By Tony Hudson

Maybe it’s because she’s shy. Or maybe it’s because she’s been married for 30 years. Whatever the reason, Sheryl Wise is definitely not the speed dating type. So, when she’s asked what she remembers most about that first, peculiar evening in 2016, she can’t help but bring up one word over and over again: “Awkward,” she says. “I found it a little awkward. But I think the guys found it especially awkward because they probably felt like if they weren’t chosen, well, they’d feel badly that they didn’t make a good impression.”

If “awkward” is the first word that comes to mind when Sheryl Wise and her husband Mark think back to that night, it’s not the last word. “Natural”—that’s might be the last, best word. “I’m not a real outgoing person,” Mark says. “So, meeting brand new people is not my specialty. But somehow, it just seemed… natural.”

Squeezing through a crowded banquet hall, trying to start conversations with strange but important people who’d come from countries Mark and Sheryl had barely ever heard of—that night was one of the most unforgettable, awkwardly natural, wonderful nights ever.

The Southerners and the Saudis

If the names of the schools sound prestigious—the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course (MCCC)—it’s because they are. High-ranking military officers from all over the world come to WHINSEC and MCCC for advanced, months-long training. The schools are located at Ft. Benning just outside Columbus, Georgia. And the locals like to think the military put them in their community for a reason. Ask Ron Collins what that reason is, and he’ll smile and say, “It’s because Southern hospitality is known all around the world.”

Ron and his wife Carole started International Friendship Ministries here almost 25 years ago when they learned the military was looking for a few good volunteers well-versed in the language of Southern hospitality. “The students were coming to these schools with negative attitudes about Americans. All they knew about us is what they saw on CNN and soap operas,” Ron says. “And so, Ft. Benning wanted their international students to have the experience of meeting Americans. So, we started recruiting Christian families to host them.”

Just like in any other line of work, Ron and Carole found out success In the recruiting world is all about who you know.

Mark and Sheryl Wise didn’t know Ron and Carole Collins. Not at first. Friends from a Bible study invited them to an IFM luncheon and that’s where they first heard about military families needing sponsors. They suspected right then that that was for them. “We had hosted an international intern who’d worked at our church,” Sheryl says. “So, the Lord had His hand in this from the beginning.”

But still, that first night at Ft. Benning was, in a word, awkward. Or at least it was right at the beginning. “We didn’t really fully understand how it worked,” remembers Mark. “But it really was like speed dating.”

Minutes after they arrived, armed with hors d’oeuvres in one hand and a booklet of student bios in the other, Mark and Sheryl began to circulate, going from one military officer to the next, making polite chit-chat and looking for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. “But then we started talking to this one man and he was from Saudi Arabia,” Mark says. “We eventually talked to him a couple of times through the night and at the end, we went up to him and said, ‘Look, if there’s anything we can do to help you, we’re willing,’ and he immediately took us up on that offer. So, we went and signed up as host and student.

Having survived the speed dating-like awkwardness of the selection process, it would’ve been understandable for Mark and Sheryl to then think whatever came next would be effortless by comparison. But that would not be the case

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Most stories about Southern hospitality involve food. This one is no exception. A few days after they met, Mark and Sheryl invited their new Saudi friend and his family to their home for dinner. Sheryl has only one word, a word she now uses a lot, to describe what it was like when she first opened the door and saw their dinner guests. “It was awkward,” she says. “The wife was named Rheem and when we first met them at the door, she was wearing an abaya and a niqab. I had never seen, in person, someone dressed that way, much less someone coming to my home.” Sheryl had also never heard anything quite like the request their new Saudi friends made before sitting down to dinner. “We were instructed that the men and women had to eat separately,” she remembers. “So, Rheem and her son, who was about three years old, went into our kitchen and we had a meal there while the men had a meal in our dining room. Rheem didn’t speak English and so she and I tried to communicate with Google translate.

Looking back, that first date was not so much uncomfortable as it was strangely wonderful. It was that night, after all, that Mark and Sheryl discovered that their antidote for awkwardness was persistence. “Yes, their culture was brand new to us,” Mark says. “But we decided right then to take them in like our family. And as we worked to take them in, they did the same.

A second dinner followed the first one. “They reciprocated by inviting us to their home,” remembers Sheryl. “And we were treated like royalty. And after that, we just tried to introduce them to our culture. We took them to the circus, we took them to the rodeo, we took them out shopping, we went out to eat together. We really bonded with them.

Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and the Southerners and Saudis became close friends, the kind of friends who became comfortable talking about pretty much anything. “They come from a Muslim country, obviously,” Sheryl says. “And since they think of America as a Christian nation, the way America is portrayed in movies and TV shows is how they think all Christians act. We showed them something different. We showed them unconditional love. And they were very open to talk about that.”

There was seven months of face-to-face friendship, then there was graduation and then it was time for Mark’s and Sheryl’s Saudi friends to return home. Now four years later, they not only still stay in touch—“We communicate and we’re getting to see their children grow,” Mark says—but the Wises have become minor celebrities in the upper echelons of the Saudi military. “The family we hosted gave our contact information to tell the next family arriving about us,” Mark says. They hosted a second Saudi family. And then a third. And on and on. Now, they’ve hosted almost 30 Saudi servicemen and families.

And that’s how now, every Saudi military family who comes to Columbus, Georgia, knows what to do when they get here: call Mark and Sheryl. They’ll be your friends. They’re Christians. But it won’t be awkward. Promise.

To hear more about this story listen to the latest episode of Stories of Hope.