Carmen Bryant, international student ministries Specialist, has been involved in ISM since 1996. She was formerly a missionary in Indonesia and the Philippines, doing Bible translation and teaching.
The church’s outreach to international students (ISM) makes sense, as was affirmed in The Exchange on October 19. The over one million students in the U.S. present a huge opportunity for fulfilling Jesus’ commission to reach all the world’s ethnic groups, including cultures to which foreign missionaries no longer have access.
Opportunities, however, bring challenges. Rising religious persecution worldwide means that a greater percentage of international students will return to unfriendly environments. Christians and their God may no longer be welcome or tolerated, and practicing the Christian faith has become increasingly illegal.
This has always been true to some extent. ISM workers have regularly adjusted their discipleship methods in accordance with the safety needs of students. The difference now is the level to which persecution has risen.
Statistics show that at least 60 percent of international students in the U.S. come from countries that persecute Christians. China and India, where laws directly and indirectly target Christians, represent 50 percent of all international students enrolling in U.S. universities.
China’s sinicization process is trying to rid the country of all religions deemed incompatible with the Communist Party. Even secular media report of churches being razed, leaders being imprisoned, and pastors being “disappeared” because they refuse to bow to the demands of the Party.
Christians in India are feeling pressure from a government that since 2015 has mandated a nationalism that equates being Indian with being Hindu.
These contemporary realities affect both students and the ISM workers who are trying to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How might a student’s experience on a campus in the West today be different than a few years ago?
Even 20 years ago, we were aware that some international students were under surveillance. Foreign political parties and leaders of other religions, for example, kept a close watch on students lest they become too friendly with American Christians.
Some students received warnings to limit their contacts with Christians. New believers might put off getting baptized until the last minute before departure to avoid some of the more serious consequences of changing their religion. “Airport conversions” were frequent.
Advances in technology have made surveillance an even greater threat today. Microchips in cell phones allow political or religious snoops to monitor a student’s whereabouts. Attempts to bypass surveillance by using a different cell phone can result in a search, trying to solve the mystery of why a certain student is no longer visible in the tracking system. It can be difficult to fool Big Brother.