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Bethany College: Training leaders for church & society

By Kirk Noonan

Nestled on verdant hills eight minutes from Santa Cruz, a coastal city in northern California, is Bethany College. Today, cool mist pervades the air as low-slung clouds crawl over surrounding hills and mountains. Swaying redwoods that stand like sentries around the campus seem to be the only things stirring. But in the chapel students dole out high fives and hugs to one another before shedding their rain gear and backpacks. The din suddenly fades as chords on an electric guitar are struck.

All eyes shift to the stage where the lead vocalist of a student-led band opens the service with a quick prayer. Moments later, alternative praise music fills the sanctuary and the intensity of the students is revealed.

Hands are raised. Tears course down faces. One student stands in the aisle signing praises to God. Though it is cold and damp outside, the students’ unabashed zeal for God seems to warm this place. Besides the intense worship, I’ll also learn that sharing the message of Christ and serving others are all cornerstones at Bethany – a place where spiritual growth is as important, if not more important, as making the grade.

"We want students to leave here with a solid educational experience," says David Willis, college relations director. "But we also want them to leave with a sense of servanthood, and a passion to reach others for Christ – no matter what ministry or occupation they go into."

One way Bethany ensures that happens is by requiring students to participate in ministries that allow them to share their faith. Yesterday, students held a community outreach akin to an evangelistic outreach and carnival in nearby Scotts Valley. Students sang, acted, played instruments and organized games for the residents. Each semester, students also participate in ministries such as tutoring at a nearby high school, cleaning city streets, interacting with inmates at the county’s juvenile hall and building friendships with residents at a retirement home and Teen Challenge center.

"We have a sense that the world is our parish," says Everett Wilson, president of Bethany, which was founded in 1919. Bethany is the oldest accredited Assemblies of God college. "We realize God gives everyone gifts, and our goal is to help students develop those gifts. At Bethany we believe God is the center of all learning and that learning occurs inside and outside the classroom."

After chapel I attend a class where students are studying world missions. During a break the professor allows me to hold an informal roundtable discussion with the students. Michael Basil, a freshman, tells me since being here other students have impacted his life. "People here have encouraged, challenged and even rebuked me," he says. "All of them help keep me on track."

As I venture around the hilly campus I take in the lush scenery and fresh air before stopping in the cafeteria. Inside, the atmosphere is almost festive as laughter and chatter compete with one another. At several tables professors visit with students; such interactions are not uncommon says one student. Through conversation and observation I discover that everyone has a place at this school. But even more striking is how determined these young people are to answer God’s call on their lives.

"God used me supernaturally through the Holy Spirit in ways that I had never been used before," says Donnie Murillo, a junior, recalling last summer when he ministered in youth camps with a team from Bethany. "I was broken at the altar with the youth. During that time God gave me a vision for what I was to do while at Bethany in preparation for the rest of my life."

Murillo plans to return to the inner city of Los Angeles, where he grew up, to be a youth pastor. He laughs as he describes what it’s like for an inner-city kid to come to a college in an upscale community known for surfing and coffeehouses. "God sent me to the forest to get trained so I could return to L.A. to minister," he says. "Bethany is a safe haven for anyone from any walk of life. Since being here I’ve learned that spirituality isn’t based on how I worship, but how I live out my life."

Beyond the walls of the cafeteria many students are busy with their work. The melodic voice of a female student drifts from a room where she is receiving voice lessons. In the choir room more than 50 students sing as the choir director leads. In the gymnasium a couple of students are playing basketball; others are working out in the weight room.

I climb the hill from the gymnasium to the Stowell Center and enter one of the college’s computer labs. There I meet Arsene Michel and Franklin Nuñez, both international students. Though far from their homelands – Michel is from Haiti and Nuñez is from El Salvador – both say they have found a home away from home at Bethany. "When I came here I could feel the Spirit around the school," says Michel, as he puts the finishing touches on a term paper. "I feel like everyone is a brother or sister. I simply love the people here."

Nuñez says he came to Bethany to be challenged in his faith and ministry. Because of encouragement he received at Bethany he has decided to pursue a graduate degree and maybe even a doctorate. But attending Bethany has also opened his eyes culturally. "Being here has helped me understand and appreciate the diversity of others," he says. "It’s been a big change, but this is exactly the place I need to be."

What can students expect if they come to Bethany?

"Be ready to be broken by God," says Nuñez. "If you come here it will be difficult, but when you finish it will be the most exciting experience of your life."

Kirk Noonan is an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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