Global Campus Reports

Codename Centrovia: Finding Christian Students in a Communist Country (Part 1)

I paid for two nights, ascended several flights of stairs, and came to door #312. With a gentle click, my key slid into the knob; I gave it a quarter turn and pushed against the wooden door.

The door, swinging inwards, just had space to clear the foot of the double bed which occupied most of the room. Windows filled the wall opposite me, beyond which I could see the multi-peaked outline of a temple roof etched against the dark sky. I stepped forward to unclasp the curtains, wiping away the scene, and crossed to flick on the nearest lights.

Thank You Lord for getting me here, alone at a hotel in the first communist country I’ve ever entered! This. Rocks.

I pumped one fist backward in a quick happy dance, but suddenly realized that the room was still dark. Perplexed, I tried every light switch on the wall, to no avail.

Odd.

A circuit box projected from the darkness of the wall beside the door, so I stepped toward it and experimented with every combination of switches. Nothing. Power out came to mind, but from the orange light glowing on the box, I knew this couldn’t be the case.

Well, this is silly. Here I am, having made it all the way to a hotel room in a closed country on the other side of the world from my starting point, and I can’t even turn on the lights!

I sat on the foot of the bed, quite in the dark. How had God brought me here, again?

 

Entering Centrovia

 

I hadn’t expected to come to this country, which—for the purposes of this expose—I’ll nickname Centrovia. (That’s a reference to a fictitious communist nation I once read about in an old Nancy Drew book, by the way.)  Through a series of divine appointments, however, Christians I’d met elsewhere in Asia connected me with campus ministers in Centrovia. These leaders invited me to visit on a couple of conditions: first, that I wouldn’t name the country online, and second, that I would stay at a hotel, as hosting a foreigner could draw too much attention to local Christians.

On the bus to Centrovia

Accepting these terms, I soon found myself outside a Centrovian bus stop, staring at cigarette butts on the concrete tiles, waiting for—someone.

I should have saved the photo given me to recognize my contact, before I lost internet connection…Hopefully he’ll recognize me.

“Is this you?”

I looked up to see a young man standing nearby, holding up a smartphone. My own face stared back at me from his screen, the same headshot I’d sent to my Centrovian contacts.

“You found me,” I answered.

I followed the guy into a truck, said a prayer, and closed the door.

“So, you’re a teacher?” he asked as we began driving.

“Nooo,” I replied, and stated my background.

Odd. I explained this already to my Centrovian Christian contacts.

I looked out the window, noticing the airborne dust which hung like so much fog over the brown fields. Neither the driver nor I conversed much as we journeyed, but the more we did speak, the more I became convinced that he couldn’t be the original contact I’d been supposed to meet.

A Centrovian temple’s depiction of a buddha beneath a seven-headed serpent

Who is this guy?

For someone who was potentially being kidnapped, I felt quite at peace. Sure enough, I eventually pieced together that my current driver was another campus ministry leader who my original contact had sent, being unable to come himself.

At least that much of the puzzle is solved.

But I still didn’t know one thing.

“Where are we going, exactly?”

He answered something about going to a centre, or a house, or maybe a funeral. I didn’t really understand. But after a half hour, we turned down a dusty residential alley to halt before a modest home. I picked my way around the motorbikes filling the driveway, left my sandals with the pile of footwear by the door, and went inside.

Several young people glanced up at me from a reed floor mat, smiled, and greeted me in the local language.

“You’re here,” a young woman came near and introduced herself. Apparently, I’d arrived just in time for a campus ministry gathering.

She led me to a bench in the backyard, which a high concrete wall enclosed, and left to find a student for me to interview. A stand of banana plants rose to my left; a rack of clothes lay drying ahead of me, and beyond them, a group of students practiced acoustic and bass guitar. Here, I would soon listen to three different students explain three different challenges facing Centrovian Christian students:

 

1: Challenges from Society

 

Presently, the woman returned with a young guy in tow. He joined me on the bench; she pulled up a stool and translated our conversation. Together, the two of them explained that students not only encounter familial pressures from converting to Christianity in this collectivist, Buddhist country, but also face the reality that after graduation, they won’t be able to get government jobs as Christians.

Colourful fruits at the market

“If friends and family get angry at me for being a Christian,” the student said, however, “I just have joy in my heart.”

“If people know you’re a Christian, what happens?” I asked.

“Here in this city, the law says that we can believe the gospel, but we can’t preach it. But in other cities—no. You can’t preach; you can’t believe.  If you do believe, you could be kicked out of your village. Some Christians just live in the mountains”

He explained that his village used to have a church, but it had to close. Many people there are still hungry for the gospel and want to worship, but they must meet in a tiny house to do so.

