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The Joy of Welcoming Internationals for Thanksgiving

Inviting international friends to Thanksgiving is one of the best cross-cultural missions opportunities available to American Christians. God is bringing the nations to our communities and our college campuses, many from unreached people groups. This makes engaging in ministry with internationals and refugees a strategic way to take part in the Great Commission from where we are. The meaning, history, and even timing of Thanksgiving make it a great opportunity to share the love of Jesus with those from another country.

Inviting international friends to Thanksgiving is one of the best cross-cultural missions opportunities available to American Christians.

Think about the historical narrative of what we call the first Thanksgiving. It was a cross-cultural celebration rooted in the Christian virtue of thankfulness.

As believers we have the opportunity to utilize this national holiday for the gospel. What better way to share the gospel than by saying WHOM we are thankful to for the blessings in our lives as well as WHAT we’re most thankful for? We can speak from the heart about our worldly blessings while giving glory to God for eternal blessings secured for us in Jesus our Savior. As you share what you are thankful for, you can invite your international friends to share about what they’re thankful for and why. This sharing of thankfulness is bound to lead to heartfelt conversations.

Where Thanksgiving lands on our calendar is especially strategic for those wanting to reach international students who arrived in the summer. It comes at a time when the honeymoon period of moving to a new country is starting to wear off. School has gotten harder, and the days are shorter and often colder. They have likely experienced loneliness, which only increases as many of their classmates return to their hometowns while they remain far from their families. They likely are longing for deeper relationships in the new place they call home. An invitation to a warm and hospitable place really touches the heart.

The Thanksgiving holiday is usually the first real break students have had from school, giving them some welcome free time to enjoy this holiday that they often don’t know much about. Most refugees and internationals want to get to know the American culture, and holidays are a great time to do so. More than likely, however, they have not had the opportunity to experience this with other Americans.

Celebrating Thanksgiving alongside internationals is also a great opportunity for each of us, our churches, and our families to be abundantly blessed ourselves. As we invite the nations into our homes, we too will grow in our own awareness of the cultures of the world and how God is drawing the nations to himself. As leaders, we can invite other church members to open their homes for Thanksgiving and experience the joy of interacting with other cultures. Some of our immediate or extended family members might not have as much experience with internationals as we do. Making new international friends over Thanksgiving dinner will give them a great opportunity to grow their heart for understanding and engaging the cultures around them.

We can speak from the heart about our worldly blessings while giving glory to God for eternal blessings secured for us in Jesus our Savior.

Thanksgiving with internationals is “low-hanging fruit” for missions leaders; in other words, it’s an easy way to get other church members involved in loving the nations. It’s not a hard sell when you tell your fellow church members, “Your international neighbors have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. You should invite them over.” Or even “I’m hosting a group of twenty international students at my house for a Thanksgiving meal. Can you help me make food and also stay and eat with them?” You’ll likely be surprised at the positive response you’ll get to this invitation.

Ways to Host Internationals at Thanksgiving

Are you on board? If so, here’s where to start:

Begin with a flexible plan. Think through questions like:

  • Do you want to host solo or with others?

  • Do you want to invite a couple people to join your family, or do you want to host an event for a group of students?

  • What kind of food means “Thanksgiving” to you? What about others?

  • Do you want to plan any other games or activities?

Next you need to talk with your international friends or neighbors. If they’re new to the U.S., be ready to share a three-sentence vision of what you’re inviting them to and why. If they say yes, you will probably want to ask how many people they think will be able to come. If they’re a college student, do they have a roommate or friends they will want to invite? Are they a family with older kids who will be home and who will also be interested in joining? Additionally, if you know them well, or if they ask, you can offer an invitation for them to bring a dish from their country to share.

Some suggestions for the meal:

  • Like we suggested above, gather a few friends and host together so you aren’t preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal on your own.

  • If you prefer to have someone else do the cooking, grocery stores and restaurants often take orders for traditional Thanksgiving dishes.

  • Think about any dietary restrictions your guests may have. Muslims will not eat pork. Hindus will not eat beef. Some Buddhists and Hindus are vegan and will not eat meat or anything that has animal products in it.

  • We have found turkey to be the food internationals are most interested in both seeing and eating. Before carving, we let them know it’s out of the oven in case they want to see it, and then we carve it into small pieces so everyone gets to try some.

  • If you’re hosting a big event, consider borrowing chairs and tables to have enough seating. Get creative with your room arrangements if you don’t naturally have a lot of seating. Our dining room table is so full of food when hosting students that we move all of our dining room seating into the living room and basement.

  • No matter how many people come, we always have leftovers. Few college students will say no to leftovers, so have a few disposable containers on hand to send them home with lunch for the next day.

Your tradition may be to watch American football after the meal, but remember that most of your international friends won’t care much about it. They would prefer to interact with you, so consider doing things like:

If you want to encourage your church members to host internationals in their home, provide some steps for them to do so:

  • Give them suggestions for ways to meet internationals or refugees.

  • If your church does not have a ministry to internationals or refugees, create a way to connect your church members with them. Local colleges, universities, or social programs generally love having Americans connect with those from other countries. Create a signup for your church members to get involved with connecting to the international community.

Welcoming internationals into your home is such a joy, and Thanksgiving provides an easy occasion to open your doors and show gratitude for all God has given you.


Eric Warren is the missions pastor at Cornerstone Church of Ames, IA. He and his wife, Andrea, spent a couple of years overseas in East Asia. Eric joined the Cornerstone staff in 2014 as the international students pastor before moving into the role of missions pastor. He is passionate about reaching the nations that have come to our university campus and cultivating a healthy sending culture at his church.

Andrea Warren is the Language & Culture Director for the missions organization Campus 2 Campus and works for Cornerstone Church helping send missionaries overseas. She is also the co-founder of Acquire: Language Acquisition Training & Coaching. Andrea has lived and served overseas in multiple locations. She is passionate about equipping and supporting missionaries as they grow in their ability to effectively communicate in a new language and within a new culture.

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