College students live out the gospel through 'community' home in gang area

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BOYLE HEIGHTS, Calif. — It's one thing to teach about literature and culture, it's another to live it. So Larry Smith, an adjunct professor at Biola University, and his wife, Nikki, sold their home, packed up their belongings and moved into Hollenbeck House, an 1888 farmhouse smack dab in the middle of crime-ridden Boyle Heights, just blocks from downtown Los Angeles.

Each year, they bring along 10 students and grads for the journey as they put feet to the gospel through urban ministry. The students, selected through an extensive application process, live at the Hollenbeck House—named for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where the home is located—for 10 months while they either complete their studies or begin the transition into careers. Those who are still in school have a 25-minute commute to La Mirada, where Biola is based.

"Every year, it kind of grows and it morphs," Smith, who teaches full-time at an alternative high school, said. "It's become kind of an intentional community, which has specific, broad goals, but also we look at it really as an opportunity for each individual person to sort of have a year to map out where they feel the Lord wants to take them.

"We give them plenty of opportunities for urban ministry, working within the community without any financial pressures, so they can sort of see where maybe God has them and by the time they move out at the end of this 'gap' year they have some direction and they haven't just 'cul-de-sacked' back to [the college]."

Operated independently of Biola, the students pay $500 a semester to cover the utilities and are expected to contribute to the house's upkeep as well as doing outreach. Each Saturday they take field trips to different iconic spots to learn more about Los Angeles, and on Wednesday nights they break bread together at local eateries.

"They go to different ones in Boyle Heights and introduce themselves and put money back into the community and are part of where we are," Smith said.

When the Smiths purchased the two-story home in 2010, they renovated the 2,500-square-foot interior, combining the living room and the parlor into sleeping quarters to house up to six women using bunk beds. The garage was converted to accommodate four men. The Smiths live on the second floor, where they have a small kitchen.

Determined that the students get a realistic understanding of the neighborhood, the South Soto Street house lacks most of the modern conveniences of a middle-class home: no central air or heat, no dishwasher or garbage disposal. The washer and dryer are located outside of the house. An old-fashioned gas wall heater warms the home. There is no driveway, so the young tenants sometimes have to walk several blocks to find a parking spot.

"We don't want the kids to live at a higher level than their neighbors," Smith said. "It's a chance to make sure they are there for the right reasons, and it's not just to make them comfortable."


Intentional living
In addition to household chores, the students volunteer at various local organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, Homeboy Industries, Union Rescue Mission and Roosevelt High School.

Every aspect of life at the house is centered around creating an intentional community. The location, on a busy street a block or so from a Metro station, was chosen so the students could interact with pedestrians. Fruit trees, planted in the backyard, are used to hand out to passers-by. The Smiths installed an in-ground swimming pool, the home's only splurge, to host neighborhood pool parties.

On Sunday nights they host a gathering in the backyard.

"It's kind of a cool picture of the Kingdom of God, where it's a small meeting but a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life join us at this intersection," said housemate Chase Andre, who graduated in December. "So a lot of the relationship building doesn't just happen while we are tutoring and at our regiment, but also in having sort of an open-door policy with some of our neighbors and having them come be with us, and spend time with us and for us to invest in them and for them to invest in us too, and for us to learn from them."

Andre said he was eager to move into the house to experience a different lifestyle than his childhood in the suburbs of Orange County California.

"I didn't know my neighbors all too well and felt detached from the community abroad, but I see a different sense of community in both the gospels and the early church, and I wanted to live my life out that way," the communications major said.

As part of his service to the community, Andre tutors at a magnet school that is part of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles.


Others first
Although communal living is a traditional aspect of college, from fraternities to dorm living and off-campus house sharing, Andre said living in an intentional community is vastly different.

"We were simply housemates," he said of his former living arrangement. "We were simply there because we needed a place to sleep. We didn't do life together, we didn't invest in each other."

The sacrifices in living in community are also much greater than doing without a dishwasher or garbage disposal.

"Life is definitely more challenging but much more rewarding when living in community," Andre said. "I've learned to put others before myself. Sometimes doing the right thing means staying up an extra half hour doing dishes rather than going to bed when I want to. I've learned that my choices and actions have consequences to other people, that I don't exist unto myself but in relationship with others."

Amanda Warner, a journalism major who graduated in May, said she was eager to live at Hollenbeck House after taking a class with Professor Smith two years.

"I wanted to live with other Christians in a community and (be) working together for one purpose, to minister in Los Angeles," she said. "We all come together and we get along really well despite all the different personalities. Even though we are all so different, we get along really well. Everyone is encouraging and uplifting."

In addition to her paid editing job, Warner leads a twice-weekly Bible study at juvenile hall. She is involved with the house prayer ministry.

"Living in community you have to be outwardly focused," she said. "You learn really quickly how selfish you are. Living in community helps that."


Back to their roots
Smith said the project has given the students an opportunity to get back to Biola's roots. The university was founded in 1908 in the downtown area as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.

"Biola is so isolated, and these kids—either they or their parents—are so afraid of anything outside of the bubble of La Mirada, La Habra, Fullerton, Brea—that little corner of California—that the thought of coming up to L.A. just for a visit intimidates them, much less living there," the professor said, adding that several students had to withdraw their applications to live at Hollenbeck after their parents threatened to cut them off financially.

"It's mostly a psychological thing. It's just a different world up here, and a lot of kids are just not prepared for that world. They are not worse people; that just may not be where they are headed.

"It also serves, I guess, a good purpose for kids who were wondering and then they come in and just don't feel that comfortable in a place like Boyle Heights, so now they know that God has something else for them, and that's good, too."

While Smith said they are there to help guide the students, the couple tries to balance that by giving them the independence young adults need to find their way.

"My wife and I, our tendency is to be mentors, but that is not our job, and that's not what the Lord has called us to do," he said. "We really keep a distance, even though we are living upstairs, to allow them to figure out what God has for them through all of this.

"It's like the deist house. We just sort of wound this thing up and tossed it into the solar system and now watch it go. The less we can be involved, the better it is."