Graduate students hear God’s call

“Leave your comfortable, safe, secure life for the chance to live an extraordinary life, full of risk, stepping out into the unknown. I will be with you throughout it all, and as you go where I send you, the world will be changed forever!”

A thoughtful quiet filled the room. At this Bible study, Trevor Kouritzin, a (post)graduate student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, had just paraphrased God’s invitation to Abram (Genesis 12). Now, the dozen graduate students were processing what it meant for them to follow God in the risky places where they feel called.

“Graduate students face very specific challenges,” says Alan Chettle, staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Canada. He notes how most are expected to work hours far beyond what is reasonable. And, despite their great achievements (the University of Alberta is one of Canada’s top teaching and research institutions), many still struggle with imposter syndrome – the anxious belief that one’s success is undeserved or unrelated to one’s efforts or skill.

Having studied for a Master’s and PhD, Alan can identify with their pressures and offers spiritual direction on what rest and self-worth look like from a biblical perspective. He has also been able to share from his own experiences of talking about his faith as a graduate student. After one Bible study, he received a text message from Sarah, a PhD candidate in Human Nutrition: “These Bible studies have really ministered to my spirit… If we are present and available, God will open doors to share.”

Evangelism is a challenge for graduate students: in contrast to the large numberof undergraduates who have wide social interactions, they spend much of their time in labs or offices, behind locked doors. Yet this can have an upside: smaller research communities present an opportunity to forge deeper relationships and build the trust needed for any talk of faith.

Indeed, speaking about Jesus is one of the risky places that the graduate student group have felt called to embrace despite feeling ill-equipped to speak—and anxious about how they might be perceived. Therefore Alan, along with three student leaders, will guide the group through some InterVarsity/USA training materials (which have been adapted for the Canadian context) in the coming weeks.

Here is a handful of students taking part in an ordinary campus Bible study. But this is where God is doing business – calling ‘the brightest and the best’ to step out and change the world.

  • Give thanks for these formative Bible studies and pray for the graduate students at the University of Alberta – and others around the world – as they work through issues of culture (many are international students), rest, and self-worth.
  • Give thanks for Alan and all IFES national movement staff who work with graduate students. Pray that they will be able to build deep and spiritually supportive relationships despite the time pressures faced by students.
  • Pray that IFES relationships and resources will help graduate students effectively integrate their faith with their study and research, bringing Christ’s lordship and blessing to the cutting edgeof humanities, sciences, creative arts, business, and engineering.

You can find out about graduate student ministry in Europe here.

Understanding Urbana

The Urbana missions conference, hosted by IFES student movement InterVarsity USA, has an incredible legacy. Since 1946, Urbana has called thousands of students in the US to answer God’s call on their lives, inspiring other student movements worldwide with a similar missionary vision. Many people around the globe can look back and point to their Urbana experience as a turning point, when they gave their lives to Jesus in a new way. 

The Urbana conference is coming later this month. However, Urbana 2022 takes place in a cultural landscape that is quite different to what precedes it. The years since the last conference in 2018 have been politically, socially, and economically tumultuous and divisive for America, and sadly, the church has not escaped this division. In this Prayerline, one of the conference organizers, Anna Lee-Winans, shares how we can pray ahead of the conference.  

Anna is mindful of some complicated contexts. There is, for instance, the fact that “a lot of Christian mission has the weight of colonialism”. But Anna wants students to see that both God and the global church invite them to be witnesses to the gospel of Jesus “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). At this Urbana, there is an invitation to local Native American Christian leaders to come and show delegates how to “come in a good way”. These are people with whom InterVarsity’s dedicated ministry to Native Americans, Native InterVarsity, have built relationships for many years. It’s important, says Anna, because “appropriately discerning God’s invitation and engaging humbly with a new culture is deeply honoring to the image of God”. 

