‘It was just disgusting’, Emily tells me. ‘If you wanted to eat something, you had to find the least mouldy plate and wash it up before it went back, unwashed, on the pile.
Once someone dropped a cup of tea on the floor, said “Oh well”, and just left it.’ This particular university hall of residence had not earned its notorious reputation for nothing: ‘people were in and out all the time, and you had to learn to sleep with drum and bass [music] pounding through your wall’. Casual sex, excessive drinking, and recreational drug use were the norm.
For her first year at university, this was Emily’s home. And believe it or not, fully aware of the reputation these halls had, she actually applied to live there. She didn’t know how God would use her, but she was up for the challenge of living missionally in this moral maze.
Like Daniel in Babylon, Emily had to make decisions about things she would do, and things that she wouldn’t. She threw herself fully into university life: spending lots of time with her flatmates and going out with them most nights. But she decided she wouldn’t drink at all. ‘Everyone knew that I wasn’t drinking and I wasn’t having sex. These are the two things everyone was living for, and I wasn’t doing either.’
Sometimes, especially during ‘pre-drinks’, someone might accuse Emily of being a killjoy, or being boring. But the accusations always rang hollow – everyone could see Emily was living a fun and full life. She was demonstrating an alternative way of living, a freer way. ‘At university you’re supposed to be as free as you’ve ever been, but if you broke away from that stereotype of what a fresher should be like, life is made harder for you. So, ironically, you’re not free.’ She went on, ‘There would be times when [students] were being egged on to down a drink or something, and because there’s so much pressure to be liked and be accepted, they would do it, even though you could see they didn’t really want to. I could see them having an identity crisis right in front of me.’
And it was with this backdrop of living a distinctive kind of life, in a wild kind of place, that Emily invited her housemates to share in her journey with God. When she’d get back from visiting different churches during her first term, two of her pyjama-clad housemates would assemble in Emily’s room to get the lowdown. They’d enquire, ‘So was it welcoming? How was the worship? Did they teach the Bible, because that’s important, isn’t it?’
As time went on, they became more curious. One of these friends, Anna – who Emily described as a ‘work hard, party hard kind of girl’ – began to ask all kinds of questions, especially about other religions and the exclusivity of Christianity. Emily didn’t have all the answers, but they would both read books and articles that the other recommended. Emily bought Anna a Bible, which she began to read, and she would sometimes go to church with Emily too.
In their second year (after they had moved into a shared house), just before they broke up for Christmas, Emily said to Anna, ‘Either Jesus is a liar, because he says he is the only way, or he is who he says he is.’ This was a challenge to Anna’s pluralistic understanding of God. Over the holidays, Anna couldn’t get this out of her head. Through the conversations she’d had with Emily, and her experience of meeting with God through church services, she had begun to sense that God was bringing deep healing into her heart. She was so desperate for it all to be true, but she was petrified it might not be.
By the end of the holidays, via a visit to a local church, Anna had committed to following Jesus. When she came back the following term, everyone could see something significant had changed in her life, and it was eventually through Anna that another girl from their house became a Christian. But that’s a story for another time.
Rejecters of Jesus jibed that he was ‘a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19). But it was only through crossing over lines of respectability that lost sheep could be brought back into the fold. The Spirit of Christ has formed this same heart in Emily; a heart that led not just to parties in this university city, but to even greater parties in heaven.