Wesley Foundation celebrates 100 years of faith, friendship and service

Gator Wesley students in intramural football
Gator Wesley students find fun, fellowship and support during an intramural football game at the University of Florida. Photo from Gator Wesley Foundation.

GAINESVILLE – For college freshman Nikki Ross, one of the most exciting moments of her life was also tinged with some trepidation.

She was leaving her home and family in North Carolina and traveling to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida.

“You’re leaving your family and friends behind and going to a new place where you don’t really know anyone,” Ross said. “It can be a little scary.”

Fortunately, Ross had a ready-made surrogate family waiting for her.

“When I decided to attend UF, my pastor in North Carolina encouraged me to look into joining the Wesley Foundation chapter when I got there,” she said.

Four years later, she’s an assistant director for the campus ministry and a member of the Upper Room Staff, living with fellow undergraduates at the Gator Wesley on-campus facility.

“The instant I got here, I felt so welcome,” she said. “I just loved the people and they became like a second family to me. It was so nice to know there were all these people around me who shared my faith and beliefs.”

Rev. David Fuquay, director of Higher Education and Campus Ministries for the Florida Conference and former Gator Wesley pastor, said Ross’ experience is typical among the college students who make their way to Wesley Foundation chapters on public university campuses around the world.

Third-generation Gator Wesley fan

GAINESVILLE – When she was accepted to the University of Florida, there was never a doubt in Shannon Moore’s mind where she would spend the bulk of her time on campus.

A third-generation member of the Gator Wesley Foundation, she shares a legacy of leadership, faith and service with her parents and grandparents.

“I’d heard about Gator Wesley all my life and knew I wanted to be a member,” said Shannon, now a junior at UF. She remembered enrolling as a freshman for the summer term and promptly heading to the foundation’s center on University Avenue upon arriving in Gainesville.

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“It’s a ready-made home for these students,” Fuquay said. “In an environment that is new and often stressful, the Wesley Foundation provides instant camaraderie for students, a community where they feel welcome and comfortable.”

According to records at the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry, Gator Wesley is among 520 campus ministries in the U.S. that got their start a century ago with a then-radical plan to serve students at publicly funded institutions of higher learning. The first Wesley Foundation chapter was founded on Oct. 13, 1913, at the University of Illinois. In Florida, Gator Wesley is one of the oldest of its kind, dating to the 1920s.

“The mission of the foundation has remained consistent from the beginning,” Fuquay said. “It was created because an increasing number of Methodist students were attending public universities, and the foundation was a way to reach out to these students and provide support and social opportunities.”

The ministry’s value has amplified in recent years, Fuquay said, noting that today’s students struggle with questions about spirituality and peer pressures that can lead to morality conflicts, as well as anxieties about making friends and succeeding academically.

“One of the most significant changes in the foundation has been the increasing number of students with no religious affiliation joining the foundation,” Fuquay said.

“It’s been a gradual transformation, but now the Wesley Foundation isn’t only for Methodist students. More and more, the foundation is reaching out to non-Christian and nominally Christian students seeking a sense of community. About 40 to 60 percent of the members are Methodist and the rest are from other backgrounds.”

A legacy of campus support

James C. Baker is credited with starting the Wesley Foundation ministry, which has its roots in his 1907 appointment as pastor of a Methodist Episcopal church on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. The church’s campus ministry became the first Wesley Foundation in 1913.

New Wesley Center building at University of Florida 2010 photo
The Gator Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida dates to the 1920s, but the Florida Conference celebrated a new student center on campus in 2010. Photo from FLUMC archives.

“It was a time when tax-supported colleges and universities were beginning to attract more and more students, including young Methodist scholars,” Fuquay said.

“Constitutional mandates for separation of church and state meant there was a need for a separate entity that could operate on campus to minister to students’ spiritual needs.”

The second Wesley Foundation sprang up in short order at the University of Wisconsin, but the idea was not warmly received in all Methodist circles. Baker, who later became a bishop, writes this in his 1960 memoir, “The First Wesley Foundation: An Adventure in Christian Education”:

 “While the tax-supported universities – officially and unofficially – welcomed the coming of the churches to work adjoining their campuses, there was often sharp opposition on the part of some individuals and some official groups within the life of the churches.” 

Baker continues: “Many of the presidents of the church-related [Methodist] colleges were gravely apprehensive of the church developing any program for students at state universities. These presidents were having an extremely difficult time building their student bodies, increasing their facilities and endowments and raising their budgets. It is not at all strange that they feared opposition from the new movement …”

Some private Methodist schools continued to see Wesley Foundation ministries as rivals well into the 1950s, according to Baker.

Once unleashed, though, the foundation was seemingly irrepressible, with chapters springing up on public university campuses throughout the country, including Florida.

