"It's a little weird and I feel uncomfortable," Aurelio Palacios' friend tells him, shaking his head nervously.
A 25-year-old Mexican college student, Aurelio had asked his friend Alejandro Celis if he wanted to talk to a group of his friends about Jesus. The 2 attend the Universidad Autonoma de la Ciudad de Mexico (UACM), a public college in Mexico City.
"I know you are a new believer and it's scary," Aurelio tells him. "But it is the best way you can show you love your friends."
Aurelio, a communications major, keeps his dark hair slicked back and has a suave, friendly demeanor. Meanwhile, 22-year-old Alejandro has hair dyed haphazardly in blond streaks and looks like he could frontline for an alternative rock band.
Three years ago, Aurelio started a Christian student group called Projecto Estudiantil de Identidad (Student Identity Project), and he's seen it grow from just 3 members to more than 30.
From the beginning, Aurelio has wanted the group to give every student on campus -- 4,500 of them -- a chance to have a relationship with God. He quickly learned he couldn't do this alone, that he needs other students to help him reach his peers for Christ.
Taking a Step of Faith with Friends
That day, Aurelio had been walking the drab campus, looking for students to talk with about God. He does this every Tuesday. He ran into Alejandro and his girlfriend, Kenya Sanchez, who are both Christians, and asked them to join him.
"Usually when we talk about stuff like that, people get mad," says Alejandro. Aurelio reminds him about the good that can come out of such a conversation. They decide to pray about it.
A few minutes later, Alejandro hesitantly agrees to help.
With Aurelio leading the way, the trio approaches the 4 students, who are sprawled on the patchy lawn, chatting coolly and smoking cigarettes.
Aurelio shakes hands with the 2 men and gives the women besitos -- a Mexican greeting involving a kiss on the cheek. One of the girls wears large earrings resembling disco balls.
Alejandro has been friends with these students for 2 years, while Aurelio is an acquaintance. The 7 of them sit in a circle on the dry lawn.
"We wanted you guys to know about something that we have been doing on campus," says Aurelio, explaining that they want to talk with them about having a relationship with God.
Overcoming the Past to Speak About Eternity
In Mexico, only 6 percent of the population claim to be evangelical Christians, and especially on the college campus, talking about faith in Jesus is very rare. Across Mexico City, only a few Christian groups exist on the more than 400 campuses.
Aurelio proceeds to tell them about their student group, and Kenya also helps explain. Alejandro sits quietly.
"I've heard about what you are up to, that you meet together and are in touch with God," says one of the students, who seems open to the conversation. "I think it is cool, but sometimes I've felt attacked by Christian people, because they say I am going to hell."
With a lack of people to train them, many Christians in Mexico resort to confrontation or "fire and brimstone" when telling others about Christ. This is probably the reason for Alejandro's hesitancy. But Aurelio communicates his faith in a different way.
"God came to love you," says Aurelio. "Our moments in life are short and we don't know what's going to happen to us. I'm being serious, because I love you guys."
Alejandro listens to the conversation intently, but he still says nothing. He became a Christian about a year ago, through Aurelio and other members from the group.
Also during that time, Aurelio met some staff members involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, seeking to start ministries on all of Mexico City's 400 campuses. Currently they have helped start ministries on 46 different campuses. They continue to encourage Aurelio and his student group, giving resources and coaching.
"You all remember how crazy my life used to be," Aurelio tells the group, referring to when he used to rob apartments to help support his girlfriend and daughter, Esmeralda, who is now 6.
After his girlfriend left him 4 years ago, Aurelio started attending a church, where he vowed to serve God for the rest of his life.
Dealing with the Obstacles
He hands the students a Four Spiritual Laws booklet, which explains how to have a relationship with God. Scrawled on the cover are directions to the student meeting.
While many of Mexico's young people grew up in some form of organized church, many have been turned off to religion.
"I don't necessarily believe in Christianity," says the girl with large earrings, named Lyzbet Cruz. "I believe in humanity, and I like how I am living my life now.
"But I'm glad we are having this conversation," she adds. "I've already learned a lot from what you are saying, and I am open to your philosophy, your cosmic view."
For many Mexicans, college offers a buffet of new ideas. And since UACM is a public school requiring no entrance exam, many impoverished Mexicans get a chance to better their life through education.
Even with such a flood of ideas, most of Mexico's 3.8 million university students have not been exposed to Christianity, according to Operation World, an international mission almanac. Many are searching for meaning.
"Right now I am looking for purpose and God in my life," says a student named Luis Saldana, taking a drag from a cigarette and cocking his head sideways, to avoid blowing the smoke in his friends' faces. "I'm searching for answers to my questions."
He then hands the cigarette to his girlfriend, a thin, sandy-haired woman wearing bright pink lipstick.
Encouraging Boldness in a Friend
The conversation continues for several more minutes. Then Aurelio prompts Alejandro to contribute.
"Alejandro, why don't you share about your spiritual life?" says Aurelio.
"Yes, Alejandro, these are your friends, too," says his girlfriend, Kenya.
Looking at the ground and then at his friends, Alejandro moves closer into the circle. "This is really great that we are having this conversation," he says, his voice wavering slightly.
"A lot of times people say I don't look like a Christian," he says.
Alejandro has always wanted to talk with his friends about his faith, he just didn't know how to begin. Today he seizes the opportunity.
"We all need to live for something bigger than this," he says, explaining how God gives his life purpose. He then asks his friends if they would be willing to pray together.
His friends continue to offer more of their thoughts about God. Then they agree to pray with Alejandro and Aurelio. The 7 students shuffle even closer together, and clasp hands.
"Should we close our eyes?" asks Lyzbet. "It's a little weird."
But the students do it anyway.
Kenya begins the prayer and then Aurelio chimes in.
"God, I ask that you would break Your way into our lives," he prays. And then he offers the students a chance to repeat his words if they want to begin a relationship with God.
"God, come and enter into our lives," he says. And to his and Alejandro's surprise, all the students repeat his words. "Holy Spirit, please enter into our hearts. Help us to know You, to know You are here. Bless our hearts and our friendships. Amen."
Trusting God with the Results
Afterward the students blink their eyes open, and begin debriefing the experience. Then they resume chatting idly. Two of the students, who are studying opera, begin serenading the group with a melancholy song.
Aurelio and Alejandro relax as the stress of the moment vanishes. The depth of discussion and honesty of the conversation startled them. They hope that their friends were sincere, though they know they will need to have more conversations. Alejandro wants to talk with others, too.
"There are a lot of my friends who have such a need in their life," Alejandro says. "I want to put them in contact with God."
This is how the Student Identity Project prospers: when Aurelio and his friends are bold with their peers. This is student-to-student ministry -- the most effective way to do it.
"The best person to reach a Mexican student for Christ is a Mexican student," says Craig Johring, a leader of Campus Crusade in Mexico City.
In total, more than 40 students have indicated decisions to follow Christ through Aurelio's group -- at least 75 percent of those involved are new believers.
Next Tuesday, Aurelio will be on his campus again to talk to students about God -- and to encourage more Christian students to help. Alejandro might be there, too.