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.

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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.