Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

Bible Class at Ben Lippen High School
A student holds a copy of the Bible during Bible class at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina, in this March 2009 handout photo. Source: Bob Holmes via Bloomberg

Haiying Wu’s family in Shandong Province wasn’t religious. After a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the U.S. are safe and academically strong, she enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ben Lippen required her to attend church and chapel, take Bible class, and join a Bible study group. At first, she didn’t understand “why you need to believe in something you can’t view or touch,” she said. Gradually, it began to make sense. When the house parents in her dorm showed the 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” she wept. Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.

Her parents were taken aback. “In China, I don’t think there’s any chance I would have become a Christian,” said Wu, 21, a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It takes a lot to convert someone. Because Ben Lippen is such a strong religious environment, it makes you feel you have to learn about Christianity, and how come everybody around you believes.”

As evangelical schools capitalize on the desire of affluent Chinese families for the prestige of an American education, many Chinese students are learning first-hand how the Bible Belt got its name.

While proselytizing is banned in China, Protestant -- and, to a lesser extent, Catholic -- high schools are doing their missionary work on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Through placement agents and religious networking, they’re recruiting growing numbers of students from China, most of them atheists, and encouraging them to convert, in the hope that some of them will spread the faith back home.

Little Preparation

Plunged with little preparation into an intense religious environment, Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Some shed their skepticism and become Christians, delighting school officials and dismaying their families in China.

Eighty of Ben Lippen’s 108 international students come from China, up from hardly any five years ago, said Emery Nickerson, director of the boarding program. A “large minority” commit to Christianity, he said.

“I’m pleased that so many of these kids come to Christ while they’re here,” said Ben Lippen School Headmaster Mickey Bowdon. “I’m not sure the Chinese government would be.”

China’s Ministry of Education and State Administration for Religious Affairs declined to respond to written questions.

“The government is in a real quandary,” said Daniel Bays, director of the Asia Studies Program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who researches Christianity in China. “They can’t forbid people from sending their kids overseas. They may worry about these kids coming back, but they can’t do much about it. These kids are just added to the crop of suspects that they already have to deal with.”

Proselytizing Students

Teachers, classmates and host parents with whom Chinese students stay are sometimes overly fervent in proselytizing them, said former Ben Lippen Headmaster David Edgren.

“What we have are wonderful, sensitive, caring, committed Christian people who want so much for this particular Chinese student to come to know the Lord Jesus Christ the way they do,” said Edgren, who now recruits Chinese students for Ben Lippen and other evangelical schools. “There is sometimes a tendency for the Christian student/host family/teacher to press for and receive what appears to be a commitment.”

Non-believing Chinese parents choose Christian schools for their moral values, college placement records, and lower tuition than secular private schools, Edgren said. Because the U.S. is regarded in China as a Christian nation, many parents see Christian schools as part of mainstream American culture, said Susannah Clarke, who taught in China for three years and helps with a Bible study group at Ben Lippen.

Confucius Institutes

Religious schools are the latest entrant in the race by American educational institutions to tap the lucrative China market. About 57,000 Chinese undergraduates, most paying full tuition, attended U.S. colleges in 2010-2011, six times as many as in 2005-06. A Chinese government affiliate has contributed millions of dollars to establish Confucius Institutes for Chinese language and culture on 75 American campuses.

Limited to one year of attendance at U.S. public secondary schools under federal law, Chinese students are flocking to private high schools, where they diversify student bodies and offset declines in domestic enrollment caused by the economic downturn.

The number of Chinese students at U.S. private high schools soared to 6,725 in 2010-11 from 65 in 2005-06, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which doesn’t keep separate statistics for religious schools.

Beijing Recruiting Fair

Religious schools boost Chinese enrollment by sending staff members to China and using agents such as New Oriental Education & Technology Group Inc., China’s largest education firm by market capitalization.

Known for preparing Chinese students for the SATs and other exams, New Oriental also connects them with U.S. high schools. Eight Protestant U.S. schools, including Ben Lippen, and two Catholic schools were represented at a New Oriental recruiting fair in Beijing in October.

