By Nathan Peterson

Boba Jesus—Creating a Visual, Invitational Witness for iGens

“Jesus, what bubble tea would you drink?”

Even though this sugary, tapioca-pearled blend of milk and tea (often just called “boba”) was invented long after Jesus walked the earth, students really want to know what his favorite flavor would be. Honeydew? Strawberry? Or maybe something more unique like cotton candy or crème brûlée?

With dark brown skin, a welcoming smile, and a cup of bubble tea in hand, the image titled Boba Jesus prompted these unusual questions. And wherever Stephan Teng has set up this cardboard cutout on Cornell University’s campus, students have been quick to follow.

Contextualized Creativity

Not only is Stephan the creator behind Boba Jesus, he’s also a prolific artist, burgeoning T-shirt designer, and InterVarsity campus minister. Growing up on a steady dose of Lego-building and out-of-the-box thinking, he originally created Boba Jesus for a T-shirt design competition. Though he didn’t win, the encouraging feedback he received prompted him to keep toying with the image.

During New Student Outreach in the fall of 2019, the Boba Jesus image resurfaced in Stephan’s mind. He was struggling. As he tried engaging with more students, they walked straight past him, often dodging his questions. He needed a way to grab their attention.

Given iGen students’ passion for visuals, Stephan suspected Boba Jesus might be just the thing—and inviting enough to help them overcome their anxiety about in-person conversations. This resonates with what researchers and journalists like New York Times writer Laura Pappano are discovering about the new generation on campus: “They are not always good at live social interaction, but they crave it.”

Invitational Witness

Inside Cornell’s dining hall, Stephan had just finished setting up his new Boba Jesus Proxe, including a board with a speech bubble asking, “If Jesus wanted to sit down and drink bubble tea with you, what question would you ask him?”

It didn’t take long for a student to walk by. She froze, her head swiveled back toward Boba Jesus, and she started backpedaling.

“Would you mind if I shared why I made this?” Stephan asked, continuing after the student nodded. “I designed this because I believe Jesus loves Cornell students. He would want to spend time with you, to drink bubble tea and hear about your life, what you’re going through. That’s what our organization is about. We make space for you to come with all your questions—no matter what background you’re from—and get to know who this Jesus is who wants to know you.”

As the young woman nodded and walked away, more students started coming up, grabbing Boba Jesus stickers and taking selfies next to the cutout. Many of them appreciated the image’s darker skin tone, saying it seemed more historically accurate. And even if students didn’t stop to chat with Stephan, he often overheard them ask their friends what they’d talk to Jesus about over some boba.

Many students took the time to jot down their questions on sticky notes. Besides his bubble tea preference, they wanted to ask him things like, “Why did I have to get sick?” and “What would you say about our current political climate?” A cafeteria worker even came up to check out the display and shared with Stephan that she was a Christian. “Why did my child have to die?” she wrote.

In the weeks that followed, word of Boba Jesus spread across campus. More than once, students came up to Stephan saying, “I came all the way across campus to get one of those stickers!”

“I think iGen students are very aware about how they represent themselves to the world,” said Stephan’s supervisor, Carrie Moorhead, an Area Ministry Director in New York. “Boba Jesus is a way to declare something about incarnation—Jesus came to identify with us in our humanity. It points to something greater.”

Building Trust

“Most people at Cornell are really kind. They don’t want to offend anyone,” Stephan observed. “So they say they trust Christians or are curious but just not curious enough because of busyness.”

This new Proxe has started breaking through that busyness to stir up genuine curiosity. Around campus, Stephan’s Asian American InterVarsity chapter has become well-known for the Boba Jesus stickers, generating more openness and positive rapport.

“My hope is that Boba Jesus actually [portrays] an image of Jesus who wants to meet with everyone from every background and faith,” Stephan said. “The fact that I’ve seen Christian and non-Christian, Asian and non-Asian [people] like Boba Jesus opens that homecoming invitational door. So when they see our fellowship, see our invitation, they go, ‘Okay, maybe I can come check this out too.’”  

And even though students may never know Jesus’ favorite bubble tea—this side of heaven—Boba Jesus is helping them learn just how inviting and approachable he is.