The Privilege of Housing International Students
Ben and Sheffield Coulter live in Magnolia, Arkansas, where he serves as senior pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church.
John R. W. Stott said, “We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.” As a family, we have found hosting students as a way we can be global Christians while including our children in Great Commission work within our own home here in Arkansas. In Psalm 67:1-2, the psalmist writes, “May God be gracious to us and bless us; may he make his face shine upon us, so that your way may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.”
Everything God has blessed us with should be used for God’s glory among all the peoples of the world. For us and many others, this includes our homes, our beds, food, transportation, and even family holiday time. Research shows that 75% of international students in the United States will never set foot in an American’s home. This is a staggering statistic that needs to change, and anyone reading this can be a part of that change. God has brought the nations to Arkansas; therefore, we have a profound responsibility that they hear and experience the Gospel while they are here. There is nothing special about our family or our home. We do not have it all figured out and find that we need to continue to grow in this area. We just want to be faithful to Jesus.
We knew that God had blessed us with many things, including a home and a vehicle, which we could use to house and transport students. We wanted to be intentional in helping students not just experience an American home, but more importantly experience Jesus. As the statistic above stated, so many internationals never enter an American’s home, so many do not experience the “in-home” culture of an American family who is following Jesus. We also learned that while many American students go home during holidays, the dorms become empty, the cafeteria shuts down, and it can be a very lonely time for internationals and other students that remain on campus.
We began the process of housing students and meeting students’ needs by posting our name and number on the bulletin board in the Southern Arkansas University (SAU) International building (girls would call Sheffield, boys would call Ben). We had an eight-seat minivan and wanted it full as much as possible. Slowly but surely, we began getting calls for rides to Walmart, doctor visits, etc. As the word began to spread about rides, we began to get more and more calls (even at 10 pm)!! Our heart grew for these students who we began to see as God’s creation on a whole different level. They had needs, and we had resources to meet those needs.
As we progressed, we realized that ministering to these students not only included housing them, but also the opportunity to show the love of Jesus through babysitting, dog sitting, hosting a wedding reception, having meals, helping students move, and also storing their belongings in our shop during the summer months. We attend tennis matches to cheer them on when their parents can’t be there. We believe the opportunities are endless and there are opportunities for everyone to participate in. We wanted to live up to the name “southern hospitality,” but more importantly, we wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Since 2018, we have had the privilege to host multiple students from Japan, Malaysia, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Nepal, and Morocco in our home for various periods of time. Some of these students are Christians, while others have been Hindu, Muslim, and atheist. At one point we had eight people in our three-bedroom home with one student sleeping on the couch in the living room. We have had FaceTime conversations with their families as the students translate. These students are the ones that we called and FaceTimed when Luke was born or when something else exciting has happened. Lucas and Brenda (from Brazil) gave James his first tennis racket. Samir (from Nepal) chases and tickles them every time we see him on campus. Kelvin (from Malaysia) calls our kids “baby sister” and “chicken shark!” The first baby he ever held was our son Luke. He walked up and down our hall teaching our daughter, Sheffield, how to walk. We even had the privilege of walking “our Malaysian son” on homecoming court this past semester. It brought us so much joy when they announced that he was being escorted by “his parents, Sheffield and Ben Coulter.”
The calls and questions don’t stop when they move out. They continue to call about insurance, doctors, cars, cell phones, etc. All these students have become more than just people who have stayed in our home, they have become family to us. They are like sons and daughters (to us) and brothers and sisters (to our children). Their home countries were once just places on a map, but they have become places we long to visit and pray for often.
As we write this and tell our story, we don’t want to make it feel as though this was natural, normal, or comfortable for us in the beginning. I (Sheffield) was very nervous. I thought “what if they don’t like our food?” What if our kids misbehave or wake them up?” I was nervous about using just one bedroom for our family but had a peace that this was exactly what we needed to do, and what we would hope others would do for our own children. It hasn’t always been “rosy,” as you can expect with most college students. Some of the students have been extremely messy. We have had to teach them to use a dishwasher, take out the trash, and fix their own plate. They have learned how to mow the yard on a riding lawn mower, which was pretty fun for them. We have even had to tell them that we can’t take them to Walmart at 11 pm on a weeknight! After one too many cold showers the first year (thanks, Kelvin!) we invested in a continuous hot water heater.
The good has far outweighed any “hard.” They have loved our children, played with our children, and taught us about their culture and customs. We have had authentic Chinese food, authentic Malaysian ABC soup, and we have been served stroganoff, a delicious, common meal in Brazil. We took a van load to Branson on a family vacation so they could experience Silver Dollar City and the beautiful Ozark mountains. We took many students to Cottonwood Deer Camp around Hamburg, AR, where they were able to ride four-wheelers and experience something completely different than they ever had before. In an effort to be a blessing to others, this has been a much bigger blessing to us, our church, and especially our own children. We could write and talk about this topic for hours and days. We just hope and pray we will be able to continue to do this for years to come, and that our children will do this as well when they are older.
