'Girls on fire' at drama central

August 24, 2004

"Babies are beautiful." 
"I like anything outdoors, so this landscape is beautiful." 
"Johnny Depp IS beautiful." 
The comments of the dozen girls seated cross-legged on the floor of the North Russell study lounge jumble together like the pile of scissors, glue and magazines in the midst of them. They leaf through issues of YM, InStyle, People and Vogue. In the background, the lilting vocals of Norah Jones are playing on a laptop. 
The women are creating collages that represent their idea of beauty as part of resident chaplain Lisa Williams' session, "Does God Want Me to Be Ugly?" After describing the pictures they have chosen, Lisa asks, "So how do we define beauty?" She writes their answers on a wipe board.
"It's what you are when nobody else is looking - integrity." 
"It's desirable." 
"It's something you want to look at." 
For the rest of the evening, they compare the media's definition of beauty with God's definition -- that they are his good creation. Lisa closes the evening by playing a recording of a song: "Beauty comes from the inside out / And everybody sees her shine when she's around / Beauty comes from the inside out / She knows whose she is / 'Cuz she knows who He is."
Tonight was Lisa's seventh week of programming based on her yearlong theme, "Loving God, loving others, loving ourselves." As North Russell's chaplain, she is responsible for cultivating spiritual interest and friendship among the 475 young women who live in the hall. The door to Lisa's apartment is open daily to students who want to talk or who just walk by to say hello.
Lisa is a second-year student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, working on her MDiv with a concentration in global missions. She completed her undergraduate degree in 2002 at the University of Georgia in her home state. She came to Truett that fall and was interested when she heard about the RC program. 
"I knew that I had an amazing college experience because of campus ministers who took the time to talk with me and take me seriously," she says. "So I just want to effect change in other college students. It's something I believe in. I never thought of myself as a college minister, but that's what I'm doing." 
The next morning starts a typical day for Lisa. The alarm rings at 9 a.m., and she hits the snooze button for an extra few minutes. On Mondays, she has four or five meetings with community leaders, other resident chaplains and her hall leadership team starting at 7:30 a.m. The rest of her weekday mornings are more relaxed, with classes starting at 10:30. As she does every morning, she awakens to the hum of hairdryers coming from the community bathroom a few doors down as women prepare for classes. 
As she grabs some cereal from her kitchen cabinet, she looks at the flier she posted throughout the hall the previous night advertising the session on defining beauty. She's already planning her next event, a campuswide night of outdoor worship. She's meeting with two other resident chaplains later in the month to finalize plans. Before she leaves for class, she checks her e-mail for any messages from residents or the hall director.
Outside her door is a wipe board covered with notes and drawings of flowers in pink marker from girls who have stopped by. "Lisa, I came by at 4 but you were out. I'll stop by later" -- heart -- Ashleigh," reads one of the messages. There is a basket for written prayer requests, and her daily schedule is posted.
Although most girls stop by just to talk, sometimes they call or send a note first. Community leaders usually notify Lisa of significant events such as the death of a relative so that she can be prepared. Every week she submits to the residence hall director, her supervisor, an update on any concerns about residents with whom she's visited. "I try to sense what's going to be a problem with someone," she says, mentioning a young woman who struggled to relate to her peers and deal with a heavy courseload.
A ready listener, Lisa has helped students with homesickness, balance academic and work schedules and make plans for the summer -- or future. She hears about relationships, vocational choices and spiritual questions as students try to "make their faith their own," she says, and also from those who carry emotional baggage from their families or past experiences. "It can be drama central, but I remember thinking that I've been where they are." 
At 10:25 a.m., Lisa crosses the street to the seminary, where she attends classes until 4 p.m., stopping only for a brief lunch break at the Penland cafeteria with one of her residents. She walks down the corridor greeting women by name. One student smiles tentatively in response, looking at the floor. "She's one of our shiest residents," Lisa says. "She's actually less shy than she used to be." 
Although these casual exchanges don't encompass her job, they often are the catalysts for deeper visits. She considers a successful conversation to be one in which the student "is honest, willing to talk about things that aren't superficial," she says. Lisa admits she doesn't always know what to say. "So much is just listening and asking questions. If someone comes in, I make her talk before I give any advice. That's what ministry is -- allowing God to direct you," she says.
The most rewarding and most challenging aspect of the job are one and the same: young women stopping by at all hours to talk about the serious and the mundane. Because she's on-site, Lisa sometimes has visitors after midnight. "The most difficult thing is having the freedom to not open the door," she says. "That's a hard thing because I'm always like, if they make the effort to come all the way down and knock on my door, I'm not going to not answer it." 
As she's finishing up an e-mail in the late afternoon, a note is pushed under her door. It's a list of prayer requests that the "girls on fire" in her hall have gathered. This is a small but dedicated cadre that works together on projects such as creating valentines for each woman reminding them of God's love for them. When Lisa returns as a chaplain this fall, she'd like to form a prayer group for residents who need a friend to pray with or for them. She also wants to work more with her community leaders, to help them grow spiritually.
"There are so many things that happen to the people that I deal with, and I experience it alongside of them, as a minister," she says. "These women of North Russell have an amazing strength and ability to continue pressing on in the midst of hard times. They have challenged me to press on in that same strength."
Living in a residence hall again has been an adjustment but overall has been well worth it, Lisa says. "I've relearned what being a freshman in college is all about. I think I had forgotten. Nobody else has 475 girls that they live with giggling at all hours," she says. 
After eating dinner, Lisa heads back to her apartment to work on the joint worship program for later in the month. She'll also be home for any girl who needs to talk. For Lisa, it's a job in which significant change begins with the words "How are you doing?" Later in the evening, she climbs into bed, sets her alarm and wonders if there will be a knock.