Despite these pressures, however, legal and cultural restrictions don’t stop Christian students from sharing the gospel on their campuses. One such time, bystanders called security to come tell the Christian students to stop. Another time, the ministry group had to pause their evangelism upon realizing that they were being followed around campus. Regardless, the tenacity with which the group continues sharing Christ’s goodness on campus makes these students some of the most missional I’ve met.

 

2. Challenges in Relationships

 

After the first student shared this information with me, another student—a girl who studied environmental sciences—came to join me on the bench.

“What do most people here believe?” I asked her.

“Buddhism. They think religions from other countries—like Christianity—are for foreigners.”

Sure enough, I soon learned that a major obstacle to the gospel’s spread in Centrovia is the bad blood remaining between Centrovia and America, thanks to distressing historical events in the last century. Now, Centrovians tend to associate Christianity with foreigners in general and Americans in particular.

In addition to these political aversions, superstitious concerns may compound the negativity which Christian students here often face. For example, some Centrovians believe that if one family member changes religions, others in the family will fall ill as punishment from the spirits which the rest of the family worships. Even the environmental science student’s family had this concern, she said, when she became a Christian.

“How did you become a Christian?” I wanted to know.

“In my university dorm, a friend once came to visit me. She told me about the exciting activities which the Christian student group does, and I asked if I could go with her to some of them. She told me, ‘Come, come!’ So, I went and received Christ.”

Awesome.

“Do you have any prayer requests for people in other countries to know about?” I asked, speaking over the sound of students strumming guitar and chickens clucking in an adjacent backyard.

“Please pray for our family now,” she replied, after a moment, “because last Friday, my mom was really angry for my coming to Jesus. Pray for her to understand.”

 

3: Challenges on Campus

 

When the environmental science student said goodbye, a nursing student came to join me on the bench. She stretched a hair tie around her phone as she talked, explaining her story to the translator in a language I couldn’t understand.

Snap.

The hair tie flung away. The translator picked it up and examined the purple flower on it as the student began speaking faster, more fervently. I just waited.

“It’s a hard time for her in the classroom,” the translator eventually said. “Today, her professor told her, ‘If you are in the nursing program, then you have to read a pledge saying that you will honour and submit to the Buddhist gods.’ She didn’t want to, but the teacher was angry and said, ‘you have to, even though you’re a Christian.’”

Whoa!

Hearing this, I couldn’t help but remember what nursing students in other cultures had told me. A nursing student in Australia, for instance, said her instructors emphasize that nurses must never bring their religious beliefs into their professional practice. Meanwhile in the Philippines, where 90% of the population identifies as Christian, nursing lectures can include scripture and gospel applications! Now, by comparing nursing students’ experiences in secular, Christian and Buddhist nations, I was witnessing firsthand how cultural worldviews influence education systems in different countries.

“So,” I asked the student, “what did you do?”

“I went out to sit alone in the hallway, and I prayed to God. The teacher was going to pick a student to read the pledge aloud for the class, so I left, to not be chosen.”

“And the teacher got mad at you?”

“Yes.”

“So, what happens next?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “We’ll find out tomorrow.”

Despite these manifold difficulties, Centrovian Christian students are advancing the gospel on campus with encouraging momentum.

“We started a new term in August, and I see God work,” said the student, smiling. “It’s not the same as last year. Everyone is rising up to go share the gospel, with unity! We’re seeing many new believers.”

“How can the church get involved with the Christian students?” I asked.

“Churches can take care of the students in the congregation,” she answered, “and build students up for doing the great commission. Older people can be models for the students.”

There’s the importance of intergenerational connections again, I noticed.

“Is there anything else you want churches in other countries to know about, or to pray for?”

“Pray for our country to open more to the gospel, and to serve the Lord,” the student answered.

Together, we rose to head back inside, where I joined the others on the reed floor mat. There, we sat eating rice by hand, along with fried eggs, boiled greens and something that nearly made my eyes water.

“It’s spicy?” asked one girl, grinning.

That’s a slight understatement.  

When we’d finished this memorable meal, the group of us headed out to a memorial event at Centrovia’s main evangelical church. (While most regions of the country are quite hostile to the gospel—in practice, if not in policy—this church could operate thanks to its location in the most tolerant part of Centrovia.)

By the evening’s end, I certainly had much to think about when the students dropped me off at my hotel. Plus, I still needed to figure out how to turn on the hotel room’s lights.

Back down all those stairs, to the front desk…

After finally learning that I had to insert my key into the circuit box before the lights would work, I returned to a well-illuminated room and locked the door.

What other stories about being a Christian student in Centrovia will come to light—so to speak?

Like the nursing student facing the “pledge” dilemma had said, I’d just have to find out tomorrow.

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