How Christian Evangelists Target Hindu American Students

Francis C. Assisi

In a fictional account of a freshman year at an American State University, author Chris Sherman tells us of an Indian-American student from the Midwest, who is “born again” after a year of intensive prayer and prodding by his evangelical Christian roommates.

Born in India and raised in the United States, the protagonist Hari Singh is caught between the Hindu-Indian culture of his immigrant parents and his desire to “be rid of his Indian roots.”

An avowed agnostic when he arrives at the State University, by the end of his freshman year Harry “Bob” Singh’s newfound Christian faith presents him with a final challenge: facing his parents. “What to say? He knew he had to somehow begin to see them as his parents, to “honor” them, to show this in a way they with their Hindu heritage would recognize. How was he to do this? He didn’t know.”

One recalls a parallel in the real-life situation of Indian-American congressman Bobby Jindal who converted to Christianity during his second year at Brown University. At the time, Jindal wrote: “It was hard for me to struggle with the competing commandments ‘Honor thy parents,’ which includes showing respect through honesty, and ‘Love God with your whole mind and heart’.”

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that the earlier fictional account includes an Indian American character in the plot, because, since the 1990s, Asian American students have become central players in American evangelical Christianity – one of the fastest growing religous/social movements in the United States.

Whereas the characterization of Hari – hard working, philosophically tenacious, and troubled by his Indianness – hints at larger issues about South Asian American identity in the context of evangelical Christianity, there is increasing evidence that Christian evangelical groups are aggressively targeting Hindu students in American college campuses for conversion.

In fact, a sampling of Asian American-identified evangelical fellowship websites reveals mission statements targeting Asian and Asian American students for outreach and membership, while simultaneously affirming a non-race-specific evangelical identity.

There is evidence that large numbers of Asian American college students are turning to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the encouragement and support of national and local prayer and Bible study organizations. Alongside the large national organizations, there are numerous local bible studies and fellowships that are often sponsored by local churches and are ethnic specific.

In response to an increasingly diverse college population, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), for example, developed a series of “ABC” (Asian, Black, and Chicanos) conferences beginning in 1976 and experienced a membership boom in the 1980s and 1990s producing a significant number of Asian American IVCF student leaders.

One reason for the present renewed aggressive effort is that, unlike other Asian Americans, Hindu-Americans have staunchly resisted efforts at conversion. Also, unlike other Asian Americans who are becoming increasingly associated with evangelical Christianity on college campuses, Hindu-Americans have their own campus groups such as Hindu Students Federation.

Nevertheless, evangelical “parachurch” organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), The Navigators, and IVCF are soliciting large numbers of students to their weekly bible studies, prayer meetings, and social events. There is no doubt that Asian Americans – especially Korean and Chinese – are becoming increasingly associated with evangelical Christianity on the college campus. The hope is that Indian-Americans will follow suit.

ORGANIZATIONS TARGETING DESIS

The main concern of the recently established Fellowship of South Asian Christians (organised at the Overseas Indians Congress on Evangelism) is the evangelization of South Asians living abroad. The organization acknowledges that it is gearing to become a dynamic force for evangelism among Hindus, scattered in countries other than their homeland.

The Institute of Hindu Studies, based in the Midwest, says its mission is to be “a resource base, strategy center and a facilitator of knowledge” by providing “reliable information on India, Hinduism and the Indian Diaspora.” The IHS says its vision is “To stimulate and encourage the growth of a culturally relevant movement for frontier missions among the 2,700 unreached, predominantly caste Hindu people groups existing mostly in India, but found throughout the world.”

Bhanu Christudas, a student at William Carey International University on the campus of the U.S. Center for World Mission, writes: “I believe it is high time for us to concentrate our efforts on reaching the dear Hindu men and women around the world before this form of Satan’s deception begins to devour millions more into its philosophy.” He asks fellow Christians: What is your part in reaching the Hindus for Christ?

In ‘Reaching The Hindu World’, Christudas observes, “since Hinduism “converted” into a missionary religion during the last century, it is growing more than ever before around the world.”

A recent report received by Henrietta Watson, head of the Institute of Hindu Studies at the U.S. Center for World Mission, states: “The Indo- American Society in Chicago overtly stated their goal is to have a Hindu temple and a training center in every American city with a population over 500,000 …They are on target with imported idols and priests from India.” Should we wait to hear more such reports before we begin to act, asks Christudas.

