Berkeley Students Find a Home at Wesley House

October 16, 2009

By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer, UM Reporter

You might think of the University of California at Berkeley - known for its radical political environment - as the last place for a rebirth of United Methodist campus ministry. But you just might be wrong. 
A few years ago, campus pastor the Rev. Tarah Trueblood wasn't getting anywhere. Already working on a shoestring, funding for the Wesley Foundation at the University of California, Berkeley was getting cut, year after year. The campus ministry was having little success attracting students to its programs. 
"We weren't effective operating from a standalone 1950s building offering the same old programming," said Ms. Trueblood. "That model doesn't work anymore." 
So Trueblood found a way to bring the ministry "home" to students - literally. When it opens next fall, Wesley House and Campus Center will offer a new housing option for 89 students who want to share an environment of "intentional living." 
Ground was broken in July for the facility, which combines dormitory-style housing along with the campus ministry's facilities. Offices and meeting space will occupy the ground floor; the upper three floors will feature eight five-bedroom "communities."
Trueblood hopes this model also will help resolve the constant bane of campus ministries - getting funding. Financing for the building came from county tax-exempt bonds; fees paid by residents will create a revenue stream to pay for the building and support the ministry. (Handily, Trueblood practiced corporate, finance and securities law before entering seminary.) 
Many United Methodist campus ministries do offer a residential option, but usually just for a few students who serve as interns or building stewards. The Wesley Foundation at the University of Kentucky offers a "Christian dormitory" with room to house a total of 49 students. Students who live there enjoy use of a large kitchen shared with the other residents. 
The Rev. Vance Rains, pastor of the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University, thinks the Kentucky and California school models may represent the next trend for campus ministries. Like many other Wesley Foundation ministers, he says, he's looking at the possibility of building a dormitory on the Florida State Wesley Foundation's property. 
Study shows student demand for 'more holistic' education
Part of the reason why Trueblood was able to make Wesley House happen - with the university's blessing - stems from a 2006 research project from the National Institute on Spirituality in Higher Education, conducted at UCLA, which probed students' expectations from colleges and universities in terms of spiritual development. 
"The study basically said that students are demanding a more holistic education at secular and even at some religious-affiliated colleges," said Trueblood (at left). "They aren't getting the integration of spirituality in their education, they're not getting opportunities to talk about morals and values as part of their education, and they feel that's a void." 
One of the remedies prescribed by the report: partnerships between the university and off-campus faith groups to help incorporate religious and spiritual learning. UC-Berkeley took the report so seriously that it has appointed a staff person to help make needed changes. 
"This represents a complete reversal of the university's attitude toward religious people and religion," said Trueblood. 
Secular universities have largely neglected or ignored incorporating moral or spiritual questions in their curricula, she added, "and then they wonder why there's a hookup culture on campus." Not all students are happy about the sexual promiscuity common on many campuses, she said, but most lack the spiritual and moral insight to question it. 
"They look to hookups as a way of satisfying the need for closeness, which doesn't work, and yet these students don't even know how to start the conversation about that," she said. 
Wesley House, she hopes, will offer a safe community for students who do want to have those kinds of conversations and who desire a more holistic educational experience. 
"What we're creating here is an environment that will help develop a whole person," Trueblood said.
Link here to view video of the Wesley House groundbreaking ceremony.