Fourth Year Reflection: Heather McGowan

Heather McGowan
Heather McGowan

When I came to UVA a few years ago, I was incredibly disinterested in God and felt as though his time in my life had expired. It was almost as though I felt I “outgrew” God like my old pair of Vans. I looked at Christianity as if it were a list of rules that I had absolutely no interest in following any longer because I saw God as a condemning overseer in a stale, broken world. The main fear I had coming into college was that I would never be enough—for God or anyone else. I carried an overwhelming feeling of coming up short and an eerie fear that there was nothing truly good in the world. My cheerful demeanor masked my nervous, intimidated heart.

I was invited to the Study Center’s Move-In Day Lunch and avoided it like the plague. I literally sent my parents home early, lying that I wanted them to leave so that they couldn’t stick around and take me to the lunch. (I’ve never told them that, so if you’re reading this—sorry, Mom and Dad!) Anything pertaining to God sounded boring and useless, and this trend of aversion continued for the rest of my first semester.

As I started spending time at the Center for Christian Study second semester of my first year, I found that even though “Christian” is in the name of it, the Study Center has zero qualifications for those who enter its doors. While my curious, unsettled mind was still trying to figure out where I stood with God and how I viewed the world, there was a warm, welcoming staff and kind students who allowed me to ask questions without expecting me to have any specific faith or understanding. Those kind students became familiar faces, and they introduced me to their other friends and the free coffee/tea/hot chocolate station. You could say that God recaptured my heart through hot chocolate—in a larger sense, he intrigued me through the hospitality of his kingdom.

I continued asking a lot of questions, such as, “How do you know that God is real?" and "How do you know that he cares for you—or at all?” The answers from my new friends only led me to more questions. I read books in the library upstairs, ate countless meals in the kitchen downstairs, and had long, revitalizing conversations in every room of the Study Center. Over the last four years, I have spent many hours thinking about who God is, and my mind and heart have grown to understand that God is neither absent nor careless about the world in which we live.

The most unique thing about the Study Center is that, unlike our different majors, apartments, and hometowns, it serves as a home to every single person who walks through its doors. This concept beautifully resembles the kingdom of God, not just passively welcoming all people in, but also actively inviting all people in. John 14:2 (NLT) reads, “There is more than enough room in my Father’s house.” The Center for Christian Study reflects this verse in all its efforts, creating space and offering care to all those who walk into it. As I’ve spent more time in the Study Center, I’ve not only experienced gratitude for being welcomed in, but also the joy of welcoming others in. The Center for Christian Study has given me a sense of ownership and belonging in the Christian community of Charlottesville, teaching me how to be a selfless, hospitable neighbor.

As a fourth year, I still spend a lot of time at the Study Center, raving over free hot chocolate, reading and writing for my classes, and asking big, scary questions. Shelly and Lane have gracefully received me in my questions about race, politics, friendships, and sex/gender, and Lane welcomes me on the days when I just need a piece of chocolate from her jar. Jay and I have discussed what it means to care for the world around you, and I’ve lost count of how many animal crackers I’ve taken from his jar, too. I’m a fourth year student with my bachelor’s degree in English and (almost) a master's in elementary education. These staff members have encouraged me to use my personal passions and educational interests to bring glory to God, and that has completely transformed my college experience.

The Center for Christian Study has helped ignite, and continues to foster, my understanding that my shortcomings as a human leave space for God’s strength to fill. God is our creator and, in knowing that he created each of us with purpose, I am able and willing to practically consider how I can better love my neighbor wherever I may be in the coming years. The Study Center has taught me that God was, is, and always will be enough for me and, in that contentment and satisfaction, I have the freedom to know all the more deeply and specifically why and how I can trust that he is real. I have grown to understand that God, vast in his expanse, is so very near—to me and to you.

To the staff and students of the Center for Christian Study—thank you. I know God more genuinely and more affectionately because of you.

Heather McGowan, Curry '18, CLAS '17