Editor’s note: Sam and Aili Lin have been involved in full-time ministry in China, but in 2020, found themselves displaced to the States due to COVID-19. Sam is Singaporean-American, while Aili grew up in China. As we pray and write about evangelism to China this month, they graciously shared their experiences over the past year-plus serving international students at a large research university. Despite the difficulties of this season, God continues to work in the hearts of those he has prepared. Sam and Aili’s insights into the current realities of international student work offer both encouragement and direction for those seeking to love their Chinese neighbor in a Western context.
Details and names have been changed to obscure Sam and Aili’s identity, and this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Check back later this week to hear more of their story!
China Partnership: Tell me about yourselves.
Sam: I was born in Singapore of Chinese descent, but moved to the U.S. in preschool. I grew up in the northeast. I am pretty Americanized; I relate more to Western culture. But it has been cool to go back to China and reconnect with that side of my culture. Now I’ve got a Chinese wife, so maybe the balance has shifted to the Chinese side.
I went to college in the northeast. I worked for a few years after college, then decided to go into full-time ministry. Pretty soon after that I went to China. I loved it. We still want to go back and see multitudes there reached for Christ.
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Aili: I was born and raised in China, and am the first-generation Christian in my family. I became a Christian when I was in college. A sister shared the gospel with me, and we studied the Bible together. In those four years, my life totally changed. After I graduated, I went into full-time ministry.
CP: What have your lives been like since COVID?
Sam: The whole world has changed. We were temporarily out of China when COVID hit, so we waited to see what would happen. Then we were told to wait longer. Finally, everyone was sent back to their passport countries. We came back to my home state, then moved to the South, because we had friends in China who grew up in the South and returned there. While we wait, we are serving with internationals.
CP: You still hope to go back to China?
Sam: Yes. It’s hard on Aili, because this is not her home country. I enjoy going to Chick-fil-A and seeing the green grass of America. There are parts I am thankful for—but Aili’s family are all back there.
CP: Tell me about your work with international students.
Sam: Wherever we are, we want to work with students, because we believe that they are the next leaders of our society who are going to shape the culture.
We jumped right in, doing a seeker study with some Muslim guys. We read through Genesis, and compared and contrasted it with Islam. We talked about Christianity. We take them to the park, go on hikes, invite them to our house and cook. We try to “welcome the foreigner.”
Aili: I enjoy spending time with international students. One reason is because I can feel the pressures of what they are enduring. It is easy to understand, because I am a foreigner, too. I also faced many difficulties when I came here. I want to show them Jesus’s love. We are the same as foreigners, but I am a Christian—maybe I can build a bridge to Christ.
I learn a lot from these students because they have different backgrounds. I never had a chance to meet students from different countries in China, but here I can meet and learn from them. I can know that, “Wow, God has created so many different peoples.”
CP: What has it been like for Chinese students since COVID?
Sam: It seems there are less Chinese students, and more students from other countries, like India. Chinese are there, they just have not been coming out. As for spiritual topics, a lot of the Chinese we have met are apathetic or have a loose Buddhist background. A few guys are more receptive, and they are getting a lot of encounters with the gospel. One girl, from what we can see and what she has said, has received Christ recently—like last week! In China and everywhere, there are people God has prepared who are ready and want to hear. But there is a lot of hard soil, where people are apathetic or not interested.
I feel that maybe this has to do with COVID.
In the northeast, where I grew up, our Chinese church also has an international fellowship. Some of those who serve feel that in recent years interest has been decreasing. That is probably trickling down from the top, from the government sending a clear message to watch out for brainwashers. That’s the current reality. It’s sad, but God hasn’t left. He is still there; he is still working. Pray and see what he will do.
CP: What are some barriers Chinese face as they engage with questions of faith? What are good ways you have found to start those conversations?
Sam: A lot of Chinese students come here for an education. They have a one-track mind and want to study. If it’s not going to help them and their studies, they don’t need it and don’t want it.
We have seen materialism growing in China, and it’s growing over here, too. Chinese students like to talk about nice, expensive stuff—a really nice Playstation 5, or shoes that are dropping soon that look like dumplings. If there is no tangible help to their studies or material benefit to them, then it is not a value.
Aili: In the northeast, Sam’s Chinese church has a fellowship for visiting scholars. Those teachers have mentioned that they will go back and continue teaching, so they cannot have a religion. If they become Christians, that would affect their career. Students are scared that if they become Christians and then go back to China to find a job, it would affect their future. Because of this, they don’t want to learn more.
Sam: I’ve been able to connect with students through basketball and through food. Some opportunities we have found that can build trust and relationship are meeting the physical needs of students, which they have a lot of: helping them look at cars to buy, moving furniture, taking them to explore.
That is going to be the way to go. You can’t just say, “Do you want to talk about the Bible?” They might not be interested. But, if you show them the love of Christ in a practical way, this can break through barriers.
Aili: A sister we met here is a good testimony. She met some international students who rented a house near campus and needed to move, but the landlord would not return their deposit. This American girl said that was not right. She helped them talk to their landlord, and he finally returned the money. Then they had to move out, but had no place to live. She invited the students to live in her house.
This sister taught me how to love these students. She is using her life to share the gospel.
Sam and Aili Lin currently live in the States, but have been involved in ministry in China for many years. Sam is Singaporean-American, while Aili grew up in China. They have been married eight years, and have three children.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for God to create divine encounters between Christians and overseas Chinese students and scholars who are receptive to the gospel.