Pastor Kevin Wilson comes from a part of the world where a cup of tea — chai — evokes the gravitas of a religious experience.
It was in childhood that the 29-year-old Sri Lankan native first developed his love for a good cup of chai. But he never thought to share his passion with the world, until he discovered TikTok.
Wilson, an associate pastor who heads the youth ministry at Oceanside Seventh-Day Adventist Church, expresses his love for spiced milk tea, or “chai,” through bite-size videos on TikTok. And the social media platform, wildly popular among teens and best known for its goofy dance videos, has loved him back.
Building connections through chai
In just about three months, Wilson’s chai videos have racked up millions of views, and won him more than 106,000 followers. But underneath that patina of social media fame lies something more meaningful.
“I seem to have made a connection with people through chai,” Wilson said. “My (direct messages) are packed with people who say they wouldn’t have left church if I were their pastor. I have people telling me that in an age of outrage, your brand of Christianity is great. It’s really caught me by surprise that this content resonated so deeply with people.”
Wilson’s videos follow a pattern. He has music — often Mozart, sometimes Indian film music — playing in the background. He shreds ginger, pounds and crushes fresh, whole spices — star anise, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns — in a mortar and pestle. He adds them to boiling water that rolls in a saucepan, drizzles in some milk and plops a spoon of sugar. Then, he strains the tea latte into a mug. It’s a rich, deep, brown color.
Wilson takes a sip and swirls it in his mouth like fine wine. And then, he smiles, purses his lips and lets out a high-pitched, ecstatic, lengthy “ooooh.”
“My goal has always been to inject meaning and serotonin into your day with my love for a good cup of chai,” he tells his followers.
Wilson appears to have enthralled TikTokers with not just his calm, pleasant demeanor and superior chai-making skills, but also his long, dark, lustrous mane that one follower calls “Jesus locks.” While most come for the chai, many stay for the conversation, and to hear Wilson’s ruminations on religion, race, immigration and social justice.
In a recent video, which racked up more than 47,000 views, Wilson compares chai-making to racial injustice.
“An important part of chai are the spices,” he then explains. “They originate from different parts of the world, bringing color, texture and life to what might otherwise be a plain experience.”
Wilson says that while the spices must be crushed to bring out their flavor, that logic works only for chai, not people.
“People of color in this country, especially our black brothers and sisters, have endured involuntary crushing from systems, people and ideologies,” he says. “This crushing has released flavors of innovation, resilience and drive. But no one has the right to crush nobody. No one has the right to suffocate anybody. … Your story is sacred no matter where you’re from and what you look like. If you are willing to drink chai, you must be willing to honor the spices. Their lives matter.”
A product of different cultures
And just like those spices, Wilson is a product of different nations, cultures and traditions. His TikTok handle, @crossculturechristian, offers a clue into his own background and upbringing.
Wilson is a Sri Lankan Tamil born to a Hindu mother and Catholic father in the city of Kandy, which is known for its scenic vistas, sacred Buddhist sites and tea plantations. His parents met while training to become nurses at a Seventh-Day Adventist school, and converted to Seventh-Day Adventism.
Wilson’s mother left to work in Oman as soon as he was born. So, for 12 years, Wilson said, he had a “long-distance relationship” with his mother. His father and aunts raised him until he was almost a teen. During those years when he missed his mother terribly, he remembers being soothed by the tea lattes his father made.
When he was 12, his parents — unable to bear the family’s separation anymore — decided to emigrate to Oman. That’s where Wilson graduated from high school. It’s also where he tasted “masala chai,” or spiced tea, at an Indian restaurant for the very first time.
“I loved the flavors — the cardamom, the ginger, the pepper,” he said. “After that experience, I started making tea that way.”
In 2009, Wilson’s family applied for the U.S. government’s lottery-based Diversity Visa Program. Wilson was the only one selected. He moved to the United States the following year, enrolling in a bachelor’s program in theology at Andrews University, the flagship educational institution of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His parents remained in Oman.
