Monday, May 21, 2007
This article appeared on page B – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Evangelicals build flock on campus
At Cal, Christian groups find eager adherents among Asian American students
Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer
The end-of-the-year mood in a classroom at UC Berkeley’s Warren Hall was giddy as a crowd of mostly Asian American students watched a slide show of good times and candid shots and shared stories of intense pressure from their parents.
They weren’t celebrating their culture, though. They were celebrating Christ.
“So here I am, all of me,” the students sang. “Finally, everything. Wholly, wholly, wholly, I am wholly, wholly, wholly yours.”
For three hours, they shared impassioned testimonies of faith and prayed for one another, laying hands in turn on each person receiving support. The graduating seniors passed down a 6-foot wooden cross for next year’s senior leaders to keep in their apartment.
Asian Americans dominate evangelical Christian groups at UC Berkeley, far outstripping their share of enrollment, even as the number of Asian Americans on campus has grown markedly. The trend is visible to varying degrees at several of the nation’s elite universities.
With this shift has come the realization by college ministries that faith is not always colorblind — no matter the Christian ideal — and that they should tailor their outreach to different communities instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Our mission is to reach the whole campus, but you can’t reach the whole campus in one particular way,” said Paul Tokunaga, the national Asian American ministries coordinator for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which has been a leader in ethnic outreach. Founded in 1941, InterVarsity serves more than 35,000 students and faculty nationwide.
At Cal — which now has among the highest Asian American attendance in the nation at 43 percent of undergraduates — InterVarsity was predominantly white until the late 1980s. Within a couple of years, it became predominantly Asian American and now offers separate fellowships for Filipino, black and Latino members. The “multiethnic” fellowship is the largest, but its roughly 200 members are mostly East Asian, with a handful of white students and members of other races.
Many students attend Christians fellowships affiliated with their local churches instead of joining campus ministries, so it is hard to gauge the overall proportion of evangelical students attending UC Berkeley.
Attendance at weekly fellowships offered by InterVarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ — large group sessions with singing and speakers and small groups for intimate Bible discussions — isn’t meant to replace going to church. But it enables worship during the week and offers a social network, which is important at large schools, where students seek subgroups to avoid feeling lost.
One night this spring, roughly 20 students in InterVarsity’s new Ethnic Identity small group delved into Bible passages about Queen Esther, a Jew under Persian rule who must decide whether to speak for her people, who are facing genocide. One discussion led by senior Jon Akutagawa grew lively as the students started to relate to Esther’s experience.
“Esther never revealed her ethnic identity,” said Akutagawa, 21, a Japanese American with black-framed glasses and a modern take on Abe Lincoln’s beard.
“Is it OK not to be fully open to whom we are to get ahead? Look at politics or economic power,” he said. “Is it OK for us to choose to make more money?”
Joyce Lin, 21, said people sometimes tell her that she’s their only Asian friend. The daughter of immigrants, she grew up in San Bruno and attended a Chinese Christian church. Most of her friends are Asian American. This year, when she began working as a physical trainer with the football team, which is mainly African American and white, she began hearing “that I’m actually really cool.”
“I go out of my way to prove stereotypes are not how I act usually,” Lin said.
Hatty Lee, 20, had a different take.
“Why should I have to feel what I do represents my race?” asked Lee, who grew up in Los Angeles. “I am who God made me to be.
“I don’t represent Korean Americans, I represent God,” said the slender South Korea native, who plans to major in music and psychology.
The magazine Christianity Today dubbed the trend “the tiger in the academy,” saying “Asian students are more likely to show Christian commitment” than other ethnic groups, including white students.
It is hard to back up such a generalization because very small proportions of students on any given campus join student fellowships. But Collin Tomikawa, an InterVarsity official for the East Bay, said evangelical groups could attract many more Asian Americans.
“We’re only touching the tip of the Asians,” he said.
Tomikawa said the group has tried to diversify its staff, hoping to make prospective members from all ethnic backgrounds feel welcome. But as students recruit their friends to join, many evangelical groups have found they are continuing to attract a disproportionately Asian American membership, he and others said. And some members of other ethnicities and races have responded by seeking fellowship elsewhere.
