Rich Mendola, IFI CEO

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 Volunteer Relations Manager 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 housed IFI staff and interns, international students, and others.