One New Oriental business partner uses a religious appeal to open doors at Christian schools that aren’t used to taking foreigners. Eduboston placed 119 Chinese students this year at 15 New England schools, including one Protestant and 12 Catholic institutions, said President Kason Park.

When school administrators balk because they don’t have international advisers or English-as-a-second-language programs, Park tells them about a pastor in China who was jailed for handing out Bibles.

“Some people sacrifice so much to spread the gospel,” said Park, a Presbyterian. “Now we have people at our doorstep, offering money. I always tell the schools, ‘God has a bigger plan than we see.’”

‘Religion Permeates’

New Oriental’s pipeline to religious schools worries Annalee Nissenholtz, a St. Louis-based counselor for international students and a consultant to the company.

“Relying on recruiters who do not emphasize their schools’ religious focus, Chinese parents perceive these schools as ’safe’ and ‘family-oriented’ places where their children will get a typical American experience,” she said in an e-mail. “They have no idea how religion permeates the day to day environment. I would no more place a Chinese student in an evangelical Christian school than in an orthodox Jewish school.”

‘Foreign Concept’

The schools’ religious emphasis, including teachers praying in class, has surprised some Chinese students, said Laura Chevalier, destinations program coordinator for the Association of Christian Schools International in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“A Christian school is such a foreign concept coming out of China,” Chevalier said. “Even if they’ve been prepped a lot, until they get in that environment, they might not have any context to understand.”

Ben Lippen’s application asks Chinese students what their understanding is of the Christian faith, who is Jesus Christ, and what it means to live in a Christian community. They also must agree to attend religious services, Bible study and Bible class.

“They know, without a shadow of a doubt, they are coming to a Christian environment,” Bowdon said. “They must be OK with that.”

Placement agents sometimes fill out the forms for applicants, Nickerson said.

“Before students get here, there is always the question, ‘Do the parents understand?’ he said. “They aren’t sending kids here to learn about who Jesus Christ is. We do our best to publicize our mission.”

Influx of Non-Christians

Some religious schools have adapted their missions to fit the influx of non-Christians.

Students from South Korea, which has a higher percentage of Christians than China, previously dominated international enrollment at Ben Lippen and other religious schools.

As the Chinese replaced the Koreans, Ben Lippen’s trustees wrestled with the question of whether to require boarding students to be Christians, said Kelly Pengelly, former director of the boarding program. In October 2010, they decided that a majority didn’t have to be Christian, she said.

Whitinsville Christian School in Massachusetts, which requires applicants to submit recommendations from pastors, waived the rule earlier this year for Chinese students, said Roann Karns, international student coordinator.

Administrators at Whitinsville, which has seven Chinese students, “embraced the idea of being able to expose them to Christianity,” she said.

Reconciling the Mission

While its mission statement says its purpose is “to serve as partners with Christian parents,” Southside Christian School in Simpsonville, South Carolina, recruited six Chinese students from non-Christian families last year and is increasing Chinese enrollment to 12 next month, said Stephen Reel, superintendent.

The school reconciles recruiting Chinese students with its mission by housing them with Christian families, he said. Several have “made some level of statement of faith,” he said.

Wheaton Academy, an evangelical school in West Chicago, Illinois, started an introductory Bible class last year for non-Christian international students, said Chief Operating Officer Jon Keith. Of its 37 international students, 22 come from China, he said.

Wheaton also plans to supply hundreds of international students a year, of whom between half and two-thirds would come from China, to 22 Christian schools nationwide, Keith said. Participating schools will pay Wheaton for membership in the network plus “a modest per-student placement fee,” Keith said.

St. Mary’s Preparatory, a Catholic boys’ school in Orchard Lake, Michigan, where 50 of 65 international students come from China, plans a “scaled-down” introductory catechism class for non-Catholics next year, said James Glowacki, headmaster.

‘Blank Slates’

Chinese students pay $41,750 a year for tuition and room and board, $15,000 more than boarders from the U.S., reflecting expenses such as advertising, international admissions staff, and English as a second language, he said.