“In 1911, the Florida Conference determined there were 300 Methodist students at UF and 280 at [Methodist-affiliated] Florida Southern [College],” Fuquay said. “So it was decided we needed a presence at public universities.”

Besides Gator Wesley, there are Florida Conference-supported Wesley chapters at Florida State University, Tallahassee; Jacksonville University and the University of North Florida, Jacksonville; the University of Central Florida, Orlando; Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers; Florida International University and neighboring campuses in Miami; the University of South Florida, Tampa; and at two private institutions, the University of Miami and Stetson University.

“We now have more than 1,500 students who are active in Florida chapters, with FSU and UF having the largest number,” said Fuquay, noting that each chapter is led by a full-time campus minister as well as lay directors. 

Gator Wesley fall retreat 2013 at Warren Willis
Trips and tours are an important part of the appeal of Gator Wesley. Above, foundation students enjoy a fall reteat at Warren Willis Camp in Fruitland Park. Below, from left, students Jenny Squires, Shawn McWhinnie, Shannon Moore and Thomas Lukashow with Gator Wesley pastor Narcie Jeter on vintage Marantha Choir Tour. Photos from Gator Wesley Foundation.
Marantha Choir tour students and Gator Wesley pastor Narcie Jeter, right

Meeting student needs

Fellowship opportunities play a big role in attracting students to Wesley ministries, particularly in the case of students who are not religious or who grew up in other faiths, Fuquay said.

“Many students find out about us through intramural sports,” he said. “The campus ministers have discovered it’s one of the best ways to reach new students. And, once they’re involved in sports or attend one of our Sunday lunches and meet other students, they find their way to our worship services.”

It’s not a tough sell, he added.

“We don’t do any old-school evangelical work,” Fuquay said. “The students join because we welcome them and make them feel at home. We offer tutoring programs, counseling and the opportunity to serve others through our mission work. They feel comfortable here, even if they weren’t raised in a Christian environment.”

Rev. Narcie Jeter, Gator Wesley pastor, said about half the 150 students active in the ministry at UF are lifelong Methodists. Fuquay said college enrollment trends indicate 9 percent to 25 percent of students arrive with no church background, but many crave spirituality.

“When they are finally out of their parents’ home, some students exercise their independence by exploring different faiths,” Fuquay said. “For those who have an aversion to traditional church, the foundation is a great entry point for students to ask questions and work out their own beliefs.”

Building faith and friendships

At the other end of the spectrum are students like Serena Cook, who saw college as an opportunity to take a vacation from the religious edicts of childhood.

“As the kid of two Methodist pastors, I grew up with a lot of expectations and pre-conceived notions directed toward me,” said Cook, who graduated from UF in May. “While I didn’t turn out rebellious or super religious, I did end up rather apathetic about the whole church thing. … When I left for college, I was determined that this church thing would no longer have such a fake hold on my life.”

Even so, Cook found herself drawn to Gator Wesley.

“There I was embraced by a community of students who were passionate about missions and discipleship and worship,” she said. “Slowly, I moved past the fun events and free food, and I allowed myself to open up the conversation about what church really is.”

Megan Guyton hugs student during Gator Wesley mission to Costa Rica
Gator Wesley member Megan Guyton hugs a young student while on a mission trip to San Ramon, Costa Rica, last spring. Photo from Gator Wesley Foundation.

Before long, she formed solid friendships and got involved in Gator Wesley’s local and international mission projects.

“Now I have such a passion for reaching out to my generation, a generation who feels the same bitterness that I used to cling to so poisonously,” Cook said. “I’m so excited to take everything I’ve experienced at Wesley to my new home church so that I can continue reaching out and helping people on that same healing journey.”

Like Cook, Ross said her social life at college revolved around Gator Wesley.

“There’s always something going on,” said Ross, who is a member of Gator Wesley’s Marantha Choir and involved in the chapter’s missions, including trips to Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Costa Rica.

“There have been a lot of mission trips I’ll remember forever,” Ross said. “It was eye-opening to see how other people live, the poverty and everyday struggles to have clean water and a roof over their heads, things we take for granted.”

The Wesley Foundation chapters offer a support system that enables students to work through problems like depression, stress and loneliness, Fuquay said. Students are encouraged to focus on serving others instead of turning to substance abuse or other self-destructive behaviors.

“We often use older student leaders as mentors who talk to the students about the pressures and morality issues they’re facing,” Fuquay said. “A large number of seminary students have come out of the Wesley Foundation.”

Whether they choose to devote their lives to God, Wesley Foundation members say they graduate with a scrapbook of great memories and a contact list of lifelong friends.

“When I came to UF, I didn’t know anyone,” Ross said. “But I’ll be leaving with friends I’ll probably keep the rest of my life. Gator Wesley has absolutely played a huge role in my college experience. It’s hard to imagine college without Gator Wesley.”

-- D'Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer from the Tampa area.

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