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The New Believers

September 18, 2009
by Don Lattin
Edward Kang

A surprising number of Asian students are drawn to the supportive structure of evangelical congregations.

Christian rock music blasts through the open doors of the Student Union as hundreds of Asian-American undergrads clamber up the stairs to a packed Pauley Ballroom. It’s the annual New Student Welcome Night hosted by three campus ministries run by Gracepoint Fellowship Church, a fast-growing Berkeley congregation that has redefined what it means to be a Christian at Cal in the early years of the new millennium. Inside the ballroom, it’s Sunday morning worship meets Saturday Night Live. Korean- and Chinese-American students perform skits and play videotaped comedy routines offering a light-hearted look at how to survive your freshman year.

Gracepoint’s campus outreach program is the latest incarnation of Berkland Baptist Church, which was founded in 1981 in a neighborhood located right on the Berkeley–Oakland border. Originally a Korean-language congregation, the church began as a small ministry for Korean-American students at Cal. It has since grown into a pan-Asian fellowship that draws more than 1,000 worshippers to its Sunday services in two rented auditoriums at Willard Middle School on Telegraph Avenue.

There’s a remarkable intensity to the belief and devotion shown by the Korean- and Chinese-American students who spread the gospel of Gracepoint. You see them at tables set up in Sproul Plaza, offering friendly faces to the stream of students passing by.

Over the past ten years, the three campus ministries run by Gracepoint—Acts2fellowship, Koinonia, and Kairos Christian Fellowship—have come to dominate the evangelical Christian scene at Cal, far outnumbering the membership of more established organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

“A lot of times in America, Christianity can be really watered down so people just become Sunday Christians,” said Vivian Lee ’09. “We see Christianity as affecting all areas of our life. It’s a discipleship process, and transformation can happen.” Lee, who was born and raised in a Korean Christian family in Los Angeles, talked about her Gracepoint experience during an interview on the upper floor of the YWCA building on Bancroft Way. The church rents space there to provide a spot where its Cal members can study and socialize.

“This is where all my friends are,” said Vivian, who was about to get her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology. “This is a community, not just a Sunday thing. People are sharing life together and living out the truths of the Bible.”

Some outside observers, including other evangelicals and the secular parents of some Gracepoint converts, have questioned the amount of time and money church members devote to campus ministry. Others have criticized an authoritarian leadership style, and a church practice known as “rebuking,” when members are given harsh reprimands for perceived misdeeds. Professor Jeffrey A. Reimer, an evangelical Christian who is chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and spoke at the Pauley Ballroom event, puts Gracepoint at the “far end of the spectrum in which lifestyle and faith are highly interconnected.”

“I’ve been a Christian a long time,” he said, “and have come to realize that that kind of faith activism often produces a lot of carnage.”

Gracepoint members say they are simply trying to live good Christian lives.

Robin Chang ’09, a molecular biology senior who grew up in a secular Chinese-American family in Southern California, said that both she and her sister have had a hard time convincing their parents that it makes sense to devote so much time to the church. “My parents are still against it,” Robin said. “They don’t understand the idea of tithing (where a member gives 10 percent of their income to the church). They thought the church was trying to take advantage of us.”

The Rev. Edward Kang ’86, J.D.’89, the senior pastor at Gracepoint Fellowship Church, said complaints about the expectations placed on church members will not stop him from asking tough questions about the way his flock live their lives. “How do you do a ministry that is absolutely safe from any kind of accusation? The way you do that is become this suburban country-club church, give a 20-minute homily, hope everyone lives it out, and then gather again next Sunday,” he said. “That kind of church will never get accused of anything.”

Kang blamed some of the complaints about the college ministries run by Berkland and Gracepoint on the “very martial” nature of Korean culture. “I’m sure I’ve done my share of being short with people,” he confessed. “Up until the mid-’90s, that wounded a lot of people.”

In an interview at his church’s administrative offices in Alameda, Kang traced his own born-again faith back to his teenage years in Los Angeles, where he led the life of a “minor juvenile delinquent.” He carried a knife to school, got into gang fights, and dabbled in shoplifting and weekend vandalism. His family had come to L.A. from Korea in 1973, when Kang was 9 years old. “There was a lot of pressure growing up,” he recalled. “As the only son, I was constantly reminded by my parents that all our sacrifices are for you. Not for your sisters—for you.”

