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Asianisation of Campus Fellowships

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by Lydia Lum

Asian American college students are often stereotyped as immersed in math clubs or networking groups for future engineers or doctors. However, the campus groups that Asians most commonly join are actually Christian fellowships, educators say. In fact, Asian membership in the ministries has exploded in recent years and is most striking at the most prestigious schools around the country.

Dr. Rebecca Kim, assistant professor of sociology at Pepperdine University, researched Asian American evangelism at campuses around the country for her 2006 book, God’s New Whiz Kids. She found that among the more than 50 Christian groups at the University of California, Berkeley, 80 percent of the members were of Asian descent, even though they made up 40 percent of the student body. The same held true among the 50-plus counterpart groups at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, one out of four practicing Christians at New York City colleges was Asian, according to Kim. At Harvard University, Asian Americans made up 70 percent of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship. Yale University’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ was 90 percent Asian, a stark contrast to the fact that it was all White in the early 1980s.

The 10 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA chapters with the largest Asian memberships, often as high as 80 percent, were at schools where enrollment was anywhere from 11 to 28 percent Asian: Boston, Cornell, Emory, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Rutgers, the University of Illinois- Chicago, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.

“If a provost or dean wants to reach large numbers of Asian American students, they should definitely try these groups,” says Dr. Peter Cha, associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

In general, campus ministries aim to supplement Sunday church services, rather than replace them, by offering students Bible study on weeknights as well as easily accessible activities such as prayer meetings, sports, community volunteering and retreats. Praise songs at worship services often sound like those at pop concerts, except for the lyrics. And ministry leaders often follow up their sermons with skits based on reality TV shows to drive home their messages.

Campus fellowships appeal to students wanting to maintain their faith during college yet have a social life. And, unlike fraternities and sororities, the fellowships typically require no dues to join. Students commonly wind up studying together or even finding roommates and future spouses in these groups.

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Among Asian Americans, the religious groups are also letting students explore and assert their ethnic identities as well as deal with discrimination and racism. Web sites of some of these groups include student testimonials.

“Given that I was different and made fun of it because of that, I grew up thinking it was not good to be Asian,” writes David, a member of Harvard’s Asian American Christian Fellowship. “The word ‘racism’ was shoe-polished on our house windows, and people at school paired me with Asian girls automatically.”

Angela, a member of UCLA’s InterVarsity chapter, adds: “I was ashamed of being Asian when I was growing up, and sometimes I wished I was Caucasian. I remember speaking in Chinese to one of my friends when I was in fifth grade in the cafeteria and being reprimanded by one of the teachers, who said that only English should be spoken in America. I was so embarrassed.”

According to Cha of Trinity Evangelical School, campus fellowships have become a support group for Asian Americans straddling intergenerational and intercultural fences. In this country, he explains, honor and respect must be earned, while in many Asian countries, honor, respect and deference are automatically accorded to one’s parents and other elders.

“The most compelling thing I’m asked about is the ongoing relationship the students have with their parents over issues of academic majors, career choices and whom to marry,” Cha says. “It’s a delicate balance to honor a parent’s wishes but also to settle into one’s own identity.”

Paul Tokunaga, national coordinator of InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries, says many of the 160 Asian American staff employees of InterVarsity, who began their involvement as chapter members when they were college students, battled parental problems when they were making career choices, in some cases turning away from lucrative jobs. Tokunaga adds, “We’ve had parents go to extremes like temporarily disowning the kids.”

“In one instance, someone threatened suicide and went into a deep depression. The rub is, many of these parents had respectable careers overseas. They emigrated with their kids for educational opportunities here. After going through that, they don’t want their kids working in a field where they’re raising their own salaries and begging from other Asians, no less,” Tokunaga says.

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Many of its members are “brothers and sisters of members who’ve graduated college and sent the next wave to us,” he says. InterVarsity has more than 560 chapters at universities around the country, with a membership of more than 35,000. During the 2006-07 academic year, Asian members numbered 4,343, a 20-percent increase from a decade ago.

“Asians have such a group mentality that we don’t add just one at a time; we seem to add 20,” Tokunaga says.

More than a Passing Fancy

Participation among Asian Americans in organizations like InterVarsity is apparently more than merely a passing fancy. While researching her book, Kim interviewed the members of various evangelical groups who described their involvement as the most time- consuming activity outside of class.

“They seem to live in a bubble within a bubble,” she says. “Whatever free time they have is spent with other ministry members. Some of them have regular spots, places they go during the course of the day where they can hang out with other members. They spend so much time together, they joke about it. They’re a little concerned about adjusting to day-to-day life after graduation without each other. One student was planning to be a businessman. He said he’d forgotten how to start a conversation with anyone but another Korean Christian.”

Meanwhile, parents of these Asian Christians typically approve of their children’s religious zeal at college, believing it will steer them away from partying and underage drinking. On the other hand, many parents start questioning the extent of their children’s involvement in such groups “if grades start to fall short of straight A’s,” Tokunaga says.

Experts say Asian American Christian students generally follow the theology of their White counterparts and study common passages and themes in the Bible. Prior to college, they typically have been churched as Christians, defying the stereotype that Asians are mostly Buddhists.

Growing up, they attended bilingual services with their first-generation, immigrant parents at ethnic-specific churches. spend so much time together, they joke about it. They’re a little concerned about adjusting to day-to-day life after graduation without each other.

The so-called Asianization of campus fellowships resulted, in part, from the overall immigration influx since quotas and restrictions eased in the mid-1960s. More than 6 million immigrants from Asia gained legal admission to this country as permanent residents between 1970 and 2000, according to government statistics. Subsequently, the number of Asian American undergraduates surged, doubling between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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The demographics among InterVarsity members, for instance, reflect not only the historical immigration patterns, Tokunaga says, but also access to higher education in this country. Generally, Asian Americans active in InterVarsity are second- or third-generation or beyond, he says. About half are of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, while South Asians and Vietnamese each compose only about 10 percent. Pacific Islanders are even fewer.

Evangelical groups with a diverse mix of Asian national origins are actually quite rare, experts say. Instead, Chinese American and Korean American students dominate the memberships at campuses everywhere.

Kim found that Korean American fellowships are the most numerous, with UCLA having at least 10 and almost every prestigious university in the country having at least one. That isn’t surprising, she says, considering Korea has been consistently among the top 10 emigrant- sending countries since the 1980s.

Many of the Korean American ministries are student-run, Kim says. Services are only in English. Locally ordained pastors offer input and support, but the groups lack the professional staff members and national infrastructure of an organization such as InterVarsity. The second-generation Korean Americans come from middle-class, predominantly White neighborhoods.

They do not intentionally exclude non-Koreans from their ministries, Kim notes, but they gravitate to one another because they have such similar life experiences. And in a Korean-dominated fellowship, they don’t have to deal with negative stereotypes or even simple cultural misunderstandings that would occur in a predominantly White organization or even a multiethnic one. They use certain Korean phrases and share jokes unique to the culture that might not necessarily be understood by other Asians.

Understanding the religious mores of Asian American students is not only key to understanding culture, Kim writes in her book, but foreshadows “what is to come in broader society” in American religious institutions as well as in daily life.

–Lydia Lum

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