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Faith-based dormitories create community, draw fire

Published: Friday, Oct. 18 2013 8:35 a.m. MDT

For faithful college students, finding a place to practice their beliefs and abstain from stereotypical college life has offered them a chance for freer discussion about religion.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Jorge Solis lived in an on-campus dorm his freshman year. The walls vibrated with popular music and the shouts and screams of rambunctious freshmen.

It wasn't what he wanted.

So last spring when the sophomore heard about the Newman Center — an on-campus, co-ed faith-based housing facility with 376 beds — he was interested. Solis applied and was hired as a residential assistant following five interviews with Troy's housing office and an arduous application process.

The residents of the Newman Center, Solis said, are seeking an alternative to the stereotypical college lifestyle. Even though Troy University, a public institution in Troy, Ala., is a fairly conservative campus to begin with, students living in the faith-based dorms — which allow members of all faiths, including Christian, Muslim and Hindu — want to avoid temptations, Solis said.

Instead of booming with party music, the Newman Center’s halls are tattooed with religious text and scripture. Auto-tuned and synthesized sounds by celebrities have been replaced with acoustic guitar strings from the residents.

Troy University is just one public school offering faith-based housing. Other schools have recently opened similar buildings, including Florida Institute of Technology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Purdue University in Indiana. Not all facilities are on campus, and some are not affiliated directly with the university at all, but students at each of these places have another option for housing — an option that offers a chance to avoid distractions, build a religious community and continue living a faith-based life.

But not everyone is welcoming the new trend in on-campus housing. In a letter sent to Troy University on Aug. 1, The Freedom From Religious Foundation claimed Troy's on-campus faith-based dorm was illegal because the public university was limiting their beds to Christian students only — something that has since been adjusted. But FFRF is still vowing a legal fight.

Demand from students

Coming back to his college dorm from class, Solis now sees something different.

When the junior steps through the double-door entrance of the Newman Center, rather than stepping over students smoking cigarettes or boozing on beers, he sees students sharing gospel, breaking down the Bible and discussing their day.

“You can feel a power — you can feel something moving them … that you don’t see with many other college students," Solis said.

Student demand is the reason for faith-based housing popping up recently, said Matt Zerrusen, president of the Newman Student Housing Fund, which built the facilities at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Florida Institute of Technology and Troy University. He said he and his team surveyed students at different schools and asked them whether they'd like to see faith-based housing options.

It was an overwhelming "yes," he said.

“Students had a desire to live in a place that wasn’t necessarily a party residence hall," Zerrusen said. "It’s a place more traditional; it’s a place with moral values.”

A recent seven-year study by UCLA released in 2010 researched the extent to which students felt unsettled about their religion, disagreed with their family over religion, felt distant from God and questioned their religious beliefs — or "religious struggle," as the study called it. Religious struggle has increased over the years, but experiences and practices that promote spiritual development — like faith-based housing — are counteracting that struggle and giving students comfort, the study said.

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