McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - It's dinner time in the small, two-bedroom apartment near Sacramento City College. One by one, five students gather around a well-used dining room table for a meal that begins with a prayer.
"Thank you Lord," begins Andrea De La Torre, 19, in the short blessing before they dig into the Chinese food prepared by one of the students.
Both the weekly dinner and the prayer are required. The students are participants in a special program offered by All Saints Episcopal Church in Sacramento, Calif., that gives free housing to college students. In exchange for living in one of the apartments owned by the congregation, the students must meet the church's spiritual requirements.
"The hope is that young people in the church will draw other young people," said Amy Dierlam, coordinator of the church's Faith and Leadership program.
Similar church housing programs have begun near campuses across the country, she said. All Saints is believed to be the first in the Sacramento area.
Nearly every congregation struggles to reach young people, particularly college students. Two years ago, All Saints members _ the church has about 80 Sunday worshippers _ decided to make a financial sacrifice and give up the $600 in rent they collected every month and allow students to live there for free.
"It's not only a way of developing a spiritual community," said Rev. Michael Monnot, who pastors the church with his wife, Elizabeth. "It's also a way of helping students who are searching spiritually."
The Faith and Leadership program is a partnership between All Saints and the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Sacramento.
Daniel Allen, 20, was living on a friend's couch for several months before moving into the church apartment on 21st Street. He grew up attending Presbyterian and Episcopal churches but hadn't been to church for a while.
The computer science major now attends worship services every week. He has to. "The hard part is getting up," said Allen. "But you get used to it."
The students sign a contract and promise to attend church and meet with the pastor once a month for a spiritual discernment. They must also attend the weekly meal and work five hours of community service
Holly Link, who is carrying 19 units, said juggling school and community service work is tough. "But living here is worth it and the work is rewarding," she said.
The students live in two older apartment units beside the church _ the men downstairs, the women upstairs. Each unit accommodates three. One male student left the program shortly after school started, saying the 15 hour-a-week commitment to church and community service activities was too much, said Dierlam.
The program has begun its third year. No student has been kicked out, but some have not been accepted back. "It wasn't a good fit," said Dierlam.
Students don't have to be a member of the Episcopal church to join. They have to be willing to live in a community and want to explore their faith, said Dierlam.
Li Ngyu Lu, who goes by Lydia, attended a nondenominational church in China. She heard about the program from a Sacramento City College counselor after transferring. "It's been a good way for me to meet people," said Lu.
The apartment units look like typical student apartments. Mismatched furniture, small kitchenettes, homemade artwork. Still, the housing has been a blessing. "This gives us a chance to think and pray about what we really want," said De La Torre.
© 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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