Freshmen’s prior experiences with Christianity tend to guide the way they pursue their faith on Harvard’s campus. But their experiences during college can affect their spiritual growth in great, and often unexpected, ways. How do the past and present experiences come together and impact the individual? This interview is with Cooper Bryan, a freshman living in Weld Hall. Cooper is involved with Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA), works as an intramural referee, and is currently training for a marathon.
Ike Adeyemi-Idowu: What’s your background in regards to Christianity?
Cooper Bryan: My parents are missionaries, so ever since I was born I’ve heard stories about the Bible and Jesus, and I’ve have had my parents pray for me and with me. There was never a moment where I prayed the prayer and became a Christian. There was a point in time when that became real to me and I began to understand it. But I don’t think I could pinpoint that moment just because it’s been such a core part of my life for so long. I could say I was baptized when I was eight or nine, but I wouldn’t say that was when I became a Christian. It’s a part of who I am, and it’s a day to day commitment: just to wake up in the morning and decide I’m going to try to glorify God as much as I can today and try to live for Him.
IA: How has your parents’ role as missionaries shaped you?
CB: My family has lived in Ethiopia since 1991. My dad is a professor of New Testament theology at a graduate school he helped set up there. My mom is a teacher at a tiny international school that was started by our mission—that’s where I went to school. How has that impacted me? I guess it’s made me not American, but other than that, it’s tough to say. In terms of my faith, I’ve been surrounded by Christians my whole life, I went to a Christian school, and all of my friends were children of missionaries for the most part. It was like a Christian bubble, which gave me a very nurturing environment to grow in my faith and my understanding of biblical topics. It’s kind of weird to step out of that bubble, but it’s also been good.
IA: In light of stepping out of that bubble, did you have any concerns about your faith before coming to Harvard?
CB: I wasn’t too worried about it. There were a lot of people who were like, “Oh Cooper, you’re going to lose your faith.” And I was like, “Nah, probably not. I’ll be okay.” So I wasn’t too concerned. I met David Fulton, a former co-president of Harvard College Faith and Action, when I came to visit so I knew there was going to be a church and a Christian community that I could get involved in pretty quickly.
IA: How do you reconcile your Christian identity with your identity as a Harvard student, especially now since you’re no longer in that Christian bubble?
CB: I certainly don’t think that it’s caused an identity crisis. I think it’s sort of an adventure to have to battle with choices of my faith every day. There are certainly situations put in front of me on a day to day basis where I have to think, “How does this impact me? What do I think of this, or say to this, as a Christian living in a secular world and engaging in a secular campus? How does this relate to my biblical worldview?” I think my identity as a Christian is my identity as a Harvard student. At this school, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the grind. And when things go badly, it gets you down for a while. I think having my identity as a Christian has allowed me to look beyond that. When things don’t go well, it sucks, but I’m still aware of the blessing that it is to be here and the purpose of why I’m here. With that, it’s much easier to live with joy.
IA: What has surprised you most about the Christian community, or communities, at Harvard?
CB: Probably just how big it is: there are a lot of people in HCFA, which is a little bit shocking. In the wider community at Harvard, people are surprisingly accepting of Christianity. There are some people who are opposed to it or have different beliefs, but I have not encountered a single person who’s hostile toward Christianity. Everyone is very willing to have a discussion about it. And when I tell people that I’m a Christian, they’re all really relaxed about it.
IA: What changes, if any, have you experienced in your faith since coming to Harvard?
CB: I’ve been able to grow in my faith a lot, especially by being friends with people who aren’t Christians or have a different Christian background. One of my roommates is Catholic, and I’ve been able to have a lot of discussions with him about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Also talking to non-Christians has helped me nail down what my beliefs are and why I have them. And as I came here, I was able to easily find a church and get involved in HCFA, which was such a blessing.
IA: As your freshman year comes to a close, do you have any hopes regarding your Christian walk?
CB: I’d like to become a little bit more mature as a Christian and be able to have more of a personal relationship with God. One of the things I’ve struggled with this year is not taking a lot of time to just listen to God or spend time in the Word or pray. Hopefully, I’ll continue to grow in my ability to just set aside time for that and listen for the purpose that God has for my life.
Ikeoluwa Adeyemi ‘19 lives in Thayer Hall and plans to concentrate in East Asian Studies and Social Anthropology. She thanks Cooper for agreeing to this interview.