Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Alan Cisneros
GCU News Bureau
Rebecca DiCrasto shouted to be heard from the back of the vast lecture hall.
It was filled with 243 students called life leaders. The title sounds exhaustive, but its heart may be centered on what DiCrasto hollered:
“I wish people grasped being in the moment with people.”
As a third-year life leader – Grand Canyon University students selected to cultivate a Christ-centered community – DiCrasto said afterward that she engages with large numbers of people each day and tries to give them her full attention.
“I text up to 60 people a day, and I call a lot of people and meet them in person,” she said. “When walking on campus I just pick people out -- OK, I will be their friend today. I bring those people into my life.”
During impromptu conversations she learns their story, a habit picked up as a self-described “missionary kid” who lived in several countries with her parents.
“I’m a strong believer that you are a missionary wherever you go. Wherever the Lord places you is where you are supposed to be. I felt gifted to become a life leader and help students,” she said.
“Childhood can be a very harsh thing. And the Lord loves them through the hard times. So just to be able to sit there and give someone that gift of listening -- that’s the most impactful part.”
The sophomores, juniors and seniors are a boots-on-the-ground spiritual force on campus, assigned to each residence hall floor, who began their work Monday as 16,000 students started to move in for the fall semester. But as they learned in recent training sessions, it’s about making connections on many levels.
They mentor, lead small Bible study groups, challenge fellow students to take their relationship with Christ further or just discuss “basic life stuff,” such as relationships, what they want to do with their lives or navigating college as a believer, said Chris Jennings, Life Leader Manager for the program out of Spiritual Life.
“I love to play devil’s advocate. I ask them why they believe -- to get them to understand their faith as their own,” he said. “For a lot of college students, it’s maybe the first time they are away from parents and discover their faith for themselves.”
Life groups are not mandatory, nor are there special qualifications to join.
“One of the things we love about GCU, there are all walks of life and a variety of faiths,” Jennings said. “We get life leaders who understand that they aren’t making the case for a denomination but for Christ.”
The leader’s job is to listen and then offer a Christian perspective.
“We really just try to get our students to understand that it isn’t to change everybody’s minds and be a sidewalk prophet and yell at people, but how to come alongside people,” he said.
Senior Josh Gillespie is one of 50 head life leaders who consult weekly with their team of life leaders. He said the key to life groups is finding the balance between building friends and building faith.
“People don’t care what you know unless they know that you care,” he said. “You have to start with the foundation of loving them first. Then it’s easier to have difficult conversations if you have disagreements in faith. I’ve had guys in my life group that have no faith at all, and until they know you care about them it’s hard to find that connection.”
The weeklong training to prepare the leaders involved speakers, activities and learning about leading small groups, interpreting the Bible, student care and missional living, among other topics.
Pastor Jon Jennings said in his Monday presentation, “Interpreting the Scriptures,” that it’s a privilege and responsibility to share the Bible with people from all walks of life.
“The Bible, what it does is give us hope and guides us,” the Phoenix-area pastor told the students. “I love that you have people coming into groups that are coming to Jesus.”
He said the inner work that comes out of groups and individually leads to strong leaders and ones with a spark that can’t be seen but is felt by others.
“If you guys can get this concept now, as life leaders at Grand Canyon University, I’m telling you it will carry you through the rest of your life and set you up for the best success God has for you.”
First-year life leader Jackson Neustaedter said he knew he wanted to be a life leader even before coming to GCU from Canada, when friends told him about it who had enrolled here.
If the Christian Studies major picked up anything over the first part of the week, it’s that you can’t force it. “It all starts with friendship,” he said. “Really getting to know the guys better, as men who are following Christ.”
The ministry work isn’t a side hustle, said speaker Josh Miller from Apartment Life, a faith-based nonprofit that works with apartment owners to create community where neighbors love each other as themselves.
“They are spilling your story and you are there. ‘I’m here for you and my door is always open.’ That goes a lot further than ‘Hey, come to my life group!’” Miller said. “You get what you give. You will get brokenness, awkwardness. You are inviting this. And that moment is beautiful.”
Life leaders described situations when they didn’t give up on a student who was troubled but kept offering them an ear or just a shared meal, and eventually there were breakthroughs.
“We just want to see students grow in community with one another. From our perspective, that’s a Christ-centered community,” Jennings said. “What hurts my heart the most is you can have a student who is swimming in a sea of people but who feels so alone, so lost. So what we do with our life leader program is empower them to go out and meet people, to find people who are alone and help them get involved in community – and ultimately get them involved in Christ.”
Student Megan Tomkinson takes the job seriously in her third year, this time as a head life leader. On a college campus it is so easy to isolate, she said, so it’s important to engage across campus.
“A big part of life group happens outside of life group,” she said. “That’s when those relationships grow.”
Like last year when she saw members of her life group sitting together in the coffee shop. It makes her smile about the loneliness she may have helped prevent.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.