Urbana draws students to “a key place for the American church to access the voice of the global church and the church on the margins. Through exposition of the book of Acts, multicultural services, testimonies, and leadership and coaching opportunities, our hope is that Urbana will be a discipleship experience.” In a church fractured by political and cultural division, we can pray that students stuck in a polarized cultural moment would find the path forward in Christ; the hollows of their ideologies filled out by the wholeness of the gospel. “For students from both politically conservative and liberal backgrounds, including those who are ‘deconstructing’ their faith and those who have syncretized their faith with American culture, Urbana is a place to be powerfully discipled. We want students to be ‘free indeed’ (John 8:36), to engage this cultural moment well, trust Jesus for this season, and follow the Holy Spirit’s invitation.”  

Please pray with us for Urbana ‘22 and InterVarsity USA: 

  • Pray that at least 10,000 InterVarsity students will come to the conference with open hearts for their faith to be “reconstructed” by the truth of the gospel. 
  • Pray that Urbana might be a place where divisions are healed; where those who have been struggling with cultural questions might see a glimpse of the real Jesus which helps everything else fall into place. 
  • Pray that God would work through Urbana and through InterVarsity students to bring the good news of his real, everlasting, life-giving power through Jesus, both in the United States and the church globally. 

Thank you for supporting InterVarsity USA in prayer. If you feel led to contribute to their movement financially, you can do so here.  

A foodbank that shows God’s love to students 

All around the world, students are displaying God’s love in practical ways. In the DRC, they use sports, in Cuba, they use comedy, drama and sweets, and in Canada, students are using gifts of groceries to demonstrate God’s love to students who are struggling financially. 

Naomie is a final year student. Originally from Cameroon, she has been studying in Trois-Rivières in Quebec, Canada, for three years. She’s part of GBUC, the Francophone student movement in Canada. She is also president of Le Bon Camarade, a GBU initiative which delivers food parcels to students in financial difficulties. The demand is high; already with over 100 beneficiaries, a new person is added nearly every week. Most of these are international students, who are less likely than domestic students to have support available from their families or home communities.  

While most of the student beneficiaries work, they often don’t earn enough to make ends meet. Helping students with the basics, explains Naomie, allows them to concentrate on their studies, while enabling them to save a portion of their earnings. One beneficiary testifies that if Le Bon Camarade hadn’t helped him at university, he wouldn’t have been able to start his business.  

‘One of the pillars of GBU’, shares Naomie, ‘is to share God’s love. We have a weekly table with Bibles and Christian books that anyone can take. It’s great that we’ve now been recognised as an essential service at the university. Something that also helps is the fact that our office is located very close to the cafeteria, so we get lots of people coming through. In addition to food, people also come to us for information about university life. We want to help create community.’ 

It’s not always easy. ‘The demand is very high compared to what we have to offer’, says Naomie. ‘We can’t give very much, and we try to do a little bit extra at Christmas. We fundraise so that we can afford to give out gift cards, as well as New Testaments and other Christian books.’ 

However, a commitment to the ‘pillar’ of God’s love has, in the past, also caused problems for Le Bon Camarade. Their supplier was hesitant to work with them if they continued with religious elements, believing that the initiative was designed to trap people into Christianity. While this tension existed for several years, the whole team was adamant that Le Bon Camarade exists, first and foremost, to demonstrate the gospel. Finally, a few months ago, with misunderstandings worked through and one partner moving on, the future was secured. Naomie calls it a miracle. ‘It really strengthened our faith to see how God is working in our favour.’ 

‘When I first came here, I was afraid I would lose my faith in a new country. But praying together, seeing the beneficiaries happy, seeing the difference we can make, and seeing how God has helped us through challenges, has made me believe again that he answers prayers.’ 

Pray with us for Naomie, Le Bon Camarade, and GBUC Canada: 

  • Pray for the long-term sustainability of Le Bon Camarade, and especially that over the summer new students would take over the work. Pray that it would remain a thoroughly Christian initiative.  
  • Pray for more partnerships with suppliers, and for more opportunities to share the gospel through food. 
  • Pray that students in Quebec, both international and Canadian, would know and embrace the love of God that is being offered to them by the GBU. Pray for God to sustain and bless GBU Canada in every way. 

When worries overwhelm us

This edition of Prayerline is guest written by Tasia, a student from the InterVarsity Canada undergraduate student group in the University of Ottawa.

