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Chi Alpha
taking a stand at
Louisiana State University

By John T. Maempa

Heavy humidity and overcast skies, typical of Cajun country most anytime of year, greet me as I step off the plane to visit the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Linking with Kirk Priest, Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship director, we are quickly on our way in his Speed-the-Light car.

Louisiana’s flagship institution and home to more than 30,000 students from the United States and more than 100 countries, LSU’s sprawling campus is situated on 2,000 acres, with most of its 250 principal buildings grouped on a 650-acre plateau. One of the nation’s top research universities, LSU is ranked in the top 2 percent by the Carnegie Foundation.

Some 1,500 massive live oaks, draped with Spanish moss, umbrella the acreage with shade.

While academics reign supreme, there is room for looking inward and upward.

“LSU isn’t an ‘experiential’ university,” Kirk says as we drive through the Carthage stone gates on the north entrance to the campus. “There aren’t a lot of students into alternative religions, New Age, the occult or witchcraft.” For the most part, Kirk, his wife, Amy, and Norma Ortiz, co-director of the Chi Alpha ministry, have found the students to be reasonably open to spiritual matters. “There are, of course, the usual [things] found on most university campuses — alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity,” Kirk says.

Amy and Kirk Priest offer free coffee at
Café Chi Alpha as a way to reach students.

The university’s administration supports Chi Alpha’s efforts, granting the team parking privileges, staff ID and open access to the dorms where posters can be displayed and students can be counseled. Rather than provide dorm therapists, Kirk, Amy and Norma have chaplain status in five halls with the right to minister to students’ spiritual or emotional needs.

Not that the institution is an evangelical stronghold. A cartoon in the campus newspaper depicts the dreaded “roommate from hell” as a young lady wearing a “What Would Jesus Do?” T-shirt and carrying a Bible. A front-page article announces that a special coalition for change will be monitoring alcohol consumption at games, “seeking to reduce high-risk drinking and its negative consequences.”

Clearly, there is work to do.

Watching a mass of backpack-laden students move from one class building to another, I wonder how many packs symbolize burdens of a heavier kind. While appearing confident on the outside, how many carry deep hurts and longings that will never be healed or fulfilled on the path they are taking through life?

That question is why the ministries of Chi Alpha and the local church are needed. Students searching for reality need a place to turn for guidance and instruction. Those with hurts and fears need someone who will listen with love.

Café Chi Alpha, situated just outside the north gates, is just the place for that to happen. Located in an old storefront building renovated largely by financial help and labor from local Assemblies of God churches, Café Chi Alpha provides a haven for students who want to get off campus and relax. In a comfortable atmosphere, they can enjoy a bagel along with a cappuccino, iced coffee, juice or an international tea — all free, a word that resonates well with university students. Church contributions help subsidize the cost. A nearby bakery donates day-old bagels; another restaurant provides crushed ice.

“So many flavors, so little time,” emblazoned on the café’s sign is a reminder that life offers a lot of choices; but just as coffee is processed from a certain type of bean, there is only one source of truth and hope — Jesus Christ. But time is running out. Jesus is coming soon, so choices must be made quickly. Café Chi Alpha gives Kirk, Amy and Norma, along with more than 70 regular members of Chi Alpha, opportunity to share a Christian witness.

Amy tells of a student who came by the café looking for friends. She told Amy she had always wanted to work in a coffee shop. “I asked if she would like to volunteer,” Amy says. She started working, and two months later received Christ as her Savior.

“Several of our Chi Alpha volunteers are catching on to the potential for ministry here,” Amy says. “They realize the people are coming to them which provides a ready-made opportunity to talk to them about Christ.”

During the Thursday night Chi Alpha Live service held in a campus lecture hall, a powerful anointing falls as the students sing praise and worship choruses. Many worship openly, with hands raised. Others bow their faces before the Lord. Of 30 first-time visitors the week prior, 15 have returned. In all, some 70 students are present. Bibles, compliments of Chi Alpha, are given to any who do not own a Bible. Contact information is collected on all first-time visitors and will be followed up on by the leadership team and volunteers.

Preaching from the Book of Daniel, Kirk encourages the students to be risk takers for God, to be willing to take a bold stand for their faith on campus.

“Taking a stand will cost you something,” he says. “A vision to do something for God always comes with a price. If your vision doesn’t cost you something, it’s a daydream.” During the altar call, several students commit themselves to be risk takers. Two respond to an invitation to receive Christ as Savior. Four had come forward the week before.

With more than 100 countries represented on campus, LSU is home to about 1,500 international students. Seizing the opportunity to develop indigenous missionaries, Chi Alpha focuses special attention on the foreign students.

On Friday night, I attend a Jamba-laya International Student Reception, held to welcome international students. Jambalaya, a Cajun favorite, is a spicy mixture of different foods blended together as one, symbolizing the mix of cultures on campus, as well as the unity of all who are part of the body of Christ.

Some 200 students participate in the feast. Countries represented include China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Zambia, Nigeria, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, Nepal, El Salvador, Brazil, Uruguay, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Sweden. The majority of international students are from Malaysia and Korea.

One girl, a zoology major from Japan, is a first-time visitor to a Chi Alpha function. “I didn’t know anything about Chi Alpha,” she says. “But I was invited by Brenda who gave me a flyer and offered a ride.” Brenda leads one of the Life Group (Bible study and discipleship) meetings on campus.

Another young lady from China also is a first-timer to Chi Alpha. An information systems major pursuing a Ph.D., she plans to return to her homeland.

After the meal, Kirk introduces the Chi Alpha team and outlines what the program is about.

“Some of you might be from countries where Christianity is common, others from countries where it is a minority,” he says. “While you are in the U.S., we would like to give you opportunity to learn more about Christianity and give you the chance to learn who Jesus Christ is and His plan for your life. We would be thrilled if you become a Christian, but our love for you isn’t based on that. We are here to serve you in any way we can.” A booklet, How To Survive in the U.S., containing practical information about living in America, is given the international students as they leave.

After the feast, students are invited to make their way to the café where a band is gearing up for a late-night concert in an adjacent alley. As the sound of the guitars, drums and vocalists pierces the night air, students, some on their way to nearby bars, stop to listen. Others go inside the café for a free beverage where Chi Alpha volunteers offer friendship and a listening ear, ready to share their faith in Christ. Visitors learn that salvation too is a free gift — like the coffee.

Chi Alpha outreach is making a difference, something co-director Norma Ortiz knows firsthand. A student from Puerto Rico on a basketball scholarship to the University of Southern Louisiana in Lafayette, Norma did not know the Lord. “One day I met a student from Chi Alpha in the cafeteria, and we became friends. She invited me to attend their meetings. When I went, I knew those students had something I didn’t have,” Norma says. “I always knew there was a God, but I didn’t know He wanted to have a personal relationship with me. I accepted Christ as my Savior and then got involved in a Life Group.”

God called Norma to full-time ministry in Chi Alpha, and she has been serving for three years on the LSU campus.

While the spiritual needs are great on LSU’s campus and the task is daunting, Chi Alpha leaders, volunteers and supporting churches are working together to change lives one at a time.

Click here to make a contribution to Chi Alpha

John T. Maempa is general editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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