The culmination of nearly a decade of dreams by First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown was celebrated Sunday, Sept. 27, as Harless Center at Central Place was dedicated, launching a new approach to campus ministry at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.
“It’s like the cliché of getting lemons and making lemonade,” said the Rev. Dr. Shelly Barrick Parsons, executive director of the Harless Center. “The lemon was the decision by the Monongalia County Board of Education to sell the old Central Elementary School property, which the church relied on for playground space for the key ministry of the Presbyterian Child Development Center, a decision which threatened the future existence of PCDC.
“The lemonade is that the decision led the congregation down a path that has brought us to this day when we celebrate the opening of Harless Center and existence of faith-based housing for WVU students,” Barrick Parsons said.
Jason Brian Santos, mission coordinator for youth, college and young adult ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), noted that college years are among the most formative in a young person’s life, and said, “I am excited to to hear the stories that will fill these walls.”
The Rev. Monica Styron, interim pastor at First Presbyterian-Morgantown, said, “May Harless Center be a place that offers an alternative to the status quo, that through its witness and interfaith efforts, will address the root cause of so many grievances and disastrous situations.”
It has been a long road for the planners of Harless Center, named in honor of the late James H. “Buck” Harless, an active Presbyterian and philanthropist whose lead gift gave the project its first real credibility.
“The years of prayer, the years of faith, hope and love do not end as we cut the ribbon today,” Barrick Parsons said. “The journey continues. We cannot become complacent. Let us continue to seek God’s will for this building and listen to what God is calling us to in this building with these residents.”
First Presbyterian in Morgantown purchased the Central School property in 2008, with original intentions of building and operating its own faith-based housing complex. After meetings with multiple developers, and weathering financial market upheavals, the congregation instead turned to local developers David and Rick Biafora to build the housing complex – Central Place – while guaranteeing that the faith-based component would continue.
Faith-based student housing is a growing trend on college campuses, both public and private. Central Place and Harless Center are the first of their kind in West Virginia and represent a broadening in the focus of campus ministry beyond a “maintenance” ministry to one of actively addressing the needs and concerns of a college student.
Harless Center seeks to provide space and programs for students to stay grounded in their faith and grow in understanding of the variety of faith and belief on the WVU campus and Morgantown community. The Center welcomes those of all faiths – or no faith, but who are interested in exploring what faith may mean for them.
The Center is connected to Central Place, a new, privately-owned student residence hall adjacent to the WVU campus. While not required, residents are encouraged to sign a Code of Social Responsibility along with a lease committing to a willingness to explore faith issues and to respect others as they do the same.
Harless Center is a 501(c)3 organization, managed by an interfaith board of directors under the auspices of First Presbyterian Church-Morgantown. It is also supported by the Westminster Foundation of West Virginia, which provides campus ministry on five state college campuses, including WVU where Barrick Parsons is the campus pastor.
In addition, the Foundation, through a grant from the Lilly Endowment supporting the theological exploration of vocation on college and university campuses, is presenting a Faith and Life speaker series. Well-known leaders in the secular world will be invited to the Center at least four times a year to discuss how their personal faith intersects with their daily life. The goal is to provide a chance to hear how people of faith live out their calls and for students to begin to consider how they might do the same.
The first speaker in the series will be Dr. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University and a devout Mormon, who will speak at 6 p.m. Monday (Sept. 28) at Harless Center, located at 475 Baird St. The pubic is welcome.
The First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, a member congregation of the Presbytery of West Virginia and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a mission-oriented, inclusive congregation that God has called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Practicing the hospitality of Christ, we welcome and embrace all people. We strive to offer a variety of opportunities where each person may celebrate their unique gifts and talents and will be challenged to grow in new ways, ever becoming more and more the mind and heart of Christ.