He also got his master’s degree in divinity and was recruited by the Southeastern California Conference of the Seventh-Day Adventists, which is headquartered in Riverside and oversees Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Wilson was commissioned to the church in Oceanside, where he started running the youth ministry.
Winning with empathy
Wilson believes this multicultural background has made him a more empathetic person who is able to understand and assimilate into different cultures.
“It has affected me and my spirituality,” he said. “There’s a saying that I love: The fish knows the beauty of water once it’s outside of it. The more you’re exposed to other waters, you realize the beauty of your own. My exposure to different thoughts and ideologies have challenged me to revisit my own beliefs and opened up my ability to empathize with others.”
Wilson says he got on TikTok because most of the young people in his church were on it, and he was curious to see what they were up to on the social media platform. On a whim, he decided to document his chai-making on Instagram.
“It generated a lot of attention,” he said. “So I made a one-minute video and posted it on TikTok.”
Nothing happened for a couple of days. But, suddenly, it blew up and, within two weeks, his post was racking up 200,000 to 300,000 views. His follower count skyrocketed from 200 to 20,000 in less than a month. Last week, he hit 100,000.
TikTok has moved him to re-evaluate his understanding of what evangelism looks like, Wilson said.
“I went from having an exclusively Christian audience to a majority non-Christian following,” he said. “In fact, some are very explicitly non-Christian and atheist.”
So, he had to quickly gain an understanding of what ministry looks like to people who are not Christian or familiar with that world view or vocabulary, but without compromising his identity, demonizing others or proselytizing. He believes his background as a cross-cultural person has prepared him for this moment.
More than a ‘food video’
The educational component of his TikTok videos is what distinguishes them from “food videos,” Wilson said.
“It’s not just about chai,” he said. “There’s more to life that what people can see, touch and feel. I hone in on the idea of meaning. The more you talk about meaning, the more touch points you have that allow you to have an interfaith conversation.”
For example, as he’s making the chai, he talks about how the tea boils over if you overheat it, but will lose its flavor if you don’t heat it enough. Wilson then talks about the world we live in, which constantly demands our attention. For him, the practice of making chai is a “feast of attention.” It helps him focus in the moment.
Wilson has found that people gravitate toward this kind of content. It works for him because it’s right in his wheelhouse.
Wilson doesn’t forget to have fun and engage with his followers. He’s become a fan of Tiktok’s “duet feature,” which allows users to occupy a split screen with someone else. So, Wilson uses the feature to watch and encourage others as they make chai — be it his style or their own. One follower made what he called a “chai chai slide,” a black tea cocktail.
“I don’t drink alcohol, but I really appreciate the work that goes into making a cocktail,” Wilson tells him. “I like it. It’s awesome.”
The way Wilson reacts to people is a big part of why he’s successful, said Justin Khoe, an Oregon-based YouTuber who produces faith-based content on that platform. He has about 104,000 subscribers and has been guiding Wilson through his social media adventures.
“The way Kevin reacts to people, even if they’re not making the chai perfectly or improvising, he is always encouraging,” Khoe said. “People are resonating with what he’s saying because it’s not in your face. Every time they drink chai, they’re going to think about what he said.”
Wilson is also the newer, younger voice of Christianity that steers clear from fire-and-brimstone sermons, instead sending the message of empathy and compassion, which Khoe says is more Christ-like anyway.
“Jesus hung out with those who were shunned by the religious community — the marginalized, the ostracized, the egregious sinners. If you are a follower of Jesus and truly paid attention to how he lived, you can’t get away from empathizing with the other and loving the other.”
Wilson says interacting with a culturally diverse community on TikTok has helped him revisit his culture and story. The experience has reminded him that “people are like stories with a soul.”
“Every single person is a walking story,” he said. “In my case, chai has become the ultimate bridge builder between people.”
Source: Orange County Register