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Berkeley church starts national trend with student housing

 
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08/30/2006 04:59 AM
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Berkeley church starts national trend with student housing
BERKELEY
Dorm with a spiritual dimension
Church starts national trend by building housing for Cal students
- Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006

As college students across the country return to campuses over the next few weeks, more and more will be moving into church-sponsored dorms -- a trend that can trace its roots to the corner of College Avenue and Bancroft Way in Berkeley.

There, just across the street from the UC Berkeley campus, the Presbyterian Church renovated its Westminster House campus ministry building a few years ago and added a dorm for 125 students. Besides a room, students there are offered Bible study, theology classes and social justice projects.

It was a success at Cal, where student housing is always an issue, and soon religious denominations around the country took note.

Mark Elsdon, the pastor of Pres House at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which is building a 280-bed student residence hall, said many campuses looked to Berkeley and said that if it could be done there, it could be done anywhere.

"Berkeley isn't the friendliest to organized religion," Elsdon observed.

Now, a growing number of campus ministries -- from UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to universities in Wisconsin and West Virginia -- have added student housing or are exploring the idea.

The movement has been fueled by a rising interest in religion and spirituality among college students and a push by campus ministries to find new sources of revenue to support their programs and to attract more students.

Many of the ministries saw the success the Rev. Randy Bare had at Westminster House and sought his advice -- giving him an additional calling. He now works half time running a consulting company that works exclusively on housing projects with nonprofit ministries and churches near college campuses. He said he is involved in projects all over the country, including in Berkeley at the United Methodist Church, which plans to open student housing with 112 beds in fall 2008.

The church dorms generally house several students together in a suite, have student residential assistants as supervisors and offer much of the traditional programming that is found in campus dorms elsewhere. Westminster House is kicking off the year with an ice cream social and a group trip to Angel Island.

Like all official student housing complexes, Westminster House and the others do not allow underage drinking. But it does not ban alcohol outright -- although some church-sponsored dorms include no-partying clauses in their student rental agreements.

"If someone is over 21, there is not much we can do," Bare said. "Our goal would be to be substance-free if we could. But I'm not saying no one has ever opened a beer in this place."

Although the ministries hope to attract more students to their programs and services, there is "no religious test" to live there, and residents can be anything from agnostic to a range of religions, from Catholic to Jewish to Muslim, Bare said. Westminster House, for example, has 30 members of UC Berkeley's freshman swim team every year because it is close to the campus pool.

"With Westminster being Presbyterian, I think it is just the name. There is no requirement to read the Bible or do whatever," said freshman Michael Shabun, 18, who is Jewish and moved into the house last weekend. "It is basically like any other dorm."

He chose it over the campus dorms because the rooms are bigger and have their own bathrooms, instead of the group co-ed bathroom of most dorms.

And those who think they will be giving up on the college experience shouldn't fear, said Frances Loreto, 18.

"I was sort of hesitant because I first thought it would be less social than the dorms," she said. "But the parties here have been pretty exciting. I felt that I wasn't missing out on any of the partying experience."

Some students and their parents said they were attracted by the ties to religion in the student housing.

When Rosemary Lopez of San Diego heard that her son Gilbert wanted to attend UC Berkeley, she told him, "Over my dead body."

"We are born-again Christians, and we had heard of it as a liberal, radical campus," she said.

Then a friend told her about Westminster House, which also opened a second location for 44 students nearby.

"We felt a little more comfortable with that," Lopez said. "It seemed like a safe environment. Knowing that there is a Christian presence on the Berkeley campus makes us feel more comfortable."

The cost for students -- about $10,700 for a double at Westminster House -- is slightly more than that of traditional campus dorms.

The housing provides a regular revenue stream for the ministries. With churches cutting back on funding for campus ministries, they are looking for other sources of revenue, and their valuable property near campuses provides the perfect opportunity, said Karen Bush, president of the National Campus Ministry Association. Many campuses, like Westminster House, leverage the money from the development of student housing for the much-needed renovation or replacement of old buildings.

"Funding is just drying up left and right and across all denominations, so campus ministries are looking for ways to get money and at the same time increase ministry at a multicultural level," she said.

E-mail Tanya Schevitz at [email protected]

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