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Multiple identities

CONNECTING: Students from UCLA’s Christian Students organization at the group fair. (Sophia Lee)


Multiple identities

Asian-Americans foster faith on campus through both multi-ethnic and Asian-specific fellowships

Three days before fall semester at the University of California–Los Angeles began, a student group fair gave campus organizations recruiting opportunities. Between booths representing Feminists on Campus and UCLA Republicans, representatives of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—which is half Asian-American—passed out fliers about upcoming events. Meanwhile, Korea Campus Crusade for Christ (KCCC) members huddled in a group praying for God’s guidance in their evangelical mission. 

State universities in California are not known as places where religion flourishes, but two out of five undergraduates at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley are of Asian ancestry, and many profess Christ. Some within the movement, though, worry that pigeonholing into ethnic enclaves could inhibit Asian Christians’ ability to impact the larger campus. 

At the UCLA student fair, senior Justin Shyu stood in front of a booth representing Epic fellowship, the Asian-American branch of Campus Crusade (now Cru). Wearing a pair of plastic sunglasses stamped with “UCLA Student Association,” he occasionally turned around to admonish his shy booth partner, “Be more assertive!” 

Shyu, a second-generation Taiwanese-American, found Epic after a friend brought him to a Cru meeting. Shyu said that although God “rocked” him at a Cru fall conference, he “did not feel exactly right” among the crowd of 300 mostly non-Asian Cru members: “I felt like I couldn’t make close relationships.” At Epic, Shyu says, the connection was instantaneous: “I felt so safe there, safe to share about my life.” 

This kind of instant close-knit community draws many students into Asian-American fellowships, such as Epic, or Asian-majority fellowships. Matthew Kim, a staff worker of InterVarsity at Berkeley, suggests that Asians stick together partly because of the “immigrant church” mentality: “The Asian-American church in the United States is seen as a refuge, a place of safety … where people speak their language and cater events toward their culture.”  

He said such mentality persists when students come to campus, causing Asians to group together to worship—for better or for worse. While InterVarsity at Berkeley is a multi-ethnic fellowship, Asians make up 80 percent of its members. Many Asian students join the fellowships their friends are in or that older students recommend, which leads to the high concentrations of Asians even in non-ethnic specific fellowships.

Berkeley sophomore Josh Wong believes that with this network of Asians, Christian groups are well known on campus. “Many of the fellowships are very missional. They very rarely hide in a bubble. It’s a big place with a lot of connections.” But, Wong conceded, their voice “could always be more.” 

Wong, who grew up in a Chinese church in Southern California, was nervous about finding a Christian fellowship in Berkeley. He based his expectations on Berkeley’s reputation as a rebellious, liberal school where he thought, “Christ wasn’t proclaimed, or not proclaimed clearly.” Once on campus, he felt overwhelmed by the amount of Christian groups he found—61 of the 86 religious groups on campus are Christian. After checking out a few, he settled into Living Water fellowship, a group of about 200 students, 95 percent of whom are Asian-Americans. 

Wong made friends to keep him accountable and who can relate to the struggles he faces. For example: “In Chinese culture there is a huge work mentality, where success is determined by how much you do, how respected you are. Because of that, we struggle to understand the idea of God loving us unconditionally.” Many high-achieving Asian-American students also feel added pressure from their parents to succeed and find it hard to give their plans up to God.

Wong admits that despite the opportunities provided by shared experience, it can also cut students off from the campus at large: “One thing tough about Berkeley is that most things are pretty divided by race. In the fellowship world, it’s mostly separated by race and culture, unfortunately.”

Rebecca Kim, author of God’s New Whiz Kids?, believes underlying the Asian clustering is a power struggle. Through interviews for her book, which looks at how Asian-American college students are changing the face of American evangelicalism, she found that Asian-Americans find it hard to attain leadership positions in diverse, integrated Christian groups. The easier option is just to join an Asian-specific fellowship. 

Kim said ethnically segregated fellowships are deep-rooted in American culture: “It’s hard to overcome that.”  

At InterVarsity, though, Matthew Kim said they are trying to change that and become “a fellowship that is not just taking care of ourselves, a safe haven for Christians, but [is seeing] the campus as a place God is sending us out to be missionaries.” 

Grace Wong, a senior at the University of Southern California, agrees with Kim’s vision. She thought about joining Epic as a freshman but chose the more multicultural InterVarsity for two simple reasons: “I wanted a small fellowship, and not an Asian fellowship.” She grew up in an Asian church, but said joining a more diverse fellowship opened up her perception of God and her whole world of understanding: “In Asian communities, it’s great that you’re comfortable and you understand your own culture, but you block off a huge part of the world.”

She now plays the keyboard for USC InterVarsity’s main meetings, which was two-thirds Asian three years ago but has now diversified because of efforts to include other ethnicities: “We recognized that God’s kingdom isn’t just Asian people.”

When Grace Wong joined InterVarsity in 2009, it was made up of 20 students, most of them Asians. Now, three years later, USC InterVarsity’s Thursday night meetings pack a chemistry lecture hall with about 180 white, black, Asian, and Latino students. The praise band, with an African-American singer, sometimes sings the praise songs in Spanish. “We want to reinforce that God is the same,“ Wong said. “That no matter what ethnicity you are … you can come together and worship the same God.”

Still, Kathy Khang, InterVarsity multi-ethnic director for the Midwest region, believes both ethnic-specific and multi-ethnic fellowships are important as each student comes to campus with differing views of their ethnicity. “Our primary identity is through Christ, but God gave us race and gender as part of our identity … that’s a reflection of God’s own identity. He didn’t create us as one genderless, raceless being.”