Not All Missionary Work Is Far Away -- Some Needs Are Met in Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Every fall, young adults from throughout the United States and several other countries come to Los Angeles to spend a year working as urban missionaries.

Their mission field covers 16 nondescript blocks between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue, and Vine and Gower streets -- a working-class, primarily Latino stretch of south Hollywood that has seen its share of troubles, including gang-related shootings.

In the program, called City Dwellers, the participants raise money from their home churches and from family and friends so they can live together in the community. They befriend neighborhood children and families by serving as tutors, mentors, teachers and support systems for immigrant parents who speak only limited English. They also teach English, typing, computer and Bible classes for adults, arrange community programs for the neighborhood, and sometimes help families fight eviction.


In the process, they learn what it means to live and work within their small community of fellow Christians and learn about an immigrant population whose culture, language and class are different from theirs. The goal of the program is to train future Christian leaders while also doing work that benefits the community.

As is often the case with volunteers, City Dwellers say they get more from the people they serve than they give.

Monika Kovacs, who comes from a town of 5,000 in Hungary, says she has gained a perspective on material possessions.

“They don’t have much money,” she says of her neighbors, “but they share whatever they have.”

Kovacs, an aspiring social worker, was a guest for a dinner of rice, beans and cheese recently at the home of Linda Vasquez, a fifth-grader at Vine Street Elementary School and one of three children she tutors.

Afterward, as Kovacs and members of Linda’s family relaxed on the floor watching a movie, they asked her if she planned to remain a City Dweller “forever.”

Kovacs said she would leave at the end of the summer, and the family looked so sad that she wanted to cry.

“You are going to forget us and never come back to L.A.?” one of them asked.

Kovacs said she planned to return and visit them. Their expressions brightened.

“This was the first time when I thought, ‘I am actually making a difference,’ ” said Kovacs.

In its 15th year, the City Dwellers program is run by the Hollywood Urban Project, a nonprofit group that serves about 100 families a year.

This year’s members -- five women and a man, all in their early 20s -- have varying career goals, political leanings and personalities.

Jennifer Sieh is an artist from Missouri who wants to teach elementary school. Rachel Grassley is an aspiring teacher of Christian history from Dallas. Becky Imig is an elementary school teacher from Redmond, Ore. Becca Paepcke is a sociology graduate from Georgia who hopes to enter youth ministry. And Kirk Wimberley, of Yakima, Wash., is a business major who plans to start his own clothing business, which would serve as a model Christian enterprise.

The hub of their activities is the Community House on Gregory Avenue. On a busy afternoon, as many as 30 students, from elementary to high school, pack the place -- doing their homework in the community room, listening to music or playing video games in the adjoining computer lab, doing arts and crafts in the kitchen and shooting baskets behind the house. The volunteers are supervised by the Rev. Dan Hoffman, a Presbyterian pastor and former City Dweller.

There’s a particular demand for reading and math tutors. City Dwellers also teach the Bible and worship together, take the children on outings and visit their homes.

Many youngsters’ homes are cramped quarters -- often as many as 15 people sharing a two-bedroom apartment.

Once, when 15 kids went to the mountains with City Dwellers, all slept in one room, even though their cabin had four or five bedrooms, Imig said. “They didn’t want the space.”

The missionaries say they grow from their interactions with each other.

Grassley says she appreciates the program’s emphasis on creating an “intentional” Christian community by requiring young adults, who have never met, to share housing and one car and participate in weekly Bible study and a weekly group therapy session.

At times, Grassley admits, living with five others with such diverse backgrounds drives her “crazy.” But, she says, she is learning the value of “living through the differences and learning to communicate in those conflicts and loving one another despite our failures and weaknesses.”

“It’s a skill I will use for the rest of my life,” she said.

Come August, the group will depart to make room for a new crop of missionaries.

But Sieh, who enjoys teaching arts and crafts to children, including those with learning disabilities, says she has already decided to stay in Los Angeles another year, joining eight former City Dwellers who still live in the neighborhood.

Since the program’s 1988 inception, 80 young adults, from Arizona to the Netherlands, have completed their mission in Hollywood. Many have become pastors, educators, social workers and “beacons of light in the secular marketplace,” said Rob Asghar, board president of the Hollywood Urban Project.

“Just as Jesus plunges into the hard parts of human existence, so do we,” Asghar said. “In doing it, we get something out of it. We don’t simply come in a patronizing way and say, ‘Take this. Here’s a handout.’ We go there, we live with them and we grow in the process ourselves.”