Los Angeles

Justin Souza has always had a passion for music. And growing up in First Presbyterian Church of Granada Hills in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, his relationship with Jesus was vital.

Souza sought a way to integrate the two. The result is The Breathing Room, an all-ages music venue now in its third season. Though The Breathing Room is located on the campus of First Granada Hills, it is not specifically a Christian music venue but rather a space for musicians and music lovers to come together.

“Over time I had this pull to match that passion for music together with the fact that my identity is in Jesus — and yet he has created me to be this person who is very touched by music. That means something — but what do I do with that?” Souza said. “How can I be used by God to help show people that our full identity is in Christ but that this music thing is a gift — part of the joy of life and of living?”

He began to discuss this question with the youth ministers at his church.

“One day it felt like we had been talking too much and that God had challenged me to do something,” Souza said. “So I wrote up a proposal to the youth ministry committee that included a music venue of sorts.”

His initial proposal was to host four yearly concerts and create a community around those. But the youth ministry committee challenged him to make the concerts once a month instead.

“We’ve now gotten to the place where we have an identity in the community as the premiere place for live music in the San Fernando Valley,” Souza said. “At this point we have so many bands trying to play The Breathing Room that we have a line out the door.”

Souza receives requests from band managers as far away as the United Kingdom and books bands that have been waiting more than a year to play at the venue — the fellowship hall of a Presbyterian church.

The Breathing Room averages about 100 attendees at each month’s concert, which is run entirely by volunteers. Most bands are secular, and Souza sees working with them as part of his ministry.

“When I book the bands and promote the shows, I am working with them for an entire month, developing a relationship which goes all the way through to the end of the night when I settle them out and pay them,” Souza said. This gives Souza the opportunity to learn more about the band, and to be an example of a Christian who is willing to listen without judgment.

Recently, Souza spoke with a boy in one of the bands after a concert. The boy said that he was the only Christian in the band, but has never felt welcome in any church because of his appearance, which includes tattoos and pierced ears.

“I think there are a lot more kids like him — kids who feel like music is so important, even to the point of making it their outward appearance — yet they have an understanding of Jesus but just don’t know how to make it work,” Souza said. “If the church is not willing to help guide them in knowing that Jesus is the ultimate core of their identity, they are going to be left out and isolated and who knows what else.”

Even the security guards, hired each month for the event, have become part of The Breathing Room.

“We have developed a relationship with two of the guys who come and work for us every month — I openly describe them as part of our family,” Souza said. “These guys turn down their gigs at the House of Blues to come work with us.”

The Breathing Room is fulfilling a need in its community, Souza said. Though the San Fernando Valley is home to about 1.75 million people, there are only a few all-ages music venues in the area.

“So, there are kids in this valley who love music, play music and like to get together with their friends and share music, but they didn’t have many options,” said Souza. “Our space is clean and nice and full of quality in our production equipment and our stage.”

But more than that, the fact that a church has engaged them with them about one of their passions is meaningful to young people, Souza said.

“I think it has helped the image of the church in the community,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Wow, the church is doing this? They are taking the risk on this? This must be a really cool church.’”

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.