Another research report contains specific tips based on the field experiences of a senior evangelist, including detailed “do’s and don’ts” :

“Do not criticize or condemn Hinduism. …. Criticizing Hinduism can make us feel we have won an argument; it will not win Hindus to Jesus Christ…Never allow a suggestion that separation from family and/or culture is necessary in becoming a disciple of Christ. …Avoid all that even hints at triumphalism and pride. …Do not speak quickly on hell, or on the fact that Jesus is the only way for salvation. …Never hurry. Any pushing for a decision or conversion will do great harm. …. Even after a profession of Christ is made, do not force quick changes regarding pictures of gods, charms, etc. …Do not force Christian ideas into passages of Hindu scripture. … Empathize with Hindus. …. Learn to think as the Hindu thinks, and feel as he feels…. Those who move seriously into Christian work among Hindus need to become more knowledgeable in Hinduism than Hindus themselves are…A new believer should be warned against making an abrupt announcement to his or her family, since that inflicts great pain and inevitably produces deep misunderstanding….”

Indian Christian evangelist Rajendra Pillai of Clarksburg, Md., gives the following advice in the Baptist Press of August 15, 2003: ‘Learn to think as the Hindu thinks, and feel as he feels’. Based in Clarksburg, Md., he is the author of a new book, “Reaching the World in Our Own Backyard.”

Pillai explains: “We are slowly realizing that our neighborhoods, communities and workplaces are changing. We’re waking up to the fact that we now have new kinds of neighbors — they look different, they speak a different language, they eat different kinds of food and speak with a foreign accent. We know they aren’t Christians, because they worship other gods.

“North America has always been a land of immigrants, but now we have a new wave of people coming from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East adding to the growing religious diversity in North America. We don’t have to go overseas to meet someone from another culture. Each one of us can now be a missionary in our own communities.

“Between 1990 and 2000, Hinduism has emerged as one of the fastest-growing religions in America. The number of Asian-Indians, most of whom are Hindu, has doubled every 10 years since 1980 to reach a record 1.7 million in 2000. USA Today reported that there are currently 1.3 million Hindus in the United States. The Pluralism Project of Harvard University (www.pluralism.org) lists more than 700 Hindu temples in the United States, many built in the last 10 years. Many more are in the construction stage.”

Pillai observes, “We can effectively reach Asian-Indians by knowing a little about their culture, beliefs and practices. First and foremost, we need to learn as much as possible about Hinduism.”

And he offers the following pointers:

“The Indian culture is highly collectivist. This means that most Indians will consider their acceptance of the Gospel in light of how it will impact their families and friends. There is also a strong possibility of being rejected by family members if a person changes his or her religion. Chances are you will not get an immediate response. Be prepared to walk with and support your Indian friend if he or she wrestles spiritually.

“As Indians come from a collectivist society and yearn for community, many will be open to coming to church if it means being a part of a community where people are genuinely concerned about each other. You might start by inviting them to less-threatening events outside of a Sunday church service.

“Most Asian-Indians yearn for community. Coming from a collectivist society, they have a tough time adjusting to the American individualistic culture. This is where Christians can step in, and the church can become the community they are seeking.”

Pillai warns: “One thing that turns off many Asian-Indians is when Christians in this country just share the Gospel but are not interested in them in any other way. So if they say “no” to the Gospel, the same Christian friends and acquaintances disappear from their lives. Christian Asian-Indians who used to be Hindus say the most convincing argument for following Christ came through the love Christians showed toward them.”

Finally, asks Pillai: “If His heart beats for people from every nation and if Jesus died for all nations, then how can we keep the great news of the Gospel to ourselves, especially now that they live next door?”

In Mission Frontier’s article ‘personal evangelism among educated Hindus’, H.L. Richards writes: ‘Friendship evangelism is usually easy to initiate with Hindus. Most Hindus esteem religion in general and are free and open to speak about it. A sincere, nonjudgemental interest in all aspects of Indian Life will provide a good basis for friendship. Personal interaction with Hindus will lead to a more certain grasp of the essence of Hinduism than reading many books. A consistently Christ-like life is the most important factor in sharing the gospel with Hindus. The suggestions that follow should help to break down misunderstandings, of which there are far too many, and help to build a positive witness for Christ. Yet learning and applying these points can never substitute for a transparent life of peace and joy in discipleship to Jesus Christ.’

