On a clear spring evening in Berkeley, Ying, a former atheist, goes to church. Inside the building's fluorescent-lit dining room, she sets out folding chairs for a dinner that will precede the evening's Bible study. Not quite five feet tall and carrying herself with a mixture of nervous reserve and childlike joy, she pauses from chatting with friends in Mandarin to whisper conspiratorially: This friend is a new believer, too, Ying says in her soft, self-conscious English; that girl doesn't believe at all, but she comes to learn about the Bible anyway.
Eight months ago when Ying stepped off the plane the shy 37-year-old professor's first time outside of China Pastor Wilson Wong of Berkeley's nondenominational Chinese for Christ Church was waiting, eyes peeled for the face he'd seen in Ying's e-mailed photo. The middle-aged pastor and his wife, Susan, took her home with them for three days, fed her, and helped her find housing in between outings to church. Now, every Friday after work at UC Berkeley, Ying attends a fellowship for students and scholars from China, most of whom were brought up as atheists, too.
As the fellowship members trickle in, Susan gives out mother-hen hugs, occasionally chiding a student for missing several weeks. Wong makes the rounds like a busy politician, the scholars and students demure and respectful in his presence. Ying was won over, she says, by the Christians' Jesuslike generosity: the airport pickup, the housing help, the rides to the grocery store, weekend trips, and loans of furniture. She says she doesn't know how she would have adjusted to life in America without them. Yet at the beginning, following the ingrained Chinese code of social conduct, Ying went to church only out of obligation.
"Relationships between [Chinese] people are sometimes very complicated," she says, her spectacled face framed by shoulder-length black hair. "I just think that if they want me to do anything, I should do it. They didn't ask us to do anything difficult just go to church."
Actually, with her husband and daughter remaining in China during her year-long research stint, Ying's free time is packed with religious activities: Christian lessons and church service on Sundays, occasional special events with another group of Christian academics on Saturday nights, and Bible study on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday evenings.
She's excited to talk about her newfound passion, but also cautious. After our first interview, Ying sent a worried e-mail. She'd spoken to her family and best friend in China, she wrote, and they all said the same thing: She shouldn't allow her real name to be printed. The truly pious are few at the fellowship, and potential dangers await new Christians at the hands of the Chinese government, which sponsors most of the visiting scholars.
The church missionary leaders are aware of the dangers. They also know they are up against decades of Communist Party propaganda. Watching the recruits pile paper plates high with second helpings of home-cooked dishes stir-fried noodles, meatballs, sautéed bok choy it's clear that the free buffet and chance to socialize are as much a pull as the Bible study, if not more. The church knows it, too. In fact, it's part of the plan.
This friendly indoctrination has become increasingly prevalent on university campuses across the nation, as Chinese-speaking missionaries seek converts among the 66,500 graduate students and scholars visiting from China each year. The missionaries, often from Taiwan or Hong Kong, are armed with the cultural know-how to tailor messages to people like Ying. Even English-speaking missionary groups maintain Web sites with tips on how to approach Chinese intellectuals without scaring them off.
Working with scholars has a huge payoff if they submit to conversion, says Benjamin Yi, who ministers to Chinese students and visiting scholars at Pastor Wong's church. "The potential is mind-boggling!" exclaims China Outreach Ministries, a Pennsylvania-based outfit targeting Chinese intellectuals, in a statement on its Web site. "Key Chinese thinkers are coming to faith and impacting the largest nation in the world for Christ! And they are returning to China and making a difference!"
Historically, missionaries wanting to export Christianity to China have focused on Chinese graduate students, but most postgrads now prefer to stay in the United States rather than return to China, as was common in the 1990s. At the same time, a rising number of academics such as Ying are arriving for temporary research stays: During the 2005-06 school year, Chinese universities, localities, and the central government sent more than nineteen thousand visiting scholars to the United States, a 27 percent increase from two years earlier. "They can take the gospel to China," says Zhang Ping, leader of an Albany fellowship similar to that of Chinese for Christ. "They become the seeds to spread the gospel."
Recognizing the shift, the missionaries are updating their tactics. Zhang is eager to take advantage of the opening he sensed during a recent visit to China, where Christian leaders and the international press report that church attendance is up and government interference down. He is part of an organization of more than one hundred North American campus missionaries that meet annually to strategize how to convert visiting scholars. He recently moved into an apartment adjacent to UC Berkeley's student-family housing to be closer to his target audience, whom he's convinced crave spiritual teaching. "Since they grew up in an atheist country, they feel very open and excited when they hear the Gospel," Zhang says.
Yet, as scholars from across the spectrum of Berkeley's research departments detailed in interviews, the battle to save Chinese scholars' souls is not so easily won. And not everyone wants to be saved.
Following dinner and a round of gospel pop ballads, it's time for Bible study at Chinese for Christ. The "believers," baptized grad students who've been in the United States for years, go to another room for discussion in Mandarin with Pastor Wong, and the "seekers" stay behind. Tonight, just four seekers gather for a lesson on the Ten Commandments.
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