‘We are preparing the soil, planting the seed’
After more than 50 years of ministry to students from around the world, Sylvia Duncan lives the words of Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good.”
Duncan, 88, is a longtime member of the Stillwater Church of Christ in Oklahoma, which meets near the campus of Oklahoma State University. A graduate of the university and a former accountant, she serves as a trustee and secretary for the University Center Foundation. She has taught Bible classes for children and women and has spoken at church events near and far — including the Caribbean Lectures.
She and her husband of 69 years, Aaron, also are longtime participants in the church’s international ministry, which reaches out to students who come to the university from Asia, Latin America and many other locales. She is a 32-year member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council — a goodwill partnership between Stillwater and the city of Kameoka, Japan.
“My husband celebrated his 97th birthday in July,” she said. “He doesn’t teach a class anymore but is present in classes and often shares his wisdom.” The couple has two children, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
How did you become involved in international student ministry?
In the 1960s, Aaron and I became aware of the increasing number of internationals attending Oklahoma State. We became friends with several students from India. In an effort to meet more, we arranged for an annual fall international welcoming reception at the church building.
Early on we realized that many of the students needed help with their English. Then, in 1980, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate, Jim Batten (now chancellor of Ibaraki Christian University in Japan), wrote a 50-lesson series on the Gospel of Luke. We advertised our conversational English classes in the OSU campus newspaper, which resulted in many Wednesday evening, one-on-one classes that Aaron and I began teaching.
What do international students need that churches can provide?
They need friendship. They also need help with English, help adjusting to life in a new culture and help understanding the many things we take for granted.
They appreciate being invited to a home for meals and conversation because they want to see how Americans live. Often, they have medical needs, so our program tries to address this.
“They need friendship. They also need help with English, help adjusting to life in a new culture and help understanding the many things we take for granted.”
Today, most internationals have a better grasp of English than our first students had. Even so, there is still a need for them to develop listening and pronunciation skills and a need for vocabulary building.
Of course, their real need is to learn about Jesus. We use the Bible as the text for our classes, both the Easy-to-Read and the New International versions. Currently, one very dedicated friend, Sarah Wiley, teaches many one-on-one classes each week, meeting with her students at Panera near the OSU campus. In addition, we have group classes meeting at the church building on Sunday and Wednesday evening.
Do you recall particular students from the past and their stories?
Three families come to mind.
A Venezuelan doctor and his wife were older students whom we took on a trip to a mission conference. While in Tennessee, Parker Henderson was preaching at a gospel meeting, and both the doctor and his wife were baptized.
The second was a family of two sisters and their brother from Beirut, Lebanon. For the past 30 years, they have been like our own children. We attended the wedding of one in Italy and often receive calls from them seeking our advice and prayers.
The third is four generations of an Ecuadorian family that have often made our home theirs through the years. And we have visited them in Ecuador. One granddaughter has returned to OSU for her doctorate and brought her two preschool children. They are in our children’s classes on Wednesday night.
How can we effectively minister to the international community?
Develop a genuine friendship. Show them that you love them as individuals. Make them feel welcome in America — and especially in your home and at the church building — by introducing them to others. Early in your acquaintance, be sure to get all their contact information and share your phone number, e-mail address, and home address. Urge them to contact you if they have a need. Concentrate on remembering their names and the names of their children. Always call them by name. Invite them into your home for meals.
I use the New Testament books — especially Luke, John and Acts — as the text for their reading with the two-fold aim of helping them with English and teaching them about Jesus. Use a dry-erase marker board in a class setting or paper and pencil in one-on-one studies to help them visualize concepts, word meanings and homophones for better learning and retention. Make sure they understand and, if they don’t, that they feel free to ask questions.
I think it is helpful to have a knowledge of apologetics and the basics of various world religions to aid in answering some of their questions.
Try to communicate on their level, and do not give the false impression you know all the answers. Simply let the “gospel be the power of God unto salvation.” (Romans 1:16) Do not be too discouraged if every student does not accept Christ. As recorded in the gospels, when Jesus taught, some believed and some did not.
We are preparing the soil, planting the seed, the Word of God. He will give the increase.
We have tried to have an international worship service once each month, followed by a potluck. We also have occasional social activities such as picnics and holiday parties. For many years, each November we have taken our internationals to the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City for their annual Thanksgiving dinner.
Why have you stayed with this ministry so long?
God keeps sending new internationals to Stillwater. To some degree, I can “go into all the world and teach the Gospel, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe the teachings of Jesus.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
“It’s eternally important to teach the Gospel, but I also enjoy all the friendships that have grown during the years.”
This past fall there were 1,833 internationals from 103 countries on the OSU campus, not counting their families. The opportunities are abundant to teach the Gospel to those who have not heard it.
At first we advertised our classes. In recent years that has not been necessary. Students constantly bring new students. This is the way God constantly provides. It’s eternally important to teach the Gospel, but I also enjoy all the friendships that have grown during the years.
As long as I am physically able and mentally competent, I want to continue teaching. Currently, the majority of our students are Chinese. Many of those are visiting scholars — usually here for only one year. They are Chinese university professors who will return to their positions of influence.
The Chinese are especially respectful of the elderly. Seeing my white hair, they are generous in their expressions of respect and thanks, which keeps me energized.