Your intentions are the best. You want your kids to appreciate diversity, interact with people from other cultures, and be willing to sample food they didn't access through a drive-up window. There's just one problem: The family budget won't cover a mission trip this summer.
Not to worry, says Donna Thomas, whose international ministry has taken her to 79 countries—often with her sons, and now her grandchildren, by her side. Author of two books that help parents raise mission-minded kids, Donna insists that families can travel to faraway places and still sleep in their own beds at night. The success of such adventures hinges on preparation, with lots of discussions around the dinner table. Kids need to have a healthy curiosity about the world and not shy away from people simply because they look or dress differently. "Talking about the Lord's practice of intentionally reaching out to persons from different social, professional, and ethnic backgrounds is a good place to start," says Donna. That, plus a friendly smile, can break down all sorts of barriers.
She suggests five "field trips" that enable children to experience diversity, practice hospitality, and learn a thing or two about geography.
Browse the Mall
Stop by the mall, wander the shops, and ask your kids to read the labels on their favorite products. Where were those running shoes made? How about that cell phone? What country sent those neat superhero action figures? Make a list of "countries of origin," and when you get home, find the countries on the map.
Eat at an Ethnic Restaurant
Thai? Italian? Mexican? Chinese? Greek? Choose a family-owned eatery—not a franchise—located in an ethnic neighborhood and patronized by locals. Encourage your children to ask questions of the wait staff about the menu, the décor, and the language they hear. "Don't worry if they sound impertinent when they ask, 'Why do you wear that funny hat?'" says Donna. "Kids are kids, and people rarely are offended by them."
Take in an International Festival
Sometimes supported by churches as fundraisers, international festivals offer total cultural immersion. At a Greek festival, your family will snack on wonderful pastries; the Irish will teach you to line dance; and the Germans will entice you with brat, kraut, and an oom-pah band. If the sponsoring church is open for tours, you might be able to duck into the sanctuary and take note of the architecture, stained-glass windows, and religious icons.
Better yet, consider exposing your children to different worship practices by attending a meeting, visiting a synagogue, or participating in a service different from your own. "You need to lay the groundwork before you go," cautions Donna. "Help them realize that different people worship God in different ways. Alert them to what they are likely to see and hear. Then, afterward, discuss how traditions and beliefs vary." This is a great opportunity to explain in depth the religious practices that your congregation follows.
Visit a College Campus
Most college and university campuses have international student ministry programs that are actively looking for host families. The number of international students studying in the U.S. is at an all-time high—more than 670,000, with India sending the largest group. Because many visiting students are on tight budgets, they can't go home for holidays, spring breaks, and summer vacations. Sadly, some spend years here and never see the inside of an American home. "Ask to be put in touch with a couple of students who might need help with English," says Donna. "Invite them for dinner, and suggest that they bring their friends." In the days leading up to the dinner, have your children do a crash course in the students' country. Plan a mixed menu by serving an all-American dish complemented by something from their cuisine.
Share Your Faith
Entertaining international friends in your home provides an excellent opportunity to share your faith. Donna recalls a guest from Kenya asking to hear the story behind a paperweight in the shape of praying hands. Donna explained it was a gift from a friend who was a missionary, which led to a conversation about Donna's ministry. "The key is first to build a relationship and then, when the moment is right, talk about Jesus. I like to explain what Jesus has done for me and how I have changed because of my relationship with him." Again, she follows the example of Jesus and the way he approached strangers. "Remember the encounter that Jesus had with the woman at the well," says Donna. "He didn't preach to her; he first showed compassion by befriending her."
Donna Thomas is the author of Faces in the Crowd: Reaching Your International Neighbor for Christ and Becoming a World Changing Family: Fun & Innovative Ways to Spread the Good News. You can find Donna at CVMinistries.org.