Senior Brandy Riziki begins her opening prayer during a Youth Back to Jesus meeting Feb. 29. (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)

Youth Back to Jesus club brings religion to Country Day

“God, help us not be affected by senioritis, and may you get all the praise and love you deserve,” senior Brandy Riziki said. “Amen.”

With that closing line of prayer, the handful of students left Latin teacher Jane Batarseh’s room just in time for elective on March 6.

A fifth UBTJ meeting complete.

Riziki started her club, Youth Back to Jesus (UBTJ, abbreviated to act as “you back to Jesus”), in January — and with low expectations.

“I wasn’t expecting anybody to come to the first meeting!” she said. “There are so many factors in this school: I’m busy; I have a meeting; I’m scared; it’s not my thing. (There are) so many excuses you can think of.”

And her prediction was almost right. The first meeting had only two other attendees: senior Michaela Chen and freshman Hailey Fesai.

Since then, there have been two to seven members per meeting.

UBTJ is the only religious club on campus and possibly the first one Country Day has ever had, according to head of high school Brooke Wells.

Riziki acknowledged she is unsure what direction the club will take.

One goal is to make meetings a safe space (for) growth and helping the community,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re going to do things in the community or outside, but it’s an idea.”

According to Riziki, each meeting opens with a prayer — often said spontaneously by anyone willing — fitting the theme of the day.

“The first meeting was trusting God in a time of stress because it was near finals,” Riziki said. “Another was about being Christian as teenagers.”

While some meetings are more planned than others, Riziki said videos, Bible readings and casual conversation are usually included.

Although Riziki started UBTJ halfway through this school year, she’s had the plan since junior year — but something held her back.

“I was too scared of being judged or made fun of,” Riziki said. “For one thing, it feels as though here, religion is not expressed. Everyone is respectful of everyone else’s religion, but it seemed like something everyone was supposed to keep to themselves.”

But after talking with high school dean of student life Patricia Jacobsen about the club idea and getting access to Batarseh’s room for meetings, Riziki set the plan in motion.

Jacobsen, who receives students’ written proposals for clubs, said her only initial concern about Riziki’s plan was that it would be exclusively for Christians.

“But after I checked with Wells, he said it was fine as long as it was inclusive,” Jacobsen said.

Wells said while he doesn’t recall any other religious clubs during his time at Country Day, in his eyes, the idea is similar to a cultural club.

“As long as we aren’t trying to (proselytize) or convince people to believe something, it’s fine,” he said. “It doesn’t have any conflict with our mission as a (secular) school.”

After the club was approved by Jacobsen, Riziki said she decided to take a “leap of faith” and announce its formation at morning meeting — although she still harbored reservations about its reception.

“To get up on that podium and say to 150 kids that there’s a club with the word ‘Jesus’ in it was intimidating,” Riziki said. “Just the mention of Jesus is like, ‘Oh, she’s a Christian! She’s going to persecute you!’”

But while the club is called “Youth Back to Jesus,” Riziki said one doesn’t have to be a believer to attend meetings.

“Anyone can come,” she added. “It’s for people who love Jesus who don’t really know how to live with that — or for people who have a Christian background in a world with so many conflicts. It’s also for people who are just curious.”

Agnostic sophomore Carter Joost, for example, came to the second meeting.

“I went out of curiosity,” he said. “I don’t really think about religion much in terms of my own beliefs, since I don’t have any.”

While Joost said the club wasn’t for him, he added that it was “cool to see what classmates believed.”

“I have a lot of people in my family who are very religious, but it’s more in a taught and subservient way — about half are creationists as well,” he said. “(However, UBTJ is) more oriented towards what God can do for you and how you could find yourself with God.”

One issue Riziki said she hopes to combat is the negative connotations surrounding modern-day Christianity.

“It’s true that a lot of people who are ‘Christian’ are very judgmental,” she said. “But when you read the Bible — the Bible says, ‘The truth sets you free’ — it’s like your eyes are opened, and you realize that nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes.

“And God is so good, so gracious, so loving, that He doesn’t care what you did. He just wants to help you; he wants your success.”

