For a congregation in Fayetteville, Georgia, Christmas comes early each year. The church dining room is filled with the aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg and the bustle of people carrying hot dishes to tables arranged in the center of the room. At one end of the room stands a Christmas tree—24 red and green gift bags sitting underneath—and the white cinder-block walls behind it serve as a backdrop for crimson poinsettia wreaths. Stockings have been hung with care, and Bing Crosby croons from a CD player nestled in a corner. But outside, the blazing heat of a southern summer reminds everyone it is July—one of the things that makes this party unusual.
Brenda Talley, a member of Harp’s Crossing Baptist Church, stands in the hallway checking on the latest group of Chinese exchange students hosted by families from the congregation. The church’s goal is to give them a wide variety of American experiences, and that’s why they host this party each year. It’s a chance to share American traditions and the gift of the Christ child.
Everyone there is invited to partake in the feast, so with heaping plates before them, the exchange students gather around tables adorned with nativity sets. And, as a mother is wont to do, Brenda sits only when she’s sure everyone has gotten enough. But within minutes she is up again, asking questions and taking care of others: “Did you get enough to eat? . . . Yes, those are sweet potatoes. They’re good, aren’t they? . . . Tom, you didn’t eat much. Did you not like your food? . . . Have you had dessert? Well, have some!”
Our children were a huge part of our life. So when they left, we asked ourselves, Now what do we do?”
It wasn’t long ago that Brenda’s home buzzed with the sounds of her own energetic family. To the kids who played sports with the Talley children, she and her husband John were Mama and Papa T, and their home was the “hang-out house.” But when her youngest moved away, Brenda struggled to move forward. “I was miserable empty nesting. We had three children, and they were a huge part of our life. So when they left, we asked ourselves, Now what do we do?” Though she and John kept busy with their work as physical therapists, something was missing. They couldn’t shake the feeling they were meant to do more.
Harp’s Crossing had been hosting the Chinese exchange program for years, and in 2012 the Talleys decided to get involved. With only a couple of weeks before the students’ arrival, the church still needed four more host families. John says, “I looked at Brenda and asked, ‘Do you want to do that?’” She quickly said yes. There were plenty of vacant rooms in their house, and they wanted to fill them. Their nest had been empty too long.
Lives Changed at Harp’s Crossing
The Talleys aren’t the only ones being touched by the Chinese student exchange program at Harp’s Crossing. The Oglesby family shares what life is like adding new “sons” to their family (below left), while exchange student Beini Chin tells the story of how she came to know Jesus while in the U.S.
The Talleys weren’t sure what to expect. They’d been told few particulars but knew it was essential to show love and share Jesus with the students who would be living in their home. They were assigned two teenage boys, Jonah and Michael, who quickly began to call them Mom and Dad. “You don’t realize how much you can fall in love with someone in such a short amount of time,” Brenda says, “but that’s exactly what happened.” Decades of parenting had taught them a great deal, but after just a few days with Jonah and Michael, they knew this would be a challenge of a different sort.
During the day, their boys joined other students at church to receive lessons about American culture and to practice conversing in English with native speakers. There were also visits to Atlanta attractions and local landmarks. And weekends were reserved for family outings and Sunday services. In addition to class time that was spent on sharing their faith, church members also discussed Christianity where and when it felt organic. And they provided materials like the In Touch Messenger in Mandarin so the students could hear God’s Word in their native language.
The couple had always believed it was important to be involved in their kids’ lives. But Brenda didn’t realize just how essential doing so was until she picked Jonah and Michael up in the evenings and noticed how anxious they seemed. “Hi, Mom!” was instantly followed by, “Where’s Dad? When will he be home?” Back home in China, boarding schools and fathers whose jobs regularly kept them out of town had made parent-child interaction scarce for the boys, and they seemed to yearn for it—to have both parents together, every day. So John and Brenda decided to show them the same care and attention they had lavished on their own children.
Evenings were spent taking walks with the dog, playing games, and participating in “story time”—their chance to share Scripture. And there was always time for questions. What did it mean to be a follower of Christ? Why had the Talleys opened their home to strangers? And this Jesus, just who was He? God honored their efforts. The night before the students returned to China, Jonah gave his life to Christ—a moment that, to this day, John can hardly talk about without tears welling up in his eyes.
When the group left, students and host families alike felt the ache of parting. “It rips your heart out when they leave,” Brenda says. “I asked another host parent, ‘Why didn’t you tell us this would be the hardest part?’ She replied, ‘If we told you how hard it was to say goodbye, you might not have wanted to say hello.’” Once a family of five, they’d added two to the clan, and they knew there would always be room in their hearts for more.
Now, three years and six new “sons” later, the Talleys are a go-to host family. Each boy brings challenges and delights, and John and Brenda are reminded that they don’t know everything. For instance, one student’s perceived greediness—taking two of everything, including the Messenger—actually stemmed from a desire to share Christ with his unbelieving father, something the couple learned only by taking time to listen.
Every student has a story all his own, and through love, acceptance, and understanding, the Talleys are becoming part of those stories. They, too, are being given a gift: a chance to learn new facets of parenthood. And it is changing them in ways they hadn’t anticipated.
“I have become even more obedient to God,” Brenda says. “I also feel equipped and bolder about sharing my faith.” As for John, he just hopes to lead by example, showing the boys the things he knows, as any good dad does. Whether it’s urging them to open doors for ladies or teaching them how to use a lawnmower, he enjoys providing them with new experiences, and his pride in their accomplishments is obvious.
Rather than a time to dwell on the students’ impending departure, the Christmas party is a night to focus on an arrival—one that took place in a stable more than two millennia ago. In the softness of the summer evening, Christmas music still plays, and the empty dessert platters sit on the table as a sign of the evening’s success. After the students hear about the gift of Jesus Christ, they’re each given a present to unwrap: a framed photo of them with their American family. The background is a world map, a reminder that love knows no distance. And according to Brenda, that’s the key. “All you have to do is share God’s love. That’s enough.”