It started in a Walmart parking lot with a simple request for a ride. Over the years, it has grown into a full-blown ministry to international students in Murray, Kentucky.
In the fall of 2012, three Chinese students who recently arrived at Murray State University in western Kentucky approached Steve Alcott about a ride back to campus after a Walmart shopping trip.
Alcott, a member of First Baptist Church Murray, and his wife, Paula, had just returned from China to visit one of their daughters and her family. He greeted the young women in Chinese and gladly gave them a ride across town. When one of the students accidentally left her cell phone in his car, the Alcotts returned to campus to deliver it.
The couple invited the students to church and volunteered to pick them up the next Sunday — an invitation that gradually blossomed into FBC’s international ministry. Fast-forward to 2021 and the local church ministry, in partnership with Murray State’s Baptist Campus Ministry, has built personal relationships with hundreds of international students from dozens of countries, including 25 who have made professions of faith in Christ and been baptized.
“One of the humbling things about this is that there have been occasions where we’ve been able to step into the lives of these students at a point of crisis or when they really needed a friend,” explained FBC Pastor Keith Inman. “As a result of our nurture and care and genuine love, I believe these students have been touched in a unique way in regards to, ‘Now what are we going to do with this Jesus that we see in our new friends at First Baptist Church Murray?’”
As the number of international students attending the church increased, the Alcotts began hosting a backyard cookout at the beginning of each school year. The fun, festive gathering has expanded into a signature kickoff event each fall for the church’s international ministry.
Reaching around the globe
Five volunteer committees planned this year’s — the eighth — cookout, coordinating such details as food, decorations and games. It attracted more than 150, including 90 international students from 23 countries, spanning the globe from China, Russia and Japan to Guatemala, Nigeria and Vietnam.
As students arrived, they were invited to fellowship with activities like cornhole, ping-pong and Jenga. The evening included greetings from the mayor of Murray and Murray State’s vice president of student affairs, reflecting the event’s community support and involvement.
Rows of tables piled with hamburgers, hot dogs, fruit trays, salads and chips welcomed the students to the American-style cookout, with door prizes, an ice cream truck and a grand finale sparkler celebration.
Beyond the cookout, the international ministry includes Sunday School classes for seekers and Christians, meals in church members’ homes and an annual retreat. Other activities range from inviting students to cook and share cuisine from their home countries to game nights, visits to local farms and shopping excursions.
“There have been students from all over the world and we have been blessed beyond measure,” Paula Alcott reflected. “Only God could have put all of this together and made it the ministry that He had wanted.”
Debbie Bell, a member of the church’s international committee, agreed. “We want to make friends and be able to share our faith with them.
“We know that we are planting seeds, and just like (the apostle) Paul said, one plants and the next one waters,” Bell added. “So that’s what we hope we’re doing is just nudging them along toward belief” in Christ.
Xiaoling “Lynn” Luo of China, one of the first international students involved in the ministry in 2012, eventually professed faith in Christ as a result of what she learned and experienced.
After attending the seekers Sunday School class and receiving her first Bible as a Christmas gift from the church, “little by little, I got to learn more and more about Christianity,” she remembered. “I became a Christian after several years of learning the Bible and about God and I was glad that I made that decision. It seemed like now, all these things didn’t just happen by coincidence. It was part of God’s plan.”
Emmanuel Apeh, a 2020 Murray State graduate from Nigeria, said when he started attending FBC Murray, “I felt like I was back home in Nigeria. The people were welcoming and they were very godly. I feel like what Murray First Baptist is doing for God’s glory is very unique, especially in my life.”
While he was a Christian before he came to the U.S., Apeh said involvement in FBC’s international ministry helped nurture and strengthen his faith.
“When I got connected with First Baptist Church, they kept pushing me to Jesus, they kept loving me, they held me accountable,” he recalled. “And that is the goal of the church — to make sure that life change happens for the glory of God … and it’s awesome!”
Encouraging other churches near university campuses to explore similar ways to build meaningful relationships with international students, Paula Alcott emphasized, “Our eyes have to be opened and be intentional. … Look for ways to invite somebody that probably has never heard” the gospel of Christ.
“You never know what to expect when you go on this adventure with God,” she added. “There’s always something new and exciting.”