Missionary at Columbia.
By Claire Schweitzer
I first met Ashley Kim when I accidentally joined the John Jay Society, thinking it was a secular debate club. At the club’s weekly meetings, members back up their arguments not only with the usual murky cocktail of philosophical principles, but also with obscure scriptural references. Up for
debate one recent Friday evening: “Resolved, That the West Created the World.” Kim, CC ’24, told me that the leaders of the group were formative in her decision to become a devout Christian.
In an attempt to use our solid, if distant, friendship as a basis for extra honesty, I asked Kim whether she could see that peculiar but omnipresent siren—swag—as a scale-tipper for those weighing conversion. “I did notice,” she admitted, “they have tons of perks. ... I could imagine how that could be very alluring.” But our acquaintanceship didn’t exactly loosen her lips. “What would actually make someone stay within a community like a Christian one, most of the time, would be having a faith connection or stronger relationships.”
Becca Seely, the co-pastor at LaMP (the Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian campus ministry), was more wary of indulgences, even as she acknowledged her complicity. “People can be manipulative about giving free stuff,
” she said. “We give free succulents … We try not to make it transactional but a way of showing love to the community.”
I don’t think many Columbians would say they resent religious people, regardless of their materialistic impulses. But most balk—even gawk—when someone eschews the secular consensus. A good Modern Orthodox Jew, I’ve admittedly made Christian students the butt of several jokes; they’re part of a small and exclusive group of identities that feel permissible for me to make fun of. It also includes men.
Maybe the laughter hastened my craving for a Club Fair awakening. There I was, minding my business and rashly giving my email to the Kayaking Club when a holy chorus of Christian club recruiters beckoned. I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, the line and sinker: on a weekday night outside Low, my ears were accosted by acoustic praise songs, and in Lit Hum, a classmate compulsively resolved every Biblical contradiction with a reference to God’s tripartition. No swag in hand, I didn’t convert, but I did grow curiouser and curiouser about these organizations that hide in plain sight. Given their visibility, Christian clubs make surprisingly little information available to the public. (Considering the types of clubs on campus that are given coverage—like the marching band or FIJI—that's probably a good thing.) They’re also quite different from other religious groups on campus: For Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish students, overarching organizations contain distinct subgroups.
So I asked a Columbia alum who remains involved in her Christian club what she loves so deeply about the group’s mission. When she didn’t say anything substantive, I asked Allegra Walker, CC ’24, a member of Canterbury, an episcopal student organization. Walker was contacted by a non-denominational Christian about Bible study during her first year. She attended and was immediately put off because they divide their groups by gender, which she “thought was really sus.” For Walker, Canterbury is different: a “progressive” and “welcoming” space. Discussions with fellow club members informed her that “there has been homophobia and transphobia in other groups and that other groups are conservative.” To Walker’s interlocutors, while members of such clubs “don’t always say things openly,” their tacit politics lay plain that they do “not really welcome trans, queer—LGBTQ in general—members of their communities.”
Walker criticized other clubs’ proselytizing techniques while commending Cantebrury’s milder approach. “You could definitely say us having a table at the club fair is proselytizing,” She said. “We just don’t tend to agree with making [people] feel pressured.” She compared the process to her own memories of connecting with colleges during athletic recruitment.
Still insufficiently catechized, I went online, finding group websites that clearly express their intent to “to promote God’s word.” On the site of the Christian Union Lumine, one of the most well-endowed groups on campus, I found events called “Is God the Same Throughout the Bible?” and “Capture the Light Capture the Flag.” I thought back to the goodies they’d offered me: ice cream, a t-shirt, boba, barbecue. I also thought about attending; my mouth watered for wafers and wine. Then I remembered that to argue cogently whether God is, indeed, the same throughout the Bible, I would have to have at least skimmed the book first.