When our family moved to Magnolia in the summer of 2018 for me (Ben) to serve as senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, we knew we wanted to make an impact on the international community of Southern Arkansas University. SAU is a small university with 4,434 students, but among the students and faculty over 30 countries are represented. Initially, our focus was students but has now spread to faculty, staff, and families in our community as well. One of my (Ben) first calls in Magnolia was to a local disciple by the name of Mark Harmon and his wife Vickie. They had hosted students for many years and are what we consider to be “experts” in the field of hospitality to internationals in our area. They encouraged us, connected us, and have walked with us throughout the entire process. We highly revere the Harmons and all they do for students both short-term and long-term. They have made a HUGE eternal, Kingdom impact right in their own town and their own home. I (Ben) also talk with Jamie Naramore from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) often. Jamie has been an incredible help to our church and family as we minister to internationals. There is probably no one in the state more passionate than Jamie about loving and reaching internationals. We know Jamie, Bit Stephens, and the entire ABSC staff are here to support us throughout this process.
Sheffield’s family, Sheffield and David Duke, have hosted them for Thanksgiving and Christmas including her aunt, grandparents, and extended family. Ben’s mom, Kathy Coulter, hosted the students for a New Year celebration as well. They have fed them and cared for them through the process for us. They are very excited that our children and family get to experience different people and different cultures. Calvary Baptist in Little Rock, our church family when we lived in Little Rock, hosted them both in their mission house and in their church gym on visits to Little Rock for Christmas. This included providing WIFI, blow up mattresses, bedding, and lots of treats from Tina and Michael Hall.
Our church, Immanuel Baptist Church of Magnolia, has become a huge part of this process. Many internationals attend our worship service and have become a part of our congregation. An 89-year-old member of our church, Pat Simmons, has given numerous rides to international students, including rides to airports. He has recently taught a few how to drive! Breanna Hargis, Josh Lipscomb, Reagan Harville, and Sebastian Bolin are American students who have also given rides and taught students how to drive. Another church member, Linda Watson, hosted a mother from Vietnam while she was in Magnolia visiting her daughter. Josh and LeAnna Herring (IBC worship pastor and his family) have worked closely with an international student at SAU and her young child. The child was born while his mom has been attending SAU. The Herrings have made an enormous impact in this family’s life, including frequent babysitting so the mom can study, attend classes, or just have time to rest. The Herring family has also begun having various students and their families into their home to share a meal weekly. This specific type of hosting has challenged us (Ben and Sheffield) to make this a regular, intentional occurrence in our home as well. So many church members deliver meals and provide different levels of support to so many students while they are here. Generous tithes and offerings have made local outreach and missions possible as well. The opportunities include having multiple meals on campus and in the church for students during various times of the year. The church van has been used many times to give rides as well. Mike Sandusky, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry director at SAU, is a consistent presence on campus that students can go to. He has made a huge push to reach students in dorms and throughout campus through discipleship and evangelism. As you can see, this is a team effort with many people playing many important roles.
We currently have a girl from Japan, Natalie, living with us over the Christmas holiday. She is here visiting her sister who plays on the SAU tennis team. She is not a follower of Jesus, and she doesn’t speak English. We have recently downloaded Google translate, tried to talk louder (I think we have all tried that) and shown lots of hand motions, including “barking” to let her know we have a dog. Luke (our 9-month-old) is currently having his first experience hosting although he has mainly cried and tried to pull her hair. Our daughter, Sheffield Elisabeth (almost 4), loves playing school with her, although Sheffield cannot speak Japanese and Natalie does not understand anything she says. Our son, James (6 1/2-years-old), is loving it as well. His heart for people and the nations has grown so much over the past few years. He has caught the vision to reach the world for Jesus. Just last night, our daughter Sheffield Elisabeth, told Natalie a quote from Eugene Peterson that I (Ben) tell our kids daily, “God loves you. He is on your side. He is coming after you. He is relentless.” Natalie didn’t know what she said, but she smiled and nodded politely.
We believe just that — we believe God loves Natalie. He is on Natalie’s side. He is coming after her AND HE IS RELENTLESS. We hope and pray, most importantly, that Jesus is glorified and proclaimed throughout the process. We hope and pray you join in this mission as well. Consider all your gifts and blessings and use them for His glory among all the peoples of the world including the ones he puts on your street, at your workplace, and in your community.
Ben and Sheffield Coulter