As a new graduate student far from her home in Asia, Zheng Jane Zhao remembers feeling welcome when she attended a gathering hosted by Jim and Jeri White at University of Oklahoma in Norman: “In the early spring of 1993, I went to a new student welcoming party, where I was warmly received by many loving Christians. Jim’s face sparked with joy when he talked to me, making me feel very respected and welcome. Jeri was gentle and quiet, but I felt her motherly love melting my heart.”
Jianbo Guo remembers attending a Sunday basic Bible lecture organized by the Whites when he and his wife were new graduate students. They were curious about the Bible and found a warm welcome and friendship. Jianbo shares, “It was the love of Christians that impacted us and started to draw us to Christ. Then we started studying the Bible with them as well.”
That loving welcome for students far from their home country is the heart of the ministry to international students from Asia that has flourished at University of Oklahoma for 30 years. Jim and Jeri White, along with other local leaders, opened their hearts and faith to students who had little knowledge of Jesus or the Bible. The ministry served the felt needs of students far from home with a place of belonging, English conversation, and then—for those who were interested—an introduction to Jesus and the Bible.
Spiritually investing in hundreds of students over the years, the ministry continues with a new generation of leadership. While the love and welcome are ongoing for students arriving in Norman, the fruit of transformed lives reaches around the country and the globe, as graduates have gone on to make disciples through their work and ministry.
Life Changing Faith
Since many students from Asia have little or no background knowledge about Jesus or the Bible, it can take time to learn about God and decide to follow Jesus.
Zheng talks about her process:
“Underneath the surface of an ambitious young life, the ultimate questions began to haunt me: Why do I live? And how should I live? I was taught to pursue the sublime goal of improving human life through scientific discovery and self-perfection.
“The more I studied the Bible, the more I realized that faith in God is not only rational but also higher than human rationality. The Bible reveals the root of human problems and provides the only solution to these problems.
“One evening, after I had been in Norman for about a year, I was at dinner with Jim and Jeri and some other friends. We watched the Jesus movie and talked about what it meant. Jim asked me some questions about sin and my inability to change myself.
“Then Jim asked, ‘Since you can’t change your nature by yourself, are you willing to let God change you?’
“I wasn’t sure how to answer the last question, but finally I realized I was willing to let God change me.
“We prayed together and in my mind I saw the door of a home with the warm fire in the icy cold wilderness suddenly open! I physically heard a heavenly chorus of welcome coming from the open door as I finally entered home!”
For Jianbo and his wife, their decision to follow Jesus was relatively quick, “We came to faith in Christ in about six months,” says Jianbo. “We felt the love of the Christians, but also as we studied the Bible and started praying, we saw God answer our prayers. Over our three years in Norman, we grew through Jim and Jeri’s discipleship. We were encouraged to go deeply into Scripture. Their passion for Christ helped us develop our own passion for God. And finally, we have incorporated their emphasis on prayer into our own lives and ministry.”
Generations of Disciplemakers
Dr. Zheng Jane Zhao is now on the faculty of University of Kansas. She teaches a business management capstone course that she has adapted to reflect a purpose-driven approach rather than the more common profit-driven approach. Last year, she added a comparison of different worldviews to the discussion of business ethics. A Christian business leader came as a guest speaker to share how his faith in Christ has helped him make a positive impact in people’s lives. Some students mentioned that this guest speaker helped them to reconnect with their faith.
As she nears retirement, Dr. Zhao anticipates continued ministry, “I am excited to be filled and led by the Holy Spirit to bear more fruits for His Kingdom.”
Jianbo Guo leads a ministry to international students from Asia based at a church in Dallas. When he started the outreach 20 years ago, he based their ministry on what Jim and Jeri did in Oklahoma—offering English conversation classes and then Bible discussions for those who wanted to explore faith.
In the last decade, the number of international students grew quickly, so he has adapted the ministry to include a small group structure. Those who had followed Christ and grown as disciples were trained to take on leadership roles.
There were new challenges in 2020, as Jianbo shares, “With no new students coming during the pandemic, we focused on developing the leaders who are still living and working in the area. When students do return, we will continue reaching out to share Jesus.”
Praise God for the legacy of love that has planted seeds of faith in many students from Asia. Pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to empower more generations of disciplemakers around the world.
Showing Love by Respecting Culture
Zhao Zheng shares that she was impressed with the way the Christians she met respected her culture. “Unlike other Americans I met on campus who called me Jane, these Christians addressed me by my real name, Zhao Zheng, with my family name first. They practiced the pronunciation of my name diligently until it sounded perfect. When they saw me again, they would immediately use my real name. A flow of love warmed my heart in a land so far and different from my home on the other side of the Earth.” She has since adapted to an Americanized version of her name for professional work.
Who has God placed near you from other cultures? How can you show respect and learn about their culture as you show them love and acceptance?