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Reaching Out to Chinese on Campus
Fellowships Try to Expose Students to Christianity, but Sometimes It Can Be a Hard Sell

By Diana Xiong
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 28, 2006

The August Moon Festival is one of the most celebrated of the traditional Chinese holidays. It marks the end of the harvest season, similar to Thanksgiving. To honor it, dozens of Chinese college students packed the fellowship hall at Fairfax's Truro Church this month. The pungent smell of Chinese cooking hung in the air, accompanied by relaxed laughter amid the distinct sounds of Chinese conversations. Sitting around one end of a long table, a small group of mostly young adults was locked in tense conversation. Suddenly, an older voice rose from the crowd.

"Evolutionism is a hypothesis," said architect Andrew Liu, 47, an organizer of the event. "It's not a truth. Darwin didn't say it's a truth."

Then, more than 60 people joined a young man, Qiao Chen, as he led a prayer, thanking God for the dinner and their time together.

It's a time to proselytize.

This is the George Mason Chinese Christian Fellowship, a student organization affiliated with Harvest Chinese Christian Church of Fairfax. The attendees meet at Truro for Bible study and prayer, because their church doesn't have its own building.

Christian missionary fellowships are working hard at Washington area campuses, reaching out to the next generation of China's best and brightest. The missionaries hope to convert the students, or at least to make them comfortable with the Christian faith, which is under the government's close watch in China.

Most Chinese grow up in an atheistic society. Christian fellowships encourage them to contemplate a question they were previously told to avoid: Is there a God?

That makes the work of the campus missionaries difficult. They convert only a small percentage of those they approach, though many more are exposed to Christianity.

"Religion is a solace to a lot of people, but it doesn't work for me," said Jim Guo, who attended the University of Maryland in the early 1990s and stayed around for the high-tech boom. "Some Chinese come here, where the situation is hard, and they need a friendly place. Church and para-church fellowships provide them with help and let them feel good. I met a lot of difficulties, too, but it is really hard for me to turn to Christianity for help. I believe in evolutionism."

Campus Crusade for Christ says it has ministries on 1,029 U.S. campuses and reaches Chinese students through its affiliate Bridges International. China Outreach Ministries says it works on 35 campuses. Other national organizations, like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators, International Students Institute, Ambassadors for Christ, have campus ministries aiming at the Chinese. In addition, half of the 1,000 Chinese churches in the United States have joined those organizations to evangelize the Chinese students, said Edwin Su, executive director of Overseas Campus, a Chinese Christian magazine based in California. The George Mason fellowship is one of them.

"The fellowship does draw me in," said Peter Zheng, a 28-year-old computer programmer at the meeting. "I feel at home here."

One of the most important ways these campus organizations proselytize students is by providing practical help and support.

Zheng came in the fall of 2002 for the George Mason doctoral program in statistics. Before he came, he said, he received an e-mail from the George Mason fellowship offering to meet him at the airport. Fellowship member Jihong Zhao greeted him holding a board with his name on it, then took him to dinner. After letting him settle in, members invited him to fellowship activities.

"I like people in the fellowship," he said. "They are warm and kind. And at school, nobody cares about you."

Zheng initially participated in Bible studies, he said, because he thought it would be rude to reject the invitations. He already had some familiarity with Christianity.

"I read the Bible when I was in China," Zheng said, "but I treated it as a Western literature, Western culture, as a good way to learn English. Definitely not faith."

Faith for him had always involved Buddhist doctrines, but in the fellowship, he found the Christian God. By the Thanksgiving break, he'd begun to believe in Jesus, and less than a year later decided to be baptized.

For many Chinese students, being baptized is a difficult decision because Christianity carries a stigma in China. They fear that being Christian could affect their careers.

Zheng overcame his concerns at a Christian retreat in Lancaster, Pa., during summer 2003. "I choose Christianity based on my belief, not my future concerns," he said.

More than 70,000 Chinese come to the United States to study in higher education institutions each year, according to government figures. "They are China's future leaders, and they represent a strategic core, which will greatly affect China's culture and future," the Rev. Glen Osborn, president of China Outreach Ministries, said.

China Outreach, Bridges and the Maryland Chinese Bible Study Group work closely to evangelize the 900 Chinese students, visiting scholars and professors at the University of Maryland.

"Through our ministries at UMD, 40 to 50 percent of the students and scholars have come to learn Christianity, and 10 percent of them have become Christians," said Tim Mountfort, 41, an American missionary with China Outreach Ministries. He likes to be called by his adopted Chinese name, Meng Tian.

The Maryland Chinese Bible Study Group, founded in the 1970s by Taiwanese students, regularly draws about 40 people to its Friday night prayer sessions, half Taiwanese and half from the mainland, said member Guojian Lin, 29, a Maryland doctoral candidate in electrical engineering. In 1997, China Outreach Ministries and Bridges jointly established Grace Fellowship at the University of Maryland, with about 30 students regularly attending its meetings.

Grace Fellowship created Welcome House, a three-bedroom apartment with Internet access provided free to new Chinese students. While funding help comes from the Maryland Chinese Bible Study Group and other Chinese organizations, the $1,200 monthly rent means it has an apartment available only about one month a year, usually in August, when most new students arrive.

This is how it works. When the students are still in China, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and Christian campus fellowship members collect names from friends or prospective advisers. Then the missionary organizations contact students by e-mail, arrange to meet them at the U.S. airports and take them to Welcome House for a few days to help them get settled.

"The students are spoiled," Meng Tian laughed. "We give them a temporary place to stay, make friends with them, drive them to Chinese grocery store, give them tours on campus, organize picnics for them, and we bring them to Bible studies."

He added: "We talk about the Good News with the students. Some of them may feel offended, but in the end they will know we just want to introduce a blessing to their lives."

Missionaries believe this is the way to seed China with Christianity.

"College is where our thinking and ideas are changed, is where new values and ideologies are formed," said Meng Tian. "Now many of them will go back to China after accomplishing their degrees. We hope they will take the Christian concept and perspective to China. It will make a difference."

Their efforts, however, can be a hard sell.

Xiaolan Yang, 29, an accountant and former graduate student at the University of Virginia, said she rejects the fellowships because she feels pressured.

"I feel if I continue to go, I have to return them something," Yang said. "Probably, receiving Jesus would please them best, but I am not ready yet."

News aide Jillian Jarrett contributed to this report.

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