“I thought this year would be difficult and lonely, but I have never experienced such love.”
Living in a foreign country for the first time, Angela Luo and her fellow classmates weren’t sure what they’d find when they moved from China to Thomasville.
They found love.
The 17 Chinese students, in Thomasville for one year to finish their MBA schooling at Thomas University, were matched with “friend families” from Thomasville First United Methodist Church. Part of a partnership between Thomas University and China’s Jimei University, the students had taken their initial business classes at Jimei University but finished their degrees and graduated from Thomas University.
Meaning friendship in Chinese, Thomasville First UMC’s You Yi ministry was designed to show the visiting students love, hospitality and friendship.
As part of the You Yi ministry, each of the 17 students was matched with a Thomasville First UMC family.
“The ‘friend family’ is there to love them and show them hospitality, to help them understand American culture, and to give them an opportunity to practice their English,” said Chris Goff, Thomasville First UMC’s director of missions and discipleship.
Each family went through training, learning more about how to build genuine relationships and about watching and praying for opportunities to share their faith.
The families invited the students into their daily lives and hosted them during family meals, included them when they ran errands, and invited them to join family outings.
“(The students) feel like they are a part of the family,” Goff said.
Carl Lai considers Theresa and Joe Brown his “American parents.”
Joe Brown, a member of Thomasville First UMC and a Thomas University trustee, helps run the You Yi ministry.
“Our thought was – they’re coming from a Chinese culture to a South Georgia culture – how can we help them feel comfortable, feel at home, and get to know who we are?”
The students lived in an off-campus residence hall, so the friend families were not required to provide housing, but were asked to interact with the students a few times each month and include them in family activities. The ministry also coordinated trips to show them the area and to experience typical American culture. They went to a Florida State University football game, to the beach, and to local museums and historic sites.
“The students felt like they were treated like another son or daughter in the family,” Brown said. “They enjoyed being a part of the family activities and really became part of the family. They enjoyed being part of a small, Southern town because many of them came from huge cities with millions of people, traffic and congestion. Being able to walk around Thomasville and having people speak to them on the street was very different and a new experience for them.”
The church and community welcomed the students with open arms, Brown said.
“They were very good ambassadors for China and were very well accepted by the community and were very well received,” he said.
The students’ time with their host families was also a great supplement to their formal education. In Thomasville from August 2012 through July 2013, they experienced the United States’ election process.
“I think it was a very important part of their education,” Brown said. “They lived through an election cycle and got to see how a republic changes its top leaders. I think it made an impression on quite a few of them who realized that that doesn’t happen in their country.”
Many students also attended worship services at Thomasville First UMC, and while here, two accepted Christ as their Lord and savior and will be baptized next month.
“We wanted to love them – that was our primary focus, to show them Christian love,” Brown said.
In a farewell video made by the Chinese students to their host families, they said, “Thank God for letting us meet you. Because of you we have an opportunity to be a family. Because of you we can experience the real American culture.”
You Yi – the friendships – will continue as nine new students arrived in Thomasville last week and were matched with their Thomasville First UMC friend families