TikTok community becomes support system for UNC first-year student

By Benjamin Rappaport

Ainsley Edwards has been running cross country competitively since she was in middle school. She loves having a place to let out her energy, relax her mind and be in touch with nature. Edwards first started going on runs with her dad in the wooded trails near Salem Lake by her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

During the early months of the pandemic, those runs became Ainsley’s sense of sanity. They were also the place where she got her comedic ideas for her viral TikTok videos. 

Ainsley has amassed more than 245,000 followers and 12 million views on the short-form video app. She and her brother Tre Edwards started making absurdist comedy videos together in March 2020. 

“Me, Tre and my dad would just run for hours and riff the whole time,” Ainsley said. “There was literally nothing else to do.” 

Ainsley and Tre would talk about the latest social media trends and come up with potential ideas for videos. Their father, Mark Edwards, would usually lag both on the runs and on the jokes.  

The first few videos Ainsley and Tre posted together went viral because they reflected the comedic chaos of being trapped in quarantine. They were sporadic and disjointed, but that’s part of what made them so hilarious and relatable. 

“I don’t think we even understood our own jokes back in March,” Tre said. “We would connect ridiculous trends together and mish mash whatever our brains could come up with. It was comedic anarchy.”

The Edwards siblings used their restlessness and turned it into content. 

Quarantine bonding

Beyond the videos, being trapped inside also brought the whole Edwards family together. Tre is five years older than Ainsley, and prior to the pandemic they weren’t nearly as close. Mark was also typically traveling around the country as an investment banker, but he became closer with his family by working from home. 

“As much as I wanted her to have a normal senior year, I secretly really loved having Ainsley right outside my door,” Mark said.  

The two of them had their work-from-home computer setups right next to each other and would consistently crack jokes between, or sometimes during, meetings and classes. Ainsley would try to photobomb her dad’s consulting meetings, and then Mark would shout obscenities while Ainsley was participating in class.

Raised on comedy

While Mark didn’t necessarily understand all the social media trends that his kids’ videos were based on, he was the inspiration behind a lot of the humor in the Edwards household. From a young age, he taught Ainsley and Tre to not take life too seriously. He would force them to make short musical comedy videos for their church to preview the weekly sermon. They would spoof characters from “The Office” to teach the congregation about lessons of family or dress up like fish to discuss the importance of preserving resources. 

“As the youngest child, Ainsley always had to make her mark in those skits and put her foot in,” Mark said. 

Ainsley’s knack for comedy has only grown stronger over the years. It’s her outlandish flare that made her a hit in the church and now on the internet.

Pressure to please 

But as her followers grew, so did her internal pressure to produce for others. Ainsley said she has always been her own worst critic, but that internal voice only got louder when she started college at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall.

So much of her quarantine experience had been making videos at home with her brother, sharing jokes and experimenting with new formats. In college, she could not have this and it was hard for Ainsley and Tre to keep up their social media presence.

“Her and I are like the TikTok partners in crime,” Tre said. “When she left for college, it felt like that dynamic duo got a little less dynamic.”

Prior to her leaving, Tre had pushed Ainsley to start making videos on her own to prepare for what it would be like in school. To Ainsley, though, it never felt right without Trey.

“The reality was, we have this following, and we don’t want to let them down,” Tre said. “I wanted her to keep making videos because she loves doing it, even if it was no longer a thing we did with each other.”

Tre is out of school and pursuing a full-time music career. He has his own successful TikTok page to showcase his talents. He occasionally visits Chapel Hill from Winston-Salem. When he does, the two still make TikTok videos together, and it feels like they’re back at their house again. But with life picking back up, it’s hard to maintain the consistent stream of content they made over quarantine.

Ainsley is trying to make friends, join clubs, manage classes and adjust to everything else that being a college student entails in 2021. All the while, her thousands of followers constantly want more content.

A social media community

“I really want to continue this aspect of my life, but I am the biggest source of pressure for myself,” Ainsley said. “It’s hard to give myself some grace.” 

One of the ways Ainsley has learned to take space for herself is through connecting with other TikTokers with similar concerns. She has befriended several college-aged comedy TikTok creators, like Jack Martin, who told her that her content wasn’t everything.

“I remember when I first came to college and just trying to do all the things, the same way Ainsley is now,” Jack said. “I learned pretty quick something had to give and I needed to continue taking care of myself.” 

Jack is now in his third year at the University of Southern California. His TikTok following got him noticed by an acting agency in Australia, where he is currently filming the NBC show “La Brea.”

He and Ainsley became fast friends over their mutual understanding of what they call “TikTokery debauchery”—the struggles of being a young person and navigating the complex algorithms of TikTok to grow their platform. 

Young creators on TikTok have formed their own community to collaborate and solve problems together. It’s a collaborative environment of creativity that wouldn’t exist otherwise because it fosters connections around the globe.

“TikTok can feel like a really strange and isolating place at times,” Jack said. “That’s why I’m so glad people have reached out and invited me in. Ainsley was one of those people and she’s become one of my best friends because we just get each other.”

The community Ainsley has formed on the app has helped her balance all the chaos of school, life and maintaining a viral presence. 

Her support system, along with her runs, give Ainsley the peace of mind to keep her life and her comedy moving forward. 

Edited by Isa Mudannayake

Lavish to longing, a man who finds stability through tough times

By Jackson Moseley

Buddy Wayne Rayle is woken up at 6:30 a.m. by his pit bull, Amber, whose energy reminds Rayle of the vigor that he once had in his youth. He makes his way to the kitchen, puts on a pot of decaf coffee and gets ready for the day. After dressing himself, Rayle scrambles a couple of eggs with margarine, sprinkling in a handful of cheese.

The house is small — and over 100 years old — but comfortable. It sits tucked away on a plot of land in Haw River, North Carolina, next to a few other vacant houses. Rayle has done what he can to make it feel like a home.

After breakfast, Rayle takes Amber to a private dog park a couple of miles away, watching her run without a leash on the five-acre plot of land. He used to take her here every morning, but his recent spells of vertigo have forced him to scale back on the number of times he goes out of the house.

After taking Amber to the dog park, Rayle drives back home and puts on the TV in the living room once he gets back. Later that day, the landlord’s children stop by to chat with him. They enjoy listening to his stories and playing with Amber as much as he enjoys their company.

This is a typical day for Rayle. It’s lonely at times, but that has never stopped him from seeing the best out of his situation. In fact, seeing the best out of his situation is something that Rayle has been forced to do over the years.

The monotony of his daily routine belies the wild roller coaster of life experiences that Rayle has undergone. From growing up dirt-poor on a farm to making $1 million a year, Rayle has done it all.

A modest beginning

Known as Buddy to family and Wayne to just about everybody else, Rayle was born on February 6, 1939, on a farm in Guilford County, North Carolina, not terribly far from where he lives now. Since his family lived nowhere close to a hospital, he was delivered by his grandmother.

