College Christian groups go Asian

Sun Journal

Religion: Long-established Christian clubs at elite universities experience an influx of Asian-Americans as many white students are seeking answers in Eastern philosophies.

July 03, 1999|By David Cho | David Cho,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

At Ivy League and other elite universities across the nation, the face of Christianity has been rapidly changing from Caucasian to Asian.

As long-established student Christian clubs -- some of them go back to the time of World War I -- have shifted ethnically, they have also grown. In places perhaps known more as vanguards for deconstructionism and gay studies -- such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago -- Asian-dominated Christian fellowships in many cases attract hundreds of students.

But while Asian-American students are embracing traditional, Western forms of Christianity, many white students are seeking spiritual fulfillment in Eastern New Age religions or in Buddhism or Taoism.

Based on the growth of Asian Christians on campus, scholars say that the professional world will soon experience an influx of highly educated Asian students who have conservative political leanings and would support evangelical movements.

The ethnic shift in Christianity shows up particularly at top universities where the percentage of Asians is much higher. Asians, while less than 4 percent of the U.S. population, are 14 percent of the student body at most Ivy League schools. And about 85 percent of students who attended multiethnic Christian fellowships last year at Stanford, Berkeley and Yale were Asian.

Over the past 15 years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of several national evangelical organizations, with about 650 chapters at universities across the country, saw the number of Asian-Americans in its ranks grow by 267 percent nationwide, from 992 to 3,640. During the same period, all-Asian Christian fellowships flourished and, in many cases, grew more than multiethnic Christian groups on the same campuses.

"You are not talking ethnic succession here," says Stephen Warner, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The few whites that were in these Christian groups were joined by four times as many Asians."

The Rev. Jim Om, a Korean pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian, a predominantly white church in New York City, describes this phenomenon at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. From 1989 to 1992, when the ethnic shift was most intense around the country, the share of Asians in InterVarsity there grew from 20 percent to 80 percent.

"When certain fellowship groups become Asian, the group takes on a certain cultural flavor and becomes a kind of magnet for other Asian students," he says. "White students end up feeling like they are attending a group that's part of another culture. So they leave."

The change in atmosphere in these groups during the early 1990s paved the way for sophomore Peter Kim to join Manna, a Christian group at Princeton of about 80 students, most of whom are Asians. "It would have been different for me if there weren't so many Asians here," he says. "It was easier to come here because I could identify with the people."

Manna, like fellowships on other campuses, gathers for weekly informal services. Traditional hymns have been replaced by modern Christian rock songs performed with amplified guitars, keyboards and sometimes a full drum set.

At a recent meeting, the band leader steps to the microphone. "We pray, oh God, for our exams," he says, eyes shut tight. "Oh God, help us, help us put aside our worries even now, oh God, to worship you." During the singing, some students bow their heads, looking solemn; others lift their hands in the air, joyous expressions on their faces.

Such gatherings are generally larger than those held by other student groups. At Columbia University in New York City, the College Republicans count 40 at biweekly meetings, while about 20 attend weekly chess club meetings. But every Thursday during the academic term, as many as 110 students, nearly all Asians, gather at the school's Campus Crusade for Christ, the largest of 17 official Christian groups at Columbia.

At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the Korean Christian Fellowship, with about 300 members, is the largest club of any kind that meets regularly on campus. Most members attended Asian churches before college, but some say that the group's cultural familiarity helped spur them into the faith.

As Christian fellowships have grown, so has their voice on campuses and, some Christians say, opposition to their cause. "In general, Stanford is not very open to evangelism," Jenny Huang says. Before her recent graduation, she was a member of the Campus Crusade for Christ. "The sense I get this year is that Christianity is OK as long as you're not trying to convince other people of it," she says, "and sometimes I get the sense that it's not OK, period."

The Buddhist fellowship at Columbia, a disproportionately white group, is rarely in such controversy. The group has 30 members, mostly from relatively privileged families, practicing a Westernized form of Zen that aims to heal the ills of the soul without encouraging asceticism.

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