Missionaries minister to international students at Christian Campus House

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:39 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Dennis and Linda Messimer spent 38 years as international missionaries. Now, they work with international students at MU's Christian Campus House.

COLUMBIA Baking chocolate zucchini muffins is bewildering to Amy Sun, an MU international student from China. 

In the Christian Campus House kitchen, Linda Messimer is happy to teach her how to mix the ingredients and spoon the batter into muffin cups.

Sun carefully measures the chocolate chips, cocoa powder, flour, sugar, eggs and shredded zucchini into a bowl. After stirring, she uses an ice cream scoop to fill the 24-cup pan.

Sun slides the muffin tin into the oven and her work is done — until the muffins are ready in 15 minutes.

"I love baking," Sun said. "Chinese baking is different from American baking, so sometimes I mess up."

Christian Campus House sells muffins and other baked treats to raise money for mission trips. The fundraiser also serves as a baking lesson for students such as Sun, who are unaccustomed to the muffins, cupcakes and cookies common in America.

Linda Messimer, 65, and her husband, Dennis, 69, are part of a team that ministers to international students at the Christian Campus House on College Avenue.

In addition to baking, the Messimers help students with driving lessons, conversational English, Bible studies and trips to the doctor. They repair bicycles for transportation around town, and they invite students to a monthly home-cooked meal.

"They offer everything to every international student without asking what they believe," said Lance Tamerius, director of the Christian Campus House.

Because the Messimers are retired Christian missionaries who spent 38 years abroad, they understand how difficult it can be for international students to adjust to an unfamiliar place.

"Living overseas for 38 years, we are no longer typical Americans. We enjoy being with people from other countries," Dennis Messimer said.

International enrollment at MU has been on the rise for the last 10 years, according to data from the MU International Center.

The Institute of International Education reported this month that Missouri ranks 12th in the nation in the number of international students enrolled on state campuses.

MU leads the list with 2,490 students. More than one-third of the 17,300 international students in the state are from China.

The increasing number of international students at MU has intensified the efforts of international ministers at the Christian Campus House, including the Messimers. They serve as stand-in parents or grandparents for them. Students even call them "Grandma" and "Grandpa."

"They are missing family back home," said David Sowers, another minister to international students at the Christian Campus House. "To be a part of a family here is a helpful thing."

Adjusting to another country

The Messimers experienced culture shock when they first moved to Belgium and then South Africa as Christian missionaries.

"We empathize with students from other countries who may have culture shock," Dennis Messimer said. "We understand some of their frustrations they are going through."

The couple arrived in Belgium in 1970, not knowing what to expect. Belgium presented them with a new language, a different culture and even unexpected weather patterns.

It rained two days out of three in Belgium, Dennis Messimer said. "If you don't do anything in the rain, you never get anything done."

Linda Messimer said learning Dutch was difficult at first.

"It was all Greek to me," she said. "I didn't understand anything for the first three months."

She would mix up similar words in Dutch, mistaking "freckles" — sproeten — for "Brussels sprouts"— spruitjes — which led to a bit of confusion in restaurants.

Another misunderstanding occurred when the Messimers were driving a group of choir students to an event.

One of the girls kept asking a boy for kisses — or so the couple thought. Kussen in Dutch means either kisses or cushions, depending on the context. Turns out the girl wanted a cushion, not a kiss.

Christian studies in Belgium and South Africa

Most of the Messimers' work in Belgium was dedicated to helping churches find their footing. They also conducted special Bible studies for new Christians and welcomed many of them into their home.

"We opened our home for women and kids who needed refuge," Linda Messimer said. A 16-year-old girl, who stayed with them for more than six months, now has children and grandchildren.

"Those kind of things make you really happy about what you do," she said.

When they arrived in South Africa in 1987, the Messimers were unprepared for the violence. The Messimers recalled Johannesburg, where they lived, as a violent and crime-ridden place.

"In South Africa, conversation would always eventually get around to violence," Linda Messimer said.

Their vehicles were vandalized six times, and their home was burglarized at least nine times.

During a 2004 break-in, they were at home watching TV when they heard a noise upstairs. Investigating, they discovered two men armed with knives. The men stabbed both of them, and Dennis Messimer was pushed to the ground where his hands and feet were bound together behind his back.

He said he could feel blood running down his side from the knife wound. "I started praying right away," he remembered.

Linda Messimer was forced to hand over all the money and valuables they had in the house before her husband's hands came free, allowing him to push an alarm. The robbers fled, and the Messimers were able to get medical attention.

"We felt like even though God allowed the break-in, he set the perimeters and caused the cords to loosen on Dennis' hands at just the right time," Linda Messimer said.

In South Africa, the Messimers worked to help integrate schools that their children attended. South Africa had a system of racial segregation called apartheid from 1948 to 1994.

Funding for black schools was six times less than funding for white schools. In 1989, three schools the Messimers' children attended were among the many that opened their doors to children of other races based on voter approval by parents.

When apartheid ended in 1994, Linda Messimer was able to take a woman to vote for the very first time in her life.

"It was a very emotional and special time for her," Linda Messimer said. "We both cried."

The Messimers apparently passed their compassion along to their son, Brent. He saw people in need on his own mission trips to Uganda and later founded Rescue Innocence, an organization that seeks to end human trafficking, educates people about human trafficking and provides services to those in need.

Ministry to international students

The Messimers met at Ozark Christian College in Joplin on Thanksgiving Day 1966.

Dennis Messimer's father was a professor at the college, and his wife invited Linda for holiday dinner since her family was in Louisiana.

Dennis Messimer's mother jokingly said to her son: "Your future wife is coming for dinner."

The couple married in August 1967.

After their four decades of combined missionary service abroad and in America, they came to the Christian Campus House 2½ years ago as ministers to international students.

Christian Campus House engages in a number of service ministries — visiting the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia every Monday, pairing students with widows in the community and going to hospitals every week.

On scheduled field trips, students visit farms, the Capitol in Jefferson City and maybe a zoo. Christian Campus House also holds Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the international students.

The Messimers organize Bible studies and also participate as conversation partners at the center each week with the non-native speakers.

About 75 international students are a part of the "conversation partner" program at Christian Campus House. Sessions are one-on-one, and the Americans use the Book of Luke to teach conversational English, if the students are comfortable with that.

"Campus ministry is not an easy job, but it can be very rewarding," Dennis Messimer said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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