‘This year I have felt more confused and overwhelmed than I am happy to admit. Actually, I lost a lot of my joy and hope for the future. I desperately wish that I could say that my faith was so strong that the trials that came with this year didn’t affect me, but that simply isn’t true. I have spent most of it sad and overwhelmed. I’ve been sad to see the world dividing, with so many people (especially within the church) arguing, and overwhelmed because I couldn’t see a way out. I guess I knew the answer was Jesus, but I was so plagued by the issues that this didn’t reassure me.

‘While I continued to pray, I stopped being open with God about my fears and worries. I was afraid he couldn’t solve them. I couldn’t bring myself to give it all over to the evermore capable hands of Jesus, because I had lost my faith in his ability to change things. I avoided the issues at all costs, which isolated me.

‘In my confusion, there was one Bible verse that kept reappearing to me – ‘come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11:28). It had to come up a million times over several months before I really understood, but one night, I heard God tell me these problems are too big for you to carry. Let me take care of them for you. Finally, everything became clear to me. I realized that even with my greatest efforts, I could not resolve problems between my friends and family, let alone in the whole world. So that night, I gave my worries, confusion, and sadness to God, and chose to let him resolve them for me.

‘The InterVarsity community were understanding and welcoming, encouraging me to stay connected to God, when I wanted to hide away. A leader regularly met with me, in some of the only times I felt I could unload my heavy thoughts. I was scared to bring them up elsewhere. My leader graciously listened to me, offered me unbiased and godly advice, and gave me the freedom to be honest without judgement. When school opened again, I was so encouraged to go to the worship nights and see that I wasn’t the only Christian in the world. It was amazing to see a bunch of young people simply worshiping God, despite the state of the world. It reminded me who God is, and what his promises are for this world. He never leaves us alone.

‘Something began to change in my heart. Now I don’t have that tension in my mind, or that knot in my stomach. I’ve realized that I need to surround myself with other Christians, whose faith and hope in Jesus will encourage me to continue relying on him for everything. This year, I learned that Jesus carries my burdens and fights my battles, and that I need to continuously strive to rest in him.’

Pray for students like Tasia, and the work of InterVarsity:

  • Pray that Tasia would continue to be strengthened, that ‘out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Eph 3:16-17).
  • Pray for staff from InterVarsity, that God would continue to work through them to encourage and disciple students.
  • Pray that students everywhere would rest in ‘the evermore capable hands of Jesus’, giving their fears about the state of the world to him. Pray that God would continue to build students like Tasia into ambassadors for Christ who can make a real difference in the world for his glory.

A version of this article was originally published on the InterVarsity Canada blog, which you can visit here.

William’s decision

Have you ever been in a situation where no matter how hard you try, you feel like you will never succeed? That is how William felt as a student during the pandemic. An international student from Cote d’Ivoire, William knew that receiving an education from a Canadian university would improve his prospects for the future—if only he could pass his classes. 

William was an excellent student. He did his best to complete his coursework on time and with care. Even so, his classmates were creating a challenge. When classes moved online during the pandemic, several students resorted to cheating on their exams to pass their courses. This raised the class average, which drove up the mark needed to pass the course, so many other students started cheating just to be able to pass.  

Just by keeping his integrity, William’s mark on the midterm had fallen to below average. As a result, he was close to failing. With final exams around the corner, he needed a strong finish to recover his academic standing.  

He had a decision to make. He could take his academic career into his own hands by cheating, or he could uphold his values and honor God. It was a tough choice to make, but he did not have to make it alone. William brought his problem before his GBU and was touched by the way they prayed for him, encouraged him, and shared stories of their own difficulties. Strengthened by their fellowship, William decided not to cheat on his final exam. And by the grace of God, he passed. 

“I could not lean on my own abilities. I had no guarantee that I would succeed even by working hard. But I had this assurance that God, who can do everything and who knows everything, could help me get through this situation. I understood as well that if you choose to cheat, you show that you do not trust God. It is as if we put ourselves in God’s place, that we believe that we know better than God. We need to abandon ourselves completely to God in all things.” 

Students around the world frequently confront situations which test their integrity, in and out of the classroom. Pray with us for students like William who are choosing faith over momentary success. 