Rayle lived on a farm until he was 14 years old. For most of his childhood, there was no electricity and no plumbing. Only vast stretches of grass and, on that, the ragtag building that the Rayles called home. Without any friends nearby, Rayle had to make his own fun. He enjoyed adventuring in the woods with his pocket knife and the slingshot that he had designed using a tire innertube.

The smells of fresh air, grass, trees, and biscuits cooking in the morning. The sweltering heat in the middle of the summer. The buzzing of flies in the house as a result of the windows being down. These are all sensations that defined Rayle’s childhood.

Around Christmas time in 1954, the Rayle family moved to the edge of the city, where Rayle’s father had gotten a job at a service station.

That year, Rayle felt like something of a misfit. While all the other kids showed up to school wearing penny loafers and khaki pants, he had only his washed-out farming blue jeans. His parents couldn’t afford to buy anything else, so Rayle got a job delivering newspapers in the city.

From farming blue jeans to caps and gowns

Rayle’s father had dropped out of school after the seventh grade. His mother, the third grade. Despite his parents’ lack of education, Rayle graduated second in his class, never having missed a single day of school, and he was just as successful in his social life as he was in academics.

Mable Lane, one of Rayle’s friends from elementary and high school with whom he has kept in contact over the years, said that while Rayle was shy and reserved in elementary school, he was very outgoing and friendly in high school.

In addition to being class president, Rayle was on the basketball team and was a member of numerous clubs. But of all his extracurriculars, it was the drama club that left the greatest impact on Rayle. He hadn’t even thought of joining it until his English teacher, Miss Dixie Guill, who doubled as the drama teacher, approached him one day in the tenth grade and convinced him to join the club.

About a year after he joined the club, Miss Guill approached him one day after class and asked him about his plans for college.

“I’ve never thought about college,” he said.

“Well, Wayne, you’ve got to go to college,” she said. “We’re going to start applying.”

And there was no use in convincing her otherwise. She started applying to colleges for Rayle, and he was accepted into five different schools.

Rayle decided to go to Guilford College, which offered him a scholarship that would cover his tuition. He married his high school sweetheart in June after she graduated high school, the summer after his freshman year of college. They had two children together.

Rayle graduated college with a degree in economics and minors in history and religion. Over the next few decades, he worked for several insurance companies and, despite a few setbacks, enjoyed a great degree of success in his career, receiving promotion after promotion.

Fortitude in the face of uncertainty 

However, Rayle did not experience that same level of success in his marriage. His first marriage ended in divorce after six years. He married again and had two more kids, but that marriage lasted only eight years. He married a third time and had two more kids, and this marriage seemed like it might last.

Rayle started his own insurance agency in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1980. The company, and Rayle himself, enjoyed great success. Soon enough, he was making $1 million a year. He and his family lived in a nice house in a country club neighborhood with a pool in the backyard. On top of that, he owned two beach houses and even started construction on a mountain house by the lake.

Unfortunately, that period of success ended when Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989. Businesses that his agency insured were destroyed up and down the East Coast. The company that he worked with couldn’t pay their losses, so Rayle eventually had to close the insurance agency and declare bankruptcy. This, along with other factors, led to his third and final divorce.

After this, Rayle hopped around from job to job, but he never kept one particular job for very long, and he never again made nearly as much money as he once did. Eventually, he retired in 2017 at the age of 78.

Rayle has lived in his current house since October. The pandemic has only amplified his loneliness, but he still keeps in contact with old friends. Every few months, Cheryl Raiford, the woman he has been seeing since 2004 whom he describes as the love of his life, comes to visit him from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jerry Blake, one of Rayle’s friends from high school who recently reconnected with him, said that Rayle’s internal fortitude was one of his defining characteristics. That fortitude, Blake said, allowed Rayle to push through difficult, dark times and to return to a stable and happy situation in life.

And perhaps there is no better word than fortitude to describe Rayle.

Edited by Montia Daniels 

Queer love & life on tour: reflections from a Phoebe Bridgers concert

By Claire Perry

When Jessie Gleason burned a custom CD for her girlfriend Eloise Williams, she included a questionable pick: Phoebe Bridgers’ “Graceland Too.”

“It’s a really sad song for a one year anniversary,” Gleason said.

“Graceland Too is about queer women with depression,” Williams added. “And we’re both queer women with depression.”

The couple had been planning to go to Phoebe Bridgers’ September 21 Raleigh concert since Gleason won two tickets in a highly-coveted Ticketmaster lottery back in July.

Gleason and Williams were among thousands of self-dubbed “Pharbs” who trekked to the Red Hat Amphitheater for the skeleton-suited songstress’ Reunion Tour, a celebration of “Punisher,” a sophomore album marked by synth beats and gothic lyrics in desperate need of family counseling and 200 milligrams of Seroquel.

It’s this brutal transparency, especially in reflections on queer womanhood in a heterosexual society like those in “Graceland Too,” that draws Gleason and Williams to Phoebe’s sadder tunes. Even after a year together.

“The lyric that stands out is ‘I could do whatever she wants to do,’” Gleason said. “It’s like, not asking for anything in return because I am in love with you, and I feel like even though it’s not reciprocated — like obviously here, it’s reciprocated, but when you’re young it’s not — that was really important representation.”

Not even the rain, or the musty fog that reeked of expensive beer and stuck Williams’ fishnets to her freezing legs, could shroud the magic of “Graceland Too”. Hand in hand, they snuck to the front of the concert during the intermission, eager to get a better look at the show.

As the band played “Graceland Too,” the rain would make it hard for Bridgers’ drummer turned banjo player to tune to F#. But no downpour could wash away the feeling Gleason and Williams had as they looked in each other’s eyes through the strobe-illuminated raindrops, knowing they would do whatever the other wanted. And the other would do the same.

“Whatever she wants.”

 

“Garden Song”

At 26 years old, Patty Matos was older than most people in the crowd.

She was born in the same year as Phoebe Bridgers, 1994, the year Kurt Cobain died.

Matos is no stranger to fandom.

In 2010, she started a fan event from her bedroom, concerning all things “The Cab,” a Las Vegas rock band, which was celebrated in four continents by its fourth year. The skeleton suits were just a Phoebe Bridgers-edition upgrade to eons of poster board love professions and thrown-on-stage Target bras.

They had heard the artist’s first big song, “Motion Sickness” four years ago, but only really became a fan when “Punisher” came out last year.

It wasn’t long before a single stream of the lead single turned into album listenings, merch buying, and playing “Punisher” so many times in the car that her skeleton-suited mom came to the show.

Tuesday’s concert was Matos’ second encounter with Phoebe this week. They went to the Charlotte show on Sunday, so she had already cried it out, and was unfazed by the fog machine and trumpet fanfare.

