Michael Hwang wants to know if you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus. A member of Korean Campus Crusaders for Christ, NYU’s largest evangelical Christian group, Michael meanders through Washington Square Park twice a week, speaking with strangers about the path to God. Or, at least, he speaks with those who will listen.
“Sometimes you walk around and just get ‘no’ after ‘no’ for an hour or more,” said Hwang, a senior studying sociology in CAS. In addition to Washington Square, Hwang evangelizes in parks around the city. “Union Square is one of the hardest places to talk to people,” he explained, continuing, “I actually had a guy laugh and tell me he was a devout apathetic.”
Devout apathy — or, at least, casual disregard — seems to be the norm for NYU students when it comes to religion. For many, the closest we get to religious practice is regularly attending brunch on Sunday mornings.
Whether from distractions of city or school, even students who enter NYU with a spiritual bent often sway toward the secular. A Steinhardt junior, who wished to remain anonymous, began freshmen year in the Navigators, a non-denominational Christian ministry on campus. But by the end of his first year, he “started having other priorities such as schoolwork, internships and friends.”
By the time sophomore year rolled around, he had left the club. “For Christians at NYU, a school which is largely secular, they tend to exclusively hang out with each other,” the student said. “I wanted to build relationships with other friends.”
Despite being a group defined by its religion, the standout feature of Korean Campus Crusaders for Christ, or KCCC, seem to be their community. This week alone, there will be a large group meeting for all of its members, dozens of small group discussions, two opportunities to “witness” — the group’s term for evangelizing in the parks — a senior formal dinner, and five morning prayer sessions. The group can feel like its own little world.
At a recent large group meeting, which served as the weekly worship service for the entire membership, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a small-town social gathering or a high school reunion. As the service began, the freshmen were busy decorating the hall of the Spiritual Life Center with streamers and decorations.
This was the annual freshman-organized large group meeting; the first-years handed out colorful half-sheet handwritten fliers advertising the club’s morning prayer meetings, witnessing sessions, and the upcoming senior banquet.
“Do you know who you’re taking to the banquet yet?” giggled a girl to a quiet guy seated nearby. “You should take me!” she continued, quickly following that she was “Just kidding!”
Whether or not she really wanted his invitation to the dinner was left uncertain, but the guy she was joking with had a smile on his face, as did almost everyone else in the room. Everyone seemed to know everyone. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there.
Two freshman MC’s spoke through their own laughter as they introduced the service. They had a half-embarrassed, half-proud demeanor as they read the deliberately cheesy banter they’d written, which had clearly been rehearsed many times over.
“My path to NYU was atypical,” Hwang had said before the meeting. “I came specifically looking for a Christian group on campus.” Once the meeting’s activities began, the ways in which KCCC is atypical for NYU quickly became clear.
Where other religious services might have an altar or pulpit, KCCC has a stage. With MCs and a backing band, the format of the event was more variety hour than midnight mass. The majority of the service was spent singing devotional music along with a small group of musicians.
They sang about their love for God and one another. Many sang with eyes closed, the words to every song memorized. Some opened their palms and lifted them toward the front of the room; others swayed back and forth, arms outstretched.
It could have been a shot out of the film Jesus Camp. But unlike Jesus Camp or Bill Maher’s Religulous, these devout Christians did not evoke shock or fear, but rather love. This was just a happy group of a hundred students singing songs in a shaded room off of Washington Square Park.
After a few speeches and prayers — one led by freshman girl who had only become a Christian since the last semester; another by an adult representative of the KCCC organization (NYU’s is one of many branches across the country) — the students ate some food the freshmen had prepared and headed down in the elevators, and out into the street.
Exiting the Spiritual Life Center onto Thompson Street felt like jumping into a cold pool after soaking in a hot tub so long you’d forgot what cold felt like.
It is a larger community these Christians entered back into, but an accepting one. “Washington Square Park is actually one of the better places to witness,” Hwang said. “NYU students are really quite accepting and willing to talk to you.”
And it makes sense. If there is one way to categorize NYU and the neighborhood we inhabit, it’s that there is no way to categorize NYU and the neighborhood we inhabit. We come from everywhere and do everything, represent every religion, race, class, gender and belief system that you can think of, and probably some you can’t.
There is an advertising campaign currently running in the city. Its slogan reads, “NYC: Tolerant of your beliefs, judgmental of your shoes.” Apart from the fact that almost everyone seems to be young and good looking, we all offer something different in this big jumble of people that is New York, and if the city is going to function, everyone must be accepted.
So while this group of devout, evangelical Christians may be “atypical” for NYU and NYC, that atypicality makes them, in a sense, normal. Even in this town where many are too busy to be anything other than devout apathetics, these followers of Christ feel right at home.