SouthLake Church's annual picnic for UNC Charlotte international students is more than just an afternoon of all-American food and games.
"They have contact with Americans outside the bubble of campus," said Will Faires, a campus minister at UNCC. "It's getting into the nuts and bots of American life, and if you stay on campus, you just don't understand it."
SouthLake's 12th annual picnic at Ramsey Creek Park next weekend will provide international students with one of their first glimpses of everyday American life and a chance to see the Lake Norman area.
Faires said the students often are having such a good time they don't want to leave the picnic.
"They just don't want to go back to campus," Faires said. "They are relaxed, and they are away from their studies."
Debbie Hix, who helped organize the SouthLake picnic, said many families with young children from the church attend the picnic.
The church provides a free meal, boat rides and volleyball and soccer games.
Hix said the adults enjoy talking to the students, who in turn enjoy being around families.
"It makes them feel more like they are part of a family," Hix said. "We feel like this is a way for them to get to know Americans and American families."
The church will host the picnic from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Ramsey Creek Park.
Introducing North Carolina
Faires, who serves through the Central Carolina Presbytery Reformed University Fellowship International, works with international students on campus and organizes monthly off-campus events to teach international students about North Carolina.
On campus, Faires holds English conversation groups and teaches English Bible classes for international students.
"Some are Christians who want encouragement as they come to a new country," Faires said. "Then I have people who have never read a Bible, and they are coming out of curiosity. Some want to find out why the Bible is mentioned in so much Western literature."
This week, he will host a hot-dog cookout on campus for international students that usually draws about 100 people.
Every month, he organizes a dinner and a trip for the students. They take longer trips several times a year around the state.
Faires said that international students often arrive with views of the United States shaped by Hollywood. Interacting with regular Americans can change that.
"It's a treat for them to know what Americans are really like," he said.
Hix said the SouthLake picnic, and a winter square dance hosted by the church, also gives church members a chance to talk to people from other countries.
Americans learn, too
Hix's husband, Steve, who grew up in Taiwan with missionary parents, especially enjoys talking to Asian students about how Taiwan has changed.
"It's a way for them to meet people of the Christian faith and have interaction with us," Debbie Hix said. "We can't all go to China or Japan or Korea, but we can meet students while they're here."
Faires said that often international students ask questions about faith and spirituality. Many tell him they didn't know Americans were interested in spiritual things.
"They find out that we are concerned about heart issues like everyone else is," Faires said. "Sometimes it is the basis for really good conversation."