VIRGINIA BEACH — They come from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, young people who are far from their homes and their families, but eager to experience the United States and to work throughout the summer.
From far off places like China and Turkey to Eastern Europe and even the Dominican Republic, their experiences here can range from amazing to challenging.
To help the international students who come to Virginia Beach each summer, as part of their VBJ1 ministry the Virginia Beach Community Chapel on Laskin Road has operated the J1 Café for a number of years.
The café is open each Tuesday evening through the summer and can see as many as 400 of the young people coming in the door.
“This ministry is very important to us because the Bible teaches that God cares for the outsider and we should do the same,” said Zach Hardison, missions pastor at VBCC and director of the VBJ1 ministry for international students. “Being far away from home can be exciting, but it can also bring homesickness. We want to provide American mamas, papas, brothers and sisters that will last for years to come.”
During the typical Tuesday evening get-togethers food, games, plenty of socialization, and even some lighthearted English lessons.
The VBJ1 ministry itself began in 2005, Hardison said, when a visionary lady with a compassionate heart named Jere Cleveland took notice of the throngs of international students in the resort city.
She began inviting them over for coffee and it then grew to the point that she had to host it in the church’s youth room. Once the number attending hit 150 or so, it moved down into the larger gym.
“The purpose of the ministry is for our families to show love to the students while they are here in America,” Hardison said. “The students have a strong desire to get into an American home. We aim to achieve that goal for them.”
As director of the program Hardison, an assistant, and two interns do much of the work. But, he said, volunteers are absolutely essential to carry out such a massive undertaking.
“On a typical night at J1 Café, we will have about 150 volunteers and 250 students. The volunteers set up tables and chairs, cook the food, serve the food, teach discussion groups, and sit with the students during dinner.”
As might be expected when bringing together so many people who speak so many different languages, communication can be challenging.
“We aim to keep communication at a minimum during our large events due to poor acoustics and language barriers,” Hardison said. “We also use visual cues, such as slides and videos. We focus all of our ministry toward connecting locals with the students.”
But it’s the face-to-face interactions that take place beyond the church walls where the good communication happens, he said.
While the café is just one aspect of the ministry, the church has formed teams that focus on things like trips for the students, there’s a bike team, a media team, and also a Bible discussion team.
Coastal Hospitality Associates serves as the corporate sponsor.