That word best describes the atmosphere at weekly luncheons for international students at Western Michigan University that have been put together by volunteers for more than 20 years.
The International Student Fellowship (ISF) luncheons, held at Kanley Chapel every Thursday during the spring and fall semesters, provide an opportunity for WMU international students to gather, talk and share a meal.
“I made a commitment to myself and for the university that I would do everything I could to help promote a positive experience for the international students whom we meet at the university,” says WMU campus pastor Ron DeYoung, who serves as point person for the lunches by connecting with churches, monitoring preparation, supplementing it where and when needed, providing the set-up for lunch, and connecting with and picking up donations from local bakeries. “My desire was and is that international students will say they were treated well, with respect and kindness, while they studied at WMU.”
As DeYoung moves about the room offering heartfelt smiles and warm greetings to everyone, it’s easy to see that his affability helps establish this friendly environment.
This atmosphere of hospitality, respect and belonging mirrors ISF’s mission as a campus organization that seeks to develop followers and disciples of Christ.
When ISF needed assistance with the luncheons, it tapped DeYoung, a Christian Reformed Church pastor who had served three churches, one as team pastor for Christian education outreach and two as senior pastor. He agreed to help out with the luncheons for one semester. That was 20 years ago.
He says he became “hooked” after realizing he could meet students from all over the world. It was a wonderful way for him to learn and to also share his own passions, he says. His wife, Fran DeYoung, also became involved and still helps with the luncheons each week by coordinating food. It’s apparent that, like her husband’s, Fran’s openheartedness puts the students at ease.
“Sometimes students have become part of our family while they are here in Kalamazoo,” Ron DeYoung says.
The international luncheons were started by another Christian Reformed campus minister and have been going on for decades, DeYoung says. The CRC passed the responsibility to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship about 20 years ago, and, after DeYoung came on board, together they named the international ministry the International Student Fellowship.
Back in 1996, 25 international students attended the weekly luncheons. Now that number often reaches 200. The Haenicke Institute for Global Education says that there are a total of 1,833 international students at WMU. It takes no event promotion to bring students to the luncheons — only word of mouth. Professors often make an announcement about the lunches at the start of the school year, and students who have attended the lunches will tell other students.
It takes approximately 24 casseroles, 12 salads and six dozen fruits to feed the group, and six gallons of a beverage to quench their thirst. So that students from every culture have something they can eat, the casseroles are of chicken, beef and vegetarian varieties. Between 18 and 20 churches from the area volunteer to purchase and prepare the food for the luncheons, DeYoung says. The ISF also receives donations of doughnuts and baked goods from area bakeries. A team of four volunteers serves the meal and does cleanup every week.
On the weeks when there isn’t a volunteering church to prepare the meal, the DeYoungs do it themselves. It’s a task that might sound daunting, but it’s one that Ron DeYoung believes gives him the best position of all pastors.
“I believe Jesus came not to be served, but to serve,” he says. “This ministry serves students with the greatest amount of genuine, authentic hospitality. My wife and I like to serve people freely and generously. We feel like we are the hands and feet of Jesus to international students.”
In a world of division and conflict, DeYoung says, the luncheons bring students from all over the world together. These students are able to sit down with each other and get to know each other — something that wouldn’t happen back in their own countries. “We hear students tell us this over and over again,” he says.
Eleven years ago, DeYoung and international student Maran Subramain, from Malaysia, had an idea for a special lunch. They called it The American Thanksgiving Celebration. Subramain, who worked in WMU’s International Student Activities Office at the time and was putting together WMU’s International Education Week, told the dean of students about their idea. She approved and gave the ISF a stipend to cover food for the event.
“Students were talking about it well into the spring semester (last year), talking about the food itself. They were just blown away,” says Laura Osborne, a part-time campus pastor at WMU who has taken on some of DeYoung’s responsibilities for the lunches and will assume more in the coming year, in addition to developing relationships and connecting with students.
The American Thanksgiving Celebration is still going strong and has become a favorite event for international students. Held the week before Thanksgiving, the meal includes traditional Thanksgiving fare as well as vegetarian options. The ISF staff designs placemats that depict 12 things that characterize this American holiday. They encourage students to talk about similar traditions, DeYoung says, such as the Chinese New Year, which is built upon the idea of thankfulness. He describes the entire event as interactive.
Osborne finds the event very informative. “Sometimes I think we learn more than they do,” she says.
Students from a variety of world religions, students who don’t want to talk about religion and students who are all over the board about religion come to the weekly luncheons, says Osborne,who was ordained in the Reformed Church and, in addition to her work with ISF, serves as minister to children and families at Third Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo. International students from different academic programs on campus, such as economics and engineering, are able to interact with others outside of their department bubble, she says.
“There’s not that [type of interaction] happening much on campus, and one of the great things that we’ve seen is that small communities have been built out of our lunches,” Osborne says. Many students from WMU’s Center for English Language and Culture for International Students (CELCIS) attend the lunches. CELCIS offers instruction in English as a second language for non-native speakers, and its students often come to the ISF desiring partners for English conversation. The ISF has English conversation volunteers and wants to expand this area in the future, but first it requires more American students who will meet regularly with international students.
“We have a lot of things ready to go when these students become available,” DeYoung says.
The ISF is also looking to the future. Because DeYoung has “surpassed retirement years,” he and other volunteers are searching for people to lead the next chapter of this ministry.
“To say the least, I sometimes wonder why many are not competing to take my place,” he says. “I have loved the privilege to be part of this ministry for 20 years, and I still feel fresh and excited about it.”