He advises: 1. Do not criticize or condemn Hinduism. There is much that is good and much that is bad in the practice of both Christianity and Hinduism. Pointing out the worst aspects of Hinduism is hardly the way to win friends or show love. It is to the credit of Hindus that they rarely retaliate against Christians by pointing out all our shameful practices and failures. Criticizing Hinduism can make us feel we have won an argument; it will not win Hindus to Jesus Christ.

5. Do not speak quickly on hell, or on the fact that Jesus is the only way for salvation. Hindus hear these things as triumphalism and are offended unnecessarily. Speak of hell only with tears of compassion. Point to Jesus so that it is obvious he is the only way, but leave the Hindu to see and conclude this for himself, rather than trying to force it on him. Richards says that a Hindu who professes faith in Christ must be helped as far as possible to work out the meaning of that commitment in his own cultural context.

He also warns: A new believer should be warned against making an abrupt announcement to his or her family, since that inflicts great pain and inevitable produces deep misunderstanding. Ideally, a Hindu will share each step of the pilgrimage to Christ with his or her family, so that there is no surprise at the end. An early stage of the communication, to be reaffirmed continually, would be the honest esteem for Indian/Hindu traditions in general that the disciple of Christ can and does maintain.

HINDU STUDENT MINISTRY

Steve Edwards, an IVCF staff member serving on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University, recently outlined his view of Hindu ‘student ministry’ in no uncertain terms.

He observes that students from India have recently surpassed the Chinese as the largest international group on the campus where he serves, but that ‘in spite of their large numbers there are very few believers.’

Edwards acknowledges that while working with Indian students, the evangelists often “get a foot in the door” by meeting practical needs. This may include assisting with English or hospitality needs. “The best way to start is through friendship, taking the time to listen and to learn about their individual backgrounds and beliefs” he advises.

According to Edwards, “even if believing in Jesus were acceptable to the family, it would likely become a point of conflict when it came to issues of marriage and children. Hindus may and often do find Jesus personally appealing. But an individual decision to become a follower of Christ is quite difficult because it implies a rejection of one’s own dharma and the acceptance of the “Christian” dharma.”

He explains: “God has given us a wonderful opportunity to welcome them and share the good news of Christ with them. But significant obstacles exist. Therefore, it is vital for us to understand the challenges that we must face in sharing Christ with them and also the challenges they face in coming to Christ.

“Most Hindus readily acknowledge the reality of God’s work in life and are not afraid to discuss spiritual matters. As a result, offers to pray for and with them are rarely refused and often welcomed. This is a tangible way we can show our concern and ask God to bless them and provide specifically for their needs. Simply put, Hindus are open to spiritual things. Edwards reveals: “Recently, I met a new student from India who seemed quite interested in visiting church and perhaps a Bible study. But first he wanted to make sure that he didn’t need to be baptized or believe that Jesus was the only way to God before attending. As believers our response is to invite them to “Come and see,” with no strings attached and allow the person of Christ as seen in the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit to lead them to faith.”

Noting that the majority of Indian students come from Hindu families, Edwards discusses conversion efforts directed at Hindu students on American campuses and, specifically, his experiences of prayer, partnerships and perseverance, which he claims has been essential in the formation of an ‘Indian Christian Fellowship’.

“It is my prayer that this would encourage others in sharing Christ with Indian students in their campuses and communities. May God pour out his grace on India and bring many into his kingdom in the coming years.”

OBSTACLES ENUMERATED

As Edwards sees it, Indian culture and religion present significant obstacles to communicating Christianity to Indian students. He is convinced that, “given the ancient spiritual strongholds that exist in the Hindu world it is essential that this ministry be founded upon and sustained by faithful prayer.”

One of the method he advocates, besides prayer, is “partnerships with like-minded Indian believers among students and in the community.” He notes that “while some Indian students want to interact with other cultures it seems that most prefer to remain in a culturally familiar environment.”In addition, explains Edwards, the partnership helps to dispel the widespread preconception that Christianity is just a Western religion.

