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Helping others thrive at the intersection of spirit and body
Portrait of Allie Williams

Allie Williams once planned to be a doctor, but instead decided to explore the intersections of health and faith. Her studies and community work at Candler School of Theology showed her new ways to integrate spiritual and physical wellness.

— Emory Photo Video

It takes years — if not decades — for some people to be able to recognize the forces that shape their lives. Allie Williams, graduating with her master of divinity degree, already sees the steps that have led to her career choice, and her education at Candler School of Theology has been key in that journey.

Pre-med but searching for more

As an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, Williams pursued a major in health and exercise science with the intent of going to medical school. But by the time she graduated, she had decided to put a medical career aside.

“I was exhausted by what I saw in the health sciences and knew that I wanted to find a more holistic approach,” she says. “I was interested but searching for more.”

After college she went abroad for a year, racking up work experiences in Argentina, Australia and Greece. She also spent time in Thailand, where she took an intensive course leading to certification as a yoga instructor.

“I was already thinking about seminary,” she says. “But living with people in other countries and with other faith traditions made me excited to learn more about their practice as well as my own faith and tradition. I was interested in the intersection of the spirit and the body.”

Serving through THRIVE

Williams arrived at Candler as a master of divinity student in fall 2019 and quickly found opportunities to explore that intersection.

During the spring of her first year, she became a coordinator of Candler’s THRIVE program. Sponsored by the Office of Student Life, THRIVE offers Candler students information, practices and events that encourage care of body and mind in addition to their inherent focus on the spirit. Williams has taught two yoga classes per week and arranged numerous health and wellness events.

Quentin Samuels, associate director of student life, points out the successful THRIVE retreat day Williams organized for students last fall and a workshop she designed on how stress affects the body.

“Allie has a phenomenal ability to help others bring their attention back to the physical,” Samuels says. “Seminary can keep us at a distance from the body because of our work, but her programs have reminded us to be anchored theologically in the body, reminding us that we are spiritual beings in a human experience, not the other way around.”

Growth through experiential learning

In their first two years, all Candler MDiv students participate in Contextual Education (Con Ed), a central focus of the Candler curriculum that integrates classroom learning, mentor-led theological reflection and practical application in the community.

Williams’ first Con Ed experience was in chaplaincy at Gwinnett Medical Center, and she credits chaplain Orlando Scott with teaching her and her cohort how to regulate their emotions and how to be with those they were serving. Although the second semester of Con Ed was cut short by the pandemic, it revealed to her that she liked being with people in big transitions and she was comfortable in a hospital environment.

It was during her second Con Ed experience that the strands of everything began to come together. Working with families as director of children’s ministries in a local church, Williams found herself drawn to the stories of the young parents she served.

“I felt a longing — not for motherhood per se — but something attracted me to the conversations I overheard,” she says.

To understand more, she began reading about birthing and midwifery. Two of the paths to doing such work — certified nurse midwife and professional certified midwife — would require a detour from her theological education, a move she did not wish to make.

Choosing a parallel path

Through further reading she discovered a third path, the role of doula. Although some doulas work with those needing support during other life transitions, the term is most commonly used for persons trained to give emotional support, comfort and information to mothers before, during and soon after childbirth.

Here was the perfect setting in which Williams could help others attend to the body while attending to the spirit. “I thought, ‘So this is that feeling people talk about when they find out what they want to do with their lives!’”

In January 2021 she began training with DONA International, a doula-certifying organization, in addition to continuing her degree work at Candler. She found in DONA’s instruction an emphasis on equitable and just treatment during birth that resonated strongly.

Williams began volunteering at Emory Decatur Hospital in fall 2021, working two 12-hour shifts per month. To date, she has attended eight births.

Despite her broad extracurricular involvement, Williams has not neglected her studies. On Candler’s recent Honors Day, she was one of five recipients of the MDiv Award for Academic Excellence, given for insightful leadership, transformational engagement, deeply informed activism and a willingness to contribute thoroughly to the intellectual life of the Candler community.

After receiving her MDiv degree in early May, she also looks forward to gaining doula certification at the end of the month. She then heads to Chicago, where she will begin solo practice as a birth and postpartum doula.

As she begins a new journey, Williams takes Candler and its lessons with her.

“I’ve been grounded and affirmed in what I want to do. I’ve learned there’s a balance of resting and addressing the pain around us.”

And perhaps the greatest gift? After thinking she had to abandon her earlier plans, “it was a surprise that Candler led me back to the health and wellness field.”

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