Life-on-life with international students
Six years ago, Navigator Noeun Non was sharing his heart for missions with Charlie Sillavan, the first Navigator he’d met. “I thought I was impressing Him with being called to a certain people group and country, and my willingness to serve,” Noeun remembers.
“Charlie, much older and wiser, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s, said calmly, ‘Don’t be committed to a people group, or a country, or a organization, or a church. Be committed to Christ and making disciples wherever you are in life.’ He was not impressed with my self-perceived spiritual fervor, and eventually, I had to admit God wasn’t either.”
Years later, these words follow Noeun and his wife, Tiffany, as they work with international students at Auburn University through International Student Ministries (ISM).
“When you start talking about performance, commitment to The Navs, commitment to a program, or to certain people group, that’s all temporal,” Noeun says. “Those things are good, they keep you focused and give structure, but they’re not the end-all. God can certainly put a people group on your heart, but Christ must be the ultimate focus.”
Three years of building relationships with international students at Auburn has taught the Nons a lot about the relevance of the lived-out Gospel. They’ve learned that a life simply surrendered to Jesus translates better than any program. It walks through cultural walls. It ventures below the surface, inviting students into deep friendship, where they can process their heaviest burdens and questions. Relational Revelation
Relationship has a simple power—a God-designed ability to bridge the human-designed chasm between “us” and “them.” The Nons take relationship seriously because relationship is their students’ first language.
“Most of the cultures these students come from are very relational,” Tiffany says. “Seeing real life and how it plays out, how a life surrendered to Christ looks, resonates. It’s much easier to show them Christ through everyday life.”
That means shopping trips, Friday night dinners, gatherings at student apartments, oil changes, 5k races, and Chinese New Year celebrations. It means meetings without a stopwatch.
“I remember meeting with a collegiate minister when I was in college,” Noeun says. “We had an hour, and that was it. When I meet with students, it’s rarely an hour. Their sense of time is relational. It’s about the person sitting next to you. You can’t just schedule them in.”
Promise and Potential
Many Christians think they need a passport to join the Great Commission. The Nons love to engage believers with international students, opening their eyes to glorious opportunity.
“The nations are here,” Noeun says. “There are more than 80 nations represented at Auburn. They’re open to new ideas and want to learn as much as they can here.”
Interacting with masters and doctoral students means tackling deep subjects with heart and mind fully invested. A common topic is the struggle to see God in both creation and science. Auburn is world-renown for its scientific research, drawing students at the top of their fields.
“Typically, the two things you don’t talk about with people are politics and religion,” Noeun says. “But those are the two things these students are most open about.”
The Nons engage both subjects organically, drawing from news, history, and personal experience to inspire meaningful dialogue and soul-searching.
“A lot of these students will play a big role in their countries,” Noeun says. “We have a huge opportunity to reach and connect with future international leaders.”
Plan to Process
For many international students, the road to faith in Christ is fraught with risk. Some face being disowned or demoted. Others face physical danger.
“Their culture, their religion, and their family are all one,” Tiffany says. “It’s a big challenge. You have to understand where they are coming from and you need to be sensitive. Otherwise, you can close doors really quickly.”
For most, the journey takes time.
“We might not see them make a decision, but we’re part of the process that God is using,” Noeun says.
“I think I learn about God most from the Bible,” says Backer, a student involved in the Nons’ group. “And most learning of the Bible is from Noeun and Tiffany. Because of the relationship with Noeun, I can discuss with him about God almost anywhere, anytime. But as a friend of them, I see with my own eyes how they live a life as directed by God and reminded by Jesus. I think the most important thing is not to push, but to help.”
“To me, God was just a supernatural existence before,” says Caroline, another international student. “However, according to what I have learned from my relationship with Noeun and Tiffany, I get to know that God has made them to be full of love by forgiving all their sins, and that they want to deliver this love to others, like me, by treating them as their family.”
The students are watching. Watching for examples. Watching for God.