Why is that dude looking into our car?
From my vantage point in the front passengers’ seat, I surveyed the dusty streets, the congested traffic, the roadside vendors—and the figure gazing steadily in our direction, a knitted hat pulled low to his eyebrows.
He’s coming towards us.
Like warning lights, recollections of a story my mom had told me years before flashed across my mind. It happened when she was about my age, driving to work one night. Before she left home that evening, she’d sensed an unrelenting urge to manually lock all her vehicle doors. That urge turned out to be Divine protection, for as she sat idling at a red light, two men rushed out of the darkness and tried to enter her car.
I’m glad these doors lock too, I thought, glancing at the approaching stranger.
The car’s back door opened from the outside.
Automatically, I whipped my head around, eyes wide at the sight of the stranger himself leaping into the backseat.
It’s really happening—we’re being hijacked!
But no one else in the vehicle seemed to care!
“Hi, Pat!” the stranger offered me a friendly wave.
“Hello!” I replied as if he hadn’t just scared the living daylights out of me. No one told me we were going to be picking up a friend from church!
Fortunately, I didn’t mistake any further new friends for car hijackers in this restricted access nation, an Asian country I’ll nickname Genovia. (That’s a Princess Diaries reference, in case you’ve forgotten your Disney trivia.)
Genovia, like Centrovia, is high on the list of nations where persecution against Christians is most severe. Only 2% of the (highly heterogeneous) population identifies as Christian, with most individuals being—in no particular order—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh.
How do Christian students stay close to Christ in Genovia? What lessons, besides “always lock your car doors,” can these students teach Christians in the West about following Christ in places where it’s easy to feel alone–places like university?
As I talked with local Christians to find out, at least three of those lessons came to light:
Lesson 1: Know Your Boundaries
“You cannot separate religion and culture here,” one woman said, explaining that Christians must set clear personal boundaries while interacting with their surrounding culture, as many Genovian traditions have religious significance attached. On the thirteenth day after a death, for instance, the mourning household serves food offered to the deceased person’s name. Christian relatives must carefully weigh which of these traditions their consciences will let them participate in, before attending such events.
“If you don’t make your stand clear and say that as a Christian you choose not to do this or that,” said the woman, “you are lost.”
Christian students leaving home for secular campus, I realized, face the same reality. They have to know their convictions ahead of time, understand their reasons for holding those convictions, and draw clear lines regarding what they are willing to do, believe and become.
The importance of convictions and resolution reminded me of Daniel, the Judean captive who set clear personal boundaries to keep from dishonoring God in Babylon:
“But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.” (Daniel 1:8, NKJV)
For young Christian converts in Genovia, there is nothing easy about maintaining these boundaries. Social standing and family relations mean everything in collectivist cultures like Genovia, so failure to conform puts newly-converted Christian students under great pressure. On a social level, Christians rank lower than the lowest tier of society in some parts of Genovia, being prohibited to even drink water from the same tap as other humans. On a familial level, meanwhile, Christians may encounter expectations to participate in household religious observations morning and night, burning incense to other gods. Such situations can be especially challenging for young women, who are expected to remain home under their families’ authority.
“Half of my family are Hindu,” a senior high school girl told me as we sat at a coffee shop, discussing some of these challenges, “so when we go for gatherings, I’m the only Christian and the others do all their other religious ceremonies. I’ve seen this in a lot of families. I know that there is only one God, but others in our family accept many other gods in addition to Him. So they come to church with us and eat our foods, but we cannot join them to worship and eat at their temples, in return. They don’t like that.”
“So how do you deal with that?” I asked.
“We need to be strong willed,” she replied, “and really understand why we, as Christians, should not eat those things. We might lose some friends, but we have to be careful to choose our friends.”
Along the same lines, another girl told me about her experience with friends, boundaries, convictions and compromise as a student.
“At that age, when we’re surrounded by friends,” she said, “we tend to want to show people that we’re cool. We compromise, thinking ‘God is merciful; He’ll forgive me and get over it.’ For example, I used to party a lot, asking ‘why should I act holy?’ But even though the things I was doing weren’t necessarily sins, I felt like I was always on the verge of sinning afterwards. By compromising a little, I compromised a lot.”
Lesson 2: Know Your God (and Why you Follow Him)
To keep from compromising, we need to not only set boundaries, but also found those boundaries on something stronger than our personal preferences, our family’s opinions, or our church’s traditions. Instead, we need to stake our boundaries on a personal relationship with God: loving Him, fearing Him and knowing His word. As an engineering student in Genovia simply stated when I asked her what her advice would be for other Christian students,
“Know the God you are serving, by reading the word and prayer.”
The importance of not only knowing God, but also being able to articulate the reasons backing that knowledge, also arose in conversation with a Genovian campus ministry leader. He indicated that at universities in this part of Genovia, at least, trendy postmodernism has increased religious tolerance (albeit, indifference) with a “you believe what’s right for you and I’ll believe what’s right for me” thrust. As in any culture, answering questions about these beliefs can cause trouble for Christian students who lack the personal foundations to know exactly what they believe and why they believe it.
“They’re not rooted,” summarized the campus minister. “They believe in Jesus or have Christian parents, but don’t know how to answer the questions that come up.
Lesson 3: Know Your Allies
Knowing who God is personally and being able to defend that knowledge are part of building spiritual and intellectual foundations for secular university. But there’s a third type of foundation students need too, an interpersonal one. (See also, How Christian Students Can Prepare for Secular Higher Education.) The importance of interpersonal foundations, or strong fellowship and mentorship connections, had surfaced in every country I’d visited. Genovia proved to be no exception.
“If you’re at home in a nice and warm fellowship,” said my engineering student friend, regarding this type of foundation, “you can stay strong. But after you move away, that will be a test of faith.”
“So most people move away from home?” I asked.
“Yes, to (another part of Genovia) where schools are much better—but where it’s much harder to be a Christian.”
“How can the church support students who move away from home?” I wanted to know.
In answer, she emphasized the importance of churches’ providing constant counseling, fellowship and training to equip youth before they leave home, and then helping students connect with other Christians to meet after they leave home.
Just like what I heard from sources in three different Western nations, I remembered. The former professor in Australia warned that not attending church is the biggest mistake that students make, but the Christian hostel managers in New Zealand said that students often WON’T attend church unless they find one soon after moving away. That’s why the hostel managers suggested that churches in students’ home towns connect them to churches in the university towns. Meanwhile, a Canadian study found that students are three times more likely to attend church during university if someone from their home town DOES help them connect to a new church.
Now, far removed from any of these Western nations, I was hearing the first-hand story of a student who personally found a connection like that to be so valuable. When she moved to spend a semester in a region where hostility against Christians burned with especial fury, a Christian leader from her original college town connected her with an underground church in her new city.
Whether worshiping aloud in freedom, or fellowshipping quietly in an underground church, Christian students in the West and East are learning, sharing and benefiting from the same three lessons:
- Found your life on knowing God,
- Maintain your foundations by knowing your allies, and
- Stay on your foundations by knowing your boundaries.
Oh, and for students who are anything like me, there’s a fourth important lesson to learn from this adventure in Genovia as well:
Don’t assume that just anyone wearing a knitted hat must be a car hijacker.