On a Sunday evening in September, 15 Germans arrived by chartered bus at a rural home near Schoolcraft. There they were greeted by an equal number of West Michigan residents who had prepared a scrumptious potluck meal.
For the next seven days, the German guests stayed in the homes of their hosts. Together, the visitors and the locals experienced area highlights: the Friends Good Will tall ship in South Haven; dune rides in Saugatuck; the Amish lifestyle in Shipshewana, Indiana; Meijer Gardens, John Ball Zoo, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, and the King Tut exhibit in Grand Rapids; and Binder Park Zoo, the Air Zoo and the Gilmore Car Museum in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area.
There was something more to these trips than the tourist aspect: the conversation and connections forged between strangers across cultures. It was the beginning of a new understanding of each other’s culture that can foster acceptance and friendships.
This “kitchen diplomacy” is the underlying principle of Friendship Force, the membership-based organization that facilitated this visit and arranges many others across the world. Friendship Force members travel from country to country — or within countries — on cultural exchanges that involve home stays with home hosts. The members are citizen ambassadors who share cultural insights, experiences, fun and friendship.
The visit by the German guests was the second part of one of these exchanges. The Germans had previously hosted West Michigan guests who stayed in their homes in Braunschweig and Peine (near Hanover) in the summer of 2013. Through these two-way visits, those greeting and those being greeted experienced the theme of Friendship Force: “to enter as strangers, become friends, leave as family.”
“By meeting people of different cultures from around the world, we get a good perspective that people are more alike than different. They all want peace, and they all love their children,” says Roy Pearson, treasurer of The Friendship Force of Western Michigan, a club chartered through Friendship Force International.
Friendship Force International was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977 by Wayne Smith, a Presbyterian minister and former U.S. missionary to Brazil. The organization’s vision then, as it is today, is to allow individuals from different cultures to explore new countries and cultures on a personal level. A signature of the program is home hospitality — local hosts welcome international visitors into their homes, sharing meals, conversation and the best sights and experiences of their region.
Since 1977, there have been 225,000 ambassadors and 750,000 hosts who have participated in Friendship Force International programs. Today, 400 chartered clubs in 70 countries boast 18,000 members. Being a volunteer-driven organization, Friendship Force is supported by membership dues, exchange fees, donations and foundation grants.
In addition to exchanges, Friendship Force conducts specialized “discover” programs to introduce members to Friendship Festivals and humanitarian/educational experiences in various countries and cultures.
The Friendship Force of Western Michigan was started by Ann and Larry Mesbergen and Curtis and Jennette Parkhurst of Hopkins, who read about Friendship Force International in a magazine in the late 1980s. Curious, they and a few others traveled with the Inkster club to Mexico in 1988. A year later, they traveled with a Cincinnati club to Australia. While there, they invited their hosts to visit West Michigan, and, soon after, 17 Aussies came here. Those experiences motivated the founders to obtain a charter and establish a local club in 1990. The local club celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015.
Today, the club has roughly 50 members, ranging in age from about 40 to 90. They live in or near Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Holland. Annual dues are $35. Most Friendship Force members are middle class to affluent, educated, curious about life in other lands and, says local club president Dave Hargreave, “willing to invite strangers into their home.”
A typical exchange trip lasts three to seven days, but clubs often plan two or three exchanges back-to-back to create an extended journey, especially to distant destinations. Therefore, many members “are looking forward to retirement, when they have time and resources to travel,” Hargreave says,
Yet, thanks to home hosting, traveling with Friendship Force can be less expensive than traditional travel abroad. In addition to airfare, there’s a $164 per week administrative fee paid to Friendship Force International, plus a minimum of $100 paid to the host club to cover items such as admissions to museums, monuments and other venues. There is a cost for some meals, but, because of the home hosting, often many of the meals are covered.
Members of The Friendship Force of Western Michigan annually host 15 to 20 ambassadors who come from such countries as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico and New Zealand. The club members have traveled together to some of these countries as well as to the Northwest Territories, Taiwan and several domestic destinations. Joining with other Friendship Force clubs, some have also visited Central Europe, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, England, Peru, Romania, Russia and Tanzania.
For 2016, The Friendship Force of Western Michigan is planning outbound exchanges to Nebraska in March to view the sandhill crane migration and to Australia in October. The club will welcome inbound ambassadors from Japan in June.
Friendship Force clubs also generate “global exchanges,” or themed exchanges, through which like-minded people travel to places to enjoy a shared interest such as gardening, birding, history or ecological preservation. The West Michigan club is partnering with clubs in Detroit, Cincinnati and Dayton to create an “Underground Railroad” exchange that will follow the path of escaping slaves from Kentucky to Michigan, and a “Planes, Trains, Automobiles” exchange that will introduce visitors to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, the Gilmore Car Museum and expansive model railroad setups created by home hobbyists.
‘I remember the people’
While seeing the sights and learning about the history of other places is great, it’s the personal connections that Friendship Force members treasure most, West Michigan members say.
“I can only stand to see so many old buildings, but I remember the people — that’s the most powerful aspect,” Jim Cousins says.
“Travel is a totally different experience when you stay with a family,” Pearson says. “They talk about their lives. They take you to their favorite places. You become like a member of the family. You don’t get that when you travel with a tour group.”
Hargreave recalls host families in northern Germany introducing their guests to boßeln, a game in which players roll a ball the size of a croquet ball along a path to a predetermined goal. “We had been with these people for maybe two hours before we’re walking around in a cool mist, drinking schnapps and playing a game we didn’t know existed,” Hargreave says. “But that’s Friendship Force — you do things you would never experience when you travel on a tour.”
Marcia Ellis says she likes “the insider’s view” to gain greater knowledge of local monetary, medical and political systems. On a 2014 Friendship Force trip to Brazil, Ellis was witness to that country’s national election. “Voting was mandatory,” she say, “and people who don’t vote pay a fine. Yet it was very casual, almost a social event. People milling around. No line to stand in.”
Fred Giddings admits to being nervous before a trip to Russia in 2015. “I was born in the 1950s, and my parents wanted to build a bomb shelter because they believed Nikita (Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time) was going to bury us,” he explains. “But the people I met in Moscow were very gracious, and within the first hour I could tell the exchange was going to be nothing like what I had imagined.”
In Germany in 2013, Mary Giddings gained a different perspective on World War II from her host, a retired teacher who shared historical books and newspaper clippings to explain the situation in his homeland during that era. “The more enlightened and understanding we are about others, the more that will hopefully lead to peaceful actions by our Congress and all the way up to world leaders,” she says.
Lyn Hargreave, the West Michigan club vice president and a member of the Friendship Force International board, says the club’s mission is “to promote global understanding across the barriers that separate people.”
“Before Friendship Force, we used to walk along streets in foreign countries and wonder what’s behind their window curtains,” she says. “Now we know.”
Members point out that, with the aid of voice-activated translation apps on smartphones, language is no longer a barrier to conversations with their hosts and others abroad. Plus, many people in other countries speak passable to excellent English.
Once friendships have been established, social media is the favored means of keeping in touch. “I look on Facebook and see people I know in other countries,” Ellis says. “I comment on their pictures. They respond. So we don’t need to write letters.”
Whether members are just keeping in touch or orchestrating a faraway exchange, the key principles of Friendship Force prevail: “Explore your world, understand its people, serve the cause of peace.”