Baker Scholarship Recipient Spearheads New Wesley House Dorm

Date Posted: 1/30/2014

A dilapidated dorm at Tyler Junior College has been transformed into a missional community that is helping students at two Texas colleges grow in their faith. The vision of a campus minister - who is also a General Board of Higher Education and Ministry Baker Scholarship recipient - came to life with help from the Texas Annual Conference, local churches, and the Wesley Foundation.
 
“I love living at the Wesley [House] because it allows us to share our faith with everyone, and we can live with other believers,” said Courtney Johnson, a student living in the Wesley House dormitory. “I’ve made a lot of new friends, and everyone’s so nice. It’s just a great environment.”
 
The new residence hall was the vision of the Rev. Sunny Brown Farley, campus minister at Tyler Junior College. The Tyler United Wesley Foundation serves both Tyler Junior College and the University of Texas at Tyler. The new dorm is located at the junior college, but students from both campuses can live there. Any student who agrees to live under the community’s Rule of Life is welcome, regardless of affiliation with The United Methodist Church.
 
The Wesley House opened in August 2013, in response to crowded worship services and outreach programs that had outgrown the Wesley Foundation’s previous location.
Farley, who is on the Missional Church Studies track at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, received the Bishop James C. Baker Award, a scholarship designated for UM campus ministers who are pursing advanced training. Farley said the scholarship allowed her to return to seminary for a doctor of ministry degree. “The scholarship has offset the cost so that I can go back and gain useful education for the ministry we are now doing.”
 
Missional church studies emphasize a shift in focus from creating programs that meet the needs within a congregation to equipping members to address the needs of those outside the congregation—an idea which Farley brings to the Wesley House.
 
“Our first semester was a real learning experience,” said Farley. “Forty-three students moved into our building, and we had to negotiate things like visitation guidelines, snoring roommates, and Wi-Fi issues.”
 
Currently 43 students live at Wesley House—about half men and half women. The housing cost is $2,350 per semester.
 
The Tyler United Wesley Foundation offers free weekly meals to the TJC campus, serving lunch to about 200 students every Tuesday. In addition, there are weekly Bible studies and Bible readings at both campuses; a “Tuesdays on the Turf” outdoor weekly worship service; daily prayer; and regular mission projects, retreats, and fellowship events.
 
“We try to plan ample opportunities for our students to stay plugged into their faith,” said Farley. “We know that they lead busy lives. Our students go to class full-time, and most of them work.” Many students also are involved in campus activities and church.
Farley also spoke about the nurturing theological environment the Wesley House offers. Several students read a daily devotional together, and students often post encouraging messages to one another on Facebook and Instagram. Students and staff are available to pray together throughout the week for any needs, from family troubles to injuries to midterms. “It has been a delight to see the Holy Spirit moving among our people,” said Farley.
 
The Wesley House is home to several students who feel called to ministry. The house provides not only moral support, but also information on summer internships and other educational and ministerial opportunities.
 
“One of the reasons I’m living at the Wesley House is because the atmosphere is different from other places. . . . We came here from different backgrounds, but we’re able to come together to function and evolve as a unit,” Josh Benstowe, another resident at the Wesley House, said.
 
Resident advisers and directors of the Wesley House staff can support students as they discern God's direction for their lives.
 
“I think the real advantage to living in this environment is that our staff really knows our students. We live with them!” Farley said. “We really see our role as empowering students to live into God's call on their lives—whatever that is.”
 
A number of local churches—Marvin UMC, Pollard UMC, First UMC-Grand Saline, Russell Memorial UMC in Wills Point, Canton First UMC, Pleasant Retreat UMC, and St. Paul’s UMC—all helped with the project, as did the Wesley Foundation at Stephen F. Austin State University, Farley said. “Over the summer I spoke at a Sunday school class at Marvin, and before I left, they were stuffing my Bible with money! They were so excited about what we are doing!”
 
The Texas Annual Conference picked up the tab for moving costs and signage.
The newly renovated Wesley House at TJC. The building opened to residents in fall 2013 and is home to more than 40 students living in Christian community. Caleb Yarborough, left, and Colton Ward lead worship at a weekly worship service “Tuesdays on the Turf.”  Photo courtesy of the Wesley Foundation. 
 
The Rev. Sandra Smith, district superintendent of the Northwest District of the Texas Annual Conference, said the dorm is “like a laboratory for Christian young adults.” Smith praised the dorm’s positive effects on residents’ lives. “The residents worship, study, pray, play, and do mission together. They are becoming highly committed disciples, and it is our deepest hope that they will learn to make disciples of other students as well.”
 
Smith said Farley has met the challenges of the new ministry with grace and humor, adding, “Her passion for Christ and for people, her sense of adventure, and her joyful spirit are gifts well-suited to this new ministry.”
 
Tyler Junior College has been so pleased with the Wesley Foundation’s impact on campus that it has even offered the Wesley House an additional dorm to add to its operations.
 
“We very much see ourselves at Wesley House as a budding missional community,” said Farley. “We are working hard to strengthen and empower our community to go out and serve God in every way possible.”
 
To learn more about the Wesley House at TJC, visit www.tylerwesleyhouse.com.
Burdakin is editorial and production assistant, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

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