Pictured is a wooden sign used to identify the Barbie Dream Mansion house located on Paul Street in Downtown Harrisonburg. The sign is 4’ 8”x 3’ 9”x 0.5” and features black, pink, and white paint, as well as clear rhinestones and beads glued to the edges. This handmade sign was created in 2012 by a resident “Barbie.” The house was founded in 2008 when nine girls in a James Madison University YoungLife small group decided they wanted to live together. The house, previously owned by the Gamma Kappa Chapter of the Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority, now houses eleven students. The Barbie Dream Mansion has remained an all-girls home for students involved in JMU’s YoungLife club.
As described by Erin Christian, a current resident of the Barbie Dream Mansion, YoungLife is a Christian organization that aims to reach middle and high school students through the simple act of “showing up.” Leaders invest countless hours weekly to care for their assigned students, attending sporting events, helping them with school projects, planning bible studies, and much more. YoungLife College exists to invest in the students of JMU- both those already involved in YoungLife leadership and those who have never heard of the mission. YoungLife has remained non-denominatonal since its founding, and does not promote one Christian denomination over another- a fact that is reflected in the interior spiritual lives of the Dream Mansion residents. Erin shared that some of the women identify as non-denominational, while others identify as Catholic, Baptist, or Greek Orthodox.
The concept of group housing is a primary tool used by the YoungLife College ministry and other ministries on campus, to build community among members. These homes are typically composed of five-to-ten JMU students and are strongly affiliated with one particular ministry. These homes allow for the students in the Christian organizations to be literally set apart. These students choose not to live in typical off-campus housing, like an apartment or townhome, but instead live in a traditional home with their intentional Christian community. The accessibility of the houses from campus keeps the organization’s presence visible and unavoidable, manifesting a strategy that places the religious into the public arena. This “religious territoriality” is a strong factor in building the confidence of religious students at JMU in their own relationship with faith. Projecting the sacred into public space makes a powerful statement on behalf of a community’s culture, and the effects vary based on the intensity of that projection. Fifty-foot crosses on the side of the road make an immediate statement of devout religiosity. The manifestation of religion by the house signs one street off of JMU’s campus serve as an example of a more balanced and accommodating spirituality. The presence of the houses gives religious students a haven for the development of their faith in a powerful and considerate way relative to the secular environment found in a public school. (Taylor, 2015)
The accessibility of the houses from campus keeps the organization’s presence visible and unavoidable, manifesting a strategy that places the religious into the public arena.
The homes are used for developing the spiritual lives of those who live there, as well as evangelization. In each home, rules are put in place to “call [the residents] higher” and the houses are used to draw others in for organization-wide events. The students in these houses recognize that it’s easy to invite a classmate or peer to a Christian event when it’s held in their own home. An invitation to a person’s home can seem more simple and natural than an invitation to an event organized at a local church. The individuals who live in these houses have found that hosting events and meetings in the houses helps with the overall feeling of fellowship within their respective organizations- a reflection of the community component of religion.
These houses also signify a change in which residents, living away from their families, begin to take a more individual ownership in their religious lives. Research by scholar Catherine Posey “suggest that adults should not expect children’s spiritual responses to a text to fit in their framework of spirituality, though certainly this can happen.” (Posey) Houses like the Barbie Dream Mansion support this claim by demonstrating the ways in which youth choose to embrace their beliefs and integrate faith into their daily lives. Bible studies or small group discussions are often core components of these living communities, allowing residents to experience and discuss Christian themes from a youth perspective that may be less accessible at home.
To ensure these houses do not blend in with the surrounding neighborhood, each one has a clear and unique sign hung in front of the home. The most unusual aspect of these homes are the names chosen by their affiliated organization, illustrated on their displayed signs. Within a five minute walk from campus one can see that Intervarsity has houses titled Dunkin Bronuts, Pride Rock, The Lighthouse, and The Firehouse. YoungLife claims houses including Tree Haus and DogTown. CRU has roots in The Sunflower, Camelot, and The White House. These names are nonreligious and, in many cases, clearly reference pop culture.
The name ‘Barbie Dream Mansion’ was thrown around as a joke by a friend of the founders, but according to co-founder Nicole Ferraro, the girls liked it enough to keep it . Of course, there is nothing inherently religious about Barbie or her Dream Mansion. Still, this choice of name is indicative of an American tendency to assign spiritual meaning to pop culture symbols and secular artifacts. In this case, the Barbie doll, an enduring symbol of secular culture for the greater half of the last century, has been adopted to signify these residents’ commitment to living a faith-centered life. While Barbie’s own religious convictions have been a source of speculation and controversy for years, the residents of this house have selected her as a sort of mascot of their faith community — an indicator to the outside world of their common spiritual and, in effect, social values.
By Jake Adams, Casey Dwyer, and Harry Hudome
Erin Christian, personal communication with author, March 2018
Nicole Ferraro, e-mail message to author, April 17, 2018.
Posey, Catherine R., “Unexpected illuminations: how children’s perceptions of the divine are highlighted through their discussion of two toy fantasy novels,” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 18, no. 2, 135-147. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1364436X.2012.752344
Taylor, Sue Ann. “Ritual, Belief, and Meaning in the Production of Sacred Space.” In Transcending Architecture, edited by Bermudez Julio, by Ott Randall, 160-69. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015. doi:10.2307/j.ctt130h9f6.16.