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Living One’s Faith Among the Poor

Times Staff Writer

Approaching a disheveled man lying on a sidewalk near Vine Street in Hollywood, Brendan Alley crouched quietly beside him and gently touched the homeless man’s shoulder.

“My name is Brendan. Do you want something to eat?” said the Azusa Pacific University sophomore.

“Yah,” the man replied, pulling himself up slowly from his makeshift bed of crushed cardboard boxes and peering from beneath a crumpled cowboy hat at the juice and chips the stranger offered.

As the man took the snack, Alley asked him how he was doing, his name, how long he had been on the street and whether he had heard of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless). Alley also told him that a free lunch, a shower, a haircut and various social services were available at the PATH agency’s facilities between Koreatown and Silver Lake.

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Alley, 19, who comes from Billericia, Mass., a town of 30,000 near Boston, has spent many hours since September walking countless city blocks -- from Hollywood to Inglewood -- to reach out to the homeless. The experience, under the supervision of a PATH official, fulfills a requirement for a bachelor’s degree in global studies at Azusa Pacific, the largest evangelical Christian college on the West Coast.

Students have a choice of interning at any of more than two dozen community groups involved in economic development, community health, urban education, environmental justice, human rights, and moral and spiritual renewal.

Alley, who plans to be a minister, is one of 10 students from around the country enrolled this semester in an Azusa Pacific program known as the Los Angeles Term. In addition to the internship, the students use only public transportation, live with families in the city and take classes at the school’s L.A. Regional Center on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown for the semester.

Now in its fifth year, the program was born out of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

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“When the city was burning from the uprising, APU realized there was an experiential gap between Azusa and L.A., even though it’s only 25 to 30 miles from the center of the city,” said the Rev. Paul Hertig, professor of global studies and director of the Los Angeles Term. School officials decided to start an academic program to participate in the healing of the city. The Los Angeles Term is a component of that.

“We are challenging the students to live out their faith in the realities of urban life,” said Hertig, a specialist in inter-cultural studies. “When they journey from their familiar territory to a more multicultural setting of L.A., their monocultural faith gains a multicultural dimension. Their faith begins to reflect the color of the mosaic of L.A.”

For Alley, working with the homeless offers a challenge to live out his faith. “It’s all about becoming more aware about people around you,” he said, “Through that, you’re able to love people better.”

Alley grew up in a loving family active in the Baptist church. In addition to having Alley and his older brother, the family adopted five children. Alley said he was inspired to go into the ministry when he was 12 and saw a church group renovating a former strip joint in Cambridge, Mass., into a sanctuary and sports facilities for youths.

His Los Angeles internship, current classes and living with a Filipino American family near Koreatown have been life-changing experiences.

“The biggest challenge for me is to absorb and interpret as much as possible while not becoming overwhelmed,” he said.

Sometimes, he admits, he is tempted to ignore homeless people who ask for money, especially when he is broke. But, even then, it’s important to hear what they have to say, he said. “You can offer them your attention, introduce yourself to them and listen, give them certain respect,” he said.

He often has his meals at the Thai restaurant his host family runs, Lynne’s Cuisine at 6th and Occidental streets. His host mother, Alice Meyer, who has two sons in their early 20s, dotes on Alley, making sure that the slender student has had enough to eat.

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“He is such a sweetheart,” said Meyer, who has been a host to other students in the Los Angeles Term. “We are a family; that’s the beauty of it.”

Alley has a car he keeps at a friend’s house in San Diego. He is not allowed to use it under the semester’s rules. So on a recent Thursday, his day began before 7 a.m. when he took the No. 14 Beverly bus to get to the PATH office on Madison Street and did not end until after 9 p.m., when he left the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

At 9 a.m., after reviewing files and conferring with Sam Colquitt -- his supervisor and a PATH project director -- Alley was on a PATH van headed for Hollywood.

With Colquitt and Veronica Johnson, PATH’s street outreach case manager, Alley visited with 15 homeless people, including several old-timers who tend to stay in the same place.

“I still find it amazing that you find the same people at the same, exact spot,” he said after visiting with Bob, a Korean War veteran whose home is a bench by a bus stop across from St. John Armenian Apostolic Church on Vine Street near Sunset Boulevard.

As a vet, Bob qualifies for many benefits, but he tells them he wants to stay where he is.

The only thing he would like is a driver’s license, he told Colquitt, who keeps an eye out for him. Could he pick up an application form so he could get a driver’s license, Bob asked. Colquitt told Bob that he had to appear in person at a Department of Motor Vehicles office to get a license. But Bob just nodded and talked about how his vision is so bad that he can barely read.

After a short lunch, the team returned to PATH shortly before 2 p.m.

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Alley made a brief stop at his home before heading for the Central Library downtown to do research on Buddhism. After dinner at the restaurant, he went the Zen Center in Koreatown, where he observed and meditated with about 10 others, most of them Buddhists, for two hours until shortly after 9 p.m. He took the subway, then a bus, getting home after 10 p.m.

As part of the course “Urban Religious Movements,” Azusa Pacific classes visit various religious settings including Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, a Jewish synagogue, a Buddhist meditation center, an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple. Later, students pick one religious community to concentrate on and visit it often, as Alley did with the Buddhists.

On Fridays, after attending Hertig’s class “Community Organizations and Social Change,” Los Angeles Term students have lunch together and talk about such issues as homelessness, sweatshops, pollution and mass transit.

Alley says he is waiting for God’s direction on what to do after graduating from Azusa Pacific: a seminary or graduate school first, or whether to start working with Baptists to launch new churches.

“I want to be God’s friend and co-laborer and a tool to do his work,” he said.


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