"We always said we were stopping with three kids," Judy Engel explains. "Then, we added 57 more from 23 different countries."
Judy and Phil, both long time members of South Lake Church of the Nazarene in Merrillville, Indiana, started hosting international students in their home in 1997. At the beginning, they worked through a six-week exchange program with the Lions' Club. Their first hosted student was a young lady from France, and they loved the cultural enrichment that came from having her in their home.
However, the next student from South Africa opened their eyes to the deeper potential of international exchanges. Lisa grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church, but she had wandered away from God. When she stepped out of her comfort zone and into the Engel family, God began to work in her life again. As a temporary member of the Engel family, she joined them every time they went to church.
"God began to speak to her about her life and her future and what He wanted for her," Judy explains. "That's when the light bulb went on for us. What an amazing opportunity to be missional without ever leaving our house!" Within a few years, Judy was coordinating the whole Lions’ Club short-term exchange program for northwest Indiana.
Then, Francisco changed their lives. Two days before he left Brazil for a year of study in America, his host family backed out. Judy and Phil agreed to fill in for a few weeks on an emergency basis. Francisco moved out eight years later.
"A few days after he arrived, we knew God wanted him to live with us," Judy explains. Francisco finished his senior year of high school. He continued living with the Engels while earning a BA in business from Purdue North Central and an MA in organizational leadership from Olivet Nazarene University.
After hosting Francisco for a while, the Engels realized that having an extra kid in the house year-round was actually not much inconvenience. Their birth children went to the same schools and participated in most of the same activities, so they began hosting two or three international kids in their home each year.
Most international students want to earn a high school diploma from an American school so that they will be prepared to enter an American university. They come from all over the world to study in American high schools for three or four years, usually living with one family for the entire time.
Hosting international students is usually a richly rewarding experience both for the families and the kids.
Everyone learns more about other countries and gains a different cultural experience. No matter what happens, they amass an unlimited supply of amusing stories.
When Geraldine, a meek young student from France, went with the Engels to a family reunion, one family member kept speaking louder and louder, as if that would help Geraldine overcome her language limitations. Finally, shy little Geraldine shot back, "I'm French, not deaf!"
Sometimes, the incoming students have unreasonably high expectations. "One kid thought it was all going to be ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘Gossip Girls,’” Judy chatters with a wry smile. "We had to say, 'Sorry, kid. This ain't Hollywood!'"
The Engel's extreme hospitality even surprises them at times. "I look back at pictures of when we had lots of kids in the house, and I think, 'How crazy was I? What was I thinking?'" Judy bursts out with an explosion of laughter and hand gestures. "No wonder people thought I was nuts! But I was a stay-at-home mom with lots of youthful energy."
These days, Judy mostly coordinates placements with other host families through an organization called DM Discoveries. Last year, she coordinated 18 placements in northwest Indiana.
"We're not out to convert anybody," Phil explains. "We know the experience is going to change their lives no matter what. They are going to grow up. They are going to see the world in a different light. And that's what we want, that life-changing experience."
Often the kids don't fully grasp the magnitude of the changes they are experiencing. But some of the Engels' most challenging students have said living in the Engel home meant far more than they understood at the time. After two or three years, Judy or Phil will often get an email saying something like: "What you guys taught me and what I learned in the U.S. has really affected me. I get it now."
The whole point is simply to welcome the kids into a loving Christian family. "We're just exposing them to our day-to-day lives: the good, the bad, and the ugly," Judy laughs. "We want to help them see that to be a Christian isn't necessarily what they see on TV or hear from their governments."
“The responses from the students vary greatly,” Judy says. "We've had kids go home and simply say, 'The trip was lovely, and your beliefs are admirable.' And we've also had kids—like Francisco—who have not only become believers, but also have really become serious. His life is fully the Lord's. We've had other kids who have come to know the Lord through other influences like the youth group or Christian groups at school."
But all of the kids went home with a more authentic understanding of who Christians are and what Christians do. And, according to Judy, “That's a big step.”
Most of the kids who have lived with the Engels still call her "Mom." They stay in contact via email, Facebook, phone calls, and an occasional visit. Francisco, their "Brazilian son," surprised the Engels by returning for the wedding of one of the Engels' birth daughters. "If you take good care of South American boys, they'll do anything for you," Judy laughs, "You'll be their mom for life."
Josh Broward is associate pastor at Chesterton, Indiana, Duneland Community Church of the Nazarene. He served for almost nine years in South Korea.