Ds Scholarship

Creating a space for international Christian students



The CU International outreach team at an eventHeather Cameron

From Monday 7 to Friday 11 February, the Cambridge Christian Union will be holding a series of events under the title ‘Pursuit: what are we searching for?’ On Wednesday and Thursday, there are evening events especially for international students.

With my anthropological hat on, and perhaps as a Christian myself, I was intrigued by what Pursuit week means to the individuals involved, particularly in the dedicated welcome for international students. To find out more, I went along to a meeting of the CU international outreach team.

During the meeting, I ask the team what outreach means to them and why they hold outreach dinners for international students specifically.

They explain to me that the underlying aim of the international dinner and other events is to show love and welcome. The dedicated space for international students acknowledges the difficulties of living so far from home. The Pursuit dinners aim to bring people together with a fun or interesting activity. This ‘outreach’ is expressed through hospitality: sharing food and time together, and through evangelism: building a space for non-judgmental discussion of faith. It is open to people of all faiths and no faith and everywhere in between.

Growing up in Scotland, I realise I have taken it for granted that I can speak about and practice my faith without sanction. My state secular school did not exclude those with faith although we were a small minority. Speaking with Trevor, a third-year economics student involved in the CU international outreach and an international student from China, I found that faith, for many, is a result of overcoming many challenges.

“It has been amazing to get to know so many great people who are also Christians of my age”

“I didn’t grow up as a Christian. Me and my family and most of the people I knew didn’t believe in God. China is a very secular society and politically speaking, the communist party wants to keep it that way. It benefits them if citizens think that the government has the ultimate authority – but obviously religion, Christianity and so on, believe that God has the ultimate authority. ”

How, then, did he turn to Christianity?

“I encountered a friend and their family who are Christians – I immediately thought: What? You believe in God? How could he be a normal person and my friend, and be completely bonkers and believe in God? With these questions floating around in my head, me and my parents were curious so we went to church with them – thinking either we’re right and we’ve got to show them the ridiculousness of religion, or they’re right and there is more to life than the pervasive physical materialistic worldview that most people take for granted in China. Well, it ended up being the second one!”

Since coming to study in Cambridge, Trevor has become a member of the Cambridge Christian Union. How does his experience of the church in China shape his involvement in the CU?

“It has been amazing to get to know so many great people who are also Christians of my age. I knew far fewer in my home city in China. The church we went to had about 4,000 people before we left China. But in a city with a population of 14 million, that is actually a very small community, and there weren’t that many churches either – that was one of the big three churches. So, back then, we were looking at about 10,000 Christians in a population of more than 10 million – that’s less than 1 in 1,000.”

Slightly boggled by the numbers, I take the economist’s word for it. But the stakes of Trevor’s conversion were high. Trevor has not been back to China since starting his degree, but before he left he will witness the persecution of Christians.

“There was a lot of suppression and persecution of religious people even before I left, and things have gotten a lot worse since. The church I went to no longer exists, it has been broken up and spread into lots of homegroups – underground church fellowships that are advertised through word of mouth.”

“Come along to the events next week – don’t be afraid of reaching out and being open-minded”

“You can get put in prison for preaching in public. And since December 2021, a law has been introduced that outlaws all forms of proselytising online, so it’s getting worse and worse. Obviously, people still meet, they can’t catch and put everyone in prison! And they’re meeting for what we believe in and what is true.”

I ask Trevor how his past experience with the suppression of religious identity forms his experience of freely practising Christianity in Cambridge.

“It is an incredible privilege. It makes me very happy – and it would anyway because there are lots of lovely people. This is fellowship – a word often overused in Christian circles, but I have experienced something of gospel fellowship here.”

I ask Trevor why he sees it as important for the CU to dedicate space for international students.

“The CU international outreach shows hospitality, love and inclusiveness to people who are new to Cambridge. When I first came to Cambridge, I knew nobody, had no family here, had no sense of belonging because everyone was speaking a different language to me and everyone had different topics of conversation. If I had to find my own way into a community of people I don’t share much in common with, it would have taken forever. But the fact that there are other internationals like me, and there’s a welcoming community of people made up of locals and internationals who are just there to say you’re welcome here – it really helped me to feel included.”

“The process of doing international outreach itself is rewarding. There is definitely so much more that can be done. We are limited by our busyness, and also because the initiative is still quite new with a small team. But we’re just trying.”

I end the interview by asking Trevor what advice he would give to an international student looking for the community?

“Come along to the events next week – don’t be afraid of reaching out and being open-minded. Unless you put yourself out there and get involved in new things then you may never meet friendly people out there. It might be well worth it.”

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