Bringhurst: Kenechi Onwukeme On Navigating Religion as a Student


Jonathan Wang

Bible studying at the A. Ray Olpin Student Union at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. (Photo by Jonathan Wang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Maggie Bringhurst, Opinion Writer


One of the hardest aspects of college is finding a community. For Kenechi Onwukeme, a campus bible study group provided a solution. Onwukeme, who also goes by Yos, is a senior at the University of Utah studying geological engineering. He is also the president of the U’s African Student Association and a member of the DREAM Campus Ministry.

Students who spend time in the Union building have likely been approached by DREAM, along with other Christian campus ministries. In Salt Lake County, the headquarters of the LDS Church and where 48% of the population identifies as Mormon, most students have some bias toward proselytizing religion. I will admit I have a negative bias towards Christianity. But, a desire to empathize with religious students compelled me to learn more about the people behind the pamphlets.

Through our conversation, I discovered that Onwukeme and I disagree on a few political topics, but found common ground on basic things I consider essential to the human experience — community and open-minded discussion.

DREAM is affiliated with the International Christian Church, a Bible-focused Christian group with conservative values. Onwukeme claims it is the most diverse ministry on campus, with students from various international backgrounds. He was approached the same way most students are. “My first reaction is, I see this guy talking to people and I’m going the other way,” he said.

Onwukeme told me at the time, he had failed multiple classes and took time off school because he couldn’t afford it. The ministry provided personal and financial support to help him stay disciplined and finish his education. DREAM provided personal support that he wasn’t getting anywhere else. The campus ministry became his family.

Onwukeme was raised in multiple religious households. His mom was Pentecostal, his Dad was Jewish and his godparents are LDS. He moved to America to live with his dad when his mom lost her job in Nigeria. A fear of God and passion for serving Jesus are practically in his blood. On his football team, “My teammates would call me Pastor Yos,” he said, which I laughed at — but he was completely sincere.

The afterlife was always on his mind. “There are nights where I would stay up thinking, I want to go to heaven. And I want to get my family to heaven. And I think about homeless people like, okay, how do I get them to heaven?”

There’s a stigma of self-righteousness surrounding religion, but Onwukeme is humble. I felt nothing but sincerity in our conversation. He explained his concern for the people around him living without what he believes to be the ultimate truth, and I felt that his intentions were pure.

I am skeptical of any religion with heavy focus on recruitment. They can be predatory and dangerous. And while I can’t speak for anyone else’s intentions in the organization, it is clear to me that Onwukeme is genuinely concerned for the salvation of the people around him. If I grew up in the same circumstances as him, I might make the same decisions.

For Onwukeme, immersing himself in religion and dedicating himself to God makes sense. It was the way he was raised. Without religion, he felt lost and unguided. The ministry gave him a sense of purpose and encouraged him to help others.

As an aspiring journalist and an ex-Mormon, I tend to be skeptical. I think a lot of students at the U can relate. Google directed me to Reddit posts and YouTube videos about the International Christian Church, mostly from those who were hurt by the religion and want to prevent others from experiencing the same. It reminded me of content I see from ex-Mormons. The ICC has many similarities to Mormonism, like the claim to have unique revelation and the emphasis on proselytizing to as many people as possible.

I regularly criticize the LDS Church. And I have criticisms of the ICC. But on an individual level, most members of the group are doing their best. Living in Utah and associating with many wonderful Mormons forces me to open my mind and understand that every person has their own experiences that influence their choices and beliefs. Speaking to a current student member of DREAM helped me to similarly open my mind.

Onwukeme believes his church is essential to eternal salvation. Even if my personal beliefs are different, I can’t criticize him for feeling obligated to spread his truth when the impacts are so existential and real to him.


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