Many a community member has been touched by Reverend Eric Shafer, be it through attending his services, using the homeless shelter he helped open, or simply being cheered up by seeing his beaming smile on the side of a Big Blue Bus.
After eight years as pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, during which time church membership more than doubled, Shafer has announced his plan to retire in May 2022.
At the age of 72 he feels that the time is right, bestowing the news upon his congregation with a favorite bible verse: “For everything, there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”
As his season at Mount Olive comes to a close, Shafer leaves behind him a thriving church with a tight-knit congregation of around 225 members and a vast community footprint, as prior to COVID around 5,000 people visited the church for one of its programs on a weekly basis.
Outside of congregation services, Mount Olive is rich with opportunities for learning, service, music and self-improvement.
It has a preschool on site that provides affordable childcare for many local parents as well as bible study groups, and youth Sunday school. The church also hosts senior luncheons, yoga, 12 Step groups, movie nights, and frequent jazz performances. Under Shafer’s leadership it opened the first shelter specifically for homeless college students in the country, which made national headlines.
To Shafer all these programs are essential to the church and a key part of what has helped the congregation thrive during his time as pastor.
“People come to this congregation for worship because we’re the place that sponsors the shelter, because we’re the place that has fifteen 12 Step groups, because we’re the place with a school,” said Shafer. “I think we give people a chance to act out their faith because of all the involvement we have in the community and they can see the work of God at work in this community.”
One of the enduring legacies Shafer created is the Bruin homeless shelter, which opened at Mount Olive in 2016 and led to his face being plastered on the side of several Big Blue Buses as part of the City’s 2018 “We Are Santa Monica” campaign.
The shelter houses around ten college students at a time, giving them invaluable stability, housing, food, community and