what does it mean to be christian at brown?
The first question many people ask me when they hear I’m a Christian is one I’ve also asked myself many times. I ask it most often on Sunday mornings, when my phone alarm rings at the unholy hour of 8:30 a.m. and I have yet again made the unwise decision of allowing myself only five hours to sleep. My body feels steam-rolled to the bed, my eyes are burning like the fires of hell, and I regret everything. Sometimes I think just the fact that I leave my bed every Sunday morning could be evidence of a miraculous God. Every time I do it, I inevitably ask myself: Why am I doing this? Why am I a Christian?
My story is actually quite a common one for someone of my background. My parents were not Christian, and neither were theirs. When they joined a local Chinese-American church after immigrating from China, they did it to find a community; God was more of a side effect. But as a result, the household my brother and I were born into was Christian, we grew up attending church, and now, seemingly as another side effect, we’re Christian too.
But as I’ve grown, I’ve realized that this story is much more nuanced. The fact is, if you’re 20-something years old, go to an even moderately liberal college, and have thought about your identity in any capacity at all, it is impossible for Christianity to be a mere side effect of your life.
Ask any Christian at Brown, and one of the first things they will tell you is that keeping faith is difficult. Christians believe some crazy things by today’s standards: Even the most liberal, interpretive approaches to the Bible have to concede that one entity made the entire galaxy, took the form of some 30-year-old Middle Eastern dude, then got murdered and came back from the dead. It makes sense that any kind of public declaration of this belief raises some eyebrows and occasionally leads to direct questioning. Furthermore, while Christians believe in God, they themselves are nowhere close to being omniscient: Any Christian at Brown will also have a story for you about a time when they needed to defend their faith but couldn’t come up with the right answers. They’ll tell you about identity crises, self-doubt, and conversations they regret not being prepared for.
“I was once talking with a friend, and somehow we got on the topic of life after death,” says David Shin ’20. “He asked me if we have a body in heaven, if there’s pain in heaven, and it just spiraled on. I wanted to give more direct answers, but I wasn’t the best source they could have gone to. Eventually we had to go to class. The conversation just sort of dropped.”
Mikaela Carrillo ’21 experienced something similar with a friend who had been the victim of a natural disaster. “[She] asked a lot of questions about pain, how someone could praise God when their neighbor or someone next to them had died,” Carrillo said. “I just remember feeling so helpless. In those situations, I don’t want to say anything that I’m not completely sure about. But you’re going to come face-to-face with difficult questions, and sometimes that requires being vulnerable to admit that I don’t know.”
Christians at Brown engage in a daily, even hourly, battle of wits between what they’ve chosen to believe and the plethora of counter-evidence that exists around them. But in some ways, this experience of questioning and identity-building is an essential part of the college experience, Christian or not—and something many Christians actively seek as they come to Brown.
“I think the Brown community has enough perspectives so that you’re exposed to viewpoints that really make you think,” David Ferranti ’19 said. “The best conversations I’ve had with other people about faith are ones where we both were able to recognize that we thought a lot about this beforehand. We’re not children having an argument, we’re adults having a conversation. The Christian faith for a believer is a choice, and for the nonbeliever, it’s also a choice.”
Sometimes the word “faith” is immediately associated with religion. But applied more generally, faith is a pretty universal human experience. Every day, we make choices that test our faith. When we get in cars, we need to have faith that its parts are working properly, that the engine will run without interruption, that we will reach our destination in one piece. When people enter a relationship, they need to have faith that the other person cares for them too. Faith is necessary for so many things, and yet, it can be challenged and broken: Getting into an accident can cause people to hesitate the next time they have to drive, and a bad breakup can destroy someone’s faith in love for years. But it’s that fallibility that makes it faith at all: We must first be willing to extend ourselves to receive anything in return.
Faith in a religious context works the same way. Sometimes, especially in moments when I struggle to see God, I wonder why He doesn’t just toss blatant miracles at us so we would never have to doubt. But then, I wonder about how much vibrancy such a faith would have—whether it’d be out of true love for God or simply out of a lack of other realistic options. “I’ve talked about it with my non-Christian friends, and it’s difficult for them to understand what it means to me to have this faith,” said an interviewee from the class of 2020, who asked to remain anonymous. “I think we as humans have a tendency to box off sections of our lives and give certain sections to certain things. But being a Christian, you can’t give half of your faith. You have to give everything to God. I think that vulnerability is very difficult for people to have.” From that point of view, the difficulty of being a Christian is not simply due to the occasional discomforts—it’s hard because in those moments, faith has to persist anyway.
Of course, a more passionate faith is also a more invested one, and this degree of investment is accompanied by an equal amount of risk. Said one interviewee from the class of 2019 who has asked to remain anonymous, “A lot of Christians at Brown are also liberal, so they have to handle the baggage of Christianity often being in confluence with conservatism. So they might not want to show their faith, because they don’t want to be treated like that group. It sucks, because that’s not the way that Christianity is supposed to be.”
It’s an intellectual journey. Being at Brown has challenged my faith, but the college’s spirit of inquisitive learning has also been a great encouragement. Recalling her conversation with her friend again, Carrillo says, “Although I didn’t have the answers I wanted for her, I was grateful to have that opportunity. There are mysteries and things about God and the world that I can’t fully know. But at Brown, people take initiative with what they’re learning, and they think a lot about what they believe. That’s made a difference in my own spiritual walk. It’s not just routine, it’s thoughtful thinking and really wrestling with hard topics.”
Christians at Brown also seek to build faith through campus community, which is more varied than one might expect. “I was surprised by the Christian community at Brown,” said Tom Hale ’19. “It was larger and more vibrant than I expected.” Several Christian groups meet on a weekly basis to have meals together, listen to messages concerning the Bible and faith, and build community through other events like movie nights or off-campus outings. At these gatherings, which can vary from 15 to 50 people, diversity comes through various geographic, cultural, and experiential differences, as well as more technical divisions through denomination, such as Catholic or Protestant. Although Brown has a reputation for being one of the most liberal universities in the nation, many Christians at Brown have also expressed that this diverse community has helped strengthen their faith during college.
“I didn’t grow up in a Christian family,” Stella Lee ’19 said. “But another family took me to church, and they would pray for me. As I got older, I also got very close with a group of Christian friends that I could talk to. Now most of the relationships I have with Christians are through the friends I’ve made at Brown.” Lee, a junior, didn’t start to actively engage in Brown’s Christian community until this past summer. Nonetheless, she says, “The community here is the best so far I’ve had—it’s not hard to be integrated. Whenever I’m struggling with something, I bring it up to my community and see how they can encourage me through faith. Seeing how much trust they put in Him is really encouraging. I have a reminder through other people.”
However, sometimes inclusion in one community means difficulty in fitting into another. The interviewee from the class of 2020 said, “I was once asked to go to a party, and I just couldn’t go. I know I’m a representative of my fellowship and God, and my friends know I’m a Christian. I don’t think things like drinking are necessarily wrong—it’s only when it makes you act in a way that you normally wouldn’t that it can get difficult.”
“To find the community requires effort, energy, and maintenance,” she admits. “It’s one of the hardest yet best decisions I’ve made coming to Brown.”
Finding belonging, dealing with existential crises, and worrying about the future—Christians and non-Christians at Brown tackle a lot of the same issues. At the end of the day, everyone puts their faith in something, and everyone will have it shaken sometimes. I’ve learned that what matters is not how often you’re shaken, but how willing you are to respond to it. For me, I guess part of that response has been 20 years of getting up on sleepy Sunday mornings. I love sleep more than almost anything else in life. So I think that has to mean something.