Great Read: Jesus Burgers offers Isla Vista food for body and spirit
Angela Boyd bounced on the balls of her feet as the smell of sizzling meat pierced the ocean breeze. The 19-year-old and her friends were about to celebrate her birthday in Isla Vista, but they were making a pit stop at the Jesus Burgers house.
Music, laughter and clinking shot glasses coming from nearby apartments on Del Playa Drive announced another Friday night in Isla Vista, the hard-partying neighborhood next to UC Santa Barbara.
But at this apartment, students were throwing burgers on the grill for a higher purpose: It was time for some missionary work.
Christina Perez, 24, a graduate of UCSB and member of Isla Vista Church, which doles out the free burgers, walked up to Boyd and began a casual conversation about anything but church — birthday plans, how she was getting home.
Boyd humored her. She knew what Perez was after.
“I see it in your eyes,” Boyd said. “And I want to go to church.”
“We have one at 4 on Sunday,” Perez said.
Behind them a group of students spilled out of an apartment across the street, “Turn Down for What” blasting through the windows.
The two exchanged numbers and promised to text each other. Then Boyd joined the flow of college students out for a night on the town.
Across the street, Jason Lomelino watched as a man sketched “Jesus wept” in large letters on the middle of the street using orange and blue chalk. The verse, known for being the shortest in the Bible, had sprung up on streets and sidewalks in May after a rampage by Elliot Rodger left seven people dead, including the killer.
It was the latest violence in a community that has had its share of dark moments: In 1970, students protesting Vietnam War-era politics burned down a Bank of America branch; In 2001, then-UCSB student David Attias killed four people and severely injured a fifth when he deliberately plowed his car into a crowd; and last winter, two women reported being gang-raped.
Even though residents of Isla Vista make up only about 7% of the county’s population, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said nearly a quarter of all serious and violent crime in the region occurs there.
“People are hurting, and what we see is a manifestation of that in excessive partying, drugs and sex. Sometimes it can escalate into things of this nature,” said Lomelino, the pastor of Isla Vista Church. “There’s a darkness to this place.”
For years, his church has preached the word of God to revelers. He knows it’s a tall order in an area famous for its drinking, drug use and promiscuity.
“It has its trials, and there is this sense that the city is going in one direction and we’re going in a different direction,” Lomelino said. “But we have a ton of hope, we’re seeing things get better and improving every year.”
With his deep tan and dark blue hoodie over his buzzed hair, the 34-year-old looks more like a surfer than a pastor. He sees a lot of his former self in the young partyers of Isla Vista.
He moved to Santa Barbara in 2001 from San Diego to get away from the his partying ways, though he continued to hang out in Isla Vista. One night, a group of friends took him to a Friday night church service at Calvary Chapel Santa Barbara. As he prayed, Lomelino heard a voice he believed was God’s.
“Jason, what are you living for?” the voice said.
“It was the first time I knew God was real,” Lomelino said.
Soon Lomelino, with the help of a group of other college-age Christians, put on a monthly worship night at a park in downtown Isla Vista. They started giving out free burgers. A group of them would walk down Del Playa Drive on Friday nights to talk to students about Jesus, Lomelino said. Even though some students were receptive, they were often heckled.
“Why are you here?” and expletives were commonly thrown at them, Lomelino said.
In 2002 they leased the building they occupy now, dubbed the Jesus Burgers house by students, where members of the church live. The nondenominational church was founded that same year, the first service held in the frontyard of the apartment.
Lomelino, who took over as senior pastor in 2007, also works as a personal assistant for a Santa Barbara man who owns a carpet company.
When classes are in session, Lomelino encourages his congregation of about 150 people to look at themselves as missionaries in Isla Vista.
“There’s a reason why this church is in this city,” Lomelino said. “The light shines brightest in the darkest of places.”
The median age of Isla Vista’s 24,500 residents is about 21, according to census figures. The unincorporated 1.9-square-mile area is home mostly to UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College students, many living in cramped apartments.
This month, the campus placed third in an annual ranking of top party schools.
The legions of bronzed students riding beach cruisers and longboards in tank tops and sandals look as though they’re living a laid-back life. But Ava Ames, a 23-year-old UCSB graduate with a big voice, said many of them are under a great deal of pressure.
Students struggle to maintain a high grade-point average while partying into the late hours in an effort to fit in and chase the next high, she said. In his 137-page manifesto, Rodger repeatedly mentioned his frustration with his inability to fit in.
“If you’re not partying, you don’t fit into the scene and you fade into the background,” Ames said. “A lot of these kids can’t balance it, and they spiral into drug use, depression and, for many girls, eating disorders.”
Ames can relate. As a freshman, she dated a fraternity member and drank heavily. At the same time, she said, she struggled with depression and anxiety.
One drunken night, Ames and her then-boyfriend were escorted to the Jesus Burgers house by a persistent member of the church. Once inside, two students “prayed on” the pair, Ames said. She was shocked when they started to say things about her life she’d never shared publicly.
But she didn’t make a beeline for the next Isla Vista Church service. Her depression worsened to suicidal thoughts, Ames said. Then, a year later, her younger brother asked if she would baby-sit Lomelino’s kids during a service. She agreed.
The singing drew her in, Ames said, and before she knew it she was crying in a pew. She’s been a member of the church ever since.
“I prayed after that and said, ‘God, I’m coming after you,’” Ames said. “It was my Hail Mary for life.”
Ames, who is now the director of prayer and prophecy at the church, isn’t shy about discussing her experience with people she meets on a Friday night as they wait for their burgers. She hopes they can relate to her on some level, but realizes it’s a challenge on a campus with a liberal student body.
That’s a struggle religious groups are facing throughout the country. A 2012 Pew Research analysis found that one-third of people between the ages of 18 and 22 didn’t have a religious affiliation. The survey revealed that many of them identified as political liberals and were in favor of same-sex marriage.
Even though most students at UCSB or Santa Barbara City College aren’t fighting for a pew seat, Ames said, many of them respect the Jesus Burgers house and women know it’s a safe place to crash if they’re too inebriated.
“Nobody is saying, ‘Burn or turn,’” Ames said.
A barefoot blond in jeans put her feet against the wooden pew as she leaned on her friend’s shoulder. Beside her, a woman swayed to the music coming from the two men at the front.
“Holy spirit, you are welcomed here, come flood this place and fill the atmosphere,” they crooned, guitars in their hands. “Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for.”
It was finals week at UC Santa Barbara. When the school year comes to a close and its numbers dip, Isla Vista Church moves its Sunday services from a hall in downtown Isla Vista to Lomelino’s backyard a few blocks away.
Four wooden pews, two couches and rows of folding chairs sat underneath the shadow of a canopy in Lomelino’s backyard. About 45 students trickled into the service, some in shorts and tank tops, others in long dresses and flats.
Standing in front of his children’s playground, Lomelino told his congregation that he knew that many of them felt as if their world had been turned upside-down by the recent killings.
“God is taking this city through something, this church through something,” Lomelino said.
Be there for each other, Lomelino said, and reach out to those who are suffering.
After the service, worshipers bit into slices of pizza in the frontyard. The birthday girl whom Perez had spoken to Friday night wasn’t there. But she said she wasn’t discouraged.
“The seed is planted,” Perez said, “and you just have to let it be.”
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.