March 10, 2011
By Reshma Kirpalani
Kitty" encountered Christianity at several junctures of her life in Eastern China -- first through a wayward aunt, then through a reformed cousin, and finally via a high school classmate who was quiet about her faith.
But a lack of in-depth knowledge about the religion paired with an education based in Marxist principles, which shuns religion, led Kitty to discount Christianity while she lived in China.
"In school they would not say, 'There is no God,'" said Kitty, a University of Texas graduate who asked that her Chinese name not be used. "They would just say, 'You should believe in science. You should believe in anything you can see.' So we only believed in something we could see or something we could hear. And surely we cannot see God."
Cut to February 2011: Members of the Austin Chinese Campus Christian Fellowship sing an up-beat Christian hymn in a classroom on the University of Texas campus. Kitty is in the second row. Her body thrums with devotion as she sings, "You opened my eyes to your wonders anew. You captured my heart with this love. Because nothing on Earth is as beautiful as you, Jesus!"
In May 2009, Kitty, an international student from China was baptized at the Austin Chinese Church, officially converting to Christianity. Since then, she has enjoyed homemade chow mien, a shared language, and group prayers with her ACCCF brothers and sisters at fellowship meetings every Friday night.
Chinese Students Studying in the U.S. Surge
In the 2009-10 academic year, the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. spiked by 30 percent, to nearly 128,000 students, according to the International Institute of Education.
Madeline Hsu, director of the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas, said that China's recent economic boom has allowed a larger population of students the ability to seek an education in the U.S.
"A lot of schools in the U.S. are more than happy to have these international students. For one thing, they pay more in tuition," Hsu said.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contribute nearly $20 billion a year to the U.S. economy.
Converting to Christianity
As the volume of Chinese students pouring into the U.S. increases, several ministrieshave also seen a rise in the number of Chinese students attending their services.
Evangelizing organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, China Outreach Ministries, Bridges International, International Students Inc., The Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ International all have ministries that reach out to international students.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has international student ministries on more than 60 college campuses. According to Brian Hart, associate director of communications, 45 percent of all international students in all of the InterVarsity International Student Ministries came from China -- up from 40 percent the year before.
Likewise, China Outreach Ministries, which works solely with Chinese scholars and graduate students, has seen an increase in the number of students attending their services on 50 college campuses. According to Ken Wagner, director of Campus Ministries, last year 322 Chinese scholars professed to becoming a Christian on the campuses where China Outreach works, up from 189 in 2005.
Steven Dortch is the director of the China network for Bridges International, which has ministries on 150 campuses. Dortch said that while exact numbers fluctuate yearly, in the last 10 to 15 years students from China have been the most receptive to their ministries.
"I think for most Chinese [students], they initially become interested in Christianity just because of the resources of the church," said Caroline Chen, associate professor of sociology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University.
It's the "social resources and the friendship," Chen continued. "And not just friendship, but someone who's going to be able to tell you where to buy Chinese groceries, where's the best Chinese restaurant, who can watch your kids when you're out doing something else. It's kind of like an instant community."
Kitty admits that upon reaching America in August 2009, she felt isolated. While she attended meetings at several Chinese organizations on campus, the Austin Chinese Christian Fellowship offered the proverbial balm to her loneliness.
"There was a sister who was super nice. She kept talking to me," Kitty said about her first encounter with an ACCCF member. "When you get to a place that you're not familiar with, it's really good if there is someone who is so interested in getting to know you. I felt safe with her."
Meanwhile, Back in China, Possible Persecution
According to a 2007 Chinese Spiritual Life survey, a random national sample of more than 7,000 people ages 16 and older in 56 locales throughout mainland China, 33 million adults self-identified as Christians, 30 million as Protestants and 3 million as Catholics.
Fenggang Yang, a sociology professor at Purdue University and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, led the survey. He attributes the growth of Christianity in China to the Protestant population, which tends to proselytize more than the Catholic population, and has surged from less than one million in 1949.
According to Yang, the increase in Christianity across China combined with the increased number of students from China who are studying in the U.S. are both contributing to the elevated numbers of Chinese students who are attending Christian fellowships on U.S. college campuses.
"My impression is that the openness of Chinese students [in the U.S.] towards Christianity is at an all-time high," said Yang.
Yang cites Christianity as the fastest growing religion in China owing to a transition over the last 30 years toward a free-market economy that increased consumerism and created a spiritual vacuum in Chinese society, one perfectly filled by religion.
However, the ruling Communist Party still requires its own members to be atheist. And while three different types of government-approved churches exist -- the Three Self Patriot Movement, the China Christian Council and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association -- they are insufficient in space and number. As a result, illegal underground or "house churches" have cropped up throughout the country.
"If there are no good public churches, I probably will join an underground church," Kitty said about her eventual return to China. "I feel like, if it's a church, it should be led by Jesus Christ. How can it be led by the Communist Party? That's ridiculous!"
'You Will Be Different'
Kitty admitted that her parents back in Fujian Province, whom she talks to every two days via cell phone, worry about her future in China. "They worry because I will be too different. When you believe in something so deep, you will be different from other people who do not believe in anything," she said. "They're worried that some day I will end up in prison."
China Aid is a non-government Christian organization based out of Midland, Texas, that works to expose the persecution of Christianity in China. Spokesperson Mark Shane said that varying degrees of religious persecution against Christians in China exist in different areas of the country.
"In big cities like Beijing, people on one hand have some more freedom. On the other hand, [the government] also sets up strict boundaries, which people in the cities cannot step over or they will be seriously punished," said Shane, who pointed to Tunisia's recent Jasmine Revolution as China's urban nightmare.
But according to Shane, the rural areas of China, which contain more than half of that country's population, suffer the most. "The Chinese government is very skillful at controlling the information flow," he said. "If [your Christian neighbors] are not part of a church circle, or if they're not part of a house church circle, [they] could get arrested and you would not know."
For now, Kitty remains in the U.S. After graduating from UT last semester with a master's degree in early childhood special education, she now works on a freelance basis with special-needs kids. She admits to worrying about job security, but says she is comforted every Friday night when she steps into a classroom on the UT campus, greets her Christian brothers and sisters and clasps their hands in prayer.
"Things change every day," said Kitty. "When I have worries about my future, I just read the bible and I feel like, God already leads my way. He already has a plan and I don't have to worry about that."
ABCNews.com contributor Reshma Kirpalani is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Austin, Texas.