James Tugwell says the Evangelical Union is “loving and welcoming”, especially for international students. (ABC RN: Hayley Lukabyo)
Step onto campus at the University of Sydney, and within 10 minutes there’s likely to be more than three different societies waiting to sign you up to the latest political or social campaign.
For some of these clubs, campaigning on campus is about more than student elections and political protests.
For members of non-denominational Christian group, the Evangelical Union (EU) it’s a matter of the afterlife.
Members visit students lunching in the sun and ask to join, chatting about Jesus between classes.
These EU students have faced criticism in the past for voicing their religious views in a public way in what some say should be a secular space.
Some students say they tolerate being approached by a political or social group, but when the talk turns to religion, it’s no longer OK.
And many EU members choose not to put their hands up for this job, known as walk-up, partly because of the socially draining impact of rejection.
I’m part of the EU Graduates Fund, an organisation that partners with the EU — and while I don’t do walk-up right now, in the past I’ve taken part.
Despite the potential for dismissal, the face-to-face element of evangelism is considered vital.
The majority of students on campus are using Facebook and Instagram to communicate, but EU members and representatives of social and political groups still put themselves out there to reach people with their message.
The ‘greatest news’ on campus
Media and communications student James Tugwell isn’t shy in sharing what he calls “the greatest news in history” with strangers he approaches during his free time on campus.
Mr Tugwell says he tells people about Jesus because he “wants them to think for themselves”.
He sees it as his duty to provide a Christian perspective and a kind word to students who may be dealing with social isolation, including international students.
Christian artwork in the graffiti tunnel at the University of Sydney. (ABC RN: Hayley Lukabyo)
“It’s a community that is loving and welcoming for everyone,” Mr Tugwell says.
“I don’t think we prey on the vulnerable. I think we actually appeal to the vulnerable because they’re welcome.”
Though there can be significant social costs to sharing his views, Mr Tugwell sees this as a small price to pay.
“If people think I’m an absolute weirdo, I’m OK with that.”
Religion as ‘a private thing’
Not all students hold a positive view of walk-up evangelism.
For James Sherrif, an international and global studies student, religion is “a private thing”.
He says people shouldn’t interact with religion in “that disingenuous way on campus, which is a very particular space — an open, secular space of education”.
Mr Sherrif sees religion as a very “individual, personal” thing that should be kept private. (ABC RN: Hayley Lukabyo)
Mr Sherrif says he understands the imperative for the religious to evangelise, but says it must be viewed very differently to other forms of campaigning.
This is a criticism shared by many students, who use student Facebook pages and campus news outlets to complain that walk-up evangelism can feel intrusive and manipulative.
Mr Sherrif wrote a satirical article about walk-up evangelism for campus news outlet Honi Soit.
He is open about his reservations regarding EU recruitment practices, saying walk-up evangelism “plays on people’s naiveties”.
“It’s not exactly wrong,” he says, “but I just think that people should be wary.”
Mr Sherrif says he can see why evangelists rely on face-to-face conversations even in a digital era.
“It’s the classic method — the best way to see if someone’s interested is to see their reactions,” he says.
“And it is a lot easier to convey your passion if you’re in person than sending out a group text to 1,000 people.”
When evangelists meet international students
It was the appeal of a friendly community that initially attracted Chinese international student Listi Lee to the EU.
During the first two years of her degree, she says, she felt lonely and isolated.
Listi Lee says the EU provided a friendly, open space for her to make friends. (ABC RN: Hayley Lukabyo)
“It was very hard for me to make friends here,” she says. “I seldom talked to domestic students.”
“I couldn’t understand the things they were talking about.”
But then another student told her about the EU’s international student ministry, EU Focus.
Coming from China, Ms Lee says she had next to no knowledge about Christianity, because people “generally don’t practice or talk about religion”.
Now in her third year of study, Ms Lee says that joining EU Focus is “a great experience for international students, whether they’ve heard of Christianity before or not”.
The group has become a safe and friendly place for her to practice communicating in English and to continue to explore Christianity.
You would expect a university campus to be at the forefront of digital innovation, and in many ways, my campus is — but for religious and political groups, especially the EU, walk-up isn’t going out of fashion any time soon.