Uniting Nations

By teaching English, Heidi Jensen builds friendships in the diplomatic community.

By Jennifer Abegg 

Heidi Jensen began collecting postage stamps from countries around the world when she was 10. Through these small pieces of gummed paper, she began to learn more about other cultures.

Her stamps once represented foreign and unfamiliar places. Now they represent cultures she understands and people she knows.

"I've always enjoyed meeting people from different countries," says Heidi.

Working With the U.N.

Today, Heidi knows women from at least 50 nations, and she interacts with dozens of them regularly. They're not just any women either-they are diplomats or wives of diplomats. They come to New York City to represent their countries at the United Nations, an international organization comprising 192 of the world's 232 nations. Formed in 1945, the U.N. was established to promote peace, security and economic development globally.

Heidi helps women diplomats and diplomats' wives get connected to others in the largest city in the United States (New York City has more than 8 million people). She is part of a team of eight staff members who work with a branch of Campus Crusade for Christ called Christian Embassy -- United Nations, an outreach to the diplomatic community in New York City.

A Different Kind of Ambassador

Whether teaching an English class or leading a Bible study, Heidi realizes that she represents God to these people. And because of that, she serves as a diplomat herself, an ambassador for the King of kings. She creates opportunities to meet these world influencers, and may be the only Christ-follower some of these leaders will ever know.

"We're working with people who represent the world, and the religions of the world," says Christian Embassy staff member Joanne Austin, "and they may have had very little exposure to real Christianity."

One way these diplomats and diplomats' wives hear about and see real Christianity is through the English class Heidi teaches to these high-profile women. "As a Christian, I am God's ambassador," says Heidi. "I represent Him to this world."

Living in New York

Before her 10 a.m. class one day, Heidi, dressed in a business suit as always, rides the subway 50 minutes from her home in Brooklyn to Manhattan. She walks a couple of blocks to a tall structure on East 44th Street, not far from the United Nations building, and takes the elevator to the Christian Embassy office on the seventh floor.

Inside, she greets a co-worker who is slipping off walking shoes and wriggling her feet into high heels, standard practice for many New York women. Heidi brews a pot of organic French-roast coffee, boils water for tea and sets out biscotti. She also puts out real mugs -- not Styrofoam, but something suitable for treasured guests.

By 10:20 a.m., five women arrive, all dressed in contemporary attire. The circumstances at the United Nations often dictate the number of women who attend: sometimes it's four, sometimes 15.

A Classroom for Learning

"The women come for different reasons," says Heidi. "Some come primarily to learn English, others to make friends, and others may come because they want to know more about America and what Christians believe."

They settle into a space within the Christian Embassy office furnished and decorated to resemble a living room, with floral couches, plants and warm colors. It is homey and peaceful, a contrast to the modernity and busyness of New York City.

Sometimes, while a woman talks in class, Heidi lifts a card with an "s" on it. This alerts the speaker to a common mistake with plurals. Heidi has also created other cards to indicate verb tense and pronoun errors. She finds they work well to help the women improve their grammar.

"When I first came seven years ago, I knew three words," says Ludmila Botnaru, the wife of a former diplomat from Moldova. She now speaks English comfortably. "It's good for me to be here because I know I am safe to practice my English here."

This day, to help with their spoken English, Heidi asks, "Where do you like to spend your vacation?"

A Classroom for Sharing

The wife of a diplomat from a Middle Eastern country, wearing a fashionable scarf on her head, says she likes to visit her sister in the north where there's less fighting. She recounts to the women about having her house bombed three times, once while inside with her youngest child. Then she pulls out a piece of paper and asks Heidi for permission to read a poem she wrote.

"The women share their stories because they know that they are loved, valued and respected for who they are," says Heidi. "They know that our faith is genuine, and that even though their beliefs may be different from ours, we will bring their concerns to God -- and they appreciate that."

The Middle Eastern woman delivers her piece titled, Say Why.

"When you see the human as a toy displayed in [the] market [for] sale or to buy, say why!" she reads. The women listen attentively. "I want to change my place on earth, to another planet, I decided to fly, say why!"

The women discuss what she read, talking about their emotions and human nature. Then Heidi initiates prayer for this woman and for healing for her nation.

A Classroom of Trust

Sometimes the diplomats or diplomats' wives will even invite prayer, specifically asking Heidi to pray. It's a compliment Heidi doesn't take lightly. She knows that requests for prayer are significant, because diplomats are cautious. Their comments -- seemingly always on the record -- and their actions must represent their president, prime minister or head of state. But they feel safe with Heidi and are able to be themselves and ask questions.

"I have found Christian Embassy to be a warm and welcoming place," says Elizabeth Browne, whose husband is a diplomat from Tanzania and who herself worked at the U.N. for many years.

"Heidi really believes in the importance of touching the globe from this place," says John Austin, executive director of Christian Embassy-U.N. "She has a global heart and builds a relationship of trust with people."

To build and maintain their trust, Heidi uses the Bible in the conversational English class only if there's a specific question about it. Sometimes topics lend themselves to discussions related to Christ, such as traditional American holiday celebrations.

During one conversation about St. Patrick's Day, some women from countries unfavorable toward Christianity asked, "What is the difference between redemption and repentance?" and "What does 'gospel' mean?" Heidi was able to tell them about Jesus.

Understanding Culture

One role of diplomats, and often their spouses, is to understand the culture of the nation to which they are sent. This way they will be better able to present their country's views. Therefore, some non-Christians attend a Bible study that Heidi offers simply to understand what Christians believe.

"We welcome women of all faiths and backgrounds to join us for our studies," says Heidi. "It gives them an opportunity to consider what the Bible has to say on a variety of issues, and an opportunity for us to declare our faith in Christ."

Last year, a Buddhist woman was grief-stricken by the December 2004 tsunami's devastation to Thailand, a country her family had lived in prior to New York. The loss of dear friends began a spiritual quest for her, and she began attending Heidi's Bible study. She and Heidi went out to lunch one week, and she asked, "Can we still meet even if I don't become a Christian?"

Heidi said she was eager to spend time with her regardless of her personal decision about Jesus. That's part of her role as an ambassador for Christ. Eventually, the woman began to follow Jesus Christ, and she continues to grow in her faith.

Like thumbing through the pages of her stamp collection, Heidi can see stamps of how God has used her in such an influential place in time and history.

She is Christ's ambassador, representing Him to the world-at the United Nations.