I’m currently visiting Caltech right now, my sixth visit since graduating almost 3 years ago. One of the nice things about this pattern of visiting twice a year is the opportunity to take a step outside of the daily grind and see how things have changed (or not changed) on a larger timescale.
Yesterday, I got a chance to visit the church that I attended while I was a student here. “Attended” doesn’t quite capture the sense of how involved I was; this was the church where I got baptized, the first church I was ever a member of, and the church which inspired my now-ubiquitous rides spreadsheets, possibly the biggest tangible lasting effect I had during my time here.
When I arrived at Caltech in the fall of 2008, Life Baptist Church was a new church plant, around a year old. It was started by a handful of Asian American Berkeley alumni couples in their 30s and 40s who had been good friends for over a decade. As I came to understand, they started the church in part to minister to the Caltech students who had been coming from Pasadena all the way to downtown LA for church at the parent church. One of these students (John Shen) had even decided to stay for grad school in Southern California so that he could continue to help out the new church. Seeing such inspiring dedication motivated me to go there and invite a lot of my friends to come along.
Over the years, the older generation started to be taken away from us one by one. One couple that had personally inspired me before I even came to Caltech (at Prefrosh Weekend), moved to England where the husband had an opportunity to teach as a professor. Another beloved couple moved to China, also for a professor position, hoping to impact both academia and China for the gospel. Just last month, one of the two remaining families moved to the Netherlands, a work-related move which they also saw as an opportunity to spread the gospel in another difficult place.
Among that original crowd, just the pastor, Ray Choi, and his family remain. Ray is a good friend of mine, and has a particular heart for Caltech students. Despite God scattering his close friends across the world, he has remained faithful to this church and will continue to do so.
But this week, when I was visiting from Boston, Ray was gone to his cousin’s wedding in NYC. Preaching the sermon in his place was Dongyoon Oh, another friend and Caltech 2011 alum who is now in grad school at Caltech again. He shared his moving testimony of becoming a Christian at Caltech, and his decision to stay in the area afterwards, to help build this church community, in the context of thoughts on hearing God’s voice and Psalm 23.
In fact, pretty much the entire church service was run by Caltech students and alums. It was pretty inspiring to see my good friends who had chosen to stay after graduation, many at Pastor Ray’s encouragement, to serve. There was Jarvis Li playing bass, who had become a Christian through the church and stayed at Caltech for grad school, Andre Pradhana running the worship music slides, who had chosen UCLA over Stanford because of the opportunity to be nearby and serve the church, and Sophia Hsien, who had chosen USC for med school over schools back in her native New York for similar reasons. My best friend at Caltech, Peter Ngo, wasn’t serving this week, but he had chosen to come back to the LA area after getting his Master’s at Georgia Tech in part to serve the church.
I was touched by this very prominent manifestation of their sacrifice. Caltech is a tiny school, and we feel quite distinct from the rest of suburban Pasadena. Some students feel at home in other churches in the area, but many that I know either had to drive a long way to get there or struggled to connect. We’re not as isolated as Hyde Park, but also not as surrounded as Boston.
Hill Community Church (its new name) is never going to be a huge church. Caltech has less than 1000 students, and the most that have come to our church service I think was around 60 one Easter. But there is still a huge need for spiritual direction at Caltech, which unlike MIT has no chaplain system nor paid fellowship staff workers. And I appreciate my friends who have stayed in the area after graduation to try to fill this need.
On Friday, the MIT Graduate Christian Fellowship had our “Goodbye to Graduates” gathering, where we wished eight graduating students farewell. Among these students were some of the pillars of the fellowship, who had all arrived at MIT together nearly seven years ago.
As each of them shared their stories of first getting involved with GCF, we were all reminded of how sparse the fellowship had been when they first arrived. Four of those 7th years had served as GCF presidents over the years, and they’ve continued to serve by organizing seeker groups and playing in the worship band this year while trying to finish up and graduate.
Certainly, there were costs to their service. Most PhD’s take fewer than seven years, and there’s no doubt that the time and heart that they poured into GCF gave them less time and heart to pour into research. But they also have no doubt that God rewarded them academically beyond what they gave. It’s hard to run the control to that experiment, but from what I know of their theses, I can see what they mean.
This group of graduate students had chosen to spend their years at MIT building up the community of GCF. When they first arrived, GCF had been a community mainly composed of younger students, with the implicit understanding that once you got to your second or third year, you stopped coming to focus on your research. They weren’t sure that a community could thrive here throughout grad school. But they had faith, and were willing to invest and see what would happen. The current community that exists in GCF is a testament to that faith becoming sight.
I’ve shared two examples of Christians building faith-based communities at universities, but there’s a larger point here we can all relate to. What both of these groups had in common was mindfulness. They weren’t just going through a system, getting a degree, advancing their career.
This isn’t to say that any of those things are bad. Instead, they were aware that while getting a degree or working at a job, they could use their time to build something bigger than themselves. They were on a mission, giving purpose to their time, and focused externally on a greater good.
This can happen in a wide variety of contexts. In undergrad, it can happen in your dorm or sports team or club. In grad school, it can happen in your lab or department or apartment. In working life, it can take place at your job or with your neighbors. Romantic relationships and family can also be a source of purpose in any of these stages.
Whatever your context, what are you building? What are you using your steady accumulation of time and energy to contribute to?
I should ask myself as well: Where am I investing? Based on my time audit that I wrote about last week, it might seem like I’m spread in a bunch of different directions.
And I am. I wouldn’t be visiting Caltech if I didn’t also value this community like I value the communities I’m a part of at MIT. I see these visits as trying to overcome the natural age segregation that keeps college students relatively isolated from others similar to them who have, say, been to grad school.
And that diffuseness is also true at MIT. This was most apparent at my birthday party in November, when I invited friends from all of the different parts of my life — a board game group, fellow math grad students, frisbee-playing friends as well as those from GCF and my church community group. I think I fundamentally enjoy bringing together those different parts of my life like that.
There’s also a common thread in some of these communities, though. I perceive a need to describe and live as an intellectually rigorous and real Christian. This is one of the things I love about my church; there is a lot of careful thought put into all aspects of the service and how people live their lives. It’s also one reason I like organizing GCF large groups; we can bring in a variety of speakers, both pastors and Christian professors, to help a group of MIT grad students understand our faith even better. It’s why I’ve coordinated the Veritas Forum at MIT the last two years, to bring out conversations and discussions related to subjects of faith. And it’s why I’ve started this blog, to continue these discussions among all of the friends I’ve gathered from different parts of my life.
So what am I building? It isn’t as concrete as a community or a church, but I’m slowly trying to build a movement of people honestly thinking through all aspects of their lives. Maybe this will look more tangible down the road. Maybe I’ll join a larger organization like Q which exists for a similar purpose. But for now, this blog is probably the most concrete manifestation of this vision.