Composing a New Theme
U.S. missionary Kenji Kuriyama has a bachelor’s degree in classical music composition from Louisiana State University. He has a master’s degree as well as a doctorate in classical music composition from Indiana University.
At the age of 9, Kenji Kuriyama first entertained the notion of someday becoming a music professor. He achieved his goal while a graduate student at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music, as a music theory and ear training instructor to 120 students. He had seven assistants under him as lab instructors.
“I loved teaching so much,” says Kuriyama, 35. “I felt I was born to do it.”
The gig served as an important résumé builder, opening the door for Kuriyama to take his career in whatever direction he wanted. In addition to playing piano proficiently, he also knows how to play guitar, bass, percussion, violin, and trumpet. He composed his first classical music piece at 14.
More than academics occupied Kuriyama during his time at Indiana University. He helped restart the Chi Alpha chapter at the school with U.S. missionary Derek A. Britt.
“I saw salvations and baptisms right and left,” says the affable Kuriyama. “I wanted to see more.”
Despite his budding music career, Kuriyama decided to give a year to Chi Alpha as a missionary while finishing his doctoral dissertation. The experience changed his vocational trajectory.
“I realized I was more in love with ministry and missions than music,” recalls Kuriyama. “What tipped the scales for me was which career could make the most impact for the Kingdom.”
Kuriyama ended up staying on the Chi Alpha Indiana staff for nine years.
“He was the heart and soul of Indiana University Chi Alpha,” says Britt, 39. “It says a lot about him that he joined us with his talents and giftings after earning a Ph.D. from the best music school in the country and becoming a professor.”
Now Kuriyama is leading Chi Alpha Campus Ministries at Ohio State, a school with over 61,000 students on its main campus in Columbus, including 36.2% nonwhite collegians. The student body is comprised of more than 6,000 internationals from over 100 nations.
Kuriyama relaunched the chapter just after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Fifty students participated in the 2021-22 school year and Kuriyama anticipates there will be 14 small group leaders ready when the fall semester kicks off. The chapter has five staffers, all of whom came from Indiana University.
U.S. missionary Jeffrey S. Alexander is familiar with both Kuriyama and Britt. Alexander spent nearly a decade as Chi Alpha district director in Indiana before joining the Chi Alpha national office in Springfield, Missouri, in 2017 as personnel director. Prior to serving in Indiana, Alexander led the Ohio State Chi Alpha chapter for 10 years. He believes Kuriyama’s academic accomplishments garner respect and credibility among students as well as faculty.
“Kenji has a Ph.D. from a good music school that he could use in many places,” says Alexander, 52. “But he feels the greatest investment he can make is in discipling students who go all over the world. Plus this shows God uses really smart people.”
Kuriyama is the son of a Japanese father and a Costa Rican mother. His parents — Takeshi Kuriyama and Beatrice Granados — met at a supermarket in San José, Costa Rica’s capital. His father operated a flower shop inside the store and his mother worked as a cashier. The cultures can be at odds.
“The Japanese part of me makes me want to be punctual,” the humorous Kuriyama says. “The Latino part, not so much.”
Kuriyama grew up a cultural Catholic, never attending church. As an international first-year student at LSU, he arrived on campus with no friends. Jacob Benda, a music classmate, invited him to a Chi Alpha meeting. Kuriyama got involved in the group, and a year and a half later in 2007 made a Christian commitment.
“Through friendships and connections I found Jesus,” recalls Kuriyama, who became the worship leader his senior year.
He continued his involvement in Chi Alpha while enrolled at Indiana University at Bloomington. Kuriyama attended Ellettsville First Assembly of God, a suburban church where he met future wife, Sierra, a rural Indiana native. The couple wed in 2016. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Inori, and a 1-year-old son, Micah. Sierra, like Kenji, is a U.S. missionary. She preaches and leads Bible studies at Chi Alpha.
More than half the attendees are nonwhite, in part because of Kuriyama’s presence leading the ministry at a campus with the third largest student body in the nation.
“It speaks volumes that Chi Alpha entrusted a nonwhite person to be director at a flagship university,” says Kuriyama. “I’m biracial, bilingual, and bicultural. Like the apostle Paul, I can be all things to all people in order to win some to Christ.” Following the advice of Paul in citing 1 Corinthians 9, Kuriyama has learned to play the card game euchre to find community with one group of students and started lifting weights at 6 a.m. to connect with another.
In recent years, Chi Alpha has made recruiting more ethnically diverse staffers a priority.
“We believe in giving international students and ethnic minorities the opportunity to lead,” Kuriyama says.
Alexander considers Kuriyama humble, Spirit-dependent, and a joyful encourager. That bodes well for relating to students, especially internationals.
“His Chi Alpha leadership breaks the stereotype of Christianity being an Americanized religion,” Alexander says.
Kuriyama says his career change didn’t bother his parents, who primarily had concerns about him providing for his family rather than what he did for a living. He says he has no regrets in choosing ministry over music.
“I thought teaching music would be the best job in the world for me, but I was wrong,” Kuriyama says. “I have truly found the best job in Chi Alpha."
Lead Photo: Kenji Kuriyama speaks at the Chi Alpha Reach the University Institute in June in Springfield, Missouri.
Bottom Photo: Kenji and Sierra have two children, Inori and Micah.