Chinese International Students Flood U.S. High Schools and Universities and Find God

As Chinese international students flood U.S. high schools and universities, many are learning about Christianity for the first time—and sometimes embracing it

One huge education story that’s received little attention: Some 300,000 students from the largest nominally atheistic country in the world are now attending U.S. schools and colleges, including many Christian ones. One big question: As they improve their English and their future job prospects, do these students from China also learn about Christ?

To find out, we talked with students and recent graduates from California to Massachusetts: We learned about the transformed lives of some and the ripple effects among others. We also spoke with Christian ministry leaders who are reaching out to Chinese students. They report that despite the influx of students, full-blown conversions to Christianity come by the handful, not the ­busload: Changing minds and hearts often takes significant time, investment, and ­hospitality, and ministry leaders may not see results for years.

Still, it’s undeniable God is at work among Chinese ­students in America—and He is at work among their parents back home. To understand how, just ­listen to some of their stories.

RENATA ZHONG IS an 18-year-old from the Chinese city of Dalian who attends Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif. Her nonreligious parents sent her to a Christian high school because they believed it would be friendlier and safer than a non-Christian one.

But Zhong wasn’t prepared for the stress that comes with being an international student: She struggled with speaking English and making friends, and felt “uncool” compared with sophisticated-looking American kids. Finally she ­realized, “I can’t do this by myself. I need someone more powerful to help me.”

One Sunday morning, for the first time since her host family had begun taking her to church, Zhong raised her hands in reverence during the worship time, cheeks wet with tears. She was so moved by the pastor’s sermon that she went forward during the altar call. A month later, she was baptized.

When Zhong told her parents she had become a Christian, they were displeased. “Did anyone force you to choose this ideology?” asked her father, a member of the Communist Party. “I don’t want your whole life to be decided by a decision you made when you were 16.” Her mother cried and said: “I feel like you’re not my baby ­anymore. I feel like they’re taking you away from me.”

That night, Zhong tossed and turned in her bed, troubled by grief and a guilty feeling that she might be dishonoring her parents. But she remained firm in her commitment to Christ, telling her parents, “I feel deeply that I want to have a mutual relationship with God.”

Two years later, the high-school senior is sending her mother Bible verses via the WeChat messaging app, and her father is studying the Bible to better understand his child’s faith. Meanwhile, Zhong said her parents have noticed she seems ­happier, more confident, and more loving: “I’ve learned to handle all the difficulties and challenges, because I know I’m never alone anymore.”

Yibin Chen, a 27-year-old research technician at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, grew up without religious beliefs in Hangzhou, China. One day when she was 5 years old, her mother wasn’t able to pick her up at school on time. Chen remembers her teacher, a Christian, bringing her along to church where she waited for her mom. Chen didn’t understand what was happening at the church, but the experience sparked a curiosity about Christianity.

That 5-year-old curiosity drew her to a Christian fellowship of 15 students when she was an undergraduate student in Lübeck, Germany. Chen loved the fellowship, but couldn’t fully commit herself to Christianity and baptism. After two years, she moved to the United States to continue her German master’s program from Boston. She prayed she would find another Christian fellowship group in Boston, although she didn’t know anyone there.

Or so she thought: A childhood friend from Hangzhou also happened to be living in Boston, and they got in touch. The woman picked her up at the airport on a Friday, and as they left the airport, the friend explained that on Fridays she typically attended a Christian fellowship. Shocked that her childhood friend had become a Christian, Chen insisted on joining the group that day, despite a case of jet lag.

“I had already decided [to be baptized], I just didn’t know when was the time, or where or how,” Chen said. “When I got there and she picked me up, I thought … this is the place, this is the time.” Chen continues to attend the Mandarin-speaking fellowship, connected to the Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston.

Upon Chen’s baptism, her mother admitted to being ­baptized herself 20 years earlier, although Chen had never seen her read a Bible or attend church. Her dad didn’t say anything to Chen about her newfound faith, but seemed “OK” with it. Her mom urged, “Don’t put too much energy or time in this.” But for Chen, this is her new life. She attends several Bible studies in Boston in addition to church, and she recently traveled to Maine to work with a ministry to Somali refugees.

On the opposite U.S. coast, a Bible study that meets at a Los Angeles church on Wednesday nights offers tangible evidence for how it straddles two cultures: On the snack table, good ol’ American, tongue-numbingly sweet frosted cookies and potato chips sit next to classic Asian shrimp crackers and packaged honey-chrysanthemum tea.

Fourteen young men and women met at this Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (ICF) Bible study on a summer Wednesday evening to ­discuss the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ parables are challenging enough for the average American Christian, but for the group of mostly unchurched Chinese college students, these ­parables from Mark 2:13-22 were downright puzzling. Using ballpoint pens and clipboards, they underlined words and phrases they didn’t understand: “What does fasting mean?” “What does that have to do with weddings and bridegrooms?” “What’s a Pharisee, and how do you pronounce that again?” “Jesus is so random.”

One student from Hong Kong named Jeffrey compared the Pharisees to bald Chinese monks who “only eat veggies” and perform all sorts of holy-looking rituals. Later he said with a more serious expression: “What is truth? What if Buddhism or Islam is the truth? Right now, Christianity seems to be the truth, and I’m just going along with that.”

Like Jeffrey, many of these ­students want to learn but still have significant questions about Jesus. Some grew up in Christian primary schools in British-colonized Hong Kong, so they remember snippets of Bible stories, but haven’t quite embraced the faith. Others from mainland China come from non­religious families and know almost nothing about the gospel.

Most of the students visit ICF looking for a home away from home where they can prattle away in their mother tongue and enjoy nonacademic activities such as basketball and camping. Very rarely does anyone immediately light up with enthusiasm for Christ. Instead, it takes a slow, gradual kindling through ­consistent conversations and companionship—as it did for Alice Mei, a junior at California State University, Fullerton.

Mei, from Guangzhou, knew little about Christianity but felt drawn to ICF because “I feel so warm there.” She found the teaching interesting, “like listening to a story.” As someone who always felt pressured to put on a polished image, Mei especially liked the passages about Jesus’ interaction with the tax collector and the bleeding woman, because it showed that she didn’t have to be perfect in order to know Jesus.

After three years at ICF, Mei recently felt ready to say: “I think I’m a Christian now. I don’t know how to say it, but I feel someone is there with me, no matter what happens. Yes, I think I believe now.”

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine – Sophia Lee