Spending Thanksgiving with International Students

Opening your home for Thanksgiving is more than filling the stomachs of new friends with delicious food. It is an opportunity to help them take one step closer to personally tasting and seeing the generous love God has for them.

Two years ago, my wife, April, and I began inviting students to join our family for Thanksgiving. Even though it would require cooking extra food, coordinating rides and getting creative with our space limitations, we knew it would also be a time full of deep blessing.

More Than a Meal: Spending Thanksgiving with International Students

That first year, we invited students from Brazil, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia to be a part of our Thanksgiving Day family. In order to fit everyone, we set up tables in our back yard (the joys of living in Florida). April created place markers and table questions to help avoid lags in conversation. Everything was coming together. We were ready to open our home, hearts, and family to our honored guests.

As they began arriving, most came carrying an unexpected dish or beverage. It was their way of contributing and showing appreciation for the hospitality extended to them. Some jumped right into conversation with our parents. Others, who had not been to our home before, took the freedom to wander about looking at pictures and home decorations. Once the food was ready and all were assembled around the long table, we took the opportunity to explain the history behind Thanksgiving and the unique significance it held for us as people grateful to God for His many blessings. In order to give them a taste of American family tradition, we each took turns sharing one thing we were thankful for. We ended in prayer and explained the menu to everyone. (We didn’t want anyone to be confused by the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes.)

Known By Our Love

For most international students, the path to personally discovering God is paved with a variety of relationships, experiences and encounters. Each one plays a unique part and can help them move one step closer to God’s Kingdom. One of the most meaningful stepping-stones can be the opportunity to join a Christian family for a meal in their home. Of course this experience is exponentially greater if that gathering happens to be one of the most significant meals of the year.

A family meal and celebration like this presents a unique multi-generational atmosphere. A few of the students who visited our home enjoyed long conversations with my father, asking him questions and advice on a variety of topics. They appreciated his insight and perspective as an elder—someone they naturally respected. In return, we were able to ask questions about their families, values, and cultural celebrations. They took notice of the similarities and differences between our countries, lighting up as they shared vivid pictures of their various holiday customs.

Can such a simple experience really make that much impact? Yes, it can. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus told His disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV). The apostle Paul continued to wave this banner of love in 1 Corinthians 13, stating that love is what made the difference in his words, knowledge, faith, and actions. Being with a Christian family on Thanksgiving is a chance to see Jesus in the lives of those He inhabits.

Family of God

These meals are some of our most memorable family experiences. They are of high value to God, as well. Welcoming the foreigner has been close to God’s heart since the days of the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:34). Jesus Himself demonstrated the importance of sharing a meal in someone’s home when He broke bread with His disciples, with large crowds, with outcasts like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and in the homes of friends like Mary and Martha. What a blessing it is to continue this practice, handed down to us from our Lord, and to bless others with the blessings we have received from Him.

Joel Otero serves as International Student Ministry Campus Director at the University of Tennessee. He and his wife, April, minister to students from across the globe, and are currently in their second year with ISM. Joel also spent eight years in Collegiate ministry.


  1. This has been something our family has often done over the years, with wonderful success. The only problem we have now is being able to find ways to contact these students, as there is not ISI or international students office at the colleges here in town. I would encourage all of those of you who are doing wonderful work with college students from around the world to reach out to local congregations, alerting them to the internationals right in their midst. Thanks for all that you are doing.

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