When Bridgers messed up the second verse to “Garden Song,” Matos’ favorite track, she stopped singing.

“Oops.”

And resumed.

Matos felt an intimacy to an otherwise ethereal artist, a connection different from any found in all their years of fandom. It was at the same time grounding and illuminating.

“Everybody’s human and we all mess up,” Matos said. “This song talks about getting better and being a better person. And that’s never a linear journey. So, in a way it kind of fits.”

With one mistake, this collision between the Phoebe Bridgers nominated for Grammy Awards and the Phoebe Bridgers who smokes in the Whole Foods parking lot came together in a cosmic and diminutive manner, as if the petals in her song were suddenly knocked down by the torrents cascading five feet from the covered stage.

As Matos grappled with the ethereal humanity 400 feet below her, she understood for the first time why Bridgers sang about her long-perished idol in “Punisher”’s title track.

“What if I told you I feel like I know you,

but we never met?”

 

“Kyoto”

Cora Martin, Gleason’s roommate and a fellow queer femme, stayed behind the couple, nearing the other end of the pit like they usually do at concerts. The pain in their joints makes it difficult to stand for long, but it didn’t stop them from wearing 3-inch-platform Doc Martens.

“Everybody is wearing the same shoes as I am,” Martin said. “I’m having a great time.” 

Atop their platform boots, the crowd wore fishnet tights, flannels and thrifted lace slips, homemade skeleton earrings and unnaturally pigmented hair dye. Bridgers’ own iconic look — glow-in-the-dark skeleton suit, baby-thin white blonde hair and rhinestone black guitar — was the inspiration for this gothic fashion show.

As Bridgers sang Martin’s favorite “Punisher” track, “Moon Song,” the cloudy sky made it seem like the red moon rising above the band on a projector screen was the only one in the galaxy. An anomaly only a Phoebe Bridgers concert could cause.

But that wasn’t Martin’s favorite performance of the night. It was “Kyoto.”

“This one’s for all of the kids who had to lie to CPS (Child Protective Services),” Bridgers said as she jiggled her electric guitar’s tuning pegs, preparing for a B Major.

Martin wasn’t expecting to be emotionally impacted. But that single line brought them back to their childhood with their estranged father. The acknowledgement of the hatred that comes alongside survivor’s guilt struck them suddenly through trumpet riffs and “Woos”, falling on their shoulders like the drops of waning rain.

“So much of what you’re “supposed” to feel is getting over things and becoming less angry,” Martin said. “But I think that there’s really a space for holding on to your rage, and not forgiving or forgetting.”

Their caramel hijab stood out in the crowd, a blanket of increasingly soggy warmth in a sea of black, white and neon. Even as Martin stood alone, away from Gleason, they didn’t feel it.

“When you are growing up queer, you feel so lonely, and then when you grow up and you find somebody that understands you, it still feels so fleeting because you’re so used to being alone,’ Martin said. “I think that that’s why queer artists are so important, because they really understand.”

Maybe the feeling was lost when Phoebe Bridgers, the artist, instantaneously switched places with Phoebe Bridgers, the person, during “Garden Song”. Or maybe, it was lost when she swung around the bra of an audience member, or acknowledged an expletive sign, or drank from a sweating San Pellegrino bottle on stage.

But as a community of peers — queer, femme, and footed in patent leather — shed bits of their own loneliness in the fresh gravel, left drops of it in empty water bottles and discarded wine cans, Martin felt a little less alone. And maybe that’s what loving Phoebe Bridgers is all about.

 

Edited by Peitra Knight

‘An adrenaline rush like no other’: Marching Tar Heels return

By Lindsey Banks

 

“Three, four…”

 

Joe Figliolo takes a deep breath. He raises one hand in the air as he pats his chest with the other, setting the tempo for the musicians standing in front of him. For a few seconds, all goes blank in his mind.

 

Then both arms go up. The fanfare begins.

 

Just a few minutes earlier, the Marching Tar Heels ran down the steps of a full Kenan Stadium for the first time in over a year. The COVID-19 pandemic had pressed pause on live band performances during sporting events. For many students in the stands, this is the first UNC football game they’ve attended during college: COVID-19 restrictions kept the stadium at limited capacity during the 2020 season. 

 

This is Joe’s first performance as drum major, and it’s the last UNC football home opener of his undergraduate years. 

 

“It’s an adrenaline rush like no other,” Joe said. “It’s been such a long time, so the crowd was excited to see us.”

 

The Marching Tar Heels are the soundtrack of the game – a soundtrack powered by an exchange of energy. The roaring fans feed energy to the band; the band launches its own energy into the crowd. 

 

“It’s why the band is behind the student section and not in front of them,” Joe said. “Because the band is there to create that energy for the crowd that recorded music can’t.”

 

The energy reaches the football players, who put on a dance performance in front of the student section before kickoff. This year, the band learned a song especially for the football team: “Halftime (Stand Up & Get Crunk!)” by the Ying Yang Twins. Band director Jeffrey Fuchs had heard that the team listens to it in the locker room as they prepare for games.

 

Down on the field, the band assembles for the pregame show. It’s the same show every game, and senior tuba player Jennings Dixon knows it by heart. The sun is low in the sky, but it still draws out a bead of sweat on his forehead. He waits for the signal.

 

Two thumps on his chest. Joe cues the band for “Hark the Sound.”

 

Jennings brings his tuba to his mouth and blows, moving the bell from right to left in time with the beat. The alma mater melts into his favorite song, “Here Comes Carolina,” then into “Carolina Fight Song.”

 

Fireworks erupt. The football team charges onto the field and exchanges high-fives. The crowd shakes the stands. The Marching Tar Heels play on.

 

The performance ends with the national anthem, and the musicians return to the stands, relieved. The season’s first pregame show was a success.

 

The hours of practice may go unnoticed by the crowd, but the band feels them in every deep breath and sore muscle. Game day begins long before 7:30 p.m. The band starts with an open practice at 3 p.m, and it plays for the team arrival at 5 p.m. Then it moves to the Pit, then to Wilson Library, then finally down Stadium Drive to Kenan Stadium. It’s an all-day performance.

 

Kickoff marks the official start of the game, and the band takes on the duty of meeting every Tar Heel success with the appropriate song. Joe assumes his position in front of the band for the first quarter of the game. He keeps tempo with his arms and cues songs with practiced gestures.

 

A hand under his chin. One finger in the air. Two thumps on his chest.

 

The band watches and reacts.

 

Three other drum majors rotate in between quarters, so Joe gets a break before the halftime show. He stands next to the band section with a headset, communicating with his director up in the press box. Each band member has an app called FlipFolder on their phone that automatically displays the sheet music.

 

Between songs, Jennings pauses and looks around. He can feel the energy vibrating through his chest as the crowd shakes the stands. He can see it as the fans wave their hands in the air and jump. He can even smell it: a combination of AstroTurf, giant pretzels and sweat. It all comes together and creates something tangible: Some might mistake it as humidity, but Jennings calls it magic.

