Project preps international students to transform home countries

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WACO (ABP) — After devoting years to counseling countless young victims of sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, Sok (whose full name, like others in this story, is not being used to protect his safety) had grown weary and frustrated.

On the one hand, he had helped numerous girls through their fears of rejection by their families and their communities. Many had been freed from the clutches of the trafficking industry and reunited with their families.

Jennifer Smyer, director of the Baylor GML program, says graduates of the program will “bring far more healing to their country, far more restoration to their land than we ever could as outsiders.”

On the other hand, Sok felt the helplessness of battling the increasing number of trafficking victims while the ages of the victims steadily dropped – with some as young as 6. He wanted to do something “bigger and better” to counter the problem. While the need for preventative programs was evident, he also recognized the limitations of his work as a counselor.

Sok found an answer in a new master’s program at Baylor University’s School of Social Work and George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. The Global Mission Leadership initiative (GML) is specifically designed to equip international students like Sok who have the desire and leadership potential to affect change at the national level in their home countries. The program is funded in part by a grant from the Henry Luce foundation.

Now in its second year, the GML program offers a master’s of social work degree with the option of an additional theological studies degree. Each student makes a commitment to return to his or her home country to be a catalyst for national transformation on an important social issue.

Graduates of the program will “bring far more healing to their country, far more restoration to their land than we ever could as outsiders,” says GML Director Jennifer Smyer. “Sometimes having education from the West will put someone ‘on the map’ in their own country at a level of power or prestige that can open doors” for widespread social change, she adds.  

Traditional education & leadership training

The GML initiative includes courses designed to enable students to build bridges between what they learn in the classroom and ways to apply that knowledge to meet needs in their home countries. In one course, a cross-cultural seminar, students meet every week to discuss what they learned in their classes and how that information is relevant to the challenges they will face back home.  In a research-and-strategic-planning course, students examine a basic social problem in their country and decide what they what they would do about it if they were in a position of power.

The key, says Smyer, is to analyze the root causes of stubborn social problems like sex trafficking, AIDS, poverty and hunger: “We have to pause and say, ‘Why is this happening?’”

Smyer says the need internationally for social workers with advanced training and leadership skills is tremendous.

Jennifer Smyer, director of the Baylor GML program.

While social-work education is common in the United States, that is not the case in many countries around the world. During a recent fact-finding trip to Southeast Asia, she was told by an agency worker in one nation that the country has fewer than three social workers with a master’s level education in social work. When two GML graduates return to work in that nation, they could have a tremendous impact.

Church partners

That vision has also captured the imagination and support of several Baptist churches.

Tom Ogburn, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, saw the potential in one student before she even knew about the GML program.

Esther grew up in a Southeast Asian country that is predominantly Buddhist and divided geographically into several ethnic tribes.  

Esther’s ethnic tribe is primarily Christian. “I accepted Christ in Sunday school camp and grew up with Christian friends,” she says. “We were very comfortable in our own place.”

When she was 12, her father decided to minister to another tribe that was, according to Esther, “99 percent Buddhist.”  She had to learn a new language, go to a new school, and get to know people with a different religion. “Out of 5,000 students, only two or three of us were Christians,” she says.  

As she got older, Esther helped her father minister to children who lived on the street, offering free education to 5-year-olds while also introducing them to the Christian Scriptures.

Working with the children put a “burning desire” in Esther to meet her people’s spiritual and social needs and to find ways to help them out of poverty.  

After graduating from a Bible college in India, she recognized the need for further education.  Although her first choice was to study in America, she had settled on a school in the Philippines.   

Then she met Ogburn at a school she was visiting in Singapore.

Ogburn, who had earlier spent five years as a missionary to Southeast Asia, had formed relationships with refugees who were from Esther’s ethnic tribe. Fleeing the conflict and chaos in their country, the refugees had settled in Oklahoma City.

“Oklahoma City is one of the ‘off-ramps’ on the ‘refugee highway,’” says Ogburn.  “As they come to the United States, it’s one of the places that has shown hospitality [to them] in the past.”

A group from Esther’s ethnic tribe already worshiped with First Baptist, but Ogburn wanted to go further, to work with the several thousand refugees in Southeast Asia before they came to America.  

“We had no idea of the numbers [of refugees] until we visited,” he says. “When we talked with the leaders, we began to understand the scale of what was going on, the vast need.”

When he met Esther, Ogburn immediately recognized another way for the church to make a difference. First Baptist decided to support Esther’s training through the GML program as a part of its commitment to global missions.

“If we can train young men and women who can go back and empower the church,” he says, “it can change the whole story of a nation.”

To help finance Esther’s education, Ogburn put the word out to other churches.  Jeff Raines, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, offered help.

Through Esther, Ogburn says, these two American churches can “touch a part of the world we could never reach on our own.”

Ogburn hopes to see this partnership as the first of many in which churches get involved in supporting advanced training for national leaders.

“This is, for me, the face of missions,” he says. “It lets us engage with national believers who can go back and change their nation. Truly, it extends the mission of the church.”

–Kristine Davis is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Baylor University.

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