Interview by Andrea Midgett
Chesterton House Student Engagement Coordinator Nicole Riley is soft-spoken, gentle, and seldom the first person to speak out in a group. She even laughs quietly, often covering her mouth with one of her hands as though to deflect attention. But Nicole is also warm and immensely approachable, and students crowd her days and nights with appointments, one cup of tea, one thoughtful or intense or lighthearted conversation after another.
Raised for many years by her father and his extended family, Nicole’s unlikely search for a personal faith began as she neared the end of high school. “My father always jokes that I’ve been a skeptic since I could talk,” she says. Fittingly, Nicole’s skepticism would not settle for answers that did not address issues of the mind, truth, race, and identity. She credits a minister at a university-based church in Pittsburgh with giving her the necessary tools to find answers to her roaming questions – tools she eagerly presses into the hands of the stream of students who seek her friendship, counsel, and listening ear today.
How did you arrive at Chesterton House?
I went to work for the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) after I graduated with a major in literature and writing from the University of Pittsburgh. I met my husband Billy while working for the CCO. We accepted our jobs here two years ago, right before we got married. We both work for Chesterton House as Student Engagement Coordinators. I am involved more in the residential side of the ministry while Billy is involved more with the programming side. We work well together.
What was your childhood like?
When I was two months old, my father got full custody of my sister and me, who is two years older than I am. My birth mother could not take care of us at that point – and she had other children – so my dad stepped in. He was 19 years old. He didn’t even have his GED, though he got it later.
We moved to California where my grandma, aunt, uncles and a lot of other people helped my Dad raise us. He worked three jobs. I remember he would get home really late at night. We would try to stay up so we could see him, though we weren’t supposed to.
I don’t know what set my Dad apart. He was incredible. He grew up in New York City and was raised by a single mom. His mother was black and his father was a white German who was not in the picture. Dad says now that most of his friends from that time are either dead or in jail. He was also into all kinds of not good things, but for some reason fatherhood was enough to snap him out of it. I can’t say what made him, a 19-year-old kid, say, “I can do this.”
From that time on, we always lived with different family members or they lived with us. We all followed each other from California to Florida, NYC, then back to Pittsburgh.
My Dad remarried when I was nine years old. His wife, Char, had been a part of our lives for a long time. She always had a deep friendship with Dad when we were young. Char is white. She is also Jewish, though she does not practice. Her family was less than acceptive when our family entered the picture. It was not easy for them.
How did you perceive yourself racially growing up? Was there internal tension over your identity?
Race was definitely a topic of conversation in our family; it was not something we shied away from. My Dad was always pretty candid about our blackness. I was still a child when I understood we rarely saw Char’s family because of their ideologies and prejudices, except for her father. I knew him only a little bit; he was the only grandfather I never had. I wear a Star of David necklace today partly because I remember him having one. Sometimes people would stare at us, a mixed-race family, when we went to restaurants or places like that. (My sister and I are black. Char is white. Dad is biracial.) And when my stepmom would take me to dance recitals – I studied ballet and jazz from the time I was a girl all the way through college – people would be confused and think I was adopted or something.
But I’m grateful for it, because I think it afforded me, gave me a willingness to engage what some people thought was taboo. So yes, I was aware of racial tension. But it wasn’t hidden. My parents wanted us to embrace our identities and not feel we had to conform for others. But Dad also warned us about how we might be perceived. He corrected our language until we were old enough to understand, old enough to know how to talk in both cultures. He would not let us use jargon or colloquialisms until we understood the difference. And he made my sister and me write a lot.
What were your school years like?
I was always quiet and shy, never the social butterfly. I never had a lot of friends. I liked to read and write – I was a good student – and I danced. The girls I danced with were all white. We spent so much time together in the studio they were more like family than friends.
I had a few friends in the small “gifted” classes I was in, but I was never one to talk about my problems. I talked about ideas, not about my personal life. If I needed someone to talk with more deeply, I talked to my sister. She is amazing, charismatic and the life of the party. Very socially capable. She always sheltered me when I didn’t want to be in the spotlight.
Help us connect the dots. How did that Nicole – shy, introverted, living in her world of ideas and dance – become this Nicole, fully engaged and involved in the lives of transient students?
