Evangelical organizations target international students

Erick Murrer

When Phuong Le, a Vietnamese national, came to WKU to study accounting and finance, little did she know that an American college experience would entail religious proselytization.

Situated as one of the prime centers of educational excellence, the U.S. attracts the largest share of international students standing at over 975,000. Of that immense group, over 1,300 unique international students from 70 countries have entrusted WKU with the responsibility of delivering a quality-filled, bias-free education. Not only do universities recognize the financial returns of enrolling international students, but university evangelical organizations have also tapped into this “abundant harvest.”

A 2002 New York Times piece explored the Great Commission of the Christian faith applied to a campus setting, citing one campus ministry worker who asked, “If we are willing to go abroad and share our faith in God with foreigners in their lands, then why don’t we tell them about Christ here, when the whole world is coming to our doorstep?”

Following this call, more than 20 Christian campus ministries contribute to an active Christian presence at WKU. We see it everywhere: campus ministry lawn signs, Christian chalk art, Bible study flyers by water fountains, church groups giving out granola bars, even Bible study group members handing out pamphlets moments before Bible studies start in Downing Student Union. No matter where you go, you can’t escape it.

So with their bright smiling, cheery faces, WKU campus ministry members are particularly excited to share the “Good News” with international students. Of course they would be! Having no family, friends, or support, the first experiences of international students can be bewildering and overwhelming. As we all know, establishing community and friendship is essential for college success.

When Phuong started her first week at WKU she remembers being invited to a Baptist Campus Ministry “pizza night.” A friend had told her that there would be free food, and it could be a chance to make American friends and have fun. Phuong was struck by their kindness.

Phuong was also invited to attend a Bridges International meeting, recalling that one question her group discussed was, “What is your motivation to be good and moral?”

Phuong, who is non-religious but comes from the predominately Buddhist northern Vietnam, responded that her motivation to be good, “Just comes from myself. All decisions are made by me.” Phuong was met with responses claiming that God was responsible for morality. In the end, Phuong felt like, “They tried to knock me down.”

While seemingly disguised as goodwill, these groups prey on international students, who represent a slew of diverse backgrounds, religions, races, ethnicity and ideologies, by presenting a reductive, combative form of Christianity.

Oftentimes, international students feel neglected compared to their American counterparts, not participating in native-integrated activities. These campus ministries attempt to fill this void, but in the process, slight the identities of the students they intend to befriend (“Christ-washing”, if you will). Phuong said it was a cultural shock to be approached in this way.

“They tell it [Christianity] like it was the truth. They assumed everything. They did not ask what religion I followed,” she said.

As a symptom of the intertwined American and Christian hegemonic dynamic, some Christians on campus have come across to some international students as non-receptive. When language exchanges are hosted by WKU campus ministries like Bridges International, faith is a common topic – but conversation is a two-way street.

Phuong said she feels like some of her interactions with campus ministry organizations are not “natural” and that she feels “ …that they want to convert me, and that they want to hang out with me other than to be friends.”

This is not to say that discussions of faith or religion are off-limits with international students. Phuong affirmed she would be open to learning if they weren’t as aggressive. After all, college is all about expanding our frameworks of understanding through the interactions of diverse experiences.

So what can be done to address this targeting of international students to be “ministered” to by campus ministry groups?

“Don’t be ignorant. The international student community is diverse. We have different beliefs and mindsets. You cannot apply your own thinking to others,” Phuong said.