It was not a happy home. “My father never really made the transition to America. He tried the import/export business and failed, and he never lost his drinking habit. He was unemployed, frustrated, and angry.” In the late 1970s, Kang straightened out his life with the help of a Korean ministry that targeted kids in gangs. He came to Cal in the early 1980s, graduated with a degree in anthropology, and then completed a law degree at Berkeley (Boalt) Law. He practiced law for three years before deciding to devote his full-time energies to campus ministry. Kang joined Berkland Baptist Church in 1988 and soon emerged as a leader in its campus ministries. The Cal fellowship grew steadily in the 1990s, and Berkland started “planting churches” at colleges around the country. Kang moved to Boston for a couple of years to help start a fellowship at Harvard, but then returned to Cal.

Berkland’s rapid growth in the ’90s was mirrored in the larger Asian-American population in the United States. According to a poll by the Barna Group, a religious research firm, only 5 percent of Asian Americans called themselves “born again” Christians in 1991, but the number had jumped to 27 percent by the year 2000.

In a kind of “blow back” of past missionary activity, Christianity’s rise in the Far East, particularly in Korea, has helped fuel the recent growth of conservative evangelical Christianity in the United States. Protestant missionaries, including many from Presbyterian churches in the United States, Scotland, and Australia, established themselves in Korea in the second half of the 19th century. Today, a reported 30 percent of South Koreans are Christians, and their nation now sends out more missionaries each year than any country except the United States. Rebecca Kim, a sociologist at Pepperdine University, said that many Koreans are Christians when they arrive in the United States, and most others convert once they get here. “The Korean church is the Korean community here,” she said. “It’s how you start a business or make other kinds of connections.”

Evangelical Protestant churches have been an important social and spiritual hub for many Asian Americans since the Immigration Act of 1965 brought an influx of immigrants to California. Timothy Tseng is head of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity and an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco. Addressing the American Historical Association in 2006, Tseng said that in the last 25 years Chinese Americans have established more than 1,000 new Christian congregations in the United States, predominantly evangelical and Pentecostal, and Koreans now have more than 2,000 American congregations.

Russell Jeung, an assistant professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, said campus ministries provide a similar social network for the college-bound children of Korean and Chinese immigrants. “It’s like a family,” said Jeung. “Lots of Asian students understand the sacrifices their parents made, and come to college with a sense of filial duty. Upperclassmen take care of lowerclassmen. They feed them. They host them.”

Jeung, author of the book Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches, said many of these students grew up in congregations that were more theologically conservative than such mainline Protestant denominations as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). They find a more hospitable home in denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, which counts Ed Kang’s Gracepoint in its network of congregations.

Asian Americans now comprise more than 40 percent of the Berkeley student body, but those active in campus ministry note that the percentage of Asian-American students in evangelical organizations at Cal is much higher than that. Erina Kim ’05, a team leader with the Cal Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry affiliated with InterVarsity, said Asian-American students now are 85 percent of InterVarsity’s membership at Cal.

Founded in 1941, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is one of the oldest campus Christian organizations. It was once a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Now it has trouble attracting Caucasian students. “Once a group passes a tipping point from majority white to something else, many white students feel uncomfortable and don’t stay,” Kim said. “We get a good number of white students to our introductory events. But they are not used to being in the minority.”

There are 47 student organizations at Cal that have a religious orientation—from the Unitarian Universalist Campus Ministry to the Sikh Students Association. But nearly half of those groups, including some with the largest memberships, cater to Asian-American evangelicals.

Kang, the Gracepoint pastor, said incoming students come to his campus groups for both social and spiritual reasons. “Many find the free-wheeling campus atmosphere here kind of intimidating,” he said, “so they join a Christian church. They check out our groups and find that it is a safe group—safe in the sense that we don’t have the normal cruelties of social life. You don’t have to be tall or witty or beautiful to get attention. They find a group that is friendly and kind.”

