Harris applies classroom learning to share the Gospel among refugees
When Julie Harris* accompanied a friend to a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for Preview Day in the spring 2019, the Mount Pleasant, Michigan, native had no idea she would be the one who would ultimately end up as a student on the Fort Worth campus.
Harris began pursuing her Master of Arts in Islamic Studies in the fall 2020 due to the conversations she had with Dean Sieberhagen, interim dean of the Roy J. Fish School of Evangelism and Missions and director of the Islamic studies program, during her Preview Day visit.
“I realized in our conversations that he was a professor who was putting into practice what he was teaching in a classroom; it was authentic,” Harris said. “I knew that you tend to become like the people that teach you. And so I realized, ‘That’s the kind of person I want to be’ – who’s evangelistic with their lifestyle.”
Sieberhagen’s “hands-on and practical application approach” is what “convinced” Harris to move to Texas and begin her studies at Southwestern. What Harris is learning in the classroom has been put to work in real time as she takes part in ministering to refugees in the Fort Worth area every Friday night.
Harris explained when she first moved to Fort Worth “students reached out to me who had been here longer than I had and said, ‘Hey, come with us,’” as they visited an apartment complex near the Southwestern campus to share the Gospel and minister to the families who were living in the flats. Harris said the community living apartment complex “tends to be very diverse” and represents people from Central Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and “really all around the world.” She added that “oftentimes this is one of the first homes” they find in the United States.
The senior students who led Harris on those first visits to the apartment complex taught her how to minister to the families living in the community.
“I kind of got to see how they cared for each person that they interacted with and how everyone that you meet has a backstory and it’s a chance to love them well,” Harris explained. “And then as you hear about their background, their culture, their religion, it’s a great way to also share yours and so I’ve just continued to do that after those students graduated and moved on.”
Harris added the opportunity is “a great chance” to welcome, befriend, and be a conversation partner to the people, as well as “share what’s on our hearts.”
Taking the lessons that were modeled for her, Harris now leads groups of Southwestern students to the apartments every Friday night to continue ministering to the families. The group gathers at the seminary for prayer before departing to the apartments. Once onsite at the apartment complex, Harris said they divide into groups of two or three people and begin knocking on doors.
“We just go around and knock on doors and just ask how we can pray for people and if they’re willing to hear us out about what we believe about the Bible and who Jesus is; we love to share that,” Harris explained. “We also love to hear their background.”
Harris said when she makes “a good connection with a family that I really enjoyed talking to” she is intentional about revisiting and following up with them.
“There’s a couple of families in particular that I met my first year here that I still make time to visit,” Harris added, noting she tries to “visit them every other week or so.”
The groups of students who go to the apartment complex numbered about five people in the summertime, but during the regular academic semester there can be as many as 20 students who participate on a Friday night, Harris said. When the group is large Harris has other students assist by splitting the group to go to a different apartment complex to knock on doors and build relationships in that location.
The opportunity has allowed Harris to apply what she is learning in the classroom. In one of her classes with Sieberhagen he taught the students to “win hearts instead of arguments,” she said. She has also learned to ask “curious questions” and “not to be afraid of what I don’t know.” As she builds relationships with the families in the apartment community, Harris said her academic lessons have led her to ask the members of the families “the significance” of photos on the wall or even why they celebrate certain holidays.
This has enabled her “to really show love by being inquisitive and studying their culture,” Harris explained. “That was something I think I’ll never forget and was able to put into practice right away.”
She added this also “gave me a better understanding of how beautiful the Gospel is, as well.”
As Harris prepares to graduate from Southwestern in December, she encourages other students to take part in opportunities to share the Gospel. She remembered when she was first asked to participate in the group on Friday nights “pushed me out of my comfort zone to go with that student that invited me out to this group.”
“I’m just really grateful I did that my first semester, because it started a pattern and a habit for me that I could continue throughout my time here and I learned a lot through that,” Harris recalled. “Regardless of what your ministry, heart, and focus is – maybe it’s not working in a cross-cultural context – but be looking for those opportunities to get out there, from the very beginning, to practice what you’re learning in class, in your ministry day to day” as it “makes the classroom times come alive.”
*Name changed for security.