Although the University of California-Davis is a highly nonreligious institution, U.S. missionaries and Chi Alpha Campus Ministries directors Will and Jennifer Klier believe a motto on the school’s seal — “Let There Be Light” (Genesis 1:3) — is a prophetic call.
The UC-Davis campus has over 39,000 students from more than 100 nations, one of the most diverse student bodies in the U.S.
After the lockdown during the spring 2020 semester due to COVID-19, Chi Alpha remained the only student club or organization — out of more than 800 at UC-Davis — to be able to resume weekly in-person gatherings that summer. While on-campus get-togethers remained verboten, Chi Alpha could meet at its adjacent ministry property.
The ministry center purchased in 1999, as well as the discipleship house acquired in 2016, are at the busiest corner at the entrance to the school and contains a large outdoor space for events. The nearly $1 million expansion of the discipleship house, paid for by donations from churches and individuals, provides a highly visible space next to a busy street with vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians. The Kliers, other Chi Alpha staff members, and student leaders invited masked students to participate in outdoor worship services.
The Kliers have led the ministry together for 17 years. Jennifer graduated from Western Washington University with a linguistics degree in 1997, completed a Campus Missionary-in-Training (CMIT) internship, served on the Western Washington University staff for a couple of years, and obtained her Assemblies of God ministerial credentials. She then transferred to the area of the country she considered the neediest spiritually: Davis, California.
At the time, Will — five years younger than Jennifer — attended school at UC-Davis. He joined the staff in 2002 after graduating, then served a CMIT at Montana State University in Bozeman for a couple of years while Jennifer led the Davis chapter alone. Will returned to UC-Davis in 2005, the year he married Jen.
“Davis students are bright, the cream of the crop,” says the personable Will, 42. “But they have the same spiritual need we all have: the need for relationships.”
“Students all want to make friends,” echoes Jennifer, 47. “We’ve been able to build some trusting relationships.”
Both raised on the West Coast, Will and Jennifer are familiar with a primary obstacle in ministering in a secular college setting: biblically illiterate students who lack a knowledge about God.
“We see the challenges as opportunities,” Jennifer says. “We get to be the ones who share from scratch to atheists.”
Some of the more receptive students are from outside the U.S. UC-Davis has an international student enrollment of more than 7,000. Some stay 10 weeks, others the entire four years. Every Friday night, the UC-Davis group hosts a “Conversation Hour” in which current Chi Alpha students seek to befriend international students through a theme or activity. Students share about American traditions and foreigners explain their customs.
Free food is a draw at many Chi Alpha gatherings. Marc Afshar transferred to UC-Davis as a junior. When a classmate invited him to a Chi Alpha progressive dinner event, Afshar, then an agnostic, gladly accepted. He says the affable approach taken by the Kliers toward him turned out to be life-changing.
“Will and Jennifer are available for students who are searching in their personal journey,” says Afshar, 34. “No matter what stage a student is in, they make sure to introduce Jesus Christ and see that the student develops a personal walk with the Lord.”
Afshar earned a biology degree at UC-Davis, part of his plan to become a pharmacist. But his involvement with Chi Alpha spurred a career switch to ministry.
“It completely shifted my paradigm of how to spend my life in something more meaningful,” says Afshar, a U.S. missionary. After graduating in 2010, Afshar served on staff with the Kliers before setting out in 2016 to replant Chi Alpha at the University of Pacific in Stockton, California. More than 50 UC-Davis alumni have served a year or more in missionary service in the U.S. or abroad.
The Kliers have three children: Joy, 16; Mercy, 14; and Liam, 11. Will and Jennifer also have the opportunity to invest in students who already profess to be Christian.
Liane Henze grew up regularly going to church in the Bay Area. But during her first semester attending UC-Davis, she attended parties and drank alcohol most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. A friend asked her to come to a Davis Christian Fellowship (DCF) large group service, and then she accepted Will’s invitation to a fall retreat.
“It was the first time I really understood the gospel,” recalls Henze, 29. Her life changed 180 degrees, and in subsequent years as a student she led DCF worship and core group Bible studies.
The Kilers became the most prominent figures in her life, Jennifer serving as her main mentor and Will being a father figure.
Henze graduated with an exercise biology degree with the intention of becoming a physical therapist. With her Christian mother and atheist father living in Taiwan, she agreed to give a year as a Chi Alpha intern. That was seven years ago.
Liane is associate director for DCF and her husband of three years, Peter, also is on staff.
TOP PHOTO: Chi Alpha team members at UC-Davis include (from left) Michela Bell, Liane and Peter Henze, Joshua Fitzgerald, Will and Jen Klier, and Lindsay Walker.