If it is unusual that a plane crash-landed at the San Francisco International Airport, it is also surprising that a group of Chinese students on board — including the two 16-year-old girls who died — were headed to an evangelical-church program. The 35 students and chaperones were en route to West Valley Christian Church and School outside Los Angeles for a three-week American-culture and English-language immersion camp. The students’ own school, Jiangshan Middle School in Zhejiang, was running the tour, but the students would also have experienced, most likely for the first time, classic American evangelical culture.
Church members were shocked to learn that their would-be guests were victims of Saturday’s crash. West Valley Christian issued a prayer to express its condolences: “Dear Lord, give grace to their moms and dads, brothers and sisters. Give us wisdom and compassion as we care for our guests from China.” Derek Swales, head of the school, puts it this way: “You sometimes wonder, why did God allow this to happen, and why did he pick out this church?”
West Valley Christian acts as a host site for international-student programs. It charges only a modest amount of $4 to $5 a day per student for a visiting group to use their facilities. The hope, Swales explains, is that students will come away from their trip seeking more than just American Ivy League campuses and Silicon Valley careers. Students stay with host families who often introduce students to a Christian culture, Swales says, and that is how ministry happens. “We are trying to create a very holistic approach to education — come stay in our homes, come visit our schools, play on our sports teams,” he explains. “And there’s the spiritual component, which in China is not really there.”
The school does not directly proselytize or offer an invitation for Christian salvation. When Swales speaks to the students to welcome them during orientation, his goal is to explain the church context. “I take them through Genesis and say, ‘This is how the world began,’” says Swales, who got his master’s degree from Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian school in South Carolina. “‘You see these churches on every street corner in America and, what are they doing in there? They are worshipping Jesus Christ the Son of God.’”
Hosting visitors is not just common to foreign-exchange programs — hospitality is also a popular form of Christian ministry. Playing the good host is a way many Christians seek to share God’s love with others; as the author of the New Testament Book of Hebrews wrote, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” It is a quiet way to spread the Christian Gospel. Swales’ family hosted a fifth-grader from South Korea. “We sit around the table and he sees us pray for the first time,” he says. “He comes with us to a church service.”
West Valley Christian will be hosting three other international groups this summer, two from China and one from South Korea. It will be hosting a prayer vigil for the victims and for host families this Thursday evening, and is accepting gift cards to help victims pay for missing luggage, as well as donations for victims’ families. “These are sweet, sweet kids, gifted kids,” Swales says of the two girls who died. “I’m just hoping that God can do something really special with such a great loss.”