International Student Ministry – An Interview with Lisa Espineli Chinn

Lisa Espineli Chinn is a plenary voice speaking at the Thursday morning session at the Provincial Assembly. During a battle with pneumonia as an baby in the Phillipines, her parents prayed for her healing and dedicated her to God’s service.  Lisa has gone on to a long and successful career of ministry to college students, including fourteen years serving as the National Director of International Student Ministry at InterVarsity.  Recently she sat down with The Rev. Canon Andrew Gross to share more about what she learned in that role, and what might be next for her ministry.

Andrew: Tell me a little bit about yourself. I know you grew up in the Philippines. How did you come to the United States?

Immediately after graduation from the University of the Philippines I was invited to join the InterVarsity staff there. It was not a hard decision, so I said “yes,” but only after the director of InterVarsity asked my parents for my hand in marriage to ministry. I am number 6 of 7 children, and it was respectful on the part of the director that they needed my parents blessing and approval to take this job because it is not the most lucrative job in town, there is no guaranteed salary.

Andrew: What did your parents think?

Well, the amazing thing is they said “Sure we gave her away already at 8 months.” They never really articulated that to me. I said “What do you mean?” I almost died at 8 months. My parents were poor, and they couldn’t afford the hospital. I had pneumonia, and the doctors had nothing else to do for me so they just sent my parents home, and they said, “It’s a 50/50 chance.” My parents knew God in a vague way, that there is this power there. They had Catholic background, a little smattering of Protestant on my mother’s side, but the faith wasn’t personal or really strong. But this time they called on God. They said, “If you would spare our child then she is yours to do whatever you want with her.” I call it ‘the spiritual arranged marriage’ that I had no say about!

After about 9 years of working for InterVarsity, I looked at moving with IV to the United States. I specifically wanted to work with international students, but nobody had a job for that position.  However, the area director in the Mid-Atlantic said, “We will take her as regular college staff.” So I worked with the natives!

Andrew: How did you become the Director of International Student Ministry at InterVarsity?

Years later, after I married and we had children, I left InterVarsity and worked with my husband with International Students Incorporated.  One day InterVarsity sent a job description because they knew we had wider connections. I said, “Oh, this is great. Let’s help them find a director.” However, we couldn’t come up with a name.  The job description sat on our kitchen counter until one day I said, “Let me just take a close look. Maybe I could do this.” The short story is that they offered me the job.

The challenge for the church is, first, to see internationals, and not look past them.

I wanted to make sure the key people in my life were in agreement. I needed my husband’s whole support. I needed the blessing of my parents. Everybody, including my church, was saying, “Yes, we want to bless you. We want want to send you out.”

In one sense, it was kind of a winding road, but in another it was a straight path.  My call was to university students, and that has never changed since I was 19. It only changed in terms of who the college students were whom I was working with: Filipinos, Americans, and then the world. That has always been clear

Andrew: What were some of the challenges you saw international students encounter that perhaps your other students at InterVarsity didn’t?

The challenges are the same of the seventies, eighties, and even now. It’s really, “How do you not only survive. How do you thrive? How do you flourish in a new setting where you are the outsider; where your English is not perfect?”

The challenge for the church is, first, to see internationals, and not look past them. When Jesus said, “Look at the field,” you know for me Jesus is wanting us to see this crowd of international students.  They are harassed and helpless like sheep without a Shepherd; spiritually, and physically too sometimes, and culturally. It’s hard to understand the American style of life. I become a cultural broker, as it were. They have so much to give, and Americans have so much to offer. If there is a safe welcoming place for that to happen, then we’re halfway there. There’s so much we can do.

Andrew: For churches that are close to a college campus what are some first steps that they can take if they have a call to a ministry like this?

I think one thing that they can do is to go and just walk around. Don’t engage, just observe. Then I would do a prayer walk. Say, “Okay Lord, we are across the street from this campus. Our heart is stirred. We want to do something.” I want people whose hearts are broken for those who don’t know Him. The world has come to your doorstep. Are you going out your back door instead of opening the front door to welcome them? I think it’s a spiritual preparation rather than, a program. This is a missionary call.

Next, do a little research. How are international students being served? In many places, in big universities they have an international student advisor. That’s their full-time job so it may be good to also ask, “Is there any way we can help?” We are here to give international students a safe, welcoming place. We can offer rides from the airport. We can do a furniture giveaway. We can be the cultural informants for them. We want to love them.

Find out what other groups are present on campus. There could be InterVarsity, there could be Cru, Chi Alpha, etc.  All kinds of people are working with internationals. Seek a way to partner.

International students ask us, “Why do you do this? Why do you love us? Why do you spend time with us?” They are just amazed, and we say “Because God has loved us we have experienced being loved.  That’s why.”

For more from this interview with Lisa Espineli Chinn go here.