 

“It’s not football unless there’s a marching band,” Jennings said.

 

At halftime, the band sets up on the field. Joe takes his position in front of the group and climbs up the ladder. He waits for his director’s cue. 

 

“We’ve got a treat for you,” Director Fuchs announces to the stadium. “From Lil Nas X’s new album ‘Montero’ that just dropped yesterday, here is our version of ‘Industry Baby.’”

 

Diana Godoy, a senior in the student section, recognizes the song from the first three notes. She smiles and looks to her friend, fellow senior Kayla Ausbrooks, who sits next to her. They both pull out their phones to record the moment. It’s their last season opener in the student section.

 

The band dances along, singing the words with their instruments. They have their own language, and for those few minutes, they don’t need a translator. Everyone in the stadium understands. 

 

Joe keeps the tempo with his arms. Jennings stands in the back, swinging his tuba left to right. Diana dances in the stands, singing along. Kayla shares the video with her friends on Snapchat. 

 

A round of applause.

 

The band returns to the stands for the final time that night and sends sounds of encouragement to the field from above. “Hark the Sound” marks another Carolina victory, and the band is joined by thousands of voices singing Carolina’s praises, shouting N.C.U.

 

The crowd disperses, but the excitement lingers for a little longer. Diana and Kayla hang back to listen to the band play everyone out of the stadium. With the band’s rendition of “Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor, it hits the two seniors that their days in the student section are numbered. 

 

The song ends with another round of applause from the fans who stayed behind. Joe and Jennings unknowingly share a sigh of relief. It’s an emotional experience, knowing every performance this semester brings them closer to their last as Marching Tar Heels. But they’re both hopeful it’s going to be a long season.

 

“The better the team does, the more opportunities we’ll have to play and perform,” Jennings said.

 

The band will provide the soundtrack for the rest of the season. And if the team makes it to the ACC Championship – the sort of game you’d find in an epic sports movie – the Marching Tar Heels will play the score.

 

After all, what is a successful football team without its marching band?

 

Edited by Mary King

On and off stage, Drag queen Stormie Daie educates, builds community

By Ellie Heffernan

The recipe seems easy enough. You need makeup, sequins, a properly secured wig and last but certainly not least, a massive foam butt. Voila! You have something that looks like a drag queen. But it takes more than colorful eyeshadow and costumes to touch people’s hearts and minds.  

Raafe Purnsley knows this, and they’ve used their wit, musicality and a certain je ne sais quoi to become one of Durham, North Carolina’s most iconic drag queens. Don’t recognize the name? You probably know them as Stormie Daie, a queen who uses her platform to promote racial justice, sex positivity, LGBTQ equality and more.

Drag personas display such a wide range of intense emotions that audiences often view them as their own people. They fall in love with these larger-than-life characters, making it hard to accept that these vibrant personalities are always, on some level, a façade. 

Perhaps this is why no writers have dared to peek behind the sequined curtains that shroud Purnsley in mystery. They write about Stormie, but they forget that the person who created her is also worth getting to know. Purnsley defines Stormie — not the other way around — and learning about their life reveals what it takes to be an impactful performer and human being. 

The making of a performer, educator and community builder

Purnsley, who identifies as nonbinary, says their love of performing came from their family. Their mother frequently danced in North Carolina shag competitions, performing routines to speedy, swinging jazz. Their grandmother grew up jitterbugging. Men would toss her in the air, and she’d shoot right between their legs and pop back up, Purnsley said.  

Purnsley’s commitment to education and community building is also rooted in their childhood. During one of many summers spent visiting their grandmother in eastern North Carolina, Purnsley attended estuary camp on the inlet in Little Washington. They studied swamp systems, which motivated them to later earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental and ecological sciences from Elon University. 

Purnsley’s career in education began at the Center for Human-Earth Restoration in Raleigh, where they taught groups of predominantly students of color from kindergarten through ninth grade. Lessons consisted of basic science, local flora and fauna and Black and Indigenous history related to the land.  

Although Purnsley may have never taught them science, fans of Stormie have likely seen them “holding class.” Purnsley often weaves into their performances conversations about consent, HIV/AIDS, racial inequity, Durham’s rapid gentrification, and gender and sexuality. This summer, they read picture books about gender and sexuality at a kid-friendly drag storytelling event in Chapel Hill. 

“Drag gives you a chance to be something that society doesn’t want you to be,” Purnsley said. “You realize that once you’re good at drag, it’s a form of power. And then you can use that power to hopefully make space for people who also feel similarly to you and support being seen and heard in the ways you wanted to be.”

Purnsley has empowered people like Ellison Commodore, a Black queer individual who attended his first drag show when Stormie came to Carrboro in fall 2018. Commodore was initially nervous to attend the event, having often felt uncomfortable in predominantly white, queer spaces. He felt at ease when he saw a Black, queer person dance energetically, clearly having a good time.

Drawing the line between Purnsley and their persona

Stormie usually looks like she’s having a good time. She’s bigger, happier, sassier and more joyful than Purnsley, they said. Purnsley admitted that when Stormie shares emotions — even moody, negative ones — it’s a little superficial.

“Stormie’s like pieces of me, and there’s just more parts of me that aren’t necessary for Stormie to exist,” Purnsley says. “And those pieces are the ones that keep us real.”

Purnsley’s good friend Carlos Fernandez might disagree. Fernandez, whose drag queen name is Naomi Dix, said Purnsley and Stormie are almost the same person. Both are fun-loving, confident people who stand out in a crowd. 

Purnsley is so confident, woke, eclectic and highly educated that it made Fernandez feel threatened. The two did not initially click with each other. Today, Fernandez describes Purnsley as one of his favorite people and a “partner in crime” who balances him out. Fernandez is more reserved, but he has stronger organizational skills. Purnsley is a bit scatterbrained, but they exude confidence. 

The two perform together frequently, and they co-hosted the first “Sister Sister Drag Tour” in 2018, traveling to various colleges. They kicked off a second round of the tour this year.

Life outside of drag

It’s difficult to pin down the pieces of Purnsley that don’t shine through in Stormie. Purnsley basically has no schedule, they say, which aligns with Fernandez’s description of his friend’s organizational challenges. 

They typically wake up around 9 a.m. They lay down for another 30 or 40 minutes before actually waking up, frantically watering the plants they should have watered before going to bed and feeding their three dogs: Blue, Moon and Moose.

Blue and Moon are Chihuahua-toy poodle mixes. Moose is also a mutt, but he’s approximately the size of a Great Dane.

By day, Purnsley works as the Durham Co-op Market’s community outreach coordinator, where they determine how to use the cooperatively owned grocery store’s resources to support local communities. This work includes donating food or sharing information about community resources and events.

