Zachary Lee: Leaving room for hope

I hope to write gripping pieces about the problems and tribulations facing the world. At the same time, I want to powerfully describe the redemptive and restorative work of the Gospel and its ability to speak to such issues and provide hope.

—Zachary Lee, Cornell University 2020, English Creative Writing

First-place winner of the Evangelical Press Association’s Student Writer of the Year Award Every year in Chicago, teams of high school students compete in the largest youth poetry festival in the world—a slam poetry competition called “Louder than a Bomb.” Two years ago, Cornell University sophomore Zachary Lee was among the contestants.

It was a life-changing experience. Throughout the competition, Zachary listened to his peers articulate injustice and suffering in a “cascading cadence of lyrics.” He mourned with those who mourned. He joined his words to the others, calling out broken systems and the despair they left in their wake.

Zachary was moved by many brilliant performances, but he was also saddened by what was missing.

“I realized that while my competitors were quite apt at decrying the very real and broken systems of Chicago, their compositions were devoid of hope,” he says. “At Louder than a Bomb, I decided that I wanted to leave room for hope.”

Zachary has made this search for hope “somewhat of an anthem” for his writing in college. “I strongly believe that the Christian not only speaks to but presses into the issues of suffering, identity, and longing,” he says. At Cornell, Zachary began to attend retreats, conversations, and lectures at the Chesterton House, a ministry facilitated by CCO staff members Nicole and Billy Riley.

“Nicole and Billy showed me how to honor God with my mind,” Zachary says. “They encouraged me to try and find God in areas that I had previously neglected, like seemingly ‘secular’ books and films.” And along the way, Nicole and Billy moved from being advisors to Zachary to becoming beloved friends.

This support is helping Zachary develop as a writer—a writer who moves toward the difficult questions and, through Christ’s love for all creation, makes room for hope.

“I am thankful for their challenge to not just go for the lazy way of talking about God in literature, but to be more creative,” he says. “They encourage me to write deeply into human suffering and emotion—and show how God could be present, to invite readers into a world that God will one day come to heal, a world where He uses His children now to do His work in the interim. This is the kind of writer I want to be. This is hope.”