While some trustees were leery of bringing so many non-Catholics to St. Mary’s, they couldn’t pass up the chance to evangelize. One trustee said, according to Glowacki, “We have blank slates coming that we have an opportunity to write upon.”

Communists Expelled Missionaries

Converting the Chinese isn’t easy in their native country, even as Christianity is growing there. Between 80 million and 125 million Chinese -- out of a population of 1.33 billion -- are Christians, including about 12 million Catholics, said David Aikman, a former Time Magazine foreign correspondent and author of the book, “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China And Changing the Global Balance of Power.”

Most Protestants worship at illegal “house” churches, which are sometimes tolerated by the regime, rather than the government-controlled Three Self Church, Aikman said.

Communists took control of China in 1949 and expelled foreign missionaries. Forbidden from evangelizing, American Christians who teach English or work in social service agencies in China spread the word discreetly.

“We made a pledge to local officials that we would not do overt faith-based teaching in our classrooms, and we honored that,” said Nathan Musgrave, assistant pastor at Heartland Evangelical Free Church in Central City, Nebraska, who taught English from 2004 to 2008 to young adults in China, primarily farm and factory workers. “There was a lot of informal contact outside the classroom. Students would visit our homes, and issues of faith would come up naturally. We would share openly at that time, but not unless the student broached the subject.”

‘Prays With Teammates’

When Randy Liang wanted to study in the U.S., his parents’ friends at a Christian group that provides medical and small business services in Shanxi Province recommended Ben Lippen. He enrolled in January, 2010, as a sophomore, largely unfamiliar with the Scriptures and the English language.

He “really hated” the school at first, he said. “I thought they were trying to force me to be Christian. I couldn’t understand what they’re talking about. I thought, ‘This is boring.’”

Liang adjusted as his English improved and he joined teams in four sports: football, wrestling, cross-country and track. After watching a creationist video in Bible class, he developed doubts about evolution. Now a senior, he prays with teammates before games, he said. He lives in a teammate’s home, and prays with the family for success on exams.

Still, Liang plans to postpone any religious commitment and concentrate on schoolwork until he’s had more experience, he said. While those around him encourage him to become Christian, “I control my own brain,” he said.

Bible Study

In a Ben Lippen classroom on a Sunday evening in early December, the discussion and the Bibles are in Mandarin. With Christmas approaching, a volunteer from the Chinese Christian Church of Columbia is teaching the nativity story to 20 Chinese teenage boys fulfilling their Bible Study requirement.

Some students send text messages, or doze. Asked what Christmas means, one responds, in a joking allusion to a similarly-pronounced Chinese-language character, “Egg.”

“They’re bored,” said the leader, Thomas Su, 35. “They come from an atheist background. They don’t think it’s the truth. They think, ‘Why do I waste my time?’ They were mocking me.”

“A lot of them are anti-Christian. They know we’d like them to become Christian,” said Susannah Clarke, who was instructing a girls’ group across the hall. “It’s been drummed into them: there’s no God, the government is great. They know if they go back as a Christian, their parents will not be happy.”

Cultural Gap

Bridging the linguistic, religious and cultural gap between Chinese and American students is a challenge at Ben Lippen. Named for a Scottish phrase meaning “mountain of trust,” it stands on the hilltop campus of Columbia International University, overlooking the Broad River.

Ben Lippen has 392 students in grades 9-12. Day students, who must have at least one parent active in an evangelical church, make up almost three-fourths of the enrollment. Few of the 80 Chinese students come from Christian families, Nickerson said.

Twenty Chinese students stay with local evangelical families, such as Rick and Jennifer Byers. The school is paying them $3,200 a month this year to host four Chinese students.

“We don’t do this for the money,” said Jennifer Byers. “We do this because we want to win these kids to Jesus Christ. If that’s what eternity is all about, that’s the most important thing we can do.”

