Hiding in Plain Sight: Where Do I Find Internationals?

 The biggest question I have heard by people considering getting involved in ministry to internationals is: “How do I meet them?” Several American friends have shared with me that they want to make friends with people from other countries but they don’t know how to find them.

Amazingly, these same people, after praying and committing to be intentional to take opportunities for ministry to internationals, have been shocked that foreigners suddenly seem to pop out of the woodwork of their lives! Maybe this is because they are intentional about going to more diverse places, or maybe it’s just God’s provision for a people who are asking Him to provide. Probably both!

The exciting thing about trying to meet internationals is the fact that immigrant communities are generally very connected. If you meet one Eritrean person and show him true friendship, for example, it is likely that before long you will meet his family, his friends, their friends, and eventually a large part of the Eritrean community in your city! Just start with one friend. I guarantee the ball will start rolling from there!

If you’re concerned that you don’t see any internationals in your daily round, here are my best suggestions for changing that:

  1. Get on your knees.

I just mentioned this in the paragraph above, but it’s worth mentioning again. Prayer is the single most effective way to diversify the people you run into on a daily basis. It’s amazing the way that God works in response to prayers that are according to His will (in this case, prayers that are from a heart longing to contribute to the fulfillment of every tribe, tongue and nation worshiping around God’s throne).

I can’t tell you exactly how He does it, but He does – He brings people to you when you ask Him for opportunities. And when He does, your faith will be increased and you’ll praise Him for the fact that He’s listening and responding to the cries of His servants who want to make Him known!

  1. Open your eyes and seize opportunities.

 Remember how I mentioned that awkwardness is the gateway through which we must pass in order to form new friendships, especially cross-cultural friendships? Here’s where it gets real. If I’m honest, I would rather go about my days never talking to strangers and being in my own little bubble when I am out in the community doing my daily stuff. I’m an introvert. I hate small talk. And most of the time I’m busy and in a rush.

But God has been so kind to change my heart in this area and allow me to see and seize opportunities for connection when they present themselves (though it’s always a matter of prayer because my comfort zone bubble still sings its siren song!).

Who is sitting next to you at the doctor’s office? Who is waiting for luggage and corralling kids at the airport baggage claim and could use an extra hand and a kind word?  Who is checking you out at the grocery store? Who is sitting on the park bench across the playground, watching her kids play?

The people that you see may have been in America several generations (don’t assume!), but talk to them regardless. Often you’ll find that they are new and you can begin a friendship right there, right then. After all, there they are smack dab in the middle of your daily round!

When approaching a stranger who may be a recent immigrant, you can just be natural. How would you make conversation with anyone else? Ask how they are, comment on what you’re both doing: groceries, pediatrician appointments, enjoying the weather (or not enjoying it!), etc.

One-and-done conversations are fine, but it’s ideal if you can get into more of a conversation after starting this way, finding some connection (your kids are the same age, for example) and end by exchanging contact information. Follow up a day or two later and go from there!

  1. Discover your city’s diversity.

You know how you can drive the same route for years and then suddenly you notice something that’s always been there but you feel like you’ve never seen before? Pockets of “diversity” are like that – scattered throughout most cities but somehow invisible to the native population.

Start scanning for these “pockets” as you’re out in your community and you may be amazed at what you have inadvertently missed because you weren’t looking for it. Hispanic tiendas (or sometimes whole shopping centers with signs written in Spanish!) or Chinese restaurants are two examples. Depending on where you live, other cultures usually have ethnic restaurants and specialty stores (where immigrants can buy an imported taste of home) which are often nestled into small strip malls with unobtrusive signs.

I’m going to dare you to find one of these stores or restaurants and go inside. Buy something and try to strike up conversation. It’s scary, I know, because you don’t know what to expect, but it will help to show you that people are people no matter where they’re from. And the discoveries (from an exotic new ingredient or spicy chicken dish to the beginning of a true friendship) from this fear-conquering exercise may go beyond what you can imagine. Remember, you’re not alone. God goes with you wherever you go – whether it’s into a hole-in-the-wall halal market or an out-of-the-way Vietnamese restaurant!

Going into a store or restaurant once is good for conquering your own fear, but keep in mind that in order to develop a friendship you’re going to have to return again and again. Become a regular at a store or restaurant of a people group you want to befriend. Let them see your face and express your interest in their culture by making connections from your own life (have you or a loved one traveled to China on business? are you interested about learning Middle Eastern flavor profiles to spice up your weeknight dinners? do you remember some of your high school Spanish and want to improve?).

  1. Use Language to Open Doors

Speaking of language, it can be a great way to connect and to show your sincere interest. My husband is a master at this and I love watching him connect with people using their native languages. He makes it a point to learn “hello,” “thank you,” “God bless you,” and other basic phrases in as many languages as he can. The look of shock on the Korean waiter’s face when Ethiopian Abeneazer says “anyohaseo” or “kamsamida” is priceless. When I have tried greeting Ethiopians in Amharic the same thing happens. It breaks the ice, makes the person feel comfortable and laugh in happy surprise, and almost always leads to more conversation.

At the least, be open to learning a few phrases in the language of the people group you’re approaching. For example, as you’re paying at the halal market, tell the Iraqi cashier you’re interested in learning Arabic and wonder how you say “thank you” in their language. Write it down if necessary (most people, including me, do not remember new vocabulary if it’s only a mental note!), and use your vocabulary words on subsequent visits!

Another way to use language to build relationships is to suggest a language exchange, if you or your kids are genuinely interested in learning another language. If  you are interacting with immigrants who desire to learn English, you can offer to meet with them to help them with English if they will help you learn their language. This creates a healthy reciprocal relationship that is beneficial to both parties and creates natural opportunities for frequent get-togethers.

  1. Get involved in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class.

EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classes are really the gold standard of meeting internationals. The nature of the class means that most of the people who attend are relatively new immigrants, automatically giving you access to many, many potential friendships at one time! Also, there is an expressed purpose of meeting these internationals – they want to learn English – so this removes some of the awkwardness of new relationships that we are all scared of. Most attendees of these classes are open to any cultural experiences that will help them improve their language, so invitations to your home, your child’s sporting event, a local festival or fair, or even a church event will likely be enthusiastically accepted.

You do not need to be trained as an English teacher to be a helpful and welcome addition to an EFL class. These types of classes take various forms, but there is often a lead teacher who has some training and who delegates conversational facilitation to many helpers (including you). If you speak English and can carry a conversation, you are qualified. Often you will have a conversation starter (i.e. What are the major holidays in your culture?) or a concept to review (already explained in a large group lesson by the teacher) in a small group with 1-4 international students.

I will warn you: EFL classes are addictive. It seems that it takes a lot of convincing to get people to volunteer for the first time, but once they get involved they tend to stay involved for the long haul. It is very rewarding to help eager students to learn language skills which will drastically improve their quality of life, and the friendships formed in these classes between teacher and students are easy to continue outside the classroom (make sure you get the contact info of your students!).

Classes usually meet at churches, community centers, or adult education facilities. Those would be the places to start looking if you want to find a class in your area.

-Excerpt from Chapter 8 of Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus

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