Why offering car rides can be profoundly effective in international student ministry.
International student ministry is often remarkably practical. Early on there isn’t a lot of fiery bible study or baptism. Instead, a lot of the time ministering to international students will be focused on seeing what need a student has and moving in God’s power to meet that need. When a student needs help practicing their English, find a volunteer with the time and energy to practice with them. When a student needs to find a barbershop, provide a recommendation. When a student needs to talk about their homesickness with someone and how worried they are about their little brother, buy them coffee and listen with a patient, sympathetic ear.
Of course, this practical work isn’t meant to terminate on itself. Providing for the needs of international students is the handmaiden of developing a close relationship with these students. That’s why opportunities for service that also lead to conversations seem especially fruitful. Tending to emotional needs is an obvious way that the practical and relational intersect, but there is another need that is in many ways simpler: offering a ride.
The need itself is pretty easy to grasp. Most American towns and cities don’t have very robust public transportation. That means international students—some of whom come from countries with relatively omnipresent public transportation—can find getting around frustrating. Simple tasks like going grocery shopping, getting to a clinic, or visiting the clever outreach you and your team have planned can become complex tasks without access to a car. When you offer to give an international student a ride, you likely are easing a very present irritation in that student’s life.
The advantages of being ready to offer your transportation also has a unique advantage in the process of pouring into an international student: you are spending periods of time with them where there really isn’t a lot to do other than talk. This observation is so obvious that it borders on the comical, but utilizing it well can be a chance to very deeply connect with the international student you’re choosing to pour into.
Anyone who’s had meaningful conversations with a friend in their passenger seat can tell you why this opportunity is so meaningful. Cars provide the safe distance of not having to be looking directly at the person you’re talking to but the privacy of a closed space. Even better, they have predictable ends, giving the conversation a natural ending point.
Still, anyone who’s given rides to only somewhat familiar international students can also tell you that a conversation in this context can feel awkward to initiate. It’s easier and decidedly more comfortable to let the ten minutes-long ride pass more or less in silence than to push through. Finding common ground with an acquaintance can be rough.
And that’s okay. It still needs to be done. Despite the near-certainty that trying to engage in conversation about school life, interpersonal concerns, home, or events of the week will be awkward, pressing onward into that fact will press your relationship with an international student onward as well. All friendships have awkwardly-begun conversations. What better way could there be to make a friend out of an international student than through awkward car rides?