When they come home, Purnsley often spends time with their boyfriend of four years, Joaquín Carcaño, a public health worker with a background in infectious diseases and focus on HIV/AIDS.

The couple met at a potluck organized by mutual friends. Carcaño had brought some beers, and Purnsley began to drink one while they talked. At one point, Purnsley laughed so intensely at a funny joke Carcaño told that they spilled beer all over their future boyfriend.

Carcaño said he was drawn to Purnsley because they stand out in a crowd. They know how to make people laugh and put them at ease – a trait that became clear early on in their relationship. 

Recently, Carcaño was recovering from a surgery, and Purnsley brought flowers to his house for both him and his mother, who traveled there from Texas to care for Carcaño. Purnsley immediately hit it off with Carcaño’s mother, and they began chatting excitedly about shoes and drag. Carcaño had introduced other partners to his mother, but none had immediately bonded with her.

Anecdotes like this show that Purnsley is, in Fernandez’s words, a “mother hen.” Purnsley may be confident, creative, intelligent and even scatterbrained, but above all they are loving. This trait motivates them to do everything with the singular goal of building community.

Confidence and progress

Purnsley gave people the gift of Stormie Daie. But perhaps Stormie Daie has also given Purnsley, who used to be much less secure in their queer identity, a confidence they did not previously possess.

Purnsley recently performed a show at their alma mater, wearing a black ringlet wave wig and a copper sequin dress with bell sleeves reminiscent of the 70s. This was an era when someone like Raafe Purnsley would not have been welcome on Elon’s campus, but things are much different now. 

Edited by Caroline Bowers and Claire Tynan

 

Healthcare workers continue to fight in the battle against COVID-19

By Mary-Kate Appanaitis

Ema McCool takes a deep breath behind her mask knowing it will be a while before she can escape the feeling of being smothered.

She puts on elastic shoe covers over her scrubs, a surgical gown that ties behind her neck and behind her back, a scrub cap over her hair, two layers of surgical gloves, an N95 face mask, and a large plastic face shield.

Antiviral wipes in hand, McCool pushes the door open to check in on one of her several patients. It’s a one-sided interaction. Her patient is intubated, silent, and motionless. The only noise in the room is the shuffle of her shoe covers against the sterile floor and the persistent whirl of the ventilator.

McCool takes the patient’s vitals and updates the medical chart notes each day; continually becoming less hopeful as the damage of COVID-19 spreads and worsens.

McCool observes that the patient’s oxygen levels are lower than the day before. Aware that the patient’s time is most likely coming to an end, she prepares for the bed transfer, the paperwork exchange, and the new file that will be placed by the door when a new patient will be brought in.

When she signed up for her job, she was not expecting to become the last face that many people would see in their lifetime.

As a junior at North Carolina State University, aiming to become a physician’s assistant, McCool knew she needed hands-on experience in hospitals.

In a dark stroke of luck, Duke Hospital was desperate for positions.

The pandemic spurred a healthcare worker shortage, and the need was felt sharply throughout all units. McCool applied in September of 2020, and by October she made the first of many half-hour drives from her Raleigh apartment to the hospital in Durham.

On her first day of work, McCool arrived at Duke with no information other than the building address and her agreement to work as a nursing assistant.

She accepted the position knowing there was a high possibility that she would be around COVID-19 patients in any unit that she could be placed in, but her suspicions about her proximity to the virus grew as she greeted her new colleagues.

McCool quickly figured out that the procedures she was learning in her orientation were far beyond the scope of standard COVID-19 policies in hospitals. Extensive personal protective equipment covered all the features of her colleagues around her, leaving only their exhausted eyes visible.

Her group leader solemnly confirmed her worries. She would be working in the SICU.

The SICU, or Surgical Intensive Care Unit, acts as an overflow unit for patients affected by any illness, but in recent history, it has been teeming with those affected by the coronavirus.

When Duke’s hospital beds are full, those who have missed the cut-off are sent to the SICU. They remain there until either another bed has opened, they have recuperated enough to leave, or most likely, until they have passed.

While her family beams with pride at the work she’s been a part of, her roommates did not feel as enthusiastic.

Two of McCool’s roommates moved out by the end of the month in fear that they may be infected by McCool possibly bringing home COVID-19 from the hospital.

Despite all the precautions taken by McCool at her job, her four-person apartment shrank.

Hospital clothes were discarded in the parking garage before leaving the hospital, masks were worn indoors around others, and once home she immediately showered and placed all potentially contaminated clothes in the washer. But the fear of the coronavirus was too strong.

Over the past 11 months, McCool has watched a never-ending stream of patients come in and out of the SICU. As soon as a bed becomes empty, a new patient has arrived to fill their place. There is no time to mourn, or to process the loss, before another patient in failing health is placed into care.

Though she has accumulated notebooks full of knowledge that will set her ahead for her medical career, one of the most important skills McCool has obtained is the power to compartmentalize.

Every element of the SICU is overwhelming. Sweltering heat magnified by layers of protective gear, the stinging smell of disinfectant on every surface, and a constant fear that an inhaled breath near a patient was a little too deep and a little too unlucky.

But there is no time for any thoughts other than moving forward and assisting the next patient.

“You just can’t think about it,” McCool said. “You don’t let yourself think about any of the details because if you do, you know that you won’t be able to keep going.”

And so, the three twelve-hour shifts a week simply became another part of her routine.

With NC State returning to in-person classes, McCool’s calendar is strategically outlined balancing homework and studying with patient care. But the ability to separate work from everyday life is growing to become a challenge, as people closer to her own age, 21, are beginning to appear in her unit, requiring her care.

McCool has a front-seat view to both sides of the unfolding story. As a student, she watches as well-intended college parties become hotspots for the very disease that she watches kill her patients.

When her coworkers feel safe returning home to their families, McCool returns to a campus, where she feels there is still a high chance that she could be exposed to COVID-19. As a student, the need to be on high alert doesn’t fade for her when she leaves the hospital, unlike the rest of the staff in the SICU.

She watches as classmates refuse to receive a vaccine, and then appear in line for an overflow bed at Duke, praying for relief from the virus.

McCool’s ability to separate work from her own feelings dwindles with each dreaded zipping noise of a body bag closing, signaling space being cleared for a new patient, and a family’s loss.

A grandfather who spends his final days surrounded by photos of his family, when none of them were allowed into the building.

Zip.

A young mother who asks for McCool’s help in making concrete imprints of her hands, in the hopes that her three-year-old son could try to remember her touch.

Zip.

One of Duke Hospitals’ own workers, destroyed by the disease she fought to save her patients from.

Zip.

The sound of one phase of the cycle ending, and another phase of the cycle beginning. It doesn’t stop.

While the burnout from the work that McCool does may be growing, she has no plans of letting it stop her. Instead, she lets it propel her forward.

