IFI History Timeline

View Graphic of IFI’s History Timeline

Expanded History

God Gives the Vision

It all began with the visionary pastor and big-hearted people of a small church on the edge of a large university town.  Some church members were faculty at the school, some were students.  All were aware of God’s longing that all nations would experience His love and hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  And all realized that the Lord had brought the world to their doorstep!  Pastor Bruce Erickson and his church yearned with God that every international student and scholar from over 100 nations at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, would have the opportunity to experience a warm welcome and love through His Son, Jesus.

The people of little Covenant Baptist Church on the northwestern edge of Columbus began with friendship, inviting internationals to their homes and visiting them in their homes.  They ate meals together, went grocery shopping together, celebrated birthdays and holidays together.  Covenant member Elaine Anderson recalls, “There was a ministry at Covenant of reaching out to students at OSU and there was a young single woman coordinating it, but I can’t remember her name.  We befriended a South Korean man back in 1973 and went to his wedding that year.  A couple from South Africa were our next contacts around 1974 until they returned home.  They came back for a visit in 1976…  Pastor Bruce [Erickson] was a forward thinker, and I could see him coming alongside Mabel to encourage her to start the international student ministry (ISM), since there had already been a culture at our church of reaching out to internationals.”

1976 – 1979

Mabel Bahler, first IFI staff member

Mabel Bahler, first IFI staff member

In 1976, the people of Covenant Baptist Church decided to formalize their vision for reaching the internationals at OSU who were searching for truth and longed for friendship with Americans.  Mabel Bahler was a key person in this thrust, leading the ministry for almost three years.  She became the face of International Friendships Inc. (IFI) in those first years.

Mabel was a farm girl from Indiana, one of nine children of devout parents.  She stepped out of her church’s traditional expectations for young women by going to Bible school after high school and venturing into the world as a single woman.  For many years, Mabel taught English as a second language (ESL) part-time in inner-city elementary schools in Columbus, Ohio.  Her diligently cultivated faith in God, great good humor, ready hospitality, and comfort with people unlike herself suited her perfectly for this special work of God.  She was also adept at recruiting others to join her work with international students and families.  She made sharing her adventures with God so attractive that few said no!

Mabel exemplified selfless living by renting a large house within walking distance of OSU and subletting rooms to international women.  Sharing the kitchen with them gave her many opportunities to step into their lives, love them like a mom, and learn to cook their foods.  She listened to them, prayed with them, taught them the Bible and American culture, challenged, and encouraged them.  Some of them decided to follow Jesus before leaving her home; others turned to follow Him later.  She left a strong impression on all her housemates—and their future families!

For IFI’s first years, the ministry was run largely by volunteers who were guided by Mabel’s example.  After several years, however, Covenant people realized that the opportunity to reach the nations who had come to Columbus was bigger than any one church could handle.  They decided to launch a non-denominational organization that could encourage many churches to serve together.  They also knew their ministry needed more staff.  In the summer of 1979, Covenant asked Phil Saksa, a Navigator staff who worked with international students at OSU, to lead the ministry. When the people who were part of Phil and Ruth Ann’s ministry joined the volunteers from Covenant, there were about 12 people eager to befriend internationals and share Jesus with them.  With Phil and Mabel’s help, Covenant formed a Board of Directors, established bylaws of governance, and, in 1979, incorporated the ministry as International Friendships Inc. (IFI).

As the opportunity to reach more internationals grew, likeminded churches joined the ministry.  Bethel Presbyterian and Clintonville Baptist (now Linworth Baptist) Churches were the first.  IFI trained interested members as friendship partners.  Since then, many Central Ohio churches have seen the value of doing international student ministry (ISM).  At present, around 145 churches nationwide have embraced this vision and partner with IFI.

Scriptural Foundations

From 1976, God has guided IFI with promises from His Word, including Isaiah 60:3, “Nations will come to your light”; Isaiah 61:3, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor”; and Zechariah 8:20-23: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, “Let us go at once to entreat the LORD and seek the LORD Almighty. I myself am going.”’ And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the LORD Almighty and entreat Him. This is what the Lord Almighty says, ‘In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard the Lord is with you.’”  As we see God fulfilling these promises, we are confident that He will be faithful to His word now and in the future.

