By Mark Ellis
When she sat down in front of a vanity to have her hair done in her sophomore year of college, there was no way to know this would mark the beginning of a spiritual journey that would change the course of her life.
“People always talk about the incredible changes that occur during college, but I had no idea what I was in for,” says Stephanie May, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado. “It was wonderful, but also a really rough time in my life.”
Raised in the Episcopal Church, she always believed in God, but knew nothing about the Bible. “I would have called myself a Christian, but it was more for the ‘morally upright’ social connotation I felt came with it,” she says. Admittedly, her moral choices reflected a self-centered, rather than God-centered approach to life.
“I completely lost myself in my search for happiness and completion. I looked everywhere — getting caught up in all of the destructive pastimes that college so conveniently provides,” she says.
Beneath surface appearances, she felt “there was a greater plan at work…that somewhere down the line I would see why everything had happened the way it did.”
On a Friday night during her sophomore year, she sat down with the president of her sorority for a haircut. “She was famous for doing hair, so I found myself sitting in the chair in front of her vanity as she teased my hair within an inch of its life,” Stephanie recalls.
As she gazed into the mirror, she saw something unusual. “I noticed a quote written in lipstick. I’ve always been a quote junkie and so it piqued my interest right away,” she notes.
The quote said “Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I’m going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” (Habakkuk 1:5)
Something about the words captivated Stephanie’s heart. “I asked her where the quote was from, and almost sheepishly, she said it was from the Bible. I was shocked.”
One of Stephanie’s favorite books during college was “Eat, Pray, Love,” the 2006 memoir by American author Elizabeth Gilbert. After a horrendous divorce, Gilbert traveled through Italy, India, and Indonesia in a quest to find meaning and put her life back together.
“I read that book as I was going through a horrible break-up of my own — and my story, it turned out — started to mirror her story quite remarkably,” Stephanie says.
During Stephanie’s junior year, she studied in Sevilla, Spain. “As I got to Spain, I began to put my heart back together. I also began to pray. But somehow over the years, I had cultivated an extremely negative view of college Christians and so I just wasn’t sure how I was planning on forming a relationship with God. But I was praying about it a lot.”
During Spring break, she took a nine-day trip around Italy with friends. On the third day, she toured the Vatican. “As we walked into the Sistine Chapel, I looked up on the wall and saw Michaelangelo’s stunning depiction of The Last Judgement.”
As she stared at the massive fresco that depicts the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse, she had a powerful encounter with God.
“Something happened to me in that moment. I saw Jesus’s face and felt like I was seeing an old friend for the first time in a long, long time. I was so overwhelmed with love for him, and just a desire to know him and be close to him.”
In that instant, her heart surrendered. I said, “Jesus, I’m down. Let’s do this Christianity thing.” While her words may not have been profound, the attitude of her heart and the efficacious call of the Spirit brought powerful change.
During the rest of her visit to Spain, two Christian friends, Kelsey and Michelle, began to douse her with truth from God’s Word. “I soaked it up,” she says. “I felt like they were revealing the magic cure of the world to me… and I guess they were!”
When she returned to college in Boulder, Colorado, she found herself straddling two different worlds. “I had changed,” she observes, “but my environment hadn’t. I found myself making all of the same destructive decisions.”
“I was going to church twice a week and just sobbing the whole way through because the light and love of the church was such a drastic change from my life outside of church.”
She began to attend a college ministry called The Annex, partly to be supportive to her friend Michelle. Michelle invited her on a mission trip over Christmas break to Costa Rica. Stephanie had low expectations for the trip, and wasn’t thinking much about it until she was packing the night before their departure.
“When I got to Costa Rica, the Lord absolutely blew the lid off of the tiny box I had contained him in,” she says. “I met 40 of the most unbelievable people I’ve ever known, and came out with no less than 10 new best friends.
“The Lord showed me poverty for the first time. He showed me what a difference you can make by even just showing up and loving people. He showed me such beauty and innocence in the eyes of the Costa Rican children. I was blown away.”
Stephanie says she found community in a way she had never experienced it before.
On the last day of the trip she found herself in prayer in a church service and for the first time, she surrendered her future plans to the Lord. “God, I will do whatever you want me to do with my life,” she prayed.
Last summer Stephanie spent two months in Ghana on her second mission trip. “Evangelism was something that had always made me super uncomfortable, but I had to get over that really quickly.” She and her team preached at church services each Sunday, and led nighttime gatherings and Bible studies.
“I found out that I love preaching! I got more joy out of teaching God’s word than out of anything I’ve ever done! My time in Ghana was absolutely incredible. My eyes were opened to people and places and ways of worshipping that I couldn’t have even imagined.”
“But I should have expected that,” she notes, recalling the Bible verse written in lipstick: “Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I’m going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” Habakkuk 1:5
“As I came back from Ghana, I realized that I was changed forever. I can no longer tune out the problems of the world as I used to. I have to be involved. I want to go… I want to help.”
In November, Stephanie will be part of the World Race, a mission trip touring 11 countries in 11 months, organized by Adventures in Missions.
“I must admit I am a little bit nervous,” she says. “I know this is where the Lord is calling me. He’s calling me to be a part of the miracles that he’s already performing around the world. I can’t wait. Habakkuk 1:5 is right… although I didn’t see this coming, I certainly am amazed!”