Finally, he notes that a common suspicion among Hindus is that Christians want to make converts for selfish reasons like pride, financial gain or political power. In contrast, the Bible reminds us that love must be sincere. “We have seen God at work, but it is often a very slow process…We must be patient and wait for God to bring fruit as we are faithful in planting and watering the seeds of the Indian Christian Fellowship.”

Edwards, who began his involvement with Indian students while he was a graduate student in an engineering school, recalls: “I was surrounded by Indian students in my classes and actively involved in an international student fellowship. Like so many, I was amazed by the openness of the Chinese students who sought out knowledge of the Bible, often from the moment they arrived. Indian students on the other hand would scarcely ever come to any Christian sponsored event even though their numbers were comparable to those of the Chinese students.”

Edwards explains: “So, I began praying for India and for the students that I knew and learning about their culture and beliefs. During that time, God brought me into a close friendship with a Hindu background believer. Through our friendship I saw how difficult it was for him to reconcile his faith with family expectations and pressures. (I also developed a love for Indian food which is a fringe benefit).

“I also had a growing friendship with a Hindu classmate. We had numerous occasions to openly discuss spiritual matters and even though he freely admitted that his life was incomplete I was saddened to see so little change. Periodically, he would remind me that he was a Brahmin, the highest caste in Hinduism, which I learned only added to the barriers.

“One evening early on in our friendship he told me he would be very disappointed and hurt if I was only trying to be his friend in order to “convert” him. His directness shocked me, but it was something I needed to hear. It showed me the suspicions that Hindu students often have of the motives of Christians and their repulsion at the very idea of conversion. It also underscored how essential it is for our love to be sincere and the value of partnering with Indian believers so that Christianity is not equated with Western culture.”

Thus, on completion of graduate studies, Edwards joined as staff member with IVCF’s international student ministries. “From the start, one of my personal desires was to reach out to the large Indian community. While ministry opportunities with other student groups grew, it remained difficult to make more than isolated contacts with the Indian community.”

Edwards says he ‘began praying for the Indian community and for God to bring some Indian believers to join us. There were several years of prayer before we saw any answers, and many disappointments along the way. He once even contacted an Indian Christian student ‘to see if he had a desire to reach out to the Indian community but he frankly said “No.”’

During the following summer Edwards visited India and got a firsthand taste of Indian culture. “Those experiences were priceless and opened doors of trust and understanding that I doubt I could have gained any other way” he says.

According to Edwards, the next fall brought 3 Christian students from Kerala with whom he formed the Indian Christian Fellowship (ICF) “with the faculty advisor being one of our prayer partners who shared our heart for the South Asian students.”

“Later that semester, two Hindu friends we had been praying for went on an international evangelistic retreat with us because of the invitation of an Indian Christian friend. The speaker at the retreat was also from India and their experiences at that event challenged them to seek God further. Immediately afterwards they began attending the fellowship regularly. Even though they faced some challenges from other Indian friends, they soon became a part of our “family.”

“After attending the fellowship for one year, one of these students began following Jesus. Initially, it was a private decision. But it was soon apparent that it was a genuine step of faith with strong evidence of God’s work in his life. Within a short period of time his friends began to ask him what had happened to him and why he had changed. In the months that have followed, he has grown dramatically in his knowledge of the Word and in witness: bringing several friends to the fellowship and even leading a college friend to Christ.

“Although these students face difficult issues ahead (family and marriage especially) we are excited about how God’s work will overflow as we grow and serve together. As a result of these developments and as an answer to prayer, in just the past few months we have seen a significant increase in the number of students visiting the fellowship or curious about Christ.”

AGGRESSIVE EVANGELISM

The perception that Asian American students are currently disproportionately involved in InterVarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ appears to be well founded, according to available information.

The aggressive evangelism that took place in Asia after World War II was responsible for Christianizing an emigrant Korean and Chinese population. Evangelists note the dramatic growth in Korean Christianity from three million believers in 1974 to seven million in 1978 as a striking example. They say that a good percentage of Korean American evangelical students in the 1990s would appear to be the harvest of Campus Crusade’s farsighted sowing as Korean immigration to the United States rapidly increased in the decades following. A similar trajectory is seen for the emerging South Asian American community numbering about 3 million.

