We have updated our Privacy Policy to provide you a better online experience.

Chi Alpha: Moving International Students from Friendship to Leadership

Through the annual All Nations conference, Chi Alpha Campus Ministries helps prepare international students to take on spiritual leadership roles once they return to their home countries or to wherever God leads them.
TULSA, Oklahoma — For three decades, foreign students attending colleges and universities in the United States have gathered over Memorial Day weekend for a conference designed to help them strengthen their often newfound identity as Christians and prepare them to live out their faith once they return to their homeland.

Throughout the years, Chi Alpha Campus Ministries staff members and volunteers have facilitated the proceedings to assist the international students. Since the beginning, more and more internationals themselves are in charge of the program at the All Nations conference: conducting workshops, delivering keynote speeches, leading worship, preparing indigenous meals.

“It’s important to have internationals leading so the students can see themselves in leadership someday,” says Kenya native Severin Awori Lwali, who has attended 26 of the conferences, the first while studying at Missouri State University in Springfield. Lwali has gone on to serve as director of XAi, the Chi Alpha outreach to international students. In December 2023, Lwali also became the transitional stakeholder of Chi Alpha, U.S.A.

“God has brought the best and the brightest to America,” Lwali said to over 100 students representing 33 nations in the opening session of this year’s conference in Tulsa. “Some of you, God will tell you to stay in the United States. Some of you don’t need to stay in America.”

Many foreign students come to the U.S. with the goal of an American education paving the pathway to a lucrative career. Lwali, 48, himself foresaw a diplomatic career. But God has a tendency to interrupt the plans of students who encounter Him in a serious way.

The annual gathering, originally known as the Christian International Student Conference, began in 1993. Frequently collegians from overseas attend because American friends invite them. The conference has grown more evangelistic in nature; not everyone attending is a committed Christian. Some at the event end up accepting Jesus as Savior, being baptized in water, or delivered of bondages. Consequently, the tenor of some of the workshops has changed the emphasis to the basics of Christianity.

The fact that All Nations has grown and adapted to meet needs is a reason for its longevity, according to Stephen Deal, who met future wife Jane Ohren at the 1997 conference when they both served on Chi Alpha staffs, Jane at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Stephen at the University of Texas-Arlington. The couple wed in 2002, after Jane moved to help Stephen at UT-Arlington, where they remained until 2017, at one point mentoring 150 international students a year. Since 2019, they have been ministering at community colleges in Tarrant County, Texas.

“This is a mission trip for us,” says the 53-year-old Stephen, who has missed only two conferences since he started attending in 1995. “Coming here keeps us in touch with the Great Commission and gives us an experience of what it’s going to be like in heaven.”

The ever-smiling Jane, 54, notes that a decision to follow Jesus by foreign students may mean exile from family back home.

“When students return they may be the only Christian witness in their entire families or towns,” Jane says. “But who is better equipped to reach them than those who know them best?”

Steve Bortner, who served as a Chi Alpha missionary for 30 years, including 15 at Kent State University, has been part of the conference for 22 years.

“It’s an inspiring evangelistic and disciple-making event,” says the well-spoken Bortner, 68. Compared to three decades ago, Bortner says students coming to the U.S. from other countries today are less dependent, better informed, and savvier.

“Now, because of the internet, they know where they will live and how to get to campus before they arrive,” Bortner says. “They are more suspicious and hesitant to initially engage with a self-identifying Christian organization.” In January, Bortner started a nonprofit based in Raleigh, North Carolina, called Crossing Cultures, Making Disciples focused on leadership training for internationals.

Karen Keyser Hillyer started coming to All Nations events in 1997. She annually brings students from the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she leads the outreach to international Chi Alpha students.

“The key to this conference is the modeling that happens from international peers who are farther along in their faith,” Hillyer says. “They are able to answer questions such as how to tell their parents they have become a Christian.”

For the past 27 years, Charlie and Dona Bunn have led Chi Alpha at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. They have only missed three All Nations meetings in that span. At one point, 85% of their Chi Alpha attendees came from foreign lands.

“God impressed upon my heart that I didn’t have to be an overseas missionary,” says Charlie, 60. “All Nations is a concentrated effort to bring international students from friendship to leadership.”

Dona says a benefit of the four-day gathering is that foreign students who otherwise would never have met each other form lifelong friendships. “When people from different countries find Jesus, they can change the trajectory of the world,” she says.

Greg and Susan Tiffany led Chi Alpha at the University of Oklahoma for 20 years and the University of Tulsa https://www.tulsaxa.com/ for eight years. The personable Greg, who at 69 still works as Chi Alpha director in the Sooner State, notes that inviting students into their home from around the globe for meals and stayovers, as well as taking road trips with foreign students, impacted their own children. The couple’s daughter, Angela Hogan, is now an AG world missionary in Mexico.

Jada Pothina, XAi operations and training specialist, says All Nations is essential because it is the only Chi Alpha event specifically showing international students what it looks like to lead in a Christian context in their home country. Pothina in 1994 joined a Chi Alpha group as a 17-year-old first-year student at the University of Texas-Austin, where she met her husband Dharhas Pothina, a native of India. Pothina, who has a master’s degree in linguistics and speaks five languages, says she has seen lives transformed at All Nations by decisions for Christ as Savior, water baptisms, and baptisms in the Holy Spirit.

Paul B. York is based in College Station, Texas, as a cross-cultural missions trainer for Chi Alpha, developing biblical and disciple-making skills in international students. The passionate York is well-suited for the role. He grew up in Nigeria, the son of AG world missionaries John and Joy York. Paul and his wife, Lisa, have been AG world missionaries in Ethiopia and he led the Central Bible College missions department in Springfield, Missouri, for 10 years.

“The whole world has come to us,” says York, 53. “A central command of the Lord for all Christians is to make disciples of all nations. There is an enormous opportunity for Americans in this generation to make cross-cultural relationships in almost any community.”

No one has attended more All Nations get-togethers — 28 — than Gary Paschal, Chi Alpha conference and event specialist. He has seen the event go from meeting at campgrounds, to hotels, and most recently to more economical and venue-friendly churches (this year’s event took place at Woodlake Church and Owasso First Assembly.)

“More campus staff now have a heart to reach internationals and this conference served as the catalyst for that to happen,” says Paschal, 63. “The beauty of All Nations is that we’ve gone from Americans leading it to internationals planning and executing it.”

Retired AG world missionary Christopher Gornold-Smith has been a fixture at All Nations the past decade, often speaking about Christian theology. Although a longtime resident of Fort Worth, Texas, he knows the plight of foreigners well. The London-born Gornold-Smith grew up in Ireland, married a Swedish wife, and has lived in seven countries.

“All Nations is important because this is the cream of the crop from their countries,” says Gornold-Smith, 83. “They will go back to their countries and, in many cases, become top leaders. They must have enough strength in their faith to stand.”

The annual All Nations conference always has been held in the Midwest, in locales such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis, typically for three successive years. Lwali wonders whether it might be better in the future to host regional gatherings in an effort to make All Nations more accessible to a greater number of international students taking courses in the U.S.

Seeking an American education remains popular among foreign scholars. According to a November 2023 study by Open Doors, 1,057,188 international students attended U.S. higher educational institutions in 2022-23, a 12% increase from the previous academic year and the fastest growth in over four decades. Graduate student enrollment totaled 467,027, the highest on record. China (27.4%) and India (25.4%) accounted for over half the overall number of international students.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.