Thanksgiving is a time for families to come together, to eat and show gratitude for another year of living and being together. But for many international students in a college town, the holiday can be lonely.
The International Thanksgiving Dinner in Starkville began in the 70s in the home of Armando and Ruth de la Cruz. The couple moved to the United States from the Philippines and knows first hand how it feels to celebrate holidays and special occasions a long way from home.
Armando de la Cruz is a retired professor of biology at Mississippi State University. Back in the early days, the special Thanksgiving Dinner was held in their home, with only a few students from the Philippines as guests. And in a few years, other Asian students from India, Japan, Pakistan, and Taiwan started coming to the dinner. More students from Greece, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Thailand attended in succeeding years and soon, the de la Cruz family was having 15-20 guests for Thanksgiving.
They moved the dinner to their church, First United Methodist of Starkville, (first at the Fellowship Hall and later in Christian Life Center) in 1984 and requested FUMC to co-sponsor the dinner with World Neighbors Association. This event has been held every year on Thanksgiving Day with average attendance of 250 guests representing 25-30 countries.
“We find joy and satisfaction in hosting students during holidays, not necessarily to feed them but to give them a sense of belonging to a group like a family,” Armando de la Cruz said. “Holidays, like Thanksgiving, are lonely times especially when alone in a foreign land.”
“I am always happy to share with families and friends, the atmosphere and spirit of Thanksgiving Day – it is a time for togetherness, a time to forget homesickness, and a time to share holiday traditions, such as food, practices and stories of different cultures and nationalities,” said Ruth de la Cruz.
Armando de la Cruz said a very important outcome of hosting international students during Thanksgiving and other holidays is being able to share with them American ways and traditions of celebrating the unique Thanksgiving Day holiday.
“We also want to leave them pleasant and lasting memories of their experiences in the U.S.,” Ruth de la Cruz said. “Memories are important components of friendships, even those temporary relationships.”
The de la Cruz’s said the dinner serves two purposes – social and educational. On the social side, they said it is important for students remaining in town to be together and have a meal, especially in those early years when dorms and cafeterias on the Mississippi State University campus, and most restaurants in town, were closed on Thanksgiving Day and other holidays. On the educational side, the de la Cruz’s said it was a special time to share one of the most important family holidays in America with international students.
These days, over 250 international students attend the special meal at noon on Thanksgiving Day at Starkville FUMC. The meal is held in the church’s Christian Life Center with many church members serving as volunteers at the meal and preparing desserts and fruit for the crowd.
The meal is complete with turkey as the centerpiece and at least three vegetable casseroles, pecan and sweet potato pie, and iced tea. At least one dish has rice in it, such as rice and broccoli casserole. And all vegetables are of vegetarian preparation only, because, according to de la Cruz, many internationals are vegetarian.
Armando de la Cruz said the Thanksgiving Dinner event typically features a cultural program for a little “after lunch entertainment” that always includes a brief history of Thanksgiving Day. They have had various types of presentations, including slide shows, skits, speakers, stories, a patriotic musical number, as well as songs/music/dances provided by children of international families. Some years, they have also had tours of the church sanctuary when students have expressed an interest.
Ruth and Armando de la Cruz said they know at least two couples who first met at the Thanksgiving Dinner and later married (a Filipino wife and American husband; a Filipino wife and an Indian husband), and now celebrate their own Thanksgiving Dinner.
“We have a few Thanksgiving alumni who still communicate by email or postcards during Thanksgiving to ask about the Dinner and send their best wishes,” Armando de la Cruz said. “Many non-Christian students admitted that it is their first time to have seen or entered a Christian church. One Indian student said he used to be afraid when Christian Missionaries came to his village.”
Armando de la Cruz said he feels this event is important to Starkville FUMC because “it is part of our global ministry right here in Starkville.”
“It is part of our service to the multi-culture nature of our community that highlights the diversity of our society,” Armando de la Cruz said.
“Our church has always tried to be welcoming to the whole MSU community,” said Rev. Dr. Giles Lindley, pastor at Starkville FUMC. “Thanksgiving is a time when many students have gone home, but the international students are still around campus. It provides a great opportunity for hospitality and fellowship.”
Other programs at Starkville FUMC to reach out to the international community includes: co-sponsorship of, and participation in, the annual International Fiesta held on campus; participation in the International Village held in conjunction with the Cotton District Arts Festival; and sponsorship of the farewell dinner given to the foreign Fulbright scholars during culmination of their orientation at MSU.
For more information about the International Student Ministries at Starkville FUMC, give them a call at (662) 323-5722.
See this story in the November 22, 2016 edition of The Starkville District Newsletter at 11-22-16-newsletter