She sees each new patient as a new opportunity to help any to degree she can; to use her skills and knowledge to aid those who are sent to her unit when there is nowhere else for them to go.

She puts on her personal protective gear, sanitizes herself and everything around her, and prepares herself to do her job – to take care of her patients.

One more deep breath in, and she enters the next patient’s room.

Edited by Jake Jeffries

Former UNC women’s basketball player finds passion in faith

By Cailey Howard

It was never going to be enough.

The roar of the fans in the stands could not drown out the doubt Hunter West felt about herself. As she looked down at her jersey, she still could not believe its letters read “U-N-C.”

But, just when she should feel like she had it all, she realized that she really had nothing if she did not have Jesus Christ.

Destined for greatness

In elementary school, she played basketball with boys that now attend well-known colleges and some who are currently in the NBA.

She went home every night with scuffed up knees and a couple of bruises – they did not cut her any slack just because she was a girl.

As she played alongside them, she eventually sent them home from school with a few battle wounds as well.

When she played against her older sisters in the evenings, she beat them every time. The sore losers would cry and spit insults at Hunter in the midst of a temper tantrum. However, not even they could deny that she was a star athlete.

Even her travel basketball coach looked her mom, Sheila West, in the eyes and told her that one day her middle school daughter would be a Division 1 athlete.

She was destined for greatness, pure and gracious in the eyes of all who knew her. Her radiance touched the lives of her community.

Living her faith

The freshman students at her high school knew her as their math tutor. She stepped up to assist them with their homework when their teachers and parents thought they were beyond help’s reach.

Her teachers frequently confided in her about their troubled students, and even the troubles of their own lives. They knew Hunter would always lend a listening ear and a word of encouragement.

The people of her church marveled at her renditions of their favorite hymns and contemporary worship songs. The beautiful melody of her voice carried throughout a spirit-filled sanctuary.

As their youngest and last child, her parents knew her as their baby. The mischievous toddler that once stole earrings from their local Belk was now a varsity athlete with a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious university.

The same young woman that was praying for her friends and leading her teammates in devotion before every game became a roaring lion on the basketball court. Other girls feared her, and other teams did their research on her, trying to identify her weaknesses so they could take her down.

Hunter loved the sport. More than that, she loved the way it made her look.

She enthralled the hearts and conversations of her community. The feeling she got from their love and praise was her high, and she continued to seek any outlet to access this drug.

Stranger in her own body

It was no surprise when Hunter received notice that she was the newest member of the UNC women’s basketball team.

She had it all.

The girl who came from the town where the accents were thick, the Bojangles biscuits were plentiful and there were church bells ringing on every street corner had finally arrived in the eyes of her community.

Still, somehow Hunter had never felt like so much of a stranger in her own body.

Opinions of who to be and how to do everything come from every corner when you are a Morehead-Cain Scholar and member of the UNC women’s basketball team.

As Hunter played at practice, insult after insult escaped the lips of verbally abusive assistant coaches. They took every opportunity to remind her that she was not fast enough and she did not know the plays well enough.

As her coaches yelled the many ways in which she needed to do better, her ultimate desire was for them to be in awe of her. She longed so deeply for them to take an interest in her basketball career.

The game she always loved was now the thing she hated the most.

Walking away from the game

Hunter went to basketball practice and was the competitive athlete she knew to be and went to the classroom and worked harder than her peers.

She was stewarding her identities well as an athlete and student but disconnected from her true self.

The desire to seek recognition from others had bound her in chains from which she could not seem to be free.

She finally felt freedom when she did the unthinkable – walked away from the greatest opportunity she had ever had.

The games, team meet and greets, and prestigious opportunities left Hunter empty and more unknown and unloved than she had ever been.

She searched for something to fill her heart and to give her a sense that someone was satisfied or pleased with her, but she could not find that in basketball.

When she unlaced the Jordan’s, Hunter began to focus more on her academic career. Just like any other Morehead-Cain Scholar, she fell into the hamster wheel of thinking that she was going to make a bigger difference in the world than her colleagues.

Finding freedom in Jesus

Her internship for the U.S. Senate in Washington made her feel important for a while. However, when COVID-19 broke out, she went home and once again realized the immense amount of joy she lacked.

For the first time in a while, she was out of the public eye.

Since a global pandemic isolated her from all of her other friends, she had a lot of extra time to spend with Jesus.

The words she was reading in her Bible began to not only tell a parable about a Jewish man who lived a crazy and sin-free life, but they also started to penetrate her heart and wreck her view of how she was supposed to live.

Hunter realized she had it all backward. She was working to seek recognition and approval from someone or something when she already had the love and adoration of the “king of the universe.”

The same God that created the galaxies knit Hunter together perfectly.

It was almost as if when Hunter realized this, she could hear the audible sound of chains breaking.

She saw that her purpose in life was to share with others the goodness of God, and she did not have to do this to seek his recognition. He already loved her so much that he sent his son Jesus to die for her.

When she came to this realization, there was a new peace about her.

She sought comfort in knowing that she would never be good enough in the eyes of others because she had a new confidence that a holy god fiercely loved her.

Edited by: Austin Bean

Wyndham Robertson: A matriarch built on her own terms

By Sammy Ferris

Wyndham Robertson’s mission in life is to have a good death.

She has written the obituaries for everyone in her family. When her older sister passed away last year, she wrote to honor their lifetime of sisterhood. She tears up when thinking about Blanche Williamson’s death. She put that love into a crafted gift to their family. The power of honoring life in death.

During the pandemic this past year, Robertson decided it was time to write her own obituary too.

Death at 84 years old feels more like last call at a bar after a night spent with good friends and good martinis. Something inevitable and sweetly crushing. And for Robertson, something that should be talked about as such.

Writing her own obituary was a no-brainer. Robertson laughs that she is not sure who else in her family would do it anyways. Her lifelong career as a writer and her candidness have prepared her for the task.

Neither morbid nor nostalgic. Necessary and on her terms.

Robertson has always been a woman inspired by intention. Born in 1937, she is the youngest of three. She feels lucky to have been born during the Depression. It was rare and brimming with the kind of hope necessary to survive. The hope born from reviving a dying country by going to fight a war in another.

The kind of hope which would allow a girl from Salisbury, North Carolina with a dream of being a Rockette, to move to New York City and work at Fortune Magazine for over 40 years.

Engagement of Her Own

Marriage had never interested her, unlike many of her female peers. She saw engagement as employment, and if she was going to be an employee anywhere, it was going to be somewhere she could write. It certainly was not going to be because of a ring on her finger.

Necessary and on her terms.

After graduating from Hollins University with a degree in Economics, she moved to New York City. Her father told her she was not allowed to get an apartment or a job for at least a month, certain that she would return home to North Carolina.

Robertson spent those first few weeks speed dating with job interviews. Unable to commit until a month had past, Robertson went on speed dates all over the city with the confidence of someone who had nothing to lose.

