How international students at Luther Seminary became a tight-knit community under COVID-19 stay-at-home safety measures
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, international students were caught in a complex situation. In late March, to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the governor of Minnesota issued a stay-at-home executive order—but for international students, home was thousands of miles away.
“Most of us felt like the world had come to an end for us,” said Stanley Ayashim ’21 M.A., a Luther student from Nigeria. “Not only that, but we were in a foreign land away from our families and loved ones.”
The seminary’s international students typically number around 50, with most living on campus or nearby. When the institution transitioned to fully online learning to mitigate viral spread, the international students’ status in the United States was in limbo. Most didn’t have the chance to return home before travel restrictions made such trips impractical or impossible. On the other hand, proposed federal rules in the summer would have required international students to receive in-person education to remain in the country or face deportation. It was an uncertain time, but it also marked the beginning of something new.
Residential experience deepens relationships, curbs anxieties
“While people are counting losses, we count a lot of blessings that came with the pandemic,” several students wrote in a joint summary of their experiences. One of those blessings was a deepened sense of community that they developed through shared meals, Sunday worship gatherings, and mutual support during a global crisis.
During the spring and summer, 15 international students and one American student lived in Stub Hall on the seminary campus.
“Luther Seminary has been really understanding with the international students,” said Janice Gonoe ’21 Th.M. from Liberia.
Marie Y. Hayes, director of international student and scholar affairs, hosted weekly Zoom video chat check-in meetings with the group, and Chenar Howard, associate director of student affairs, provided detailed official health guidance for how students could keep themselves and each other safe from the virus. For three months the campus dining service provided hot meals for pickup on weekdays at noon—often with enough food for the evening meal, too. For breakfasts and weekends, the campus food shelf was available, and students received gift cards to a nearby grocery store. Before long, the Stub Hall residents pooled their efforts and resources—as well as some funds secured through the student council—to cook Sunday meals together and share them as a family.
“Since all of us had families very far away, it became important for us to become a family, not only a community,” the students wrote in the joint statement.
The decision to function as a family was key for the students to adapt to the challenging situation. Early on, they held a meeting in the Stub lounge to discuss how to move forward and keep one another safe. Though some students were still participating with their contextual education congregations through online video-streams, they missed in-person worship. Some met regularly for prayer and encouragement, and soon an idea surfaced: Why not worship together on Sunday morning and eat together afterward?
Forming a new rhythm
Several students within the group stepped up to serve in voluntary leadership roles. Frank Steiner, a visiting scholar from Germany, led worship in March. As the knowledge of COVID-19 transmission was new and consistent health guidelines weren’t yet widespread, even coming together in one room of their dormitory made many students nervous. Yet they gathered—masked and physically distant—to hear God’s word and share in worship. Steiner preached on a passage from Jeremiah, encouraging listeners to trust God amid fear and anxiety. One week later, Steiner was able to fly home to Europe.
A visiting scholar from Ghana, Thomas Oduro ’94 M.A., ’04 Ph.D., was another leader within the group. “His sabbatical took a very different turn with COVID-19, and he became a valuable mentor to our students,” Howard said.
Oduro participated in 21 Sunday worship services and helped the other students plan and lead Bible studies and fellowship dinners. Students took turns preaching and sharing music, liturgy, and holiday celebrations from their own cultural backgrounds.
Gonoe enjoyed the Mother’s Day worship the most. “Our male colleagues prepared the Sunday meal,” Gonoe said. They did everything in order to celebrate the women through service.
Hope Johnson ’22 M.Div., the American student living in Stub Hall, gave a bouquet of flowers to Gonoe and another woman. “I appreciated it so much,” Gonoe said.
Over several weeks, Sunday meals included dishes from Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Tanzania, and the United States. Those who had prepared the meal told the others about the food’s cultural importance. “I called it ‘Introduction of International Cuisines,’” Oduro said.
After their Sunday meals, students danced to YouTube videos of music from their countries of origin. “It was a joy to see choreographies from different countries,” Oduro said.
Just as the students were nourished around the table of shared meals, they were sustained by the communal support during a distressing time. “Sunday worship services, Sunday evening worship through songs, and Wednesday Bible study really helped to build me up to know and feel that God was with us,” Gonoe said. “Even if COVID-19 caught me and I died, I was sure of my home with Christ.”
Emotions ran high when some students graduated or prepared to depart from Luther after a time of such close-knit community. They celebrated the people who left for their home countries by eating farewell meals together, signing cards, and giving parting gifts.
Luther’s multiyear plan to develop its campus to meet the educational and instructional needs of future students was outlined in 2019. This plan includes the sale of Stub Hall. With gratitude for their memorable experiences together in that building, the remaining international students moved out at the end of August, and many now reside in Bockman Hall. The community of students continues to worship together in the Olson Campus Center’s Chapel of the Incarnation following COVID-19 health guidelines.