  • Pray for students who are taking exams after an unusual study environment due to COVID-19.  
  • Pray that students will not compromise their own standards in order to keep up with the world around them. Pray that God will reveal to them his power to change and guide any circumstance he wants.  
  • Pray for student groups around the world which support and encourage students who must deal with difficult issues on campus.  

Breaking Fast Together

Ella is a connector. An InterVarsity student from Florida, USA, she lives out what her group studies in the Bible but takes it one step further. She invites other Christians to step into relationships with Muslims, particularly around Ramadan.  

Ramadan is an annual fasting period for Muslims, lasting one month. Muslims break their fast at night, often partaking in large communal feasts, called iftaar. Students and leaders in InterVarsity have found great opportunity in planning “peace feasts” which bring together Christians and Muslims for an iftaar meal in the evening. 

“[The peace feasts] have strengthened my relationships with Muslim friends. If nothing else, they see that our Christian community loves and cares for them enough to invest the time and resources into preparing a space for them to gather with us and connect meaningfully. It creates the perfect opportunity to invite a friend to continue a conversation, explore a topic in Scripture, or take any other next-step.” 

Ella, student, Intervarsity USA  

Ella says the feasts also make an impression on Christians who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to make friends with a Muslim.  

“At my first women’s peace feast, a woman came from my church who was actually nervous because she had little experience with women of this background or with interfaith/intercultural dialogue. Despite this, she engaged with several Muslim women there- particularly with a pair of sisters who said that they wanted to see more of our town but did not know where to go or how to get there. She took them and their mother out for lunch and shopping a few weeks later. She also played tennis with me and several other Muslim women who wanted to learn. It was exciting that the woman who probably felt the most unprepared and equipped had one of the best follow-ups after the gathering.” 

Ella, student, Intervarsity USA 

Ramadan is happening now and will continue until 12 May. Please pray for the students and leaders like Ella who are creating spaces for Christians to connect with Muslims during this time.  

  • Pray that Christian students around the world would find opportunities to engage with their Muslim friends during Ramadan.  
  • Many Muslims are particularly open during Ramadan and search for spiritual enlightenment. Pray that spiritual conversations with Christians would inspire Muslim students to reconsider who they think Jesus is. 
  • Pray that Muslim students would feel cared for by their Christian friends during Ramadan.  

Stepping Out

It all started with prayer. Over a little table in the University of Houston student center, Hannah Chang and Elizabeth Barrera bowed their heads together, asking God to lead them to the right students.  

Hannah, an InterVarsity USA student leader, had a burden for Latino students. Recently she learned that they comprised 32% of the student body, yet their InterVarsity student groups did not reflect this. She asked Elizabeth, a ministry coordinator from a nearby region, for advice on how to reach these students. Elizabeth suggested that first they prayer walk through the student center.  

Their prayer walk led them to Edith and Milagros. After striking up a conversation, Hannah noticed that they were signing up for academic advising appointments. Hannah says that this small detail led to a conversation with a great outcome. 

“The rest of our conversation ended up with them asking me questions about the best way to get advising appointments. In that moment, I realized that building trust does not just mean talking about the gospel. It means living out the gospel by meeting people where they are and seeing how we can do life together! At the end of our conversation, I invited them to have lunch with me the following Monday, and they both said yes. At the lunch, I asked if they would be willing to do a Bible study with me on Friday, and they said yes again!” 

Hannah is an Asian American student who says she knew little about Latino culture before getting to know Edith and Milagros. She said she initially felt nervous to invite them to a Bible study, but she knew God was guiding her. 

She has continued to meet and invite more Latino students to her Bible study. She says that crossing cultures does not have to be scary. Rather, she has found that the best way to learn about another culture is simply to make friends. 

“As I continued to build relationships with Latino students, I continued to learn more about their families, their traditions, and their stories. Crossing cultures is hard, but we’re missing out on so much if we choose to only stay with our own ethnic groups. God has created different cultures and ethnicities, and He loves them all.  Pursuing Christian fellowship across racial lines allows us to see parts of God that we don’t always see in our own.” 

This week let’s praise God for the beautiful diverse church he has created and pray for students who are venturing out of their own culture to reach others. 

