URBANA– When talking about her experiences at the Urbana 03 convention, Ekaterina Tsuy, 25, immediately saw a difference from her country.
"Twenty thousand people coming to worship God," said Tsuy, smiling throughout the interview, trying to find the perfect words to express her joy. "I couldn't experience that in my country."
She lives in Kyrgyzstan, a part of the former Soviet Union, where speaking openly about Christianity is not advised. There are small Christian churches scattered throughout the country, but it pales next to the dominant religion.
"Christianity is superficial and not as deep as here," said Tsuy, who lives where 75 percent of people are practicing Muslims.
For the first time, foreign students were part of the regularly scheduled Urbana convention instead of having a separate gathering. The five-day event, which targeted college students and recent graduates, takes place every three years. The goal is to help students seek their place in God's mission.
More than 1,100 international students from 125 countries attended several different multicultural seminars throughout the week, separate from American students.
"Some of them have not been around other Christians in their country," said Lisa Espineli Chinn, International Student Ministries director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. "To have them all in one place is quite an experience."
She heard stories of students staying up late at night with each other, even though they had to wake up early the next morning for Bible study. They also gathered with the 18,900 American students at Assembly Hall twice a day. In the evening, they broke away by country and worshipped in their particular language.
Chinn said the program was specially designed so international students could feel comfortable with people from their same country, yet still be able to take in North American culture.
For Nigel Wong, Christianity has been picking up steam since the 1980s, but still is ostracized. In Singapore, Christians cannot always speak openly about their religion and the country does not have a Christian radio station. But within those rigid confines, Wong said he is pretty open about his faith.
He came to the conference for several reasons.
"I am here for information about missions and how I can help as a student," said Wong, 23, who now studies architecture at the University of Houston.
He became a Christian in 1995. "My aunt was praying for me for two years and I asked her 'Can you bring me to church?'" he remembers. "I decided it was time to give my life to Christ."
He also wasn't close with his biological family, but found his church home provided him with the support system he craved. Chinn said some students took a risk attending Urbana 03 because their Christian views are not popular in their countries.
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