Faith Worked Out: Ali Gillum
As Christian girls growing up, decision making is at every corner – and it can sometimes be hard to see how faith and ‘normal life’ can fit together, let alone how our faith can be at the centre of all we do. How can we live as Christian girls in all sorts of different contexts? Back in November, we launched our Faith Worked Out series, to try and answer these questions through a series of interviews with women from all paths of life.
Today we're delighted to be speaking with Ali Gillum, a recent Exeter graduate who founded Macaw Designs while still at university. I did Ali's interview back in September of last year, but her words have stayed in my mind ever since - it speaks for itself! L x
Habit I wish I could stop: Saying “yea yea yea” whenever I agree with someone! It’s meant to be enthusiastic but I think it’s quite annoying!
£10 Treat: Eyelash tint
Fictional character I’d most like to be: Winnie the Pooh…he’s pretty chilled.
Thing in my handbag I never use: Umbrella – I only like the big ones!
Book on bedside table: Row for Freedom, Julia Immonen
Tell us where you're at right now, and how you got here…
I graduated from Exeter this summer after studying Geography and Theology there. I now have a job as an Account Manager at Born Social, though I spent some time in India this summer before moving to back to London.
What or who were your biggest influences on your faith when growing up?
Definitely my youth leaders: their role was showing, in a very attractive way, how to live in culture distinctively as a Christian. My Mum and Dad too, they live out faith in a really practical way, always bringing people into their faith, and into our family. Growing up, people from all walks of life were hanging out in our home – and this taught me that God’s people are diverse and unique.
Church community and world was also a huge part, providing community and teaching me how to DO LIFE well in community. HTB is very good at working things out together, as was my church in Exeter (Exeter Network Church). Also – camps were amazing for me as I was growing up!
What did you find hardest about growing up as a Christian?
I was actually really lucky in that I had amazing friends, and a relatively easy community throughout my teenage years.
I suppose the hardest part of growing up is often figuring out who you are. So, it becomes difficult to work out how to live both within a ‘Christian world’ – i.e. within the church circle, and also in all other spheres of life: consistency and integrity are very hard to grasp when you aren’t always even sure of your own identity.
How have you learnt to grasp that consistency and integrity in every sphere of your life?
I’m still learning! I always think back to that Christian cliché: it’s about trying not to be a thermometer, but instead to be a thermostat – shape the environment you’re in, and don’t be shaped by it!
This is even true within church: don’t just be like everyone else, but commit to worshipping God and pursuing relationship with Him. Identity isn’t about being exactly the same type of person in every situation – because different situations will call upon certain parts of your personality and your gifts and skills. Instead, I think your identity comes from your place of security in God.
You will have integrity and be consistent if your identity overflows from security in who you are as a child of God. However – I am still very much working this out!
What pushed you to start Macaw Designs?
Well, Macaw Designs was kind of an accident! I had been making laptop cases for friends and family, and then it became friends-of-friends, and gradually the demand increased, and Macaw was born! Exeter has a real culture of entrepreneurship, and this helped hugely as I started to work on shaping Macaw as a business, in creating a website, factory and up scaling the whole thing.
What have you found hardest about the Macaw journey?
Doing it by myself – I’ve found that hard. I’m a girl that bounces ideas off people, so it has been lonely working without others. But I’m really excited that I’ve got someone else on board now, Tabs. She’s amazing and it’s so fun doing it with someone else. The other hardest thing is a never-ending list of things to do!
How have you grown in your faith over the past year, with all this change? What lessons have you learnt?
I HATE change! But actually that has been a lesson in itself. I’ve learnt that God calls us not just to endure change, or to ‘get though – but to learn while IN IT, rather than always in retrospect.
I am learning to not just look back and point out my learnt lessons by saying ‘I was’ but rather ‘I am’ and ‘I will’. The Christian life is one of transformation and change by nature, and I am learning to learn in the seasons of change and chaos.
Another key thing I have learnt is to be strategic about who I share what with: I can’t keep up with everyone! I have learnt how important it is to have a few key people to invest in and spend time with in a healthy way. It’s a personality thing, but I have learnt that knowing loads of people isn’t always that healthy… it’s cool in our culture, but ultimately not very attainable or fulfilling.
When things are busy, how do you prioritise your relationship with God?
The first thing I would say is don’t go on about how busy you are all the time. It overwhelms you the more you say it, and it is boring for everyone else! If we really do feel too busy, either we can take on less, or be thankful for the opportunities we have in our hands. Everyone’s capacities are different, but for some reason our culture loves being busy. Be different! Be industrious, but don’t be busy. Be present wherever you are. It is dangerous to be seen as a ‘busy person’ at the expense of relationships, or more worthwhile, tangible investments.
When more things are happening in a particular season of your life, I would say make time for God FIRST THING – I know that I can’t face a day without that reaffirming of identity and purpose.
Also practically: exercise, sleep, and eat well. Look after your body, but more importantly – look after your soul by resting in God each morning. The busier you are, the more time you need to spend praying, and immersing yourself in God’s love and promises in the Bible every single day.
My last tip would be – don’t panic if you’re not busy. Be ‘awkwardly free’! Many exciting things can happen if you have the space and parameters to listen, take opportunities, and be spontaneous.
How can we use our gifts and passions for God? How do we know the best way to do this?
Again, this is something hard and different for everyone – but in working out what we can do for God, I would say: do something that excites you. Not just surface-level excitement, but gut-level – something that you are passionate about and that resonates with you. Also having a big picture of your calling (to build God’s kingdom on Earth and to tell the world about Him) is amazing – but we do build up this big picture in the every day and the mundane.
I remember being at school, and hearing these amazing speakers doing incredible things – and being so frustrated that I wasn’t able to be at that stage yet – I was stuck as a schoolgirl. I would say, do look ahead, do think about the future, but more importantly live in the moment and search for opportunities right where you are – there will be some!
So, how can we be ambitious for God?
There are definitely those things at school or at uni that seem very normal and boring – perhaps our lives are looking a little too ‘small’ and average for our liking. However, God uses us in every situation, so don’t think these are too small for Him to use you in.
It’s a bit like training a puppy – we don’t want to be in training and lose all of our excitement and ambition, but we want to channel it, and ask God to use us so that we can employ our gifts, skills and passions for His purpose. This can be in the small!
God doesn’t quite match to the timing of our ready-made, microwave society: He works in HIS time, and He has a bigger plan and picture. This really is a security, even if it is hard to hear (and different to the ‘be the best for yourself’ mentality we are often brought up with in school or at uni).
I would say: let go of control, be dependant, and recognise that God’s plans are greater than ours. We don’t need to be doing groundbreaking work, setting up charities or saving the world from poverty to be doing work for God: there is a real place and reward in Heaven for humble, quiet, behind-the-scenes work – so keep your eyes focused on Heaven and God will guide your steps.
What is your advice to girls struggling to pursue relationship with Jesus when there is so much going on in life?
It’s different for everyone. I know for me, turning my phone off is key, as is listening to worship and taking time out from constant communication. Deliberately limiting social media, and therefore comparison to everyone else is very important too: don’t be caught up in the idea of a perfect life.
It’s also about making tiny changes step by step. Maybe choose to read a couple of verses on your phone, rather than flicking through Instagram. Also be with Christian friends and be intentional about your time together, be accountable and honest – as you will sharpen each other, and though change is gradual, you will see it.
Teenage years are HARD, so – pray, pray, pray.