‘No Touch’ Policy

The Chinese pay about $30,000 a year for tuition and room and board, plus $930 to $2,270 for English as a second language. Tuition for day students is about $11,000.

The school has a strict behavioral code. Any student who “professes to be homosexual/bisexual” or “supports or otherwise promotes such practices” may be expelled, the school handbook states. “To avoid temptation, we enforce a ‘no touch’ policy between the sexes at all times,” the handbook states.

For students who voluntarily confess and repent involvement in “sexual immorality, or use of alcohol or illegal drugs, the opportunity for reconciliation is available,” with lesser consequences such as suspension or drug testing, it says.

Chinese students often arrive at Ben Lippen with less English than their entrance exam scores predicted.

“There’s a lot of dishonesty or padding,” Nickerson said. Even if they are qualified to be high school juniors in China, they may spend a year or two as freshmen taking English-as-a-second-language courses until they become fluent enough to handle a regular load, Nickerson said. While taking Bible class in English, they worship at the Chinese church and participate in evening Bible study in Mandarin.

‘English Only’

Boarders must speak English in common areas of their dormitories. “Thank you for speaking English only” reads a sign in one house, where 11 of 14 residents come from China. Rule-breakers may lose their computers for a few hours, said Houseparent Marty Gilpatrick.

Like other Ben Lippen courses, English-as-a-second language instruction is steeped in Scriptures. Randy Headley, a former Ben Lippen history teacher, diverged from this approach last year when he taught ESL to newcomers from China.

While he used one Christian text, Johann Sebastian Bach’s church cantatas, he “tried to not push religion too hard,” and emphasized vocabulary such as the names of countries and vegetables, he said.

The Chinese “need a rest somewhere in the institution,” Headley said. “I gave them a rest. They appreciated it. Some Americans didn’t. Perhaps many ESL teachers thought it was their one chance to save people.”

Intellectual Diversity

Chinese students enhance diversity of evangelical schools not only ethnically but also intellectually. When Ben Lippen teacher Tom Pengelly asked his comparative-government class whether God is sovereign over national leaders, a Chinese student responded, “No. If the Lord was sovereign, why would He allow Hitler, Mao, and George W. Bush.”

Conservative Southerners in the class were scandalized by the pairing of Bush with two tyrants, Pengelly said. “One football player said, ‘You can’t say that!’”

Founded in 1940, Ben Lippen in its early decades housed and educated children of American missionaries. As missionaries began taking their children abroad, the school sought foreign students to replace them.

“Originally, we brought children of missionaries here,” Headmaster Bowdon said. “Now we’re preparing future missionaries. They’ll go back to their own country, with the claims of Christ and a transformed heart.”

Recruiting in China

David Edgren, who had taught English at a Chinese university, became headmaster in 1992. Three years later, he went to China and brought back 15 students.

“That was a very incredible thing from our school’s standpoint,” he said. “From that point on, I recruited in Korea and would go back and forth to China.”

One of those students, Henry Guo, drowned in a lake during a party celebrating the end of the 1995-96 school year. In the woods, near the Chinese students’ dormitories, a plaque memorializes him.

Guo converted at school, said Southside Christian’s Reel, then a Ben Lippen administrator.

“We had the assurance in our hearts that he had given his life to Christ and would have eternal salvation as a result,” he said. “That was the silver lining.”

Commission Payments

Ben Lippen’s Chinese population was dwindling by the time Edgren left in 2000 to become headmaster at Nebraska Christian School in Central City, Nebraska, where he also initiated Asian recruiting. By 2006, “there were zero Chinese students” at Ben Lippen, said then-Headmaster Brian Modarelli. Eager to fill beds, Modarelli turned to Edgren.

The 69-year-old Edgren now represents nine schools, six of them Christian. For each Chinese student he places, Ben Lippen pays him 15 percent of the $30,000 first-year tuition and room and board, 10 percent of the next year’s payment, and 5 percent for the third and fourth years, Nickerson said. Depending on the school, his first-year commissions range from zero to 15 percent, and he splits the fees with agencies in China that find the students, Edgren said.

