From the moment the email invitation landed in Christine Fuchs’ inbox last fall, she knew she was in for something special.

Would she, it asked, like to join a select group of art students for an out-of-the-ordinary class during the upcoming semester?

An attached syllabus spelled out the details: Philanthropist and arts advocate Roberta Ahmanson was looking for 10 students apiece from Biola and Azusa Pacific universities to help conceive designs for an outdoor chapel at a desert ranch operated by the Orange County Rescue Mission. Over a series of weekends, the students would get the chance to collaborate with a team of renowned artists and architects to envision a new “sacred space” for the ranch, which serves men recovering from alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness.

“You could tell from the initial syllabus that we got that it was truly going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Fuchs said. “From the beginning all of us were bewildered but incredibly excited.”

a woman standing in a hilly wilderness area

And so, at the beginning of the spring 2012 semester, Fuchs met up with nine fellow Biola art students and 10 APU students to get acquainted with each other and with their project for the semester. Over the course of two initial weekends, they created art installations together in five teams of four (two students from each university) and began to think about how art and design can help people experience the presence of God.

A few weeks later, they found themselves at the Double R Ranch in Warner Springs, Calif., a 142-acre property where men with troubled backgrounds come for rehabilitation and renewal. During their months or years at the ranch — a property populated with a ranch house, bunkhouse, horse stables, and pens for goats and chickens — the men work, tend to the animals, fellowship together and seek God. But despite the fact that worship and prayer is central to the ranch’s program, there is currently no dedicated space for that purpose.

Part of Ahmanson’s aim for the class was to create a possible design for such a space, something that would “welcome the hurting and broken and give them a vision of beauty and love that draws them irresistibly toward a future different from their past,” she wrote.

Eager to take on the challenge, the five student teams split up, each with a resident from the ranch to guide them. For several hours, they explored the terrain, talked to the guides about their lives at the ranch and tried to find the perfect location for a new chapel.

Biola senior Jason Leith said his team's conversation with their guide ultimately led them to choose a hillside spot with a vista of the entire property.

“We were very much thinking about reflective prayer — being able to reflect upon the day ahead or the day passed, and being able to see where you were: the buildings, the animals, the trees and the expanse,” Leith said. “It’s a wonderful lookout point to see the property and to think about those experiences or to look forward to those experiences.”

After each team had selected a location, they reconnected for dinner and gathered around a campfire for an evening of powerful testimonies from the men of the ranch. Following a worship service the next morning, the students headed home, their minds flooded with ideas.

art installations

A few weeks later, the real work began. Armed with sketchbooks, laptops and lots of coffee, they went into lockdown in Biola’s library for a weekend “charette,” an intense, focused period of design and dialogue. Between Friday evening and Sunday morning, each team had to produce detailed designs for a chapel.

Thankfully, they had help. For the weekend, Ahmanson had brought in world-class professionals to offer advice and feedback: Peter Brandes, a Danish painter, sculptor, photographer and stained-glass artist; his wife, Maja Lisa Engelhardt, a Danish painter and church embellisher; architect Paul Bertelli, design principal with JLF & Associates; and Ashley Sullivan, a principal architect with JLF.

Over the course of 36 hours, the teams sketched, painted, Photoshopped and built small models of their spaces, thinking creatively about how to incorporate scriptural motifs, stained glass and natural elements like rocks, wood and plants into the design. By Sunday morning, the groups had the intimidating task of presenting their finished concepts to the charette leaders and a group of men from the ranch.

“It’s intimidating to present your ideas in front of an everyday professor,” Leith said. “But when two professors, four professionals and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson are listening to your ideas, it’s nerve-wracking.”

Fuchs, whose team’s chapel was inspired in part by Psalm 18, which speaks of God as a rock and fortress in whom we take refuge, said the advice and affirmation from the professionals has stuck with her long after the class finished.

“What was amazing was just how sincere their remarks were," she said. "It was this incredible experience to be taken so seriously."

And while none of the students’ designs will be constructed “as is,” Fuchs said it was gratifying to hear the artists say that they would work elements of the students’ designs into the final chapel.

Fuchs, who hopes to work as an artist in downtown Los Angeles when she graduates later this year, said the class was easily the pinnacle of her Biola experience.

“There were so many of these different elements throughout the whole class, where if it had just been that, then it would have been such an incredible gift from God,” she said. “If I had just met my tour guide, or if I had just had this one conversation with Maja. It just felt like that over and over and over again.”

“This charette experience alone would have made the experience of coming to Biola totally worth it.”