Asian American evangelicals report that being a Christian does not mean rejecting Asian American identity or Asian culture. One IVCF Chinese American staff worker involved with InterVarsity since the early 1970s explained that she came to a deeper understanding of herself as Asian American through the Pacific Alliance of Chinese Evangelicals and an IVCF Discipleship Training program that took her to Singapore. Other students find that evangelical Christianity reinforces “Asian ” values of family, work, and education: “Many Confucian ideas are similar to Christian ideals – like honoring your parents, living a moral, virtuous life, and working hard…there are definitely teachings from Buddhism that are very Christian…not harming anyone, trying to live a good life. ..Asian culture has it embedded that you are supposed to give respect to older people…My parents used to say bow to your grandmother when she comes. I might have done it but I tended to be rebellious. But now I know from the Bible that that’s a very Biblical thing. Now it’s not just for cultural reasons, but for Bible reasons I want to follow that part of Korean culture.”

And, as Bobby Jindal explained in a letter to a Sikh friend: “Only after years of open feuding did my parents realize my new faith had not caused me to reject them or my heritage.”

It is clear that evangelical Christianity will continue to attract large numbers of Asian American college students because it provides well-structured and nurturing communities tailored for surviving the anxieties, alienation and liminality of the college experience. Until well-documented evidence is available, we can only speculate as to why some Asian Americans, and specifically Korean and Chinese American students, are more involved in evangelicalism in comparison with Filipinos and South Asians.

An example of what evangelical faith entails is found in an Ivy League based Indian Christian Fellowship statement of purpose: “The purpose of ICF is to establish, assist, and encourage students who attest the Lord Jesus Christ as God Incarnate and have these major objectives: To lead others in to a personal faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. To help Christians grow toward maturity as disciples of Christ through the study of the Bible, through prayer, and through Christian fellowship. To present the call of God to the world mission of the Church, and to help students and faculty discover God’s role for them.”

THE CASE OF BOBBY JINDAL

As it turns out, the story of Piyush Bobby Jindal’s transformation from a devout young Hindu to a zealous Catholic offers an intriguing glimpse into the struggle, often traumatic, of a young Indian American caught between his heritage and his parents on the one hand and his intellectual and emotional turmoil in America.

“My journey from Hinduism to Christianity was a gradual and painful one,” Bobby Jindal acknowledged in a 1993 article that he wrote while he was a graduate student at Oxford. As Jindal readily confessed in that article, “it never occurred to me that I should consider any other religion; to be a Hindu was an aspect of my Indian identity.” So his parents were especially surprised that he had investigated Hinduism and found it lacking. “It was important that I had given our shared faith fair consideration.”

Jindal recalls, “my parents were infuriated by my conversion and have yet to fully forgive me.”

As Jindal explains, “My parents went through different phases of anger and disappointment. They blamed themselves for being bad parents, blamed me for being a bad son and blamed evangelists for spreading dissension. There were heated discussions, many of them invoking family loyalty and national identity.

He elaborates: “My parents have never truly accepted my conversion and still see my faith as a negative that overshadows my accomplishments. They were hurt and felt I was rejecting them by accepting Christianity. According to Jindal, his parents resorted to “ethnic loyalty” to counter his new faith.

What was the motivation for Jindal’s rejection of Hinduism and his acceptance of Christianity? The answer can be pieced together in his own words.

Essentially Jindal claims that having studied the Bible, he accepted Jesus Christ’s radical claim to divinity, along with Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross. That is, Christ had died to redeem mankind from sin.

“I was comfortable in my Hindu faith and enjoyed an active prayer life; I only gradually felt a void and stubbornly resisted God’s call…it was truth and love that finally forced me to accept Christ as Lord” Jindal recalled in an article.

In comparing Hinduism with his new faith, Jindal noted that whereas “Hinduism taught me to earn my way to God’s grace” he found Christ’s sacrifice on the cross meant something personal for him. “God loved me and was lifting me up to Him” declared Jindal, two years after his conversion. The young Hindu American had examined Hinduism and found it wanting. Looked at from another perspective, the Hindus whom he approached were not competent enough to satisfy his intellectual curiosity.

While he explains that he is aware of “gross injustices in the name of truth and God” committed by missionaries in India and elsewhere, Jindal is appreciative of their enormous contributions to health and education. That’s why he exhorts: “Let us all become missionaries and live so that the world will know us by our love.”

In his 1993 article, Jindal wrote wistfully, “I long for the day when my parents understand, respect and possibly accept my faith. For now I am satisfied that they accept me.”