  • Pray that students would become aware of the need for outreach to diverse groups and cultures on their campuses. 
  • Pray that students would have the courage to step beyond their own cultural bubbles and pray that they would approach new cultures with a teachable spirit. 
  • Pray for unreached student groups on campuses around the world. Pray that they would be open to friendships with IFES students who care about them. 

When heaven rejoices

Nowhere in the world are there more international students than in the USA. And among the 1 million students arriving at universities across the country, are those from some of the least reached countries in the world*: Yemen, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Djibouti – even North Korea. As you meet the following four international students, join with heaven in rejoicing that God is calling people from every nation to follow Him! And pray that there would be more stories of students coming to faith and being equipped to share Christ around the world.

Yang inspired by sacrifice

International student Yang was not a Christian. During the semester he was too busy with his PhD study to spend time exploring more. But he was curious. Over the winter vacation, Yang decided to sign up for Urbana, the InterVarsity student missions conference, to learn more about God.

It was during the prayer night at Urbana that something changed for Yang. He watched as Urbana participants spent an hour praying for the persecuted church. Yang was amazed to hear of the willingness of men and women to give up their lives for Jesus, and even to pray for those persecuting them! Their faith had a profound impact on him. He knew he needed to follow this Jesus too.

Sundeep finds the true light

Students from South Asia were excited to be invited to celebrate Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights – with their InterVarsity friends. Food, fireworks, cricket and singing filled the evening, and the students had the opportunity to share about their Diwali traditions. Then one Christian graduate, a former Hindu from India, shared his testimony of how he had found the true light in Jesus.

After the event, a volunteer invited one of the students, Sundeep, to church. Sundeep had picked up one of the free Bibles. After learning more about the gospel, Sundeep prayed to receive Jesus into his life!

Lily embraces evangelism

“I don’t understand why my Christian friends waited so long to tell me about Jesus!” Lily is a student from East Asia, and after giving her life to Jesus, became a student leader. She has a strong desire to return home to share the gospel among her people. She often reminds others that people are eager to learn about Jesus, and often it’s our timidity which delays their access to the gospel. Lily recently began a seeker Bible study with several students from her country who are curious about Jesus.

Salima discovers she can follow Jesus

Salima is from a country where followers of Jesus are heavily persecuted. A couple of years ago she connected with InterVarsity students and staff through the international group. Salima attended most of their discussions on the life of Jesus that semester and showed a hunger to know more.

Some months after that, one of the staff workers connected with Salima again. Salima explained that she had found a local church of immigrants from her home nation. She had even started hosting their prayer meetings in her home! With the support of many in that community, she was beginning to understand how a person from her country could follow Jesus.

Very recently, Salima started to follow Jesus. Her husband is still investigating the Christian faith.

Names have been changed.

Read more stories of international student ministry around the world.

International students share Jesus through virtual storytelling

Ling, a Christian international student from Asia, learned the value of storytelling in her InterVarsity/USA international student fellowship.

She read that God commanded the Israelites to ‘remember’ and constantly share their testimony of how God had delivered them. So Ling decided that each week through video calls she would share with her mother stories of how God was working in her life.

Before long Ling’s brother wanted to hear more about Jesus too. They met virtually each Friday and Ling shared stories of Jesus’ miracles and teaching. Then her sister joined their Bible discussions! Within three months, Ling’s mother, brother, and sister all decided to follow Jesus. Ling has continued discipling them through video calls.

These days are particularly challenging for international students who are away from their families and unable to fly home. But through technology, they can stay in contact with those back home – and even lead family members to know Jesus!

Let’s pray for them this week.

  • Thank God for Ling’s commitment to sharing stories of Jesus with her family through video calls, and praise God for His saving work in their lives.
  • Pray for international students in the USA struggling with anxiety and loneliness to find peace and comfort in Christ. Pray that they would feel well supported during this time.
  • With so much time being spent connecting with those back home, pray that Christian international students would be boldly sharing stories of Jesus with their family and friends.

Walking with students through depression

This is not what I signed up for, Kelley thought. 24 years old and just two years in to serving InterVarsity USA students, Kelley felt disappointed, weary, disillusioned.