But senior Heather Brent, one of a scattering of white students at the year-end celebration at Warren Hall this month, said she learned about herself by joining the multiethnic fellowship.
“It took a long time for me, learning what it means to be white and about white privilege. I grew up thinking you should be colorblind,” Brent said. “Now, I think, ‘Be educated on who you are.’ “
Evangelical groups have consistently appealed to Asian Americans because Asians often share common values, despite coming from different ethnicities, said Russell Jeung, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.
“Because Asians have a hard work ethic, they need to work to experience grace,” he said. “They try to earn God’s favor, just like they earn a parent’s approval.”
Asian Americans may also be drawn to evangelical groups because they are more accustomed than other students to identifying with a group rather than seeing themselves foremost as individuals, said Tommy Dyo, former leader of the Asian American Christian Fellowship, a national evangelical organization. He now heads the Asian American ministry for Campus Crusade for Christ.
“A lot of what we are taught in general society is that it’s very individual, that it’s all you,” Dyo said. “But Asian Americans are attached to the greater whole.”
That collective sense often stems from Asian Americans’ relationship with their parents, leaders said. Christie Heller De Leon explained the pressure of parental expectations in a speech at InterVarsity’s most recent Asian American conference, held the same weekend as ethnic-specific get-togethers for black, Latino, multiracial and white students in Northern California.
“Our parents have been dreaming about us since we were in the womb,” said De Leon, a Filipina and a staff leader at UC Davis. “Dreams full of blessings and happiness. Yet sometimes the dream is so specific it feels like a script, handed down, ready for us, already written and ready for us to step into the role.”
God’s love is different, they say.
“You receive the blessing before you’ve done anything good,” De Leon said. “Despite anything bad that you have done.”
Through Cal’s InterVarsity, 20-year-old Jianni Xin said she has explored her ethnic identity as an Asian American Christian. Though many in the fellowship were raised in Christian families, Xin and others contend with parents who do not understand their faith.
Her mother, a Chinese immigrant, thinks Xin should seek blessings from her grandmother and believes Christianity is taking Xin from her family.
“She’s a really traditional woman. In China, she didn’t know of any Christians there. I guess she wants me to focus on my studies,” said Xin, 20, a sophomore from San Francisco. “She thinks I’m dating God.”
Reflecting on the year, InterVarsity leader Akutagawa said the ethnic identity group struggled with understanding what “gifts or heritage” that Asian Americans offer, compared with white and black churches.
“We tried to understand how we as Asian Americans contribute to the spiritual backdrop of America,” said Akutagawa, a bioengineering major who grew up in Southern California. “There’s still not a definite answer. We’re trying to figure out who we are in America, how we fit in, and what things we can bring to the culture here.”
It is difficult to compare the membership in evangelical Christian fellowships at different schools because they are not organized in the same manner. But InterVarsity fellowships at private elite schools and large state schools across the country began to experience “Asianization” in the early 1990s, said Collin Tomikawa, an InterVarsity area director for the East Bay.
By 2006, InterVarsity’s 205-member multiethnic fellowship at UC Berkeley was 80 percent Asian American (while the campus was 43 percent Asian American). And the Campus Crusade for Christ chapter’s 125-member multiethnic ministry was more than 60 percent Asian American, and its Korean ministry had 75 members.
At Stanford in 2006, Asian Americans accounted for roughly 40 percent of InterVarsity members but only 25 percent of undergrads. At UC Davis, Asian Americans are about 40 percent of the fellowship and of enrollment. At UC Santa Cruz, they account for one-third of InterVarsity and about 20 percent of students overall. MIT’s and Harvard’s InterVarsity fellowships each have significant Asian American memberships, too.
In contrast, at San Francisco State University, the 75-member InterVarsity chapter had nine Asian American members in 2006, even though Asian Americans account for one-third of the campus’s undergrads.
– Vanessa Hua
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