After graduating from Stanford with a degree in mechanical engineering, Nikki Toyama-Szeto worked part time as an engineer while volunteering for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. One day, her boss said he planned to bid on a $20,000 watch in an upcoming auction. Toyama-Szeto wondered if her hard work was going to the wrong things, thinking perhaps she'd "rather put my hours toward the kingdom in a more direct way."

Yet even as she planned to go into full-time ministry, she was entitled to $1 million to $3 million for a project she had worked on—if she would stay at the engineering job for one more year. She was tempted, but says the offer "made me stop and think about what I really believe. Do I believe in the power of money, or do I believe in the power of Jesus' invitation?"

Toyama-Szeto, coeditor of More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership, and Faith (IVP, 2006), opted to pass up the big bucks and went full time with InterVarsity, where she is now program director of the Urbana Student Missions Conference. For the event, she arranges speakers and artists—especially relatively unknown ones who might not have the financial resources or powerful connections to reach such a large, diverse audience, but who have something unique to offer the expected 18,000 people hoping to hear God's call at Urbana12 in December.

Question & Answer

How do you put Urbana in context?

It's mostly for North Americans, but there are lots of ways we confuse the gospel with American culture and values. When world leaders also appreciate the message we put out, I feel like we have hit on some of the core essentials about the gospel. We contextualize it for North Americans, but it's a good check to make sure that culture is not trumping the gospel.

What drives your work?

I try to think about who is not at the table when some of the decisions are getting made and to be a voice and advocate for those who aren't at the table. There's a great Filipino phrase about "lifting as you climb." It's this encouragement that as you go forward, you are also lifting others behind you. I take that very seriously because in a lot of different places I'm the only Asian American woman or the only woman or the only woman of color.

How are Christians doing with diversity?

Students get the multiethnic part really fast. Students have become more fluent in issues of racial disparity, but when churches don't engage with that, a credibility gap grows. The church is becoming more aware of multiethnicity issues but needs a robust theology of why it is engaging in it.

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How does your heritage help you understand the gospel?

My Japanese culture honors history, and that's a good practice for American Christians. We should celebrate the way God has worked in the lives of people before us and realize that we're part of a legacy. We're going to live as stewards of the faith, but also be aware that another generation will step in. So what does it mean for us to operate and live out the gospel in ways that are building on people before us as well as preparing the way for the next generation?


Related Elsewhere:

Learn more about Nikki Toyama-Szeto at Urbana's website.

Previous "Who's Next" sections featured Marshall Allman, Michael Patton, Bethany Hoang, Bobby Gruenewald, Julie Bell, DeVon Franklin, Shannon Sedgwick Davis, Jon Tyson, Jonathan Golden, Paul Louis Metzger, Amena Brown, David Cunningham, Timothy Dalrymple, John Sowers, Alissa Wilkinson, Jamie Tworkowski, Bryan Jennings, L. L. Barkat, Robert Gelinas, Nicole Baker Fulgham, and Gideon Strauss.

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