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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Campus

Religion center faces financial hurdles in quest for repairs


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Although unique among public university campuses, the A.D. Bruce Religion Center is facing a dilemma: It’s just as expensive to replace it as it would be to repair the 52-year-old facility. | Justin Cross/The Cougar

For public health sophomore Shayukat Syed, the A.D. Bruce Religion Center is his refuge.

“This place is like a diamond in the rough,” Syed said. “Once I walked in, it was real nice. Through all the messed-up chaos when you’re a freshman here, it’s a nice sanctuary. It’s quiet. Everyone’s nice to you. It’s welcoming — it’s like you’re at home. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Behind the calm and welcoming exterior of the religion center, the hub of student spirituality and relaxation faces a funding crisis. The 52-year-old building has a leaky roof, dinged-up pews and altar, dated chandeliers and, most worrisome, cracks in the foundation.

Its bare-bones financials aren’t nearly enough to cover the costs.

Far-fetched finances

The Religion Center hosts more than 150 weddings, baptisms and memorial services completely unaffiliated with the University every year. Those monies pay for support staff salaries, programming and basic building maintenance.

The Religion Center also relies on funding from the Student Service Fee, which every student enrolled at UH pays along with their tuition and other fees.

Most recipients of Student Service Fee funds have spaces in newer buildings. Some, like the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center and the Athletics Department, have millions of guaranteed funds they use to pay off bonds associated with construction costs.

The Religion Center doesn’t get that kind of money.

“We don’t have any fat here,” said Bruce Twenhafel, the A.D. Bruce Religion Center’s manager. “Anything that we ask for from (the Student Fees Advisory Committee) is above and beyond what we can do. Our income has to pay for other kinds of things.”

A year ago, the A.D. Bruce staff requested one-time funding for the current fiscal year to repair its roof. Like most of the Religion Center, the roof is original to the 52-year-old building. In several places, it leaks.

But SFAC denied the request, citing insufficient funds.

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“From a distance, it looks OK,” said Bruce Twenhafel, director of the Religion Center, of the colorful glass tiles embellishing the University Chapel. “When somebody gets married, the pictures are wonderful. But when you put a fine eye to it, you’ll see that it needs some repair.” | Justin Cross/The Cougar

21st-century demands

The leaky roof is just the start of the Religion Center’s funding needs.

Two years ago, the Religion Center conducted a focus group among students and staff who have offices in the center, including members of the Campus Ministries Association and three registered student organizations. The result: adequately renovating and updating the Center would cost $12-$14 million.

The issue? The amount needed to renovate the Religion Center is about the same as it would be to tear down A.D. Bruce and rebuild a brand new Center.

“Our building is stuck in the 1960s, but people are worshipping and wanting to explore their spirituality in the 21st century,” Twenhafel said. “Just like the Student Center went through a transformation, and it’s beautiful and wonderful, we kind of feel that we need to have some kind of a transformation too.”

Insufficient space tends to be the biggest concern at the Religion Center.

The Muslim Student Association uses the building more than any other group on campus. Its members, and other Muslims on campus, use the entire second floor each Friday afternoon to pray.

It’s the only place on campus designated for Friday prayer, MSA president Saqib Gazi said.

“It’s a logistical nightmare just trying to keep everyone in one room,” Gazi said. “We have to get multiple rooms so we can fit everybody, and we use a speaker system so everyone can hear the sermon. Logistically speaking, it’s been getting pretty hard.”

Ablution before prayer presents another complication. Ritual washing on the hands, arms, face and feet is required, and the Religion Center was not constructed with Muslim students in mind.

Gazi said he has to remind people to clean up the floor after ablution so janitors aren’t tasked with extra work. But the bathrooms — and the rest of the Center — were simply built for a Jewish and Christian campus, Twenhafel said.

The A.D. Bruce Religion Center’s southeast wall has cracks along the foundation. | Justin Cross/The Cougar

More than religion

As part of the Student Centers, A.D. Bruce plays a larger role in student life than just religion. Sororities and fraternities hold ceremonies in the chapel. Free lunches are available to all students each Wednesday and Thursday.

Many students go just to hang out.

Mechanical engineering senior Eric Ho said he first tried the M.D. Anderson Library as a quiet place to study and relax between classes, but preferred the atmosphere at the Religion Center. He’s been coming to United Campus Ministry ever since.

“I feel much more secure — much more relaxed — just being here,” Ho said. “I can use the restroom without having to take all my things with me. It’s like my own room. Everyone here is very welcoming and warm.”

Syed and kinesiology sophomore Murtaza Rizvi hang out at A.D. Bruce so often that the staff them the “Carpoolians.” They sit in the United Campus Ministry office, which is really more of a living room, on the huge red couch and wait for the rest of their carpool group to finish classes.

As Muslim students enjoying the support and camaraderie of United Campus Ministry, a Christian organization, Syed and Rizvi serve as examples of the interfaith connections A.D. Bruce hopes to foster.

“Guys like us, we gotta pray on a daily basis. It’s like a hub for us,” Syed said. “If this place is replaced, that connection is severed for a little while. You might have the phone call, you might have the text, but seeing someone face-to-face in person is completely different.”

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