Early Ministry Development

The 1980’s

In the 1980’s, God grew IFI and taught us more about building relationships and sharing the good news cross-culturally.  He blessed IFI with a solid core of volunteers who committed themselves to serve internationals.  Some of these volunteers are still active today!  Others have moved on to other ministry opportunities, retired, or gone overseas to serve other nations such as China, Thailand, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ecuador.

From the very beginning, God linked IFI with The Navigators.  In 1988, this tie was strengthened as the IFI staff became Associate Staff with The Navigators, a partnership that enabled IFI to network around the world and become more effective in mentoring and equipping internationals and training American volunteers.

Phil and Mabel each established a Bible study for internationals.  Gradually, attendees began to experience Jesus inviting them into an loving relationship with Him.  They saw Him in His word and in Phil, Mabel, and their helpers.  Some internationals accepted His invitation and took Jesus back home with them to places like Indonesia, Malaysia, China, S. Korea, and Japan.

1990 – 1999: Growth!

Rich Mendola

Rich Mendola, current IFI Executive Director

The 1990’s were a time of tremendous growth. In 1991, God brought Rich Mendola to the campus ministry staff in Columbus from ISM work at Ohio University in Athens.  God led Rich to form the International American Fellowship (IAF), a group of American Christian volunteers and international Christians and seekers.  The IAF had two goals: train local and international Christians to share their faith cross culturally and enable non-Christians to explore the Bible.  In many cases, experience in IAF prepared American Christians for overseas missions.  God used the IAF to train many local Christians for ISM and introduce thousands of international students, scholars, and their families to the Bible and life in Jesus.

Children’s Ministry.  As the ministry to students and their families grew, IFI expanded it to include students’ and scholars’ children.  A children’s program got underway in fall 1992 under the leadership of Marisue Riley and others.   Eventually it became Kingdom Kids and adopted the AWANA format of Bible study, scripture memorization, songs, and crafts.  While the parents participated in IAF groups, their children—from infancy through 6th grade—learned God’s word and who He is in Kingdom Kids.

Ethnic Group Ministry. In 1995, God led IFI to form ethnic ministry teams that brought together volunteers who were committed to sharing God’s love among particular people groups.  The ethnic ministry teams formed relationships with internationals from a particular culture, studied that culture together, and developed culturally appropriate service outreaches.  These groups focused on Thai, Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, Indian, Kenyans, Japanese, Russian, Latin American, or multicultural groups, as students and scholars arrived, studied, and returned home.

Growing and Going.  As God drew more and more students to Himself through friendships, Bible studies, special events, trips and fellowships, He sent more staff to serve with IFI.  Some who came in the 1990’s continue to serve IFI today.  One Muslim-background student joined IFI’s staff and went home to Sudan to minister to war refugees in his homeland.  Other IFI interns and Bible study members who came to faith took Jesus to homelands such as China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

It has been thrilling to see international students return home as the Lord’s servants, planting churches; leading Bible studies in their neighborhood, campus, or workplace; strengthening families; funding and serving in outreach; and making Christ’s love known in education, business, the arts, manufacturing, and politics.

Focus on Volunteers.  As God gave more and more churches the vision to serve internationals and the vision to participate grew within those churches, the need to train and link local volunteers with students became apparent.  From 1995 until 2001, Cindy Humphrey (Reed) matched volunteers and students, and, later, planned IFI trips.  As our first Volunteer Coordinator, Cindy developed the volunteer recruitment and training program, wrote a training manual, and designed the volunteer application process and form and a database for tracking volunteers.  Before long, though, these duties became more than one person could do.  God divided it into two positions: Volunteer Recruiter/Trainer and Volunteer Coordinator, the latter linking volunteers and students after volunteers had been trained.

