greetings and chat about the event, they will usually give you their email addresses so you can give them details about the event. We send a friendly email notice out to the group each week advising the date, time and subject for the evening.

Would you talk us through the format of one of your student evenings?

We ask the students to come at 6:30 p.m. and hopefully start the buffet meal at 7 p.m. We never know how many will turn up or what they will bring – there could be 4 to 6, but usually around 12 to 20, and sometimes larger groups on special occasions. Students usually know a potluck means to bring a food item, but we, and usually one or two volunteer helpers, make sure we have several main course dishes prepared. And the Lord always makes sure there is plenty! Around 8.00 p.m. we start the Bible study, which lasts for an hour or so. We prefer to keep everyone together, but some may prefer to break into smaller groups for part of the time. We usually make up our own lesson subjects each week, focusing on current events, family issues, etc. – for everything in life has a lesson from the Bible. It’s good to give handouts so that the students have something to read. They help with pronunciation and supply vocabulary we can explain during the lesson. The students usually come themselves, but we try to make sure that they get a ride home.

What results have you seen from this good work?

We have been blessed in learning about their cultures. Many have come to know the Saviour while here, some have had their faith restored, and others are serving the Lord in their home countries. We have also had joyous experiences of visiting them in their homes – and meeting others doing similar work around the world. It has been a most rewarding work to have the privilege and responsibility to share God’s love and truth with people from around the world. Several of the students have been to various of our church meetings over the years, and one Chinese girl was baptized and added to the church.

“Go into all the world …” – by welcoming it to our doorstep!