I began searching for something, I didn’t know what, my senior year of high school. One day we discussed the idea of relative truth in an English class. I was a little bit of hippie in that I loved the idea that everyone could have their own truth, that this chair could really be green for me and blue for you. Dance practice was cancelled that day after school, and I went home and started writing all my thoughts about what we had discussed in class. I asked myself, “Is this ridiculous?” though ridiculous is not the word I used. I finally decided that even though I wanted it to be true, a chair had to have truth in and of its existence. I may not know what color it is and neither may you, but in and of its creation, it is a chair and it has a color.
This led me to begin asking questions about faith, creation, origins, etc. I gave these questions a lot of thought the summer before college. I started by checking books out of the library on the world’s 12 major religions; I figured if there is a true religion, it would be one of the top 12.
After about three months I decided I believed in the Abrahamic God. I was struck by the fact that Christianity, Islam, or Judaism all had overlap in their stories. I wrote off Christianity pretty early on. It seemed so strange to me that Christians would consider Jesus to be divine. I wrote off Islam just after I wrote off Christianity. I concluded I was Jewish, like my grandfather whom I hardly knew. Eventually, though, I stumbled across a book that discussed the culture of Jesus’ time and His claims, which led me to do more reading about Jesus himself. And I finally accepted that Jesus was, indeed, divine.
I was taking all these steps, one at a time.
And then what? There is still a big step between then and what you are doing at Chesterton House now.
I headed to the University of Pittsburgh that Fall. A male friend of mine had recently become a Christian about the same time I was doing all this thinking and reading. Once we got to Pitt, he came to me and said, “I think if you are a Christian you are supposed to go to church.” Since he had become a Christian and I had decided Jesus is divine, I answered, “I think so, too. Let’s go!” On one of the first Sundays of the semester we attended a prominent church on campus, one with big red doors. That church had a vibrant student ministry; that’s where my friend and I put down roots for the next four years.
I worried at first about how I would fit in a church since I was never a “ra-ra” type of person, which was the idea I had of Christians, but I found a ministry staff person who began to answer my questions.
What kind of answers did he give you that you found acceptable, skeptic that you were?
It’s probably more correct to say he was attentive to my questions. He gave me time. He would answer my questions if he could, or he would say he didn’t know, or he would get back to me later. He didn’t just give me stock answers, and he didn’t dismiss my questions.
From this minister I learned the power of many different resources. He did not try to present just histheology; he would present me with several theological opinions to consider. He was careful not to be “the voice of Christianity” to me. It made me feel like I had a choice, that I could process these different spheres of thought and then subscribe to one of them. I would knock on his door with my X, Y, and Z questions and he would give me options – and send me on my way to do the work.
How does your experience as a seeking student impact your work today?
I think I have learned how, in my faith journey, to turn skepticism into curiosity. Cornell students, like students everywhere, are intellectually curious. More often than not, they want their faith to grow in a similar fashion as their other spheres of learning. Maybe they see in me a willingness to engage their hard questions, to take them seriously, and to resource them with more than just my opinion. I hope so.
I want to be sensitive to where students are coming from. I always begin by asking them what they have been taught at home or in church about questions or issues they bring to me. Then I try to give them resources so they can fully engage with their questions. Sometimes they are terrified by the thought of the room growing bigger instead of smaller. And it is hard to not be told exactly what to think. When I sense real fear, I talk about Christ himself. He stoked the curiosity of his listeners and was never content to give simple, stock answers. He used stories and illustrations to draw out their responses. He was very concerned with training people how to think well.
What are the biggest challenges for the students you work with?
I would say it’s our cultural idols of productivity and utility. Most students, even most Christian students, have been trained to turn out product. It’s really hard to break that down, to help them realize life is more than just being useful, more than mere transactions. To realize: God does not just want to use me, He wants to be with me. He wants to walk with me.
It’s very easy to run students into the ground with spiritual obligations, and, quite frankly, the students can take great pride in that. To have them be quiet and still before God, that can be scary.
I believe God does want to use students for His purposes in the world, He wants to use their work, but He doesn’t need them to accomplish anything. It’s not an economic model, but a relational one.