Los Angeles – Aurellia Himawan, a spring admit at the University of Southern California wandered around Grace Salvatori Hall, looking for the classroom where a Bible study is taking place. "It's, you know, a good way to meet people," she said in a slightly nervous tone, "I'm a spring admit, so it's difficult."
Himawan isn't a particularly devout Christian, making a so-so gesture with her hands when prodded on her faith, "but they're all really nice people, so that's why I come." Himawan is referring to SOON Movement, a Korean nondenominational ministry working on college campuses across the U.S.
Himawan, who is not Korean, feels the same pressures as many of her peers. College students are under a lot of pressure to succeed and, as a result, many don't have time for friends, socializing or leisure activities. College students could benefit from professional counseling services, but young Koreans "tend not to seek professional help for their mental health problems; instead they use personal support networks—close friends, significant others, and religious community," according to a study from the University of Maryland.
Pressures are even worse among Korean students because the "dual pressure" of demanding Korean work culture, which emphasizes high academic achievement, and a more individualistic American outlook. For some of these second-gens, groups like SOON Movement provide a safe space to discuss conflicting pressures
Himawan walked into the modest classroom where a group of older students sat in a circle with skateboards resting against the back wall and a crucifix hastily chalked onto the blackboard. The club president, Steven Tan, made his way to the front of the room to deliver announcements. Then he whisked Himawan and another newcomer to a different classroom for Bible study.
In SOON Movement, 'soon' is the name for the small discipleship groups. Soonjongs are older students, further along in their "walk with Christ" than the Soonwons, younger disciples whofind the group through friends or extracurricular involvement fairs. The two groups meet weekly for Soonmoim, or Bible study, so that the young Soonwon can accept Christ and join the ministry.
The pace of the Soonjong meeting was slow and contemplative. It was half-debrief and half-therapy session. The students don't read scripture; instead, five of them discussed Higher Calling LA, a three-day Christian conference for all the SOON chapters in Southern California.
"I didn't get that usual high midway and then come down before the last day," said Alice Kim, a junior at USC, "I was on a steady spiritual high the whole time, but it wasn't like, life-changing."
Higher Calling's sleek website describes tickets with 'Early Bird' or 'Day Passes,' not unlike your options for Coachella. Its prices are steep — $220 for the full three days, including meals and board. But that is where the similarities end between SOON members and their worldly peers. SOON members speak frankly about their troubles. Mental health struggles, poor academic performance, family issues — nothing seemed to be off-limits.
Victoria Yu admitted to feeling depressed and lonely during Higher Calling. Joe Soon had problems with his family. Rony Qiu realized he was "broken" after attending the conference. The Soonjongs were open about their problems even if fellow members of the ministry had no solutions to offer.
Edy Kim raised the the issue of recruting Soonwons. Attracting newcomers is a challenge and it's even harder to keep them in the group. Religious affiliation among young American millennials is down, with 36 percent of the generation identifying as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular."
Despite good attendance at Monday's bible study, several newcomers were non-believers and showed little interest in committing to the ministry.
Later in the week, SOON held a large group prayer in a small lecture theatre in the Stauffer Science Hall unless this is for Annenberg Media these details of where won't make a difference. Last name turned down the lights as the praise team began a series of contemporary Christian songs. The lyrics were projected on the wall so audience members could sing along.
Cindy Shim said her first semester at USC took a toll on her mental health. She found solace in SOON, "I thought I was gonna fail. It wasn't the difficulty of the classes but me questioning, do I really belong here?"
She continued, "There were times I doubted myself so much that I couldn't get out of bed. My club members probably don't know this but them just being there, almost saved me." Shim said.