When Sammy Joo arrived in the United States 12 years ago from South Korea to attend Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., he came with his wife, infant child and all the belongings they could squeeze in two duffel bags.
“We did not have a mattress or a couch or a kitchen table and chairs. We had just an empty apartment,” he said. “That first month was very difficult.”
Eventually Joo and his family – wife Debbie and daughter Gracie – furnished the apartment through the generosity of others. But those first weeks proved a trying time.
Every year thousands of international students like Joo arrive in North Carolina, and most arrive in need of furniture, transportation and help navigating their new surroundings.
Joo now serves as consultant for international campus ministry for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC). He organizes an effort to help meet the needs of international students who arrive in the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) each August. The initiative is known as First Week in the United States.
First Week provides local church volunteers opportunities to serve incoming international students in three ways: pick up students from the airport, donate used furniture or provide students a ride to a local store.
“The purpose of First Week is to connect local church volunteers with incoming international students in the Triangle area to reach those students with the gospel by meeting their physical needs and sharing the love of Christ with them,” Joo said.
First Week launched last August, and Joo is praying for more volunteers to participate this year.
To participate, volunteers register on the First Week website (www.firstweekinus.com), which serves as a connecting point for students and volunteers. Volunteers can use the site to post furniture they want to donate or times they are available to assist students with travel needs, and they can also scan postings from students with specific needs.
“All the volunteers need to do is sign up and post their furniture or their availability to help students to adjust,” Joo said.
“The students will visit the website and see the postings, and then they can respond.”
Rick Trexler, BSC campus ministry team leader, said First Week will benefit all who participate.
“First Week will strengthen the local church and equip individuals to be ministers where they are, and it will make an eternal difference in the lives of these students,” he said.
“First Week is a great opportunity for North Carolina Baptist churches, associations and individuals to partner together to expand the Kingdom.”
About 8,000 international students representing more than 150 nationalities enroll at Triangle-area universities each year. Most students are from countries that have been closed to the gospel or lack a gospel witness.
First Week is a platform from which Christ-followers can demonstrate authentic Christianity that leads to effective evangelism.
“When they meet American Christians, that is their first exposure to see what Christianity is about,” Joo said. “This is a great way to meet with the students to share the love of God that will open the door for sharing the gospel.”
To that end, the ultimate goal extends beyond the students’ first week in North Carolina. The goal is to lead students to faith in Jesus Christ so they return home as Christian leaders.
“We need to raise up more international Christian leaders so that we are not just sending American missionaries. This is a great way to meet that need,” Joo said. “If we can disciple these international students, they will be more effective than missionaries because they don’t have to go through language training, and they know their culture. They can go and serve their community and share the gospel there. It’s a strategic ministry with much potential.”
Volunteers will play an important role toward achieving that goal. Joo is praying for volunteers to build lasting relationships with students.
“Once volunteers meet with students and help them out in August, I encourage them to invite the students to their home for dinner or something else,” Joo said. “True friendship gets started from there.”
Beginning in September, Joo will provide cross-cultural training to help volunteers learn how to build lasting relationships with students and how to engage in spiritual conversation. Volunteers are invited to attend but not required.
Joo asked N.C. Baptists to prayerfully consider participating this August by volunteering time and resources to help share the love of Christ with international students.