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BSU’s outreach to internationals seeks to build caring ‘community’

STARKVILLE, Miss. (BP)–At first glance, Crossroads International Friendship House may not look very inviting.
Located near the campus of Mississippi State University in Starkville, the modest brick structure first served as a pizza restaurant, then a community grocery store. Though it’s not exactly architecturally appealing, it’s what goes on inside the building today that gives it warmth and importance to the school’s 700-plus international students.
“I wanted it to be a place of community,” Diana Bridges, director of international activities for MSU’s Baptist Student Union, said. “And to a large degree, I think we’ve been successful.”
Stop by the center almost any morning during the week and you’re likely to find a couple dozen spouses of international students involved in conversational English classes led by Bridges and volunteers from area churches. Another day, you’ll discover a Bible study or perhaps a cooking or sewing class. If you’re lucky, you’ll drop in on the monthly pot luck luncheon and enjoy a sampling of foods from around the world.
In addition to books in English, students who visit the center can find Bibles and other reading materials as well as copies of the “Jesus” video in several languages.
Weekday afternoons, the center’s activity level accelerates as the children of international students arrive to take part in arts and crafts, games or a backyard Bible club. These activities are coordinated by Ashley Wallace, a senior and active member of the school’s BSU.
“It’s exciting, kind of like being a foreign missionary, but at home,” Wallace said. “It’s great to see the kids interact with each other. Plus, I get to learn about people from all over the world,” she added, beginning to reel off the children’s home countries: China, India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and others.
Located just around the corner from the local mosque, the Friendship House draws a large number of Muslim students and others representing many other faith groups or no religion at all.
“For many students, this is the first they’ve ever heard about Jesus. Many have misconceptions,” Bridges said. And while the center maintains a friendly, non-confrontational atmosphere, she said she finds appropriate ways to bring her faith into the conversation.
“We talk about what’s important to us, so faith is part of the mix. And when students go through crises, some of them ask me to pray for them. … We’ve had a steady stream of professions of faith since we opened the center three years ago.”
Bridges learned about the center’s growing sense of community firsthand two years ago after she was diagnosed with cancer.
“Several students came to see me in the hospital; some even went with me to chemotherapy. One woman even came to my home and offered to help. The amount of love and concern was overwhelming,” Bridges, now fully recovered, said.
BSU director Ken Watkins said the international ministry “is a great example of churches, a BSU and a local association working together.”
Watkins said Bill Duncan, director of the Golden Triangle Baptist Association, has been instrumental in the ministry’s success. In addition to providing volunteer workers, the association also takes care of the center’s utility bills and pays a salary to Bridges through money donated monthly by Starkville’s First Baptist Church. Since she is also a BSU staff member, Bridges receives a small monthly stipend from the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s student department.
Another key to the ministry’s success, Bridges said, is the positive relationship she enjoys with the university’s international office.
“The BSU has been very supportive of our students,” Helen Zuercher, director of MSU’s international services office, said. “This program has just filled a wonderful niche. Several students have told me several times how wonderful this program is for their wives.”
Bridges said she often feels she gets more from the program than her students.
“It’s just wonderful; it really gives me a sense of purpose. I really feel like this is what I was meant to do.”

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  • Chip Alford