At first, all volunteer training was done in person, usually in groups of 5 to 25 potential volunteers.  By 2010, volunteer training had been recorded and became available online.  Even today, though, some new volunteers prefer in-person training.  To accommodate their preferences, Leila Gardner, the Director of Volunteer Recruitment and Training has trained others to do much of the in-person training.

The work of recruitment also has been spread out to others by designating a key volunteer (Church Coordinator) in each supporting church to recruit and coordinate the training of volunteers from that church to serve in IFI programs and at special events.

Trips.  Students are eager to see America while they are here, so IFI has organized trips on which volunteers and staff can begin or deepen relationships with students.  Our first multi-day trips were often to Buffalo NY, Niagara Falls, and Toronto, which boasts three Chinatowns!  Washington DC is also a favorite destination, as are the Smokey Mountains, Atlanta GA, Orlando FL, the Air Force Museum in Dayton OH, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and national parks out west.  Often students say the best part of the trip is staying with host families for several days, hearing their testimonies, playing games with them, and staying up late, talking about life.

Visiting Returnees.  Seeing the value of staying connected after graduation to continue to encourage and build up believing students, many staff and volunteers have visited students who’ve returned home to China, India, South America, Malaysia, the Middle East, even Sweden!  Their visits sometimes result in family members or friends coming to faith in Jesus when they understand God’s heart to go great distances to reach those He loves.

Physical Growth, Beginning to the Present.  As IFI’s staff, services, and range of activities in Columbus grew, so did our need for more office space.  Our first office and meeting space were provided by Christ Church (a campus outreach of Covenant Baptist Church), which occupied the former Summit United Methodist Church building at the intersection of Summit Street and East 18th Avenue.  When Christ Church left that building, IFI moved into a house on East 18th Avenue in 1991.  By 1993, IFI outgrew that situation and moved to the first floor of 191 East Lane Avenue.  When we needed even more space, we prayed for almost a year, and God led us to two-story building at 193-195 Chittenden Avenue in the south campus area, which we purchased and moved into in August 1996.  God had provided a large office with kitchen and library and four studio apartments on the second floor—just right for international students!  The large basement enabled IFI to run a much-appreciated furniture ministry for internationals.

As the ministry continued to grow, we needed even more space.  In 2014, after 3+ years of praying and searching, IFI purchased and moved into 2500 North High Street, a spacious situation within walking distance of the OSU campus.  A benefactor facilitated IFI’s purchase of the four-unit townhouse apartments immediately behind the office building.  These have housed IFI staff and interns, international students, and others since then.

2000 — 2015:  Expansion of Sites and Services

By 2000, IFI had grown to the point that we needed to relieve Rich and others of administrative duties so they could continue to work directly with internationals.  IFI hired a part-time Financial Director and Development Director positions that became full-time within 10 years.  God also brought a volunteer to relieve Rich of the management of the Chittenden Avenue building.

In 2004, God led a long-established, church-based ISM at the University of Cincinnati (Ohio) to IFI through Randy Bruins, who had volunteered with IFI Columbus before moving to Cincinnati.  God brought full-time staff Pat Durst, Julie Rhine, and Shaun Rudolph to serve in IFI Cincinnati along with part-timer Duane Villenauve.  (Read a history of IFI Cincinnati)  Madeline Trotman, a long-experienced ISM worker in central Virginia, brought her ministry at the University of Virginia into IFI in 2007, making it the first out-of-state location for IFI.  IFI leaders were further encouraged when Stephanie Taylor, a church-based ISM worker at Muskingum University in eastern Ohio joined IFI in 2010.  In 2011, the leader of an international student ministry at Cleveland (Ohio) State University asked IFI to send him a staff person to take over the ministry when he retired in a year or so.  In spring 2012, Art and Kristin Wells, IFI Columbus staff, moved to Cleveland to join the work of International Friends.  After the leader retired, Art brought that ministry into IFI in January 2014.  Within a year, Eric and Ryo Benson, long-time volunteers with IFI Columbus, joined the Wellses when they moved to Cleveland for Ryo’s work as a radiologist at The Cleveland Clinic.  The Bensons soon took IFI to Case Western Reserve University.

