Imagine traveling thousands of miles to a foreign land where you don’t know fully the language or customs, and working for a summer. How would you fare?
Aiming to lessen the difficulties involved, for more than a decade, St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Bethany Beach has been hosting a picnic welcoming international student workers.
“It’s been an evolving process. We got interested in it — another church member and myself — because we heard stories that international students weren’t being treated well,” said Martha Fields. “This is about 13 years ago. Things have definitely changed.
“We felt like we couldn’t solve all the problems, but if we put our name out there, maybe we could help some people, and if we held a picnic, that would express that we wanted them here, we wanted them to have a good time.”
This year’s picnic will be held Thursday, June 22, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the church in downtown Bethany.
Fields said the church looks at the event as an opportunity to reach out a hand of friendship to the students.
“It kind of grew, and the commitment of the church and the people involved grew. There is sort of a core group that has been there all along, but there have continued to be opportunities.”
In the past, the church has held two picnics in a summer; however, she said that just depends on the need they see.
“I think it’s the spirit of reaching out with kindness and love that have made this so successful.”
Those who attend the free picnic can enjoy a smorgasbord of eats.
“The grill guys keep the hotdogs and hamburgers coming as long as they’re wanted. We’ll have all kinds of salads and fruits, potatoes and baked beans… Just lots of cakes and sweets, and, of course, brownies. We also provide containers for the leftovers to go home with the students. They enjoy themselves, and we enjoy putting it on.”
Fields said that, if community members wish to donate some food for the picnic, they may do so and drop it off at the church beginning at 3:30 p.m. on June 22.
“Our members are just so generous with their donations. This year, McCabe’s is going to donate a sandwich tray. Subway is going to donate a sandwich tray as well. The businesses are all so supportive,” she added.
Last year, the church branched out and offered the opportunity for students to practice informal conversations.
“The students said they were here, in large part, to improve their English, but many jobs they hold don’t really provide that opportunity. They asked, ‘Could we just come and talk? Talk about your business, about your work? About how you invest your money?’
“We did that twice a week for three or four weeks, and they really liked that. I’d take in business magazines that I subscribed to. We were talking about how you have a business luncheon, and the next time I took something I found on the internet on tips to host a professional lunch. This was all a surprise to me.”
Fields said this year the church hopes to grow and expand the sessions with the students.
“I really felt, for the students who participated in it that first year, it was a huge benefit for them. It went beyond welcoming them — it went into helping them grow and gain knowledge of how we do things here. I think it helped their understanding and their vocabulary.”
She said she hopes home visits with parishioners and the students will increase this year.
“They really like going into people’s houses, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. We had a large dinner last year, but we have had people come over after work and sit on the deck and have some soda, chips and crackers, things like that.”
The time spent welcoming the students, said Fields, has built strong relationships, which have survived over years and oceans.
“It’s fantastic. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the students, because they’re coming here to speak their English and they speak fundamental English. But if you persist, very quickly a warm relationship will develop, and friendships often. We have made friendships that have lasted much beyond the time that the young people are here. That is very gratifying.
“One student invited a parishioner, who had given him a place to stay, to his wedding. So they went to Poland to Peter’s wedding. They recently just got a picture of Peter’s new baby. I just think it’s the best thing in the world to have those kinds of relationships grow. It’s a real opportunity.”
Fields said that, no matter what the political climate may be, it is important to remember each other’s humanity and be friendly.
“I was talking to a Russian waitress, and we got onto a discussion about the Russian government and our government. I said to her, ‘Governments can disagree, be rude to one and other, but the people of those countries don’t have to.’”
She said she hopes the picnic will be well-attended by any and all international students in the area, and that they truly feel welcome in the community.
“It’s just a real opportunity for Saint Martha’s to have a little part in world peace,” she said. “We all aspire to have… we all wish for world peace, but we say, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ Well, maybe not on a large scale, but on a small scale.”
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church is located at 117 Maplewood Street in downtown Bethany Beach. Those who wish to make a financial donation to the picnic may do so by writing a check to the International Student Committee and dropping it off at the church.