I stood outside the hotel, glancing down the street as twilight settled over the peaked temple roof opposite me. Should be any second now…
The low thunder of a motor echoed on the streets, growing louder. There. A shadow on a motorbike soon appeared before me, dismounted, and took off its helmet.
“You found me!” I greeted my nursing student friend.
She smiled hello, easing her bike into the tight gaps between the other bikes filling the curb. Together, we started walking in the direction of the river.
“So what ended up happening with your teacher?” I couldn’t wait any longer to ask, “The one who’d been angry with you yesterday for not wanting to lead the classroom in a pledge to honour the Buddhist gods?” (See Codename Centrovia: Finding Christian Students in a Communist Country, Part 1)
“Oh,” she laughed lightly, “it’s okay. Today the teacher told me I wouldn’t have to be the one to read the pledge.”
Well that’s a relief!
“And how was your day?” she asked.
I glanced over the surrounding the storefronts, apartment balconies, and quiet streets. Where do I start?
Morning in Centrovia
My morning had begun on these streets, where I struck out solo on foot after breakfast to explore whatever direction looked interesting. And so many directions did! Everywhere I turned, double rows of buildings stretched in assorted colours toward the distance, beckoning discoverers with fragrances from street vendors and cafes. Meat sizzling on a sidewalk grill greeted me with smoke as I passed; bananas hung above tiny fruit stands, and stacks of woven rice steamers rose to meet chains of snack packages strung from the ceilings in open-fronted stores. Above the stores, bright signs competed for vertical space amongst balconied apartments, while knitted tangles of electrical lines crisscrossed the whole scene. Hanging here and there amidst all of it, meanwhile, were so many communist flags; those, and the national flag of Centrovia.
Gazing at them, I remembered the terms of my visit: don’t mention the country’s real name online.
“What would happen to the Christian students if their cover were blown?” I later asked the campus ministry leaders who picked me up to visit a university.
“It could affect their jobs,” one replied.
“Right,” I responded, “I heard people say last night that Christians can’t get government jobs here. So what counts as a government job—like a doctor, or politician?”
“Yes, or a soldier,” she said, “but it also affects normal jobs too, because of the culture here. People think Christians are something bad.”
“Do they think Christianity is a cult, or for foreigners?”
“They think that if you’re a Christian, you’re with America.”
“People have had a bad experience with America,” she reminded me.
I’d heard about that experience, its testimony lingering on in the forms of land mines still lying unexploded in Centrovian farmers’ fields. Again, the story reminded me how a nation’s history shapes its cultural landscape, erecting obstacles to the gospel and influencing the challenges and opportunities which Christian students encounter at university years later. (See also, Tales from the Land of the Rising Sun: Japan’s Spiritual Backstory.)
Meeting Centrovian Christians on Campus
Once we arrived at campus, I followed the ministry leaders to an empty snack bar, glassed off from the rest of the campus food court. I pulled out a wooden bench next to one of the granite-topped tables, where a physics student came to sit across from me. One of the campus ministers plunked a can of coconut water down in front of me; another ministry leader sat on my left to help translate. To my right, a broad window revealed the edge of a parking lot filled with rows upon rows of motorbikes.
“So,” I began, smiling at the student, “Can you tell me about some of the challenges of being a Christian student here?”
“Bullying from friends,” he replied. “They’ll say that you’re stupid for becoming a Christian; you’ve lost your brain, you’re against the country, and you’ve sold yourself to the Americans.”
The student went on to reveal that as soon as he came to know Jesus, his family told him to stop being a Christian.
“I have someone spying on me all the time,” he said, “so I cannot open up to my family that I still believe in God and go to church.”
Along with pressure from his family, this student also encountered the challenging campus environment which Centrovian students had told me about earlier.
“It’s quite dangerous to share your faith in the school,” he said. “The law is that you can maintain your faith, but you cannot share your religion or invite people to it. If you do, and the teacher knows about it, you will get in trouble.”
“What would happen?” I wanted to know.
“They would call you to their office and tell you that Christians are not good, and that Christians will take your brain.” Here, he waved one hand in the air as if writing a signature. “Then the school will make you sign a promise that you will stop sharing your faith.”
Every student, he went on to explain, also has a “behaviour score.” Ways to lose points from this score include missing class, littering on campus, and sharing your faith after being warned to stop.
“If you lose all your points, then what?” I asked.
“You have no right to continue studying in the university.”
“So, you might have to stop studying if you keep sharing the gospel?”
“Yes, if the teacher knows.”
“What do people think when you share your faith? Are they open, or suspicious?”
“If you share with 10 people,” he answered, “maybe 5 receive Christ. Around 2 will be against us, and the rest will not believe because they’re not sure; they don’t want to leave their old life.”
“What advice would you have for a first-year Christian student?” I asked, taking a sip of the sweet coconut water.
“I’d encourage them to live out their faith and not be scared, because God has prepared them for this university already. So, I want them to not only go to church and study, but to share their faith also.”
Never mind that it’s illegal. I had to grin to myself.
“How can church and wider Christian community get involved in supporting Christian students?”
“One way churches can help is to come to campus and talk with the Christians here—and to pray for them.”
This kind of community support is especially important, he disclosed, because some of the Christians don’t have friends.
I asked the same question to the next Christian student who came to sit on the other side of the table, a girl who studies accounting. In answer, she explained the discipleship model which the local church and campus ministry partner to employ. As I understood it, students meet with an older mentor in the church every week, report how their ministry is going on campus and receive feedback.
Meanwhile, the church also trains congregation members besides students how to make disciples in the broader community. Then everyone comes together once a month, both students and other congregation members, for a team meeting to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. In other words, the whole church partners with the campus ministry to operate like a missions team in its own community.
Evening in Centrovia
Later that night, when I told my nursing student friend what I’d learned from these interviews, one more unexpected bit of information came up in conversation: the identification cards.
“Every person has a government identification card,” my friend explained as we sat on a promenade railing above the riverbanks. “The cards say ‘Buddhist’ on them. That’s very difficult to change.”
“It still says that you’re a Buddhist.”
“What if you’re from an Islamic family?”
“It still says ‘Buddhist.’ You can believe other religions in your heart, but on the card, it’s written that you’re Buddhist.”
We remained for some time, watching the sunset check its aging reflection in the river. Upbeat techno pounded from loudspeakers both upstream and downstream, where groups of 30 or 50 people were doing aerobics to the rhythm. Overhead, those familiar red flags bearing the golden sickles—history flags, my friend called them—fluttered in alternation with the flags of Centrovia.
This has to be one of the most challenging places to be a Christian student I’ve visited so far. The campus here has the least freedom for Christians to share the gospel—and yet the Christian students are so passionate, they run one of the most active missions operations I’ve seen. Plus, the students work hand and hand with the local church to do so. It’s a complete picture of the intergenerational discipleship that so many people, in so many places, have said is so imperative.
Soon, I knew, the faint stars now twinkling beyond those flags would fade, and I’d be packing my massive green backpack to leave Centrovia.
Only 48 hours in one country.
Certainly, those 48 hours had given me plenty to ponder.