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Oklahoma State University

The journey to Jesus

By John W. Kennedy

The Vietnam War had ended five months earlier with the evacuation of U.S. troops. Luom Bui had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese army and faced a grim future in the wake of reunification with communist North Vietnam. Bui determined to escape with his wife, Loi, and their four young sons. Winding their way through jungles at night, they fled Vietnam with only the clothes on their backs.

This summer, after graduation, Carol Bui joined the Oklahoma State University Chi Alpha staff full time as a zone shepherd overseeing cell groups on campus.


Loi Bui, six months pregnant during the September 1975 trip, had an even more arduous time in making her way to Bartlesville, Okla. She gave birth three months later to the family’s only daughter, Carol.

The family quickly adapted to the American way of life, with Luom finding a job in an oil company’s maintenance department and Loi working in a coin-operated laundry. Their modestly paying jobs put food on the table and kept Carol and her brothers clothed, but the parents instilled in their children the need to make good grades in order to someday make it in high-paying occupations.

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The children resolved to be academic achievers and find high-salaried professions, in part to make their parents’ retirement easier. Carol chose speech pathology as a major because the payoff would be rewarding.

"I wanted to be someone really successful who made a lot of money," Bui recalls. "I wanted to please my mother and father. They had high expectations of me becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. They instilled a drive in me to earn a lot of money because they didn’t want their children to struggle financially."

But events that first semester at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater began to alter her goals for life. It started with an invitation by some older classmates to a Chi Alpha meeting. Away from home for the first time and missing her family while living among 16,500 students, Bui desperately sought friends in her new college environment.

"I went, reluctantly, because I just wanted something to do," Bui says. "I knew there was something missing in my life but the idea of religion made me uncomfortable." Bui, whose parents are nominal Buddhists, had no exposure to Christianity.

Gradually, Bui came to learn about God through Chi Alpha and she began experiencing the peace and joy she saw in others who attended the meetings. By her junior year she had developed a personal relationship with Jesus. By the time she graduated with a master’s degree in speech pathology, she had a passionate commitment to the Lord, one that would redirect her career path.

"When she committed her life to the Lord it was a decision she had really thought through intelligently," says Brad Riley, OSU Chi Alpha campus pastor who, with his wife, Julie, mentored Bui. "Carol has a great perspective because of her upbringing."

"Chi Alpha means so much to me," Bui says. "It’s such a special part of my life. Brad and Julie have always challenged me to live out the full purpose that God has for my life. I would not be where I am today without their unconditional love, support and encouragement."

This summer, after graduation, Bui joined the Oklahoma State University Chi Alpha staff full time as a zone shepherd overseeing cell groups on campus. This fall, she is organizing 30 cell groups and meeting with the active leaders of each one.

There are more than 70 cell groups on the OSU campus; some are relational in nature while others provide deep discipleship. For instance, some students who wouldn’t attend a church service, or even a Bible study, will play basketball games that are preceded by prayer and a devotional. The interest-based cell groups are geared around everything from mountain biking to archaeological digging.

Bui’s role is to guide leaders in how best to lead their groups. "Carol helps the leaders to channel their passion for Jesus," Riley says. "She tells them to go back to those people who were like them and share how God changed their lives." Cells meet all around campus, including in fraternities, sororities, student apartments and hall lobbies. Some are designed to help participants stay on track after struggling with addictions, from alcohol to pornography.

"We just try to model what Jesus did, being there in the hard times and being there in the good times," says Riley, who has been with Chi Alpha at OSU for six years.

Bui hopes she can help OSU students the way others helped her. Riley believes that Bui is a great mentor.

"My passion is to reach those who are helpless or hopeless," Bui says. "I was aimless, but others invested their lives in me to show me that I had a future and a hope."

The OSU Chi Alpha chapter is the second oldest in the nation, formed in 1954 after Southwest Missouri State University’s chapter in Springfield. The methodology of reaching students has changed by incorporating such techniques as cell groups. All OSU Chi Alpha facilities are in a bar district and seven taverns are within 100 yards of the church that Chi Alpha started on campus in 1998. The ministry office shares a porch with a saloon.

Because the school is located in the Bible Belt, Riley says reaching students with the gospel can be difficult. "The majority don’t want to hear about God because they think they’ve heard it all before," Riley says. "Most feel they are fine with God."

A student outreach center coffeehouse opened in August. Riley says ideas and philosophies can be exchanged at the coffeehouse, much like the Areopagus of Athens in Paul’s day. "We don’t want it to be a typical hangout for Christians," Riley says. "We want it to be a connecting place for non-believers, for pre-Christians."

In addition, a Thursday night Chi Alpha group meeting draws up to 200 students. They lead worship, preach and present drama. A concert of praise night once a month sometimes attracts 350.

Bui is not the first in her family to be touched through Chi Alpha. Her brother Winston, 33, is Chi Alpha campus pastor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He earlier had been Chi Alpha campus pastor at Northeastern University in Tahlequah, Okla.

John W. Kennedy is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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