Being involved in the movement as a student leader had felt relatively straight-forward. She knew the routine: evangelistic events, weekly meetings, winter camps, summer missions. Repeat the same next year. But since joining the staff team it had been so different. Messy. Discouraging. Heavy. She’d lost count of the number of students she knew who were struggling with their mental health. Some were weighed down by a thick darkness. Some had eating disorders. Some were self-harming. Some were suicidal. What’s going on here, Lord?

Staff workers, not doctors

Kelley wasn’t an expert on mental health. But students that she loved were struggling, so she decided to look into it. Research, books and courses helped, but they didn’t make Kelley a trained counsellor or psychiatrist. Many of these students needed professional help – she knew that. Still, Kelley often found herself encountering students struggling in the difficult in-between zone: perhaps at the beginning of their mental health concerns, not yet sure if they needed or wanted help; perhaps on the 6-month waiting list to see university counsellors. Every situation was unique and required Kelley to be prayerfully discerning and observant, particularly in the early stages of their interaction:

Is this student struggling because of their circumstances? Is there an unseen issue that needs to be addressed? Is there a clinical element as well? Is it serious? Are they just having a bad day? Would it be sensible to seek professional help?

Though Kelley knew the responsibility for a diagnosis lay with the doctor, helping students understand themselves would enable them to get the help they needed more quickly.

The depths of sorrow

Month after month, Kelley encountered more and more students who were struggling. Then one day, the community woke up to the terrible news that one of their students had taken his life. They were devastated. Why, God? And yet even in the depths of their sorrow, God was at work. The students became more open to talking: I’ve felt like that too; I’m in the same place; I think I need help.

Generation Z

The high rates of mental health problems she encountered on campus got Kelley thinking: are we just more aware of mental health today, or are the number of cases increasing? And if so, why? What is it about this generation, often referred to as ‘generation z’, that perhaps is more prone to struggling in this way? She reflected:

“Human connection is so lacking. I think social media has a lot to do with it because it fosters a sense of false identity which leads to feelings of separation and isolation. And it’s also the case today, at least in many western countries, that everything is catered to meet your needs. You can have your own social media platforms, your own Spotify playlist, your own personalised Starbucks drink. This creates a bubble with you at the centre, a life that revolves around your needs.

And of course, that’s depressing! It’s not real and it’s not fulfilling. So people try to numb it by doing more on social media, or Netflix, or whatever they need to dull the pain of being alone and isolated.

There are also issues of identity. No-one’s asking ‘who is God?’ anymore. Everyone is asking ‘who am I?’ The self-help books tell you not to worry, just be yourself. But how can you be yourself when you don’t know who you are? And how can you know who you are when you don’t know Christ?”

Robin Worrall – Unsplash

Praying for the 44

Raising awareness and getting students talking was a good start. But Kelley longed to see breakthrough. She wrote down the names of all the people she knew personally who had depression. There were 44. Forty-four! Overwhelmed and sorrowful, Kelley stuck up the names on her wall in the shape of a cross.

Jesus, I’m putting these people on Your cross. Through Your blood, I pray for their healing and rescue. Please restore them to a place of hope.

Not long after that, Kelley started getting phone calls. The people she was praying for would ring her and tell her how God was working in their lives. I was in my car and suddenly felt a lightness, a hope, they’d report, not knowing she had been praying. For others, the healing came through getting the professional help they needed. Some found it through medication; others went to therapy and learned tools to manage their mental health. It wasn’t always a quick fix, but many of them experienced breakthroughs and healing over the course of a year and a half.

Today there are just nine names left on Kelley’s wall.

A holistic approach

Often the recovery of a student with mental health struggles will involve more than just prayer. But it will never be less. Kelley’s story shows how God used professional medical help along with the proactive ministry of staff and their persistent prayer to help and heal many students. As IFES movements face the reality of ministering to a generation particularly affected by mental health struggles, we must be ready to take this holistic approach as we walk with students through the darkness.

How to get support

If you’re a student struggling with your mental health, we’d encourage you to seek medical help from your university or doctor, or start by talking to your national movement or a trusted friend.