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For one, many already come from church backgrounds. "In some ways it's a class-based phenomena; more suburban kids are going to these elite universities," explained Russell Jeung, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and author of Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches. "Their parents come as professionals and move to the suburbs and there aren't many ethnic institutions in those suburbs — and the churches become ethnic places. Kids grow up there and then when they go to elite universities, they join ministries."
Often, students are scoping out ministries before they arrive at college. Youth group leaders will advise high-school seniors of which fellowships to look into. "There's an already-made group of people," said Collin Tomikawa, East Bay area director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. "We can recruit people that way even before they come to campus, whereas those networks aren't as strong in the Caucasian world."
In the '90s, most Berkeley members of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship were Caucasian. Today, InterVarsity is composed of four ethnic-specific groups: the Black Christian Fellowship; La Fe, which caters to Latino students; Kapwa, for students of Filipino descent; and Cal Christian Fellowship, the largest, which boasts 250 members, 200 of whom are Asian. "I can't figure out how to actually reach white folks," Tomikawa lamented. InterVarsity has tried starting a Greek ministry, he said, but hasn't had any success.
While campus ministries ramped up their efforts to recruit Asian members, local ethnic churches sought ways to fill their thinning congregations. These days, many of the fellowships have developed a pretty marketed approach — just try walking through Sproul Plaza during Welcome Week. Fellowships perform as a cappella groups, give away candy or gift baskets to incoming freshmen, and stage skits.
Culturally, Asian-American students may relate to the Christian mentality easier than others, scholars say. "A lot of the Asian Americans are very committed, and that makes them more evangelistic, too," Jeung adds. "Part of their higher zeal and commitment is that I think a lot of the fellowships call for total dedication, total sacrifice, self-sacrifice. I think these Asian students understand sacrifice and giving back. They see their parents sacrifice a lot. I don't think that ethic and understanding of sacrifice is as understood by nonimmigrant groups."
In addition to the spiritual component, fellowships provide a much-needed social network and support group, especially at a large university like Cal where students can often feel lost, said Kim, author of God's New Whiz Kids? Korean American Evangelicals on Campus. Members of the fellowship help others study, run errands, and even cook for them during finals week, she noted. Fellowship web sites display pictures of students bowling, sightseeing, playing games, performing skits, and other social activities.
Perhaps most importantly, fellowships preach a message of acceptance. For many Asian-American students who face intense pressure from their parents to succeed academically, Christianity provides a shelter.
"Asian-American students ... feel like they can never really meet up to their parents' expectations," said Jeung. "But Christianity offers a Father who extends grace and mercy to their followers."
Not your parents' church
If the ethnic churches of their parents' generation were conservative, insular places, the second- and third-generation Asian-American churches aim to be everything they're not: young, hip, multi-ethnic, and relevant to the issues of their lives.
Locally, nondenominational churches such as Regeneration in Oakland and Church Without Walls in Berkeley have tried to reach out to a younger, more racially diverse crowd. But few appear to be as successful as Gracepoint Fellowship Church.
Founded in 1981 as the Korean-American, college-oriented Berkland Baptist Church in Oakland, Gracepoint today operates out of Willard Middle School's auditorium near the Cal campus and teeters on the brink of mega-church status. Just in the last year, its weekly attendance has grown from about 700 to 1,000. It now has churches in San Francisco and Taiwan, and sister churches at UC Davis and in Silicon Valley.
Though it bills itself as multi-ethnic, 90 percent of its members are Asian American — about 40 percent Korean American, 50 percent Chinese American, and 10 percent other, according to Acts2Fellowship's pastor. Most are members of its three campus fellowships — Acts2Fellowship, Koinonia, and Kairos — but it also has ministries for singles, couples, and youth.
Acts2Fellowship's pastor says the church's growth has less to do with more Asian students on campus but rather "more hunger for spirituality." He calls Asian-American culture "mindful of God's love," and says that with their increased outreach has come multiplicative growth and "the power of sheer numbers." A recent introductory course on Christianity offered by Gracepoint drew 140 people, forty of whom had little or no Christian background.
Its popularity may have something to do with how the church markets itself — a combination of cutting-edge and highly personal. On its web site GracepointOnline.org, a splashy, MTV-style music video shows entertaining skits, youth programs, women preparing food, men barbecuing meat on enormous grills, and a big buffet after the service. The video ends with close-ups of Asian, white, and black college students smiling, laughing, mingling, and hugging one another.
But popularity can have its drawbacks. Acts2Fellowship's 38-year-old pastor would only consent to be interviewed if he could remain anonymous because he was wary about press coverage since the fellowship was once mentioned in a Daily Cal article about cults. As it turns out, there are several blogs online by former members that accuse the parent church Gracepoint, its former entity Berkland Baptist Church, and church Pastor Ed Kang and his wife Kelly of being manipulative, controlling, and power-hungry.
That didn't seem to have deterred any of the hundreds of congregants gathered there on a recent Sunday. Although the service's official start time is 11:45 a.m., by that time Willard's huge auditorium was already packed with people in mid-song. Folding chairs were arranged elbow-to-elbow to the back of the building. Its weekly handout revealed just how successful they've become — a tally of donations from the prior week totaled $23,917.
A main attraction of Gracepoint's service is its music. An attractive young male lead singer on stage led a full band in modern-rock-sounding songs about self-sacrifice. With colored lights and a giant screen scrolling the lyrics, it felt like a Coldplay concert where everyone sings along.
During Pastor Ed's lengthy sermon, he warned the students not to let their academic ambitions get in the way of faith. "Some of you are very ambitious," he said at one point. "I think that's great. ... But you understand the word of God is authoritative. Before you come before the Lord, you have to let go of all your desires."
While this might seem like a curious message to preach to students who got to Cal on the strength of their test scores, it appears to be a message many students are eagerly embracing — as video testimonies during the church's baptism service later that day revealed. Sophomore Brian Jue said that since arriving at Gracepoint, he's learned that he no longer needs to participate in the rat race. "Just trusting in God was enough," he said. "He'd provide the rest."
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