Friendship International

Directors: Mike and Beth Wilson

Meeting at Fist Baptist Church of Norman

The students of Friendship International are not just students, they are interesting people, often with fascinating backgrounds, and many are Christians. One of these Christians is a daughter of a Chinese woman and her husband, who was an officer in the army of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 fighting against Mao Zedong in the Chinese civil war that followed World War Two. In 1948 or 49 her mother and father found themselves, along with a baby boy, retreating to the island of Taiwan as Mao’s forces began to push them out of China. She told me her parents were forced to escape on a Chinese ship loaded with soldiers and civilians

When the ship arrived in Taiwan, her father had to return to the mainland to help rescue more refugees. Her mother discovered that there was no way to access the dock directly and that the only way she and her aged mother could leave the boat was by swinging on a rope to the wharf below, while clutching the baby. They did it, and thus it was that our student was born in Taiwan, not mainland China, into a future where she heard the Gospel and became a believer.

Another one of our students, Zuly, was born and lived in Mexico for 29 years. As a child, her father died and later her new stepfather was sent to prison: a tremendous blow to Zuly and her family. They moved to a new state in northern Mexico where things changed. As she said, “In this time of my life that was so hard, it was when my mom took me to a Protestant [evangelical] church and … [I met] Jesus.” Zuly said she couldn’t believe that the church members were so loving toward her. She started to find herself changing and realized it was Jesus in her. She became a fervent Christian, where she witnesses in our classes.

Friendship students, like these two, are people with enormously varied backgrounds. One is a university administrator when she is home in Malaysia, another a homemaker from Japan, and still another is a dentist from Brazil. Some have several graduate degrees and one has Alzheimer’s disease. There are teachers, engineers, business owners, and refugees. Some are Christians, some Muslims, some Buddhists, and many are quite secular. All are people with a story and all are people we’ve come to love and minister to.

Friendship International (FI) is a ministry to people from other countries living in the Norman area, and is funded by Union Baptist Association and First Baptist Church of Norman. As the name implies, our focus is on friendship and hospitality in the name of Jesus, showing Christian love through welcoming and helping “strangers in a foreign land”. Our core activity is a program of English as a Second Language, helping them to develop their English language abilities for daily living here in America. But equally important is our reaching out to encourage and help the students where they have need. Sometimes this means inviting them to a meal, accompanying them to a doctor’s appointment, or helping them with English related to their jobs, such as restaurant receptionist and seater.

Those who attend include university students and their families, long-term international residents, spouses of American citizens, and other internationals who find themselves in Norman for an extended period of time. Their English-language abilities range from beginners who need to learn to make basic sentences to graduate students wanting to improve their skills for gaining advanced degrees. We thus offer four levels of English instruction to accommodate varying proficiencies and needs. In addition to our classes that focus on reading, writing, listening and speaking, we have an English Bible class that teaches Christian students personal evangelism and discipleship skills in English. It is taught by a retired IMB missionary and has been very well received.

While Friendship’s intention is to show God’s love through various avenues of ministry, we are also always ready to present the Gospel when the opportunity arises. Through the weekly fellowship students also see answers to their prayer requests, which we take each week in the opening assembly. Several of the students have been attending Bible studies and many have developed relationships with teachers and members of the church. We have had a number of students become Christians in the last few years. One couple became believers through Friendship and First Baptist members, and has subsequently returned to a country that is closed to missionary work.

Enrollment for Fall 2019 was 72, and there were 63 during Spring, 2020, making a total of 135. They ranged in age from 16 to 87, came from 15 different countries, and spoke 13 languages among them. Most of our students are women, with about 3 of them for every man. We currently have 12 teachers, as well as three volunteer kitchen workers and three van drivers. Our childcare coordinator was able to return this year, a big boost for the program, as we often have seven or eight children of students. A few older children come to class with their parents.

Special activities this year included a Thanksgiving dinner that included traditional American Thanksgiving dishes as well as international foods brought by students. For Christmas, students went to teachers’ homes where they enjoyed traditional American Christmas games, activities, and the Christmas story. In addition, they tried American Christmas foods.

We have continued to have workshops to help teachers in preparing their weekly lessons and to become acquainted with the large number of materials that had been donated by the ESL program at OU. Our workshops have allowed teachers to discuss new ideas, their concerns and interests in their teaching, and to focus on improvement of the curriculum. The teachers have really enjoyed the sessions and have begun using the new materials and ideas in their classes.

Classes were suspended in March of this year because of the pandemic. When we asked students if they wanted to restart in September, the great majority declined. This was also the feeling of teachers and the director. Learning to speak, hear, read, and write English is best done in a face-to-face class at conversational distances and there seemed no good way to do that. Tentatively, classes will restart in January of 2021.

Friendship International has been an associational and church ministry for over 40 years. Hundreds and hundreds of people have participated in it, improving their English skills, learning about American culture, and developing relationships with American Christians. Many have been blessed by it and some have become believers because of it. All have appreciated it greatly.

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  September 2021  
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