International Wives and Mothers.  In the early 1990s, IFI leaders recognized the opportunity to serve international students’ wives but did not address it for a long time, since the International Women’s Club, which met at University Baptist Church on West Lane Avenue, seemed to meet the need.  IFI’s ministry to wives and international mothers and their pre-school-aged children began in fall 2002, through a prayer-formed team encouraged by Leila Gardner and headed by Ruth Ann Saksa and Joyce Aubuchon, among others.  Currently, the International Wives’ Group is headed by staff member Rebecca Sermon and volunteer Ellen Glover, and the International Mothers’ Group is led by volunteer Laurel Louk, both reporting to Columbus staff Samson and Patricia Wasao, who moved from Nairobi, Kenya, to launch IFI’s Family Care Ministry in 2016.

Friendship Partners and ESL.  God opened more ministry opportunities: From the beginning, two very popular IFI services have been the Friendship Partners (FP) and English Conversation Partners (ECP) programs, which match local Christians with internationals who want an American friend who can introduce them to American culture and help improve their English.  Improving their English is often a primary goal of new international students. The Friendship Partners program has drawn more students and volunteers in Cincinnati than in Columbus, but is appreciated wherever it is offered.

In 2000, IFI Columbus hired Julie Thoms, who has a degree in teaching English as a Second Language, to run our ESL program.  After Julie moved overseas, several iterations of the ESL program followed.  Now it is the English Conversation Club (ECC), a 6-week program held at the beginning of each semester to help internationals practice conversational English through games, questionnaires, storytelling, and other informal conversation activities.  The ECC was designed and led by Columbus staff Russ Sermon. Each school year, many volunteers serve as ECPs or FPs, some continuing with the same student from arrival to graduation.  Through a program called Conversation and Cuisine, IFI encourages church small groups to incorporate internationals in their meetings once a month.  The small groups enjoy the energy and different perspectives that internationals bring to their meetings.

A Change of Directors.  As the ministry grew, God used General Director Phil Saksa’s experiences with a Muslim-background believer to call Phil and Ruth Ann to full-time ministry to Muslims.  In 1998, the IFI Board asked Rich Mendola to serve as Acting General Director of IFI while Phil took a sabbatical and served people from the Middle East, a ministry that—at that time–seemed quite different from IFI’s campus ministry, which had grown large.  Almost immediately, the Saksas began to see God’s blessings in their new friends’ lives.  In 2004, The Navigators asked the Saksas to help them find someone to pioneer a Navigators ministry to the thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa in the Detroit MI area.  In 2005, God placed His hand on Phil and Ruth Ann and said, “Leave your family (they had 5 children and 5 grandchildren by then) and go to pioneer a new ministry.”  The Saksas obeyed, rejoined The Navigators, moved to Detroit, and have been blessed there ever since.

International Worship.  Large-group Bible study gatherings on Friday evenings in Columbus begin with worship.  For several years in the 1990s, volunteer Drew Alatis led worship with his guitar.  Gradually, God raised up others to join or replace Drew.

But God, through Rich, had a larger plan: He wanted internationals to lead worship.  God brought talented worship leaders from China, South Korea, Mexico, and Mongolia.  Tuyata Tserev from Mongolia formed a worship team called “Voice of the Nations.”  This group led worship and did special concerts for several years.  Even today, internationals lead worship in their respective Bible discussion groups, wherever possible.  In our efforts to put students into leadership in all areas of ministry, leading worship has been a good first step for many students.

Worship is essential for setting the tone for the evening, orienting hearts, and minds to God.  Many internationals say that God first touched them through the beauty of worship music.

Two Internship Programs.  From 1996 to 2012, Phil, Rich, and other staff ran an informal internship program that served a few recent college graduates each year.  Students from China, Taiwan, and Japan benefited from one-on-one meetings with staff and volunteers.  In 2012, IFI leaders became more intentional and started formal classes and activities for international interns, much of it overseen by Rich and John Scroggins of the Work As Mission (now the Baton Exchange) program.  That internship program attracted participants from Albania, China, India, Romania, South Korea, and Uzbekistan.

