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Lifestyle/Technology | Hill House in Austin, Texas, offers a place of comfort and reflection to an "unreached people group": graduate students

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

Greg and Mary Jane Grooms met at Francis Schaeffer's Swiss L'Abri in 1978 and married in 1980. Over the next 14 years they worked at L'Abris in Minnesota, Massachusetts, and back in Switzerland. During those years they had five children while teaching, counseling, and sharing hospitality with a constant stream of strangers who came looking for answers to life's big questions.

They knew after leaving L'Abri that they wanted to continue doing that work by living in a house adjacent to a college campus. They moved to Austin, Texas, in 1994 and worked with the Probe Center adjacent to the University of Texas campus, but they settled in a suburb of Austin from which Greg commuted each day to work at Probe. He provided Christian materials to students. Mary Jane worked as a librarian at a local Christian school.

Although it took 10 years, the Groomses didn't give up on the dream of having a house near campus from which to operate. In 2004 Probe's board authorized them to start looking. They found a big, 100-year-old house with a wrap-around porch just two blocks from campus. That was the beginning of Hill House, now an independent nonprofit organization that works particularly with graduate students who face "unique challenges . . . especially in the area of bringing their faith to bear on their disciplines."

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Today, students move in and out regularly through Hill House's open front door. They come individually and for scheduled Bible studies and movie nights. Greg's office is right next to the front door, not tucked upstairs and safe from frequent interruptions. That's by design, the Groomses say: "We didn't want a cold place where visitors had to work hard to meet us." Hill House is now filled with comfortable couches and chairs, overflowing bookcases, family photos, and original artwork-all arranged as if to say, "Come in and make yourself comfortable."

Greg, tall and gray-bearded, says, "I don't naturally welcome interruptions." He has to remind himself what he signed up for: "The fact that I'm sitting at my desk working at something when the doorbell rings is supposed to be secondary."

The mission of Hill House is to show how faith integrates with all of life, so everything the Groomses do is in the context of hospitality. Bible studies and movie nights start with a meal, where people sit around talking. Christians are comfortable bringing their non-Christian friends to have a home-cooked meal and conversation.

Cooking for groups four or so nights a week may seem like a daunting task, but Mary Jane, the oldest girl of nine children and a one-time competitive ski racer, makes it seem easy. It helps that she cooked alongside Edith Schaeffer for four years. She tries to impress upon women in the church that hospitality is not synonymous with entertaining: "It's not about you. It's about making strangers comfortable."

She prepares simple and nutritious meals but doesn't serve them on paper plates. "I use my china," she says. "For this generation, everything is disposable-marriages, relationships. I want to communicate on a subversive level, 'You matter. I'm going to do the dishes after this meal.' It's one thing to say, 'Human beings are valuable because they are made in the image of God.' It's another to communicate it through home cooking. I always make homemade bread," she adds. "You know what it's like to walk into a house and smell homemade bread."

Most campus ministries are targeted to undergraduates. Hill House does offer a Bible study for undergrads, but the majority of its work is with graduate students, an "unreached people group," according to Greg. In churches they don't mix with the singles or college groups. Their lives are narrow, rarely venturing beyond the confines of their own departments and academic interests.

That's one reason Hill House holds movie nights. "Discussions of movies are different from discussions of academics and discussions of the Bible," Greg says. Students know how to give theologically correct or academically nuanced answers, but in a movie discussion, "they just talk about what they think. Solid kids reveal in movie discussions real moral, ethical, or intellectual weakness."

For the past four years Hill House has seen hundreds of students come through its doors. For the Groomses, it's exciting when people "come back to their faith or are taking another look at Christianity. . . . They begin to see that it's OK to have questions. It's fun." Those years have not always been easy, but Mary Jane likens it to being a mother: "You ask for the Lord's strength in weakness all the time."

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