Multi-year payments motivate agents to encourage Chinese students to stay at Ben Lippen, Nickerson said.

“At some point, the student is going to be angry with us,” he said. “If they just run to the agent and leave, the student hasn’t learned, and we lose financially.”

High School Tour

New Oriental, based in Beijing, supplies some of the students whom Edgren places, he said. Edgren began working with New Oriental in 2010, and took two company officials to visit 15 U.S. high schools, most of them Christian.

He and several evangelical school administrators, including Southside’s Reel, had lunch with New Oriental executives at a premier Beijing restaurant before a 2010 recruiting fair sponsored by the company, Edgren said.

New Oriental doesn’t have a religious agenda, and funnels students to Protestant and Catholic schools because of market demand and relationships with agents such as Park and Edgren, they said. New Oriental recently started a separate department for U.S. secondary schools, Park said.

“New Oriental does not promote religion of any denomination,” President Louis Hsieh said in an e-mail. “It is the families’ decision if they want their kids to attend a Christian or non-Christian high school or college.”

Meeting Yao Ming

At the New Oriental fair this past October, high school representatives interviewed students and gave presentations. Northland Christian School in Houston provided students with a package of gifts, including a key chain, notepad and pen.

Kevin Roberts, chairman of Northland’s board, impressed students by telling them that he had met Yao Ming, the retired Chinese star of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, in the team’s locker room and been given one of Yao’s high-top shoes as a memento.

“Obviously, when you put a slide up there of Yao Ming, that’s a good recruiting tool,” said Headmaster Daniel Woods.

Guan Yuntian, a 15-year-old from Beijing, was interviewed by three schools, including Northland.

“Religious school is fine for me,” she said. “The school will be better disciplined than other schools,” and the tuition lower. “It’s not bad to have a religion as it may help me to be stronger.”

Zhang Shaoxuan, the father of another girl at the fair, would gladly send her to a Christian school, he said.

“Both religious school and private schools are fine, the public schools are what you don’t want to be in,” he said. “Because there will be all kinds of odd students there.”

Saving Face

His experience with Chinese culture has taught Edgren that many Chinese students at Christian schools convert to please administrators or save face, he said.

Of Ben Lippen’s 80 Chinese students, “if there are more than three, four, five believers as I would understand a commitment to Jesus Christ, I’d be surprised,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, we don’t know until the kid goes back to China. Many of them will not tell their parents.”

Chang Su was unusually blunt. A Shenzhen native, whose father is a computer engineer and whose mother teaches kindergarten, she “didn’t want anything to do with a Christian school,” she said.

She opted for Ben Lippen after missing the application deadline for secular private schools. Meeting Edgren, she informed him that she was not Christian, she said.

She was “so antagonistic,” said Edgren. He thanked her for her honesty and told her she would have to go to church.

Late for Church

Entering Ben Lippen as a junior in 2008, Su clashed with dormitory parents over the requirement to turn in her computer and cell phone at night. When she was late for church one Sunday, they and the other girls left without her; she took a taxi. Accusing her of lying and disrespect, school officials sent her to a Christian counselor, she said.

“It was a really hard time,” she said. “I didn’t feel loved at all. I cried a lot.”

Her teachers stood by her. “I could feel the love from them,” she said. “There was no reason for them to love me. They were willing to forgive me.”

The more she read the Bible, the more truth she discovered there. After praying for a month, she felt the Holy Spirit one night in March 2009.

“Before, what I believed, what Chinese people believe, is that people are innately good,” she said. “I realized that I was sinful. I was lying, not loving. Those are as bad as killing someone. There’s no difference between me and a murderer.”

She was baptized in April, 2009. Now a sophomore at Davidson College in North Carolina, Su proselytized vacationers this past summer on Myrtle Beach. She tells her parents and grandparents about Jesus. “They haven’t converted yet, but they’re open to it,” she said.

She hopes to become a neurosurgeon and return to China. “God wants me to go back to China,” she said. “Someday if Jesus calls me, I will be a missionary there.”

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