‘Sobremesa’: Friendship, food, and a warm welcome in times of Covid-19

IFES calls Christian university students to reach out to foreigners: “What if every student befriended one international student?”

Joel Forster , Evangelical Focus

OXFORD · 29 NOVEMBER 2021 · 11:16 CET

Christian students are called to engaged international students. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="https://sobremesa.ifesworld.org/en/">IFES World</a>.,
Christian students are called to engaged international students. / Photo: IFES World.

Around 5 million young people study abroad every year. Most arrive to cities and campuses they have not visited before and struggle to make connections.

The whole Covid-19 pandemic has not made the challenge easier. Restrictions to social activities and a climate of fear and socio-political tension only adds obstacles to those who wish to find a community in the country where they arrive.

The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) has launched the “Sobremesa” initiative, a call to all Christian students to actively engage international students in their campus. The Spanish word “Sobremesa” they are using refers to a relaxed time of conversation after a shared meal.

“In a world filled with conflict and tension, God extends his radical hospitality and love toward all people. What if your international classmates could experience that hospitality through you?”, says this federation of national Christian university movements present in all continents.

The initiative has to do with “sitting at a table where people from every nation, every tribe, and every tongue are welcomed in the name of Jesus; a table that is made whole in its diversity; and a table that reflects the loving character of God”.

Evangelical Focus asked Martin Haizmann (Germany) and Yvonne Choo (Singapore) about the background of this initiative.  

Question. In a time of Covid-19 social restrictions and travelling limitations, at IFES oyou are launching an initiative to reach international students. Why?  

A. Well, this Initiative is needed at any time! Numbers of International students have increased continuously and rapidly over the past decades. And the pandemic provided an immense challenge for many of the international students.

Some of them went back home at the start of the pandemic and had difficulties to return to the country in which they studied. Others stayed and found themselves in a very lonely place. No option to travel back home, very limited contact to people as lectures were run online, struggling financially, etc. It was great to see IFES movements (i.e. in Serbia) to intentionally visit international students in the dorms and providing them with food packages. 

Q. Spending time with people you do not know well yet and see what conversations arise – is that the idea behind the project? 

A. Yes, that’s the idea. We want our IFES students to look around, to become aware of those coming from other countries. To connect with the, to extend hospitality and friendship, and then we are sure that meaningful conversations will emerge - not least about our faith. 

‘Sobremesa’: Friendship, food, and a warm welcome in times of Covid-19

Q. The pandemic has isolated many students and not allowed them to fully experience social life at university. Many students are saying their social life comes very much down to online gaming, online meetups, etc. How can Christian student groups in universities help revert this situation? 

A. An example is to organise excursions (a trip by a German IFES group was joined by over 60 international students). Another example is to promote a hospitality program to which international students can sign up on a flyer and which connects them with local Christian families.

We can invite students over for Christmas or run camps. In some places, our students (together with churches) have provided training in emotional health support.

The greater the isolation, the greater the need for human contact. If we are able to be sensitive to the fears and concerns of the international, we will be able to bring our sincerity to the table and offer what many seek - genuine friendship.

The pandemic has posed challenges, but has also granted us an opportunity. An opportunity to touch lives – both literally and figuratively – of people starved of connections. Perhaps what we need is creativity and imagination to make these connections. In this way, we can offer students, a semblance of campus life that this generation do not have.

Q. Christian students at university have long worked with international students. What specific fruit have you seen in the past? 

A. Well, the first fruit is in our own heart… Starting to see people with God’s eyes. Starting to get to know and to appreciate the richness of God’s creation, of cultures, of people and overcoming our own prejudices. Indeed, when we reach out, the one most impacted by our initiative is ourselves. We learn more about ourselves and the world we live in.

Other cultures and worldviews act as a mirror for us to reflect upon our own views, cultures and prejudices. We hope that some may find the courage to build bridges. 

‘Sobremesa’: Friendship, food, and a warm welcome in times of Covid-19

Students of a Christian group in Africa. /  IFES World

Q. How is this openness to people from other cultures important is times of increasing nationalism and anti-immigration feelings? 

A. Christians should be on the forefront of this. We know about the one God and Creator of all people (giving each single human being the same value and dignity), we ourselves are called into a new community (the new humanity of Ephesians 2). We have a beautiful vision of the people from all nations one day gathering around the throne and worshipping the one God (Revelation 7). So, it will make a difference in our world if we start to extend respect, hospitality, friendship and love to “the foreigner”. 

Here a specific example from German history. In 1937, the Christian Student movement that preceded today’s IFES movement in Germany was asked to sign the ‘Aryan Paragraph’ – as all other organisations and institutions in Germany at that time. This clause in the statutes of an organization would reserve membership solely for members of the Aryan race and would exclude non-Aryans. Most student groups were ready to sign this clause, but some raised the issue of international students – students of non-Aryan, non-German descent – who were also part of their groups. When they discussed this issue amongst themselves, it became clear that fellowship with these international students was more valuable than belonging to the German nation. The organisation refused to sign the Aryan Paragraph. They were consequently banned, and had to go underground. The fact that they had international students in their groups had saved them from making common cause with the Nazi regime and betray their faith. They had understood this: our primary identity is not our nation or our ethnic group, but God’s new community, a multi-ethnic community, a new people made up of all nations. 

Q. What else would you like to add? 

A. We deeply hope that this Initiative inspires and challenges countless Christian students to extend friendship to international students – so that those students experience someone who respects, values and cares about them… And start to ask about the One who motivates and enables for such love – the living Lord Jesus Christ. 


Learn more about the “Sobremesa” initiative here.

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