In 2014, God moved IFI Columbus staff Russ Sermon to begin the American Apprentice program to prepare American believers to do ISM.  The first intern was Mike Fisher, who took IFI to Ohio University in Athens in 2015.  The revised and renamed program (International Student Ministry Apprenticeship Program–ISMAP) had three participants in 2015-16; all three are raising support to join the IFI staff full time.

Also in 2014, God brought Estera Pirosca, a former intern, to the IFI staff as the new coordinator for the international internship program.  Estera and Teresa Wang Smith, then the assistant campus ministry director, added much value to the program and renamed it ISEED (International Students as Equipped and Empowered Disciples).  Estera is still involved in refining the program, which is currently under Phil Foell’s leadership.

New Ministry Locations

Around 2008, IFI leaders began talking about and asking God to multiply IFI.  God is answering those prayers abundantly!  As international student ministries realized they could be a part of God’s love being experienced over the whole world, more people are catching the vision and joining IFI’s work as volunteers or staff.

Ohio beyond OSU.  When God called a family home from serving in another country, He sent them to teach ESL to international (mostly Middle Eastern) students at Ohio Dominican University (ODU) in east Columbus.  After one of them joined the IFI staff, God formed an enthusiastic team of volunteers to help IFI’s work there and serve in some of ODU’s special programs for internationals.  Some volunteers even host internationals who cannot go home when the dorms close in summer!

For a long time, IFI had prayed for someone to start serving international students in Dayton, the home of the University of Dayton and Wright State University (WSU), which both have a fairly large international student enrollment.  IFI got a toehold in Dayton when long-time staff “Mo” moved to Dayton in 2011 and joined others in praying that IFI could start working there.  The doors for IFI at WSU opened when Gloria Kelios, a Christian ESL instructor from Malaysia attended an IFI-sponsored INK (Internationals in God’s Kingdom) Conference.  When Gloria mentioned that she was sharing about Jesus with her ESL students, IFI leaders approached her about taking IFI to WSU.  Within a year, Gloria came on staff with IFI and established IFI Dayton.  Since then, her husband (Jerome Jacob), Mo, and Larissa Swartz–a WSU grad– have joined Gloria as IFI Dayton staff.  (Read more about IFI Dayton)

In 2014, God called graduate students Mao Huang (from China) and her husband Andika Gunadi (from Indonesia) to reach out to fellow internationals at the Wooster campus of The Ohio State University School of Agriculture.  As an undergrad, Mao began following Jesus through IFI Columbus and wanted to give the same opportunity to students in Wooster.  Andika shared her vision whole-heartedly.

J.P., a worker from another ministry in Cleveland, joined IFI Cleveland in 2014 and enriched IFI with his knowledge and experience in befriending and hosting students from the Middle East.  He, Art Wells, and Eric Benson have worked together to recruit and train more volunteers to carry the work at Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University.

Arkansas.  Lindsay Van Sicklen joined IFI in 2012 as a networker/facilitator for volunteers and churches doing ISM at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University in Arkadelphia AR.

Illinois.  Over 30 years ago, God led college students Bill Erikson and Donna Erikson to share God’s love with international students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) through hospitality, trips, and Bible studies in their home and with their church.  In 2014, God led them to IFI.  Bill is raising support so he can start reaching internationals full time at UIUC, where more than 10,000 internationals study and 1 in 4 students are internationals.

Two years later, God called retired pastors and missionaries Jim and Paula Hanes to serve with IFI at Illinois Central College (ICC) in East Peoria.

Michigan.  In East Lansing MI, Rod and Kim Friesen dreamed of reaching internationals through long-term hosting and bought a large, old house on the edge of the Michigan State University campus.  The Friesens joined the IFI staff even before they moved into their multi-bedroom campus home!