The economy was coming out of a recession, and she was in an uncommitted relationship with Manhattan. She played the field.

Her first job was at Standard Oil doing research. Carol Loomis met Robertson after she had been there for a few years. Feeling called to change, Robertson traveled to Europe for three months with her cousin. Before she left, her boss referred her to Loomis who was working at Fortune Magazine. They agreed to discuss about job opportunities when Robertson came back.

In Spain, she received a postcard from Carol: check back in immediately upon your return.

A New Beginning

Fortune’s structure was nothing short of overtly sexist. All writers and editors were males who had females labelled as researchers at their beck and call. Loomis wanted Robertson to come on board as a trainee researcher. She knew it was below Robertson’s qualifications, but also knew she would easily move up the ranks.

Robertson agreed with one condition added in her contract: if she wasn’t promoted in a year, Carol had to fire her.

Necessary and on her terms.

Within six months, she was promoted to researcher. The magazine was in its prime and its prestige was a passport. Robertson accompanied writers on trips across the country interviewing business titans like Henry Ford and drinking martinis in expensive bars.

Her catch-me-if-you-can intelligence and American girl good looks made her a weapon in the business journalism world, and her unimposing charm and irreplaceable candor made her a writer.

In 1968, after a series of promotions, she became the first female Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune.

Necessary and on her terms.

No Regrets

Robertson’s ability to elicit respect and trust commanded her love life in the same way it did her career.

She turned down four proposals in her life, though somehow managed to maintain friendships with all of the men. The one proposal she did accept was from Wally McDowell during her early twenties. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the only man who would ever hear Robertson say yes.

She laughs remembering how it ended after a few weeks when she fell madly in love with someone else. She broke it off with a clean conscience, confident he would move on and marry a different person.

And while he did, she did not.

Dating was fun for a classically smart and beautiful woman like her. She has always loved men, usually having more than one “sweetheart” at a time.

Dating never went further than that. She has no regrets about being single, recalling her thirties when women and men would look at her with pity for her status. Since turning 60 years old, the most common response she hears is now is “lucky you.”

She is a matriarch with no children of her own. That role, she has filled by giving to her nieces and nephews. When she was invited to the 1991 Super Bowl, she brought her nephew Julian Williamson as her date. To him, she is the kind of aunt who made living in New York and working as a single woman feel like the obvious choice.

Robertson did not set out to refuse marriage. She simply refused to believe that marriage was something to set out to get.

Julian believes she is one part self-sufficient and one part scared. Not one to take risks, Robertson is relentlessly independent. A person who at 84 and in need of a new hip, will refuse anesthesia during the surgery rather than risk damaging her mind by going under.

A bold act rooted in fear of losing her mental acuity before it’s her time.

Wyndham Robertson does not believe that the great beyond resembles a family reunion. She believes that there is something waiting, but what that looks like she does not pretend to know. There are people “up there” who would want to see her again, but not vice versa. How would God decide that dilemma?

In talking about her legacy, she will be happy if her life is remembered at all.

Although Robertson never joined the Rockettes on stage, she crafted an extraordinary life. Charming and intelligent, she is a walking cocktail of southern manners and New York worldliness.

She is, in a word, unforgettable.

When Robertson’s time does come and her family reads the obituary she wrote, she will be remembered. A matriarch who, in life as well as in death, will always have the last word about who she is.

Edited by: Natalie Huschle

“No such thing as being overprepared:” How jobs have changed since 9/11

By Jordan Holloway

 

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks saw many tributes across the country. From memorial ceremonies at ground zero, to moments of silence at college football games, one fact is clear: the lives that were lost on that September morning are not to be forgotten.

 

There were many individuals whose jobs were impacted by the events that took place that day. TSA agents, pilots, first responders and teachers are just a few of the jobs that still face effects from the attacks– two decades later.

 

         Protecting the public.

        

Malcolm Thurgood wakes up around 3:30 a.m. during the week. He must get to Raleigh-Durham International Airport by 4:30 a.m. to begin his shift as a lead agent for the Transportation Security Administration, a job he has held since the agency was created in November of 2001.

 

“In 1998, I started working at RDU as a skycap handler, so I mainly just worked with travelers and their luggage,” Thurgood said. “I really enjoyed that job because I loved working with the public and making sure their travel experience was exceptional.”

 

Thurgood was at RDU on 9/11 and remembers clearly what he was doing when he heard the news.

 

“I was sending luggage down the belt when I heard the first plane had hit one of the towers,” said Thurgood. “The emotions that we all felt were overwhelming.”

 

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced they were forming the TSA, Thurgood knew he wanted to join. He began his training in late September and was one of the first agents at RDU on Nov. 19, 2001.

 

“I knew I wanted to still work with the general public, but the impacts from the attacks changed my perspective from just wanting to serve them, to wanting to protect them as they traveled,” Thurgood said. “Knowing that if we had something like TSA 20 years ago, the attacks might have been prevented, and I want to make sure that doing my job today protects everyone and doesn’t allow something like that from ever taking place again.”

 

         Family first.

                    

Chuck Gilley has been a pilot since 1987. He formerly worked for US Airways and is now with JetBlue. He mentioned that the attacks occurred on his 14th anniversary as a pilot.

 

“I remember I had just finished a red-eye from Seattle to Dulles and was heading to a hotel when I saw the breaking news,” Gilley said. “I had planned to get a few hours of sleep before working another red-eye later that evening but was in too much of a state of shock to be able to sleep.”

 

Gilley believes the attacks changed his job for the better because it prompted him to spend more time with his family, while still being able to work full-time.

 

“In 2001, I was always away from home in Wilmington working flights from across the country, while my wife was back home with a 3-year-old and 5-month-old,” he stated. “I sort of used the events from 9/11 as an excuse to join a different airline and work closer to home and be able to be with my family more often.”

 

Gilley said that after 9/11, all pilots had to go through several months of training to be prepared for similar instances if they were to happen again.

 

         Preventing more loss.

 

Matt Davis has served as a Deputy Fire Chief with New Hanover County Fire Rescue for the past 15 years. He believes that 9/11 greatly impacted the structure of fire departments around the country, but specifically the training structure within his own department.

 

“The events that took place that day really influenced change in first responder’s routines and response times,” Davis added. “From the lives that were lost that day, we really changed our outlook on making sure we have units in the vicinity of areas with a higher number of people, just in case something was to happen in our community, like it did on 9/11. The same structure changes we did 20 years ago in the aftermath of the attacks, we still have implemented today because in instances like this, there is no such thing as being overprepared.”

 

Davis also mentioned that another change in his department was asking for better access to water sources from the city.

 

“If you look back to 2001, and for instance in New York, a good amount of the lives that were lost were from individuals who were stuck inside the towers and fires began brewing from the impact of the aircraft hitting the building,” Davis said. “It could be argued that if those firefighters back then had better access to water, some of the fires could have been put out and lives could have been saved.”