In turn, Riziki said she wants to reach out to those in need of a helping hand.

“God does not want us to look down on people,” she said. “He wants us to extend an arm to people who are down, broken or hurt.

“I want UBTJ to do that — to help those who need help.”

Following the January day when Riziki first announced the club, a few regular members have appeared — namely Chen and Fesai.

Fesai, who is a nondenominational Christian and attends church outside school, said she first came because she was “curious to see what it was all about.”

Since then, she’s attended most meetings and said she plans to run UBTJ once Riziki graduates.

“UBTJ is amazing because it’s a place where people of the Christian faith — or not — can decide for themselves what they think of the religion,” Fesai said.

According to Fesai, the best part of the club is how it makes everyone feel comfortable about their faith.

“Many believers can say — guiltily — that it can be very hard to come out about your faith in public,” Fesai said. “I personally have many experiences with it as well as other students in the club, (where we) say we’re Christian and get hate for it.”

In UBTJ, however, students can discuss those issues and share their feelings about God, Fesai said.

Plus, Fesai added, she came for Riziki.

“(Riziki) is an excellent example of how important it is to stick to what you believe in no matter what people say,” Fesai said. “She’s not only an example of what a good Christian is but (also) what a good person is, and that energy of hers is contagious.

“She has the ability to make everyone in the club feel loved, respected and comfortable without fail.”

Riziki, who carries a Bible in her backpack everywhere she goes, has been a Christian all her life, born to a deeply religious family in Rwanda.

“I loved going to church; I loved going to Sunday school with my grandma; I loved the children’s Bible,” Riziki said. “I grew up with that, where my family was in love with God, and they practiced what they preached.”

Riziki became further involved with her Rwandan church as she aged.

“When I was 11, I started teaching Sunday school — that was my first time preaching,” she said. “We even had a dance group with the church, and every break we had a dance performance.”

When she came to the U.S. her freshman year, however, Riziki said she had to “uproot” herself not only physically but religiously.

“I had to find a church where my roots could grow,” she said. “It negatively affected me because it felt like I was losing focus — I was losing sight of God.”

She eventually started attending the First Christian Church (3901 Folsom Blvd.), although Riziki said she continued feeling unsettled until junior year. Finally, when her grades started to slip, she had to evaluate her situation.

“I was emotionally and psychologically drained all the time,” she said. “People say I’m a happy person, but I did not feel that way at all.”

Riziki found the answer to her problem in November of junior year at Young Generation Mission Camp (YGMC) near San Jose. YGMC is offered to high schoolers “living for mission and Christ,” according to Riziki.

“My mom was like, ‘Brandy, you should go,’” Riziki said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t know — I have school and homework.’ But when she said it, it felt like an order.”

So Riziki went. And it was the “best part of my life,” she said.

“People had a passion for God I had never seen, even when I was in Rwanda,” Riziki explained. “Being surrounded by those people for four days was like a revival in my heart.”

Encouraged by the experience, Riziki rediscovered her religious roots. Furthermore, fellow campers encouraged her to start UBTJ when she returned to Country Day.

But a large part of the decision came from Riziki herself.

“Growing up, I felt like I was perfect,” Riziki said. “Whenever I saw someone doing something wrong, I got so mad; I thought they were the worst people on earth. I’d make fun of them: ‘That’s my enemy,’ I’d say.

“I was mean — bad. People don’t believe that, but I was.”

But God changed Riziki’s life completely, she said.

“When I came here, people kept saying, ‘You’re so nice!’” Riziki said. “God was changing me. He changed my perspective 180 degrees — no, 360.

“Before I turned, I was looking at a person and their bad choices and judging. But when I made the 360, I was still looking at that same person, just through a different perspective.”

For Riziki, those 360 degrees were a journey.

“Now, this is who I am,” she said. “I am a child of God, and as a child of God, I do my best to love people like God loves them. Look past their mistakes; don’t forget them, but look past. Heal them.

“In the rest of the time I’m here, through UBTJ, every single day, I want to show and tell the truth: God loves you no matter who you are or what you’ve done.”

—By Mohini Rye

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