SWBTS internationals’ COVID-19 food needs spur Birchman to action

August 3rd, 2020 / By: David Roach | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

FORT WORTH—When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Ruth* and her husband—both students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—found themselves in a major bind.

Because the campus shut down to prevent coronavirus spread, they lost their jobs at the seminary. But as international students from East Asia, their F1 student visas restricted their ability to get jobs anywhere except the school they attend. They also were ineligible for U.S. government aid and inhibited from returning to either of their home countries because of travel restrictions.

Money was tight before, but now they had no source of income to buy food.

“The financial issue is just one part” of the problem, Ruth said. “Another part is that you have a lot of extra time not knowing what to do. So it’s easy to feel panic about the future.”

But in their moment of panic, Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth stepped in to help, providing a steady supply of groceries from the church’s Corners of the Field benevolence ministry. As Birchman realized how serious the plight of Southwestern international students had become, they expanded the ministry.

By the end of July, Birchman and a coalition of partner churches were meeting the food needs of some 30 international student families at Southwestern who found themselves without a source of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lane Prairie Baptist Church in Joshua, Harmony Baptist Church in Weatherford and Calvary Baptist Church in Gainesville have all partnered with Birchman to help meet the students’ needs.

“When we discovered the plight of these students, it really was a concern for us and broke our hearts,” Birchman pastor Bob Pearle said. “These students basically were stranded. A lot of the other students living in dorms could go home. These students couldn’t fly out to their country.”

According to U.S. government regulations, F1 visa holders cannot accept off-campus employment at any point during their first year of study. After that, off-campus employment is permitted if the work is related to their education or in response to extreme financial hardship. Still, official authorizations are required or students risk losing their visa status. The pandemic has left international students across America with food insecurity, according to media reports.

Southwestern has not been immune from those challenges. So Texas Southern Baptist churches began to wonder if the Southern Baptist network of cooperation could find a way to help international seminary students. Such help, they believed, was in keeping with the spirit of the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified channel for supporting missions and ministries.

The food assistance can “help some of our brothers and sisters in Christ and help the institution” care for its students, Pearle said. “That’s what the Cooperative Program is all about—helping each other.”

The feeding ministry is part of Birchman’s ongoing provision of food to needy families and individuals. But the ministry made international students a focus as their pandemic needs became evident. Corners of the Field delivers groceries to students every other Friday.

The deliveries fed 19 seminary families June 5, comprising 72 people. Two weeks later, the number had increased to 31 families with 102 people. By late July, the ministry had delivered about 175 boxes of food to Southwestern international students. The seminary families receiving assistance are from India, South Korea and China among other nations.

“They are in a pickle,” Corners of the Field director Laretta Smith said. “It’s hard to watch because I’m a momma … To see someone’s else’s child suffer and not know what to do, my heart just breaks.”

The international students are grateful for the food, she said, even though it can be difficult to ask for help.

“They are heroes,” Smith said. “They came to this country to learn how to serve God well.” Despite their hardship, “they are still the most gracious people. They are still loving people. They are not bitter at all.”

In addition to the partnering churches, Southwestern alumni have donated money for the ministry too. The food distribution will continue as long as the need persists, with special plans in the works for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Cameron Bowman, Birchman’s director of outreach, said “the decision to take on feeding students at Southwestern was easy.”

“These students moved to Fort Worth to study and prepare for God’s calling on their lives to take the gospel to the nations,” Bowman said. “Because of the pandemic, they have lost their jobs and are unable to feed their families. If we can help them stay to prepare for what God has next by simply taking them food, we at Birchman want to be a part of that.”

Ruth said she and her husband “are really grateful” for the food deliveries and feel “a sense of support” from Southern Baptists. Now she and her husband are attempting to pass the blessing along to others.

“From the food we receive, we see their generosity,” she said. “We always receive plenty of food—even more than we [need] so we can share with our neighbors.”

*Name changed to protect privacy

Editor’s Note: If you or your church would like to contribute through food or financial donations, contact Cameron Bowman, director of outreach at Birchman Baptist Church: 817-244-6590.