By Woody Woodrick
Thanksgiving might be a holiday unique to the
Each year the church provides a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for international students attending
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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.”