Starkville gives world of thanks

11/14/2006

By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor

Thanksgiving might be a holiday unique to the United States, but Starkville First United Methodist Church has turned it into a ministry for people of all nations.

 

Each year the church provides a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for international students attending Mississippi State University and other non-U.S. natives in the community. All the food is donated by church members and prepared by a committee of volunteers.

 

“We have been doing this for 22 years,” said Armando de la Cruz, who helped start the event. “At the beginning, we had to do programs on what Thanksgiving means to America. I think now most of the students understand the basic background and history.

 

“They know that is has some spiritual background; it is thanksgiving to God,” de la Cruz said. “In fact, many countries have a thanksgiving dinner in some form, especially in India and Asia where they have a thanksgiving dinner after the spring harvest.”

From about 50 people at the first dinner, the ministry now attracts more than 250 international students, families and church members. Most of the internationals who attend have some connection with Mississippi State.

The dinner serves two purposes. First, it provides a meal to students who are often a long way from home and can’t remain in dorms while the college closes. American students who aren’t able to go home are also welcome.

 

In addition, it gives First UMC a chance to minister to the community.

 

“We have all kinds of nationalities and faiths,” said Caryn Dampier, program director at Starkville First. “It’s almost a ‘sneaky’ ministry. Our goal is to offer that fellowship and love of Jesus Christ to those who don’t celebrate in this way.”

 

The dinner began in 1973 under the leadership of de la Cruz and his wife Ruth, who are long-time residents of Starkville and members of the First United Methodist Church. Initially attended by Filipino students only, the dinner grew to include students from other Asian countries.

 

In 1984, the de la Cruzes requested that the missions work area of First UMC help sponsor the dinner.

 

The meal has become so popular among international students that tickets are required. They are free, but students must request them in advance from either the International Services Office at MSU or through the church.

 

Dampier pointed out that some who attend have been doing so for several years. In fact, she said, two or three families who joined the church made their first visit to First UMC for the Thanksgiving dinner.

 

Armando de la Cruz said the dinner has given First UMC a chance to change some students’ perceptions of Christians.

 

“Early when it started, a lot of foreign students, especially those from the interior of India, were afraid of missionaries, but they realize we mean well,” he said. “We welcome them. Now they are familiar with the Christian church and feel welcome.

“It’s a good way to introduce them to our facilities. Some request to see the sanctuary and other parts of the church.

 

“From our perspective, since we go out and do mission in other countries, we remember that many from other countries are right here in our neighborhood. (We are) getting to know each other.”

 

The dinner has made a lasting impression on those who attend. Most international students remain in Starkville for just a few years. However, de la Cruz said he still receives letters from former students who recall the dinners. Among those who write are a professor in Texas and a graduate student in Cambodia.

 

Dampier said some of those who attend share aspects of their culture with the Americans, making the event an exchange. “Its good for our congregation to get to learn from them, too,” de la Cruz agreed.

 

While Dampier jokingly called the ministry “sneaky,” de la Cruz said not making an overt attempt at evangelism makes it easier for the students to return.

 

“They are free to decide if they want to come back and continue to associate with us,” he said. “We’ve had students who, after five or six years, still come back not just for Thanksgiving but for other events.

 

“It’s a very passive, yet friendly way of inviting them to return of their own accord.”