Inside the war for souls at Ryerson University

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By Peter Zin

Spring break, 1995.

Somewhere in the Middle East, or maybe Russia, a select group of foreign students waits nervously in hotel rooms for the signal.  Their mission is to infiltrate a nearby campus cafeteria, drop off their packages and get the hell out.

“Load up the eggs!”

The command echoes through their hotel room as Brian Main, a young, clean-cut American, crams 15 copies of the New Testament — code named “eggs” — into his backpack and heads out the door.

Laws in many countries forbid Christian evangelists.  But that doesn’t stop the professional missionaries of the Campus Crusade for Christ, an aggressive Florida-based ministry active in 172 countries with a full-time staff of 16,400 — including Main.

Main has been recruiting for the Crusade since he was a pharmacy student at the University of Toledo, Ohio, where he helped convert more than a hundred members in one year.  He’s been to Kenya as a missionary and been involved in covert operations in countries he wouldn’t identify.

His latest assignment isn’t as far-flung.  In Canada with a religious worker’s visa, Main has been winning converts at Ryerson for the past three years.

There’s no reason to hide the group’s intentions here, Main says.  “It’s Muslim countries where that would be necessary now,” he says.  Missionaries could face punishment for preaching in some countries.

The Crusade held a free barbeque at Oakham House’s patio during the first week of school to attract students.  Around 25 people showed up, including first year social work student Tim Sreedharan.

Hesitant at first, Sreedharan soon made friends with the other Crusade members.  Now, several weeks later, he talks about the Crusade’s purpose with the same intensity as veterans such as Main.

“It’s a war in the spiritual sense,” says Sreedharan.  “We’re in a huge war right now because there are so many things opposed to us or standing in our way.

“Christians really have to fight and struggle to stand on their feet.”

The Crusade started in 1951 at the University of California in Los Angeles, after founder Bill Bright said he received a “unique impression” from God to spend his life trying to reach the world, starting with college students.

In an Internet message, Bright says the Crusade’s objective is to take the gospel to more than six billion people and “plant” a million churches by the end of this year.

Of course, not everyone thinks such evangelism is harmless.  In an article for The Globe and Mail, Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, points out that while Africa, India and China were missionaries’ destinations in the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia and Israel are still targeted.  He calls missionary activities a form of “cultural imperialism.”

“They [missionaries] are destabilizing societies, dividing families, and destroying indigenous cultures,” Elmasry writes.

But Main and David Mullings, who co-ordinate the Crusade chapters at Ryerson, York University and the University of Toronto, describe their jobs differently.

“I see my job as like a coach,” Main says.  “A conditioning coach to help people grow with God.”

Mullings adds: “I want them to experience the thrill of being God’s tool.”

As a Ryerson group the Crusade gets funding from student fees, including up to $800 per year and a free room at Oakham House for weekly meetings.

It’s not unusual for local cells of large organization to gain “student group” status, says campus group administrator Leatrice Sepevack.  Other Ryerson groups affiliated with parent organizations include the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the Jewish Students Association.

What’s unusual is the Crusade’s focus on evangelism.  Blue pocket-sized forms are handed out at meetings and members write down names of ten friends they’ll try to recruit to the Crusade.  Third-year computer science student Greg Klotz says they’re dedicated to fulfilling a “Great Commission.”

“The Great Commission is evangelism,” Klotz says.  “Jesus said to go forth and make disciples of everybody.”

Klotz is the president of Ryerson’s Crusade chapter, but emphasizes he just wants to be seen as an equal member of the group.

A week after the free barbeque, 24 people showed up at the first official Crusade meeting of the year in an upstairs room of Oakham House.  After a quick group game — where everyone won a prize — and four sing-alongs, Klotz delivered a testimonial describing how he found Jesus.

The speech put Sreedharan on the edge of his seat, drawing him into the circle even though his sportswear and copper-tinted hair made him stand out from the others, most of them clad in jeans and T-shirts.

After the testimonial, Main led the group through a Bible discussion in which everyone agreed the best way to reach others in through evangelism.

The next week’s meeting began with a game invented by Main, Klotz, and Sreedharan during a weekend retreat near Parry Sound: Fun With Crackers.

The game, Main explained, started when they were joking around during the car ride back from the retreat.  The object was to see who could eat seven soda crackers at once.

No one at the meeting was able to down all seven.  As a bottle of water and cups were passed around, Sonny Yeung, a Ryerson business graduate and member of the group, jokes about how the crackers are like the communion.

“And that’s the holy water,” Yeung said with a laugh, grabbing the water bottle.  “Did you know that ‘Evian’ spelled backwards is ‘naïve?’”

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