Oregon.  Heather Murray, a formerly serving others in Turkey, joined IFI in 2014 to work at Portland (OR) State University with FOCUS, and Pamoja House, a multi-ministry cooperative in Portland that serves refugees and immigrants.

Texas.  In 2016, God moved IFI Columbus staff George and (former intern) Heena Chow to Houston TX when George was hired to teach design at the University of Houston (UH).  The Chows have joined the ISM at UH, bought a house in an international neighborhood, and attend an international church.

Almost at the same time, God called Drs. David and Carol Kunselman to establish IFI at Texas Tech University in Lubbock TX.  David, who has served as a pastor in Australia, worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators, and has a doctorate in mentoring, hopes to do one-year intensive discipleship with Christian internationals before they return to their homeland.

New Staff Positions

With the growth in staff outside of Columbus, IFI leaders realized they needed help in overseeing, encouraging, resourcing, guiding, and inspiring new staff.  A National Field Director position was created for those purposes in 2013, and Bruce Fulcher, a professional counselor with many years’ experience serving refugees and immigrants, was hired to fill the position.  In 2015, God called Estera Pirosca (now Escobar) as IFI’s first National Staff Recruiter/Trainer.

The need for a City Director became apparent wherever several staff serve, especially where they work on more than one campus.  IFI Cincinnati was the first location to have a City Director.  Their current City Director, Jim Gifreda, was appointed in 2016 and is raising support to serve fulltime in that position.  J. P. was appointed IFI Cleveland’s first City Director in 2017, overseeing work on four campuses, and Gloria Kelios is City Director for IFI Dayton.

Growing ISM by Training Others

Expanding the ministry has meant expanding the infrastructure of IFI.  In 2012, Jerry Shellhaas, who had been on the campus ministry staff, accepted the position of Facilities Manager to care for IFI’s building and oversee the apartments above it.  A trained accountant was hired to oversee the Finance Department, and God brought Columbus a full-time Campus Ministry Director and part-time Assistant Director of Campus Ministry.

As God showed IFI leaders that they needed to free Rich even further to advocate nationally for international student ministry, they prayed for more help.  In response to their prayers, God led Ken Barker to leave his corporate position in summer 2015 to become IFI’s Chief Operating Officer.  God’s timing was perfect.  By the time Rich requested a 6-month sabbatical from July 1, 2016 to January 1, 2017, Ken knew the ministry well enough that Rich felt confident the ministry would be tended well in his absence.  It was.

The strategic importance of serving international students has become even clearer as the population of international students increases on U.S. campuses, even in junior and community colleges.  As Rich has promoted ISM all over the U.S. for many years, serving on the Board of ACMI (the Association of Christians Ministering with Internationals), speaking at Perspectives on the World Christian Movement classes and at national and church-based conferences, writing articles, and encouraging other ISM ministries, God gave the IFI leadership team the vision to make Columbus a national training center for ISM staff and volunteers.  The establishment of our two internship programs has further reinforced that vision.

Prompted by God, IFI leaders have designed and are completing a Startup Kit to help people start IFI in new locations.  Concept work on it began in early 2016; writing followed.  Contributors’ input was videoed in summer and fall of 2016 and launched in 2017.

The Startup Kit addresses topics such as living the IFI Vision and Mission, how to start work in a new location, establish good relations with the local international student office, set up the initial Bible discussion group, ways to publicize the ministry to interested students, and much more.  During the second half of 2017, tested the first edition of the Startup Kit at three sites.  With what we learn from these tests, we are refining the Kit for national launch.

Many times in its history, IFI has faced big challenges, whether from God calling one or more key staff to other work, lack of adequate funds, God seeming to wait a very long time to fill a key position, the opportunity to purchase a much-needed and well-situated office property, a  visa for an international worker taking a very long time to be approved, hostility toward Christians, misunderstanding marred relations with the local university, or the bittersweet challenge of more internationals wanting our help than we can provide.  We’ve found that we can trust God to fulfill His purposes through us, no matter what comes.  God has, is, and will carry us in His heart and hands.  As Paul assured the Thessalonians, “The one who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)