 

“Luckily here in Wilmington, we were able to get approval from the city to have better access to water lines and fire hydrants that allow us to be able to put out fires before more and more damage is done,” Davis stated.

 

         Educating our youth.

  

Donna Butler has been an elementary school teacher in New Hanover County for the past 30 years. She remembers singing with her students that morning when her principal shared the news that one of the towers had been hit in New York.

 

“It was emotionally devastating for me personally,” Butler said. “Then, I have my students, and I have to explain to them what is going on and why everyone is crying.”

 

Butler believes that she has an important job in teaching her young students about the lives that were lost that day and what it means to “never forget.”

 

“Each year, I get new students who were not even born yet when the attacks took place,” Butler said. “Which means each year, I get another opportunity to teach them about 9/11 and how our world has changed since that day.”

Edited by Izzy D’Alo

No matter the location, Love Chapel Hill wants to worship with all

By Nicole Moorefield

The call to ministry came when Matt LeRoy was 12 years old.

He realized he wanted to serve God while at church camp. His father led a church in Chapel Hill and grandfather was a pastor. It’s safe to say that ministry runs in the LeRoy bloodline.

As a shy kid, he says it seemed like the worst option for him. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had found his calling.

Outdoor worship

It’s a crisp Sunday morning in Coker Arboretum. A small crowd has formed, seated on folding chairs and blankets. Among the gathered are college students, families with children, people experiencing homelessness, business professionals and the occasional dog.

This is Love Chapel Hill.

After worship concludes, Dan LeRoy takes the microphone. He is guest-preaching in his son’s stead.

Midway through his sermon, he says something that makes the crowd grin. He’s explaining how he moved his family from the Bagley Swamp area to Chapel Hill to start a church.

“We thought we were coming here because God called us to plant that church,” Dan LeRoy says. “I think he called us here to get Matt here to Chapel Hill.”

LeRoy saw his father make that move as a 10-year-old and it gave him the confidence to start Love Chapel Hill years later.

The evolution of Love Chapel Hill

Growing up in Chapel Hill, LeRoy fell in love with the town.

He remembers walking down Franklin Street in high school with friends when he realized that the Varsity Theatre would be a great location for a church.

Before coronavirus struck, the Varsity was Love Chapel Hill’s regular meeting place.

But that’s not where it started.

Love Chapel Hill was born in Wilmore, Kentucky, at Asbury Theological Seminary. After completing undergrad in South Carolina, LeRoy headed to Asbury to continue his studies. He and his wife, Sarah, moved into one side of a duplex.

At the same time, Justin Simmons and his wife, Jeanine, moved into the other. The couples became friends, hosting movie nights and growing in their faith together.

It became clear that LeRoy and Simmons had complimentary gifts — LeRoy for teaching and Simmons for administration.

When LeRoy shared his vision for a church plant in Chapel Hill, Simmons could tell there was something special there. In 2008, he and Jeanine moved to Chapel Hill with the LeRoys to help bring the church to life. Today, Simmons is the executive pastor and “director of LOVE-gistics.

At its conception, Love Chapel Hill was four couples meeting by the Old Well.

“That was an intentional thing for us that we wanted to be out in the community, not closed in behind walls,” LeRoy says.

In October 2009, the church moved into the Varsity. At the heart of downtown Chapel Hill, LeRoy says the makeup of Franklin Street reflects the diversity of God’s kingdom.

That diversity remains to this day, with around 30 percent of churchgoers in college and 15 percent experiencing homelessness. However, LeRoy stresses the importance of Love Chapel Hill not having a college ministry or a homeless ministry

“We have a church family where everyone belongs,” he says.

LeRoy points back to scripture as the blueprint, noting that the disciples, despite being all Jewish men, came from very different walks of life.

Changes with the pandemic

He says both the best and hardest part of running Love Chapel Hill is building community amongst a diverse group of people, a challenge heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Love Chapel Hill decided to go online even before the governor mandated it.

“From the earliest days of the church, we know that we were meant to be sent out in the community,” LeRoy says. “If we don’t think we can be the church without meeting in one room together, then we’ve completely lost the definition of what the church is.”

In May, the church began to “regather” outside on Sundays, first in the Forest Theatre and then in Coker Arboretum.

The church also maintained its presence at the Varsity to serve members of the community experiencing homelessness, a group at additional risk for COVID. Every Sunday morning, members provided breakfast, masks and COVID education. In the winter, they ran warm clothing drives.

Demonte Fowlkes, who started attending Love Chapel Hill in 2015 after staying in a shelter, says Love Chapel Hill stands out for how the church cares for its congregation.

“When the pandemic hit and we weren’t having service, they would still come out and bring everybody McDonald’s food and coffee,” he says.

LeRoy’s reach

Fowlkes got to know LeRoy better by joining the set-up and tear-down crew on Sundays.

“If you actually get the chance to sit down and talk to him, he’s just a regular guy,” Fowlkes says. “But he has so much knowledge.”

Simmons says LeRoy stands out for his authenticity.

“The experience that everyone has with Matt, especially in that initial meeting, he’s going to give you the smile of a lifetime and it is the most real and genuine smile you could ask for,” he says.

LeRoy is also a father of twin boys, and Simmons says he is just as inspiring in that role.

Bob and Vicki Stocking, who attend Love Chapel Hill, expand on LeRoy’s gifts for fatherhood.

Vicki recounts a time when one of LeRoy’s sons was feeling anxious. LeRoy told him, “This is what you feel before you’re brave,” she says.

Bob highlights the discussions LeRoy has with his young sons on the ride to school every day.

“He uses the time in the car as almost like mini Sunday school,” Bob says, where they can ask each other questions. “He doesn’t want any wasted time with his kids.”

Sarah Propst, a graduate student at UNC, describes LeRoy as both personal and personable.

“He really seeks to get to know people, to remember their names and details about them that are important to create a personal relationship,” she says.

She also says she appreciates Love Chapel Hill’s choice to not have a college ministry because it has pushed her to get to know people outside of her own age group.

“It’s been a neat experience to almost be forced to become a part of the body of Christ throughout my undergrad, and then transitioning to grad school has been easier by having those connections with people who are not my same age.”

Joel Philbrook, the connections pastor, says it’s LeRoy’s humility that makes him different from other pastors.

“He’s a dynamic personality in all the good ways and still a very humble way,” he says. “He could be very popular if he chose to put emphasis on being popular. He doesn’t.”

Bob Stocking refers to it as “a total lack of ego.”

“Matt is so brilliant that if he decided at the beginning, I want to have a 10,000-person church with seven sites, I think he could have done that. But his call is to this community in this way.”

As they say every Sunday, “Our name is our mission: to love Chapel Hill with the heart of Jesus.” And Matt LeRoy is doing just that.

Edited by Sterling Roberts