All Columbia Area Churches Can Embrace International Ministry

For two of the past three years, First Baptist Church Columbia’s ministry to internationals has hosted a celebration of the Persian New Year, Norooz, at the beginning of the spring season. The celebration is one of the many church activities aimed at building a relationship with Columbia’s international community of professionals, students, and refugees.

“Last year, a student approached me and was so grateful that an American church would lead out in the celebration of Norooz,” said Ryan Dupree, international minister at First Baptist. “It made a big impression that we valued him enough to host the celebration of an Iranian holiday. He said it was the first time he had celebrated the holiday while being in the United States.”

The church’s international ministry supports a Burmese church plant, provides English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and supports the Columbia International Festival at the State Fairgrounds. It also offers Indian and African dinner nights, and ministers to Iranians through events like the Norooz celebration. Dupree, who has served on the First Baptist staff for 14 years, also serves multi-ethnic churches in a part-time position on the South Carolina Baptist Convention staff.

“More than most people think it is, Columbia is an international community,” Dupree said. “Students at the University of South Carolina speak 100 languages or more. We have five major African countries represented in our community. Hispanics are the largest single group, but Koreans are second. We are a pretty global community.

“Our ministry at First Baptist is really about teaching English and building relationships to help people assimilate into our community,” Dupree said. “We want to get to know people and trust the relationship to grow from that. That’s the model I believe every church can embrace.”

Dupree said churches should explore offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes because “it’s the best and easiest place to start ministering to students or refugees. Training is available through the South Carolina Baptist Convention. From these classes, relationships naturally begin to develop and through those relationships church will learn of other individual and family needs.”

“As they build relationships, churches will discover they can help people with transportation, clothing, and just everyday questions that we all take for granted,” he said. “Questions like ‘Where and how do I buy a car?’ Cultural assimilation is a big need among internationals. Many are trying to learn about how the postal system works or about traffic laws. In many countries, there’s a distrust of police authority and helping internationals understand the United States legal system can be very helpful.

“As you serve these needs, over time, you will become like family. Even the well-adjusted internationals will call and ask for advice or help. There’s a tremendous blessing in that kind of honest, sincere service to others,” Dupree said.

Beyond Columbia’s urban center, how can churches discover where internationals are living and working? “Many of Columbia’s small businesses are owned by internationals,” Dupree said. “A lot of the gas stations, food markets, nail salons, and restaurants are owned by internationals who have settled here after being a student here or as part of refugee location. Anywhere that you see a foreign language on a sign – you will know that internationals own that business or are primary customers.”

Dupree encouraged churches to build relationships with those business owners because they are often eager to help promote services – like ESL – to their customers.

While First Baptist does offer dinner and networking nights for Africans, hiking trips, Karaoke nights and tours of historic Columbia, it also offers Sunday morning Bible Study where multiple cultures come together to learn about Jesus.

“I don’t really worry about whether they come to First Baptist Church for worship or Bible Study,” Dupree said. “Once you build that deeper relationship, you will see that some will come out of curiosity, some will periodically come, and some will get involved. When they do get involved, and they come together in these multi-cultural settings it really is a picture of heaven. In fact, I’ve discovered that they miss one another when they aren’t together.”

Dupree offered some guidance to churches and believers interested in building relationships with internationals.

  • “Internationals love to talk about their cultures. Start with simple questions about them – not information about you.”
  • “Speak literally. Never assume they understand our Southern slang or that they understand what we are talking about.”
  • “Don’t assume they are different. Internationals have the same problems that we have. Don’t assume that internationals are religious zealots. Many more of them are moderately religious or non-religious.”
  • If you are familiar with soccer, especially on an international level, you can build a quick common ground, especially among Africans and Hispanics. Most all of them have a favorite international team and know all the great players.”
  • “Most internationals are very honest and genuine. They want to know about American culture. They want to visit our homes. They will invite you to their homes and if that happens – go. Participate in what they do. Eat their food. Eat with your hands. That shows you are willing to be where they are and that you value the relationship with them.”

Ryan Dupree can be reached by email at

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