Rebecca Kim, Pepperdine professor and author of God’s New Whiz Kids? Korean American Evangelicals on Campus, said Gracepoint is not unique in this regard. “These kinds of groups are very open. Whoever wants to join can. Unlike with fraternities and sororities, you don’t have to pay. They reach out to you.” But Kim also expressed some concerns about Gracepoint’s approach to keeping its adherents. When Kim was in Berkeley to promote her new book earlier this year, she was approached by a former Gracepoint member. “She talked about how impressive it was at first, but then became concerned about how much she had to do and wanted to draw back,” Kim recalled. “They shunned her. They didn’t like that. She felt welcomed and loved—until she wanted to leave.”

Kang said it’s not that surprising that a student who leaves his church might feel isolated. “Suddenly, she is not meeting with her small church group. This might be her entire social network,” he said. He does acknowledge that some eventually find his church too authoritarian and too demanding, but shunning, he insists, is unacceptable. It was these practices—rebuking, shunning, and “shepherding,” the latter a radical form of Christian discipleship in which leaders exert an extraordinary influence on the personal lives of people in their flocks—that Kang said made him part ways with the Berkland network in 2006. In particular, he took umbrage with Rebekah Kim, who is now a leader of the Boston fellowship. (Rebekah Kim is not the same person as Rebecca Y. Kim, the Pepperdine sociologist.) Kang became, he said, “increasingly uncomfortable with her leadership and the culture at Berkland.” He severed the Cal ministries and changed the name of the Willard congregation to Gracepoint Fellowship Church.

Kang said he has tried to move away from a church culture where “the leader has all the answers. It produced an ant colony,” he said.

Rebekah Kim, who was traveling through China, responded by email to Kang’s assertions that Berkland pastors had an authoritarian style. She acknowledged the “problems that emerged several years ago” and insisted that she and other pastors “have grappled with the ways in which we failed our congregations.”

“I took a two-year sabbatical for prayer and reflection. Since then, we have made and continue to make concrete changes to better serve God and His precious people in our church.”

Undergraduate students at the various Gracepoint ministries acknowledge that the church expects more from them than from a typical congregation, and that church members spend most of their time together. It is, they say, what they like about the fellowship.

Sunday service is the big event for the three campus ministries, when the entire flock gathers for worship at Willard Middle School. So many people show up each week that the church has been forced to transmit a video signal of the service to an overflow crowd gathering on the school basketball court. Many of the church members take copious notes during Kang’s lengthy sermon, as if preparing for a big test back on campus.

Affiliated as it is with the Southern Baptist Convention, a network of conservative evangelical congregations and the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, Gracepoint expects each member to testify to having “accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” Kevin, a congregant who did not want to share his last name, did exactly that in 2008. He’s now a graduate student at Cal but has learned to “give college a slice of my life, but give God the whole pie.”

“Now I am surrounded with brothers and sisters whom I can share my life with” he said in testimony delivered that Sunday to the entire congregation. “Now I see there is more to life than building up one’s reputation in academic circles.”

Other Gracepoint students interviewed for this story said they had no trouble reconciling their religious beliefs with their academic studies. Robin Chang, whose parents questioned her devotion to Gracepoint church, was getting her bachelor’s degree in environmental biology. She was asked if she sees a contradiction between what her pastors and her professors say about the theory of evolution.

“I don’t see a conflict,” Chang said. “Evolution is a mechanism. It doesn’t explain how everything began. I believe God created the world and created us. Look at all the details that go into a making of a leaf. It’s incredible. It’s hard to believe that chance is responsible for that.”

Then there’s the academic study of religion. How do evangelical students approach that subject? Paula Nesbitt, a visiting associate professor at Berkeley, teaches the sociology of religion to undergraduates. There are no prerequisites, so she often gets engineering students signing up to take the class as an elective. Some of them are Gracepoint students who come into the course with strong evangelical beliefs.

“We always get some who come in with a worldview that is such that they are not comfortable questioning some of their presuppositions,” she said. “I’m clear that this is not a course about which religious beliefs are true. There’s always some attrition around that, but I’m also amazed at how many students are able to bracket their deeply held, conservative beliefs.”

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