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LA PUENTE, Calif .– Latin American Bible Institute (LABI) College, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, is nestled in a quiet neighborhood bordered by residences, manufacturing plants, and offices in the South Pacific District, one of the 14 Hispanic districts of the Assemblies of God. The oldest Hispanic Pentecostal Bible college in the country has resided on the 6-acre campus since 1950.

LABI is led by bilingual Marty L. Harris, a cheerful president who enjoys taking on a challenge. During his seven-plus years at the helm, LABI has stabilized and thrived, tapping into a niche market of students seeking Bible training.

Last year LABI obtained accreditation from the Association for Biblical Higher Education. In 2018, the school received approval from the California Bureau for Private Post Secondary Education.

In 2020, LABI also obtained approval to receive Title IV financial aid, allowing students to access Federal Pell Scholarships. The grant for needy students does not need to be repaid. More than 90% of LABI students benefit from institutional and / or financial assistance.

“We always discourage students from taking out student loans,” says Harris. “We have a 95-year history of zero-debt graduate students and we want that to continue. ”

Harris is not focusing on investing funds in maintaining the campus, as he anticipates it will be sold soon. LABI is actively looking to relocate, possibly to a less crowded and cheaper location in Southern California that could house a modernized cafeteria, library, and dormitories. Another potential option is to stay on the existing site and purchase the adjacent South Pacific District property to expand.

“The main reason for selling the property is to find a location that could help us in our preferred future, build an even better campus, with more space and opportunities for the next 50 years of growth,” said Harris .

Harris is preparing to launch a $ 5 million fundraising campaign for the location of the new excavation. Much of her time these days is spent meeting with potential donors.

“I’m not really good at asking for funds, but it has to be done,” Harris admits. “I’m not a very good grant writer either, but I’ve learned from my mistakes. In 2020, LABI received an unprecedented trio of Lilly Endowment grants totaling approximately $ 2 million.

Harris, born in Detroit, is the 17th president in school history.

Harris is not a very Hispanic name, but his father, a Russian Jewish immigrant, anglicized his last name when he arrived on Ellis Island. Her Mexican mother, Maria Teresa Rodriguez-Harris, became a migrant farm worker. Harris learned to speak Spanish while living in Tijuana for two years with his mother after his parents divorced at the age of 3.

He never thought he would become president of a Christian college because he has an academic background rather than a pastoral one.

“It wasn’t a place I thought I’d come to, but when you hear God’s call, it’s clear,” he says.

At the request of respected Hispanic pastor Danny de León, Harris last year documented a 5-year, 10-step vision statement for LABI. Several of the proposed steps have already been completed.

“Dr. Marty Harris is one of the best grant writers in the country, and our Bible school has been greatly blessed with his donations, hard work and exceptional leadership,” said Sergio Navarrete, South Pacific Superintendent, member of the LABI Board of Trustees and Past School President. “LABI is now an accredited Bible college and our students are eligible for federal financial aid. The future looks very bright for our school.”

One of the unique things about LABI is that few of its students live on campus. The restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus crisis have prompted the school to switch most of its educational tools to the Internet.

“The pandemic forced us to pivot quickly to use the resources we had available by offering e-learning,” says Harris, 54.

Through 70 church extension sites, the school primarily teaches Spanish language courses to 1,700 students. These students are registered for a certificate program, the equivalent of an associate’s degree. The Affiliated Latin American Theological Seminary, established for Hispanic pastors by Hispanic Pentecostal icon Jesse Miranda in 1977, has 300 students. Harris is also the seminary president.

LABI has transfer agreements with schools such as Fuller Seminary, Azusa Pacific University, and Vanguard University to allow graduates to continue their studies for a master’s degree, most often in Spanish. Vanguard is the collaborative institution of choice. Harris taught there for a decade, his wife, Nancy, worked there, and his two daughters, Nancy and Maricella, attended.

“We want Vanguard to be the number one transfer school for students who want to change specialties,” said Harris, who also sits on the psychology faculty of the Azusa Pacific Seminary Assistant Council.

Harris admits LABI needs to do better at recruiting non-Hispanic students.

“We need more diversity here,” he says. Whites, blacks and Asians could basically attend school for free thanks to the diversity scholarships available, he says.

“Our hope is to diversify university programs,” says Harris, a doctorate in clinical psychology from Washington State University. “Not all of our programs are accredited yet, but they will be. There are reasons for me to stay.

LABI will be launching a marriage and family therapy program next year, much like Harris did two decades ago when he was a full faculty member at Vanguard.

“We hope to move to computer-assisted learning at its own pace,” says Harris. In this scenario, a student would not be required to sit in a classroom, but could take home classes tailored to their needs, demonstrating their skills along the way.