Maeve Slattery

Without wishing to undermine my journalistic integrity, there is little I will not do if there is even a slim opportunity for free food. And so the idea of investigating attitudes towards religious conversion in Cambridge was, indeed, the Holy Grail of investigation topics; after obtaining so many free doughnuts outside Cindie’s courtesy of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), for this heathen, food seemed to play a large role in the matter.

I doubt that I am alone in being intrigued by the mysterious people with doughnuts and water outside Cindie’s, and that’s probably by design. CICCU’s website immediately emphasises their dedication to evangelism, describing themselves as “a bunch of Cambridge students who are convinced it is worth telling the whole of the rest of Cambridge about who Jesus is”.

Yet often I think these momentary encounters go unnoticed, for the most part. It is much easier to accept a free doughnut on a cold night out without accepting the complex social, political and emotional baggage of religious doctrine that goes with it. And the very idea of students giving up their precious time and energy to “spread the good news” seems even more extraordinary in Cambridge, where free time is like gold dust and converting university students to a Christian lifestyle seems like an impossible task. So I set out to try and understand how and why conversion is at the centre of CICCU’s existence.

My first foray into CICCU was attending one of their weekly ‘Friday Lunchtime Talks’ (FLT) held in St Andrew’s the Great church near Christ’s. CICCU’s website describes these talks as “an opportunity to engage with the issues and objections that people in the university have with Christianity”. The talk I attended seemed surprisingly secular, namely, “Is justice really the foundation of English law?”

The talk started in a promisingly objective way, asking whether there was one concept of “justice” and then exploring how different ideas of justice can clash in the implementation of law. Then, suddenly, the lecturer claimed there was only one true justice, which naturally, apparently, presupposed a higher moral being, and that was God. I suppose I shouldn’t have found the sudden introduction of God into the talk so jarring, particularly at a talk run by CICCU, but the thread of the argument was still lost on me.

After the talk, doughnuts were brought around, and the socialising began in earnest. I was sat next to a tall, smiley girl who had immediately turned to me to rave about the talk. Her utter enthusiasm for the most basic aspects of Cambridge small talk (name, college, subject) really struck me, as did her excitement when I mentioned I was interested in getting involved with CICCU. “That’s great!” she beamed, and then introduced me to the head of the society, Anna, who took my details with the same irrepressible cheerfulness, promising to email me about a college prayer group.

I left the talk feeling overwhelmed by the CICCU members’ utter joy and enthusiasm at my interest in Christ.

As I began attending their events, CICCU was hosting their main ‘mission week’. This seemed the perfect chance to comprehend how and why CICCU tries to spread the good news; and so, hoping to understand more about what they were aiming to achieve in this week, entitled ‘The Search’ and packed with FLT-style events, I went along to their main weekly meeting, known as ‘Central’.

Central was more like a traditional church service than the FLTs. While I enjoyed the hymns, I was a little perturbed by the way some attendees would raise one arm at a particularly poignant point in the song, a level of visceral emotional engagement that seemed oddly out of place. The entire service was geared towards preparing for mission week, bookended with advice to make the most of this “best last chance” to help other students know about Christianity. The main prayers asked God to bless committee members for the upcoming week and to “open the hearts” of those who attended the events, who were “so desperate” without Jesus in their lives. This was evidently a huge focus, and I wasn’t quite sure how much of it was based on the fact that it directly preceded mission week.

Doubtless, when we were encouraged to split up into smaller groups to pray, the two girls next to me both voiced prayers for God to help the week run smoothly, but one also said that a friend of hers, whom she’d been asking to come along to CICCU for a while, had finally agreed to come to an event. She bowed her head and softly asked for her friend’s heart to be “opened to your light”. 

With her obviously heartfelt sincerity in mind, I went along to one of the mission week talks at Great St Mary’s church; “how can a loving God send people to hell?” An effervescent speaker named Michael gave a twenty minute talk, which at times was more akin to stand-up, with some pretty humorous anecdotes about having your bag searched at airport security and throwing computers out of windows.

And yet, while he emphasised that the “turn or burn” style of Christian evangelism was definitely not worth pursuing, he did make things pretty clear: God has no interest in forcing you to accept him, and he takes no pleasure in condemning even the very worst of humankind to hell, but that there is no get-out clause for generally good people who are not Christians. In one of the questions afterwards, a student asked if this meant that the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust were currently in hell with Hitler. The response came that there were “degrees of punishment” and that hell is not a “one-size-fits-all” place where Hitler is sat next to your grandmother. But there was definitely no contradiction.

After the talk I went up to talk to the speaker, Michael. I asked if he found it a challenge to preach the word of God to university students – university being, in general, a hub of pre-marital sex, alcohol, drugs, and generally the least stereotypically Christian behaviour around. He laughed at this and said that his hope for the people who came to the talk was that they might know God not as vindictive, restrictive or overly moralising, but experience the joy of knowing him.

In many respects, the utter dedication of the CICCU committee will always be somewhat of a mystery to me; in the ‘mission week’ they ran five lunchtime talks, three internationals’ events,  and three evening talks, all with plentiful food provided. How anyone could give up that much of their time here in Cambridge is, and always will be, beyond me.

But evangelism is, in some respects, something that anyone can get behind – belief in God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost pre-requisite, of course. And what increasingly struck me as the week went on was how vague a lot of the Christian ideology was; nothing was said which could have pin-pointed a specific branch of Christianity, just broad and comprehensively ‘Christian’ beliefs.

One CICCU attendee confided in me that she privately thought that the overwhelming focus on evangelism was a tactic to avoid having Christians of different branches sat bickering in a room. When I sat down with Trinitarian and CICCU member Hannah Roberts, she agreed that, without a specific denomination, the main role of CICCU is evangelical. Like most of the CICCU members I had met over the past few weeks, she was bright and cheerful and irrepressibly enthusiastic about her religion; she said that it was, to some extent, natural for Christians to want to share the good news with their friends because it was the way to the most satisfied life, and that “you wouldn’t really love your friends if you didn’t want to share that with them”.

I asked if CICCU members genuinely believed that their friends would go to hell if they did not come to Christianity; Hannah replied that “we do believe that Judgement is real” and agreed that a friend rejecting her appeals to come to a CICCU talk or chat about the Bible can be difficult to deal with. But she said, smiling, that even if a friend rejects Christianity now, she continues to hope that “one day” they will find Jesus and come to know his love, and live the “fulfilled” life he makes possible.

Hannah’s undaunted hope that the people she loves will come to Jesus and, in turn, experience salvation from judgement, seemed to epitomise the impervious optimism of CICCU as whole. Evangelism may be a handy way to side-step a lot of theological in-fighting, but the CICCU members’ intrinsic desire for their friends to know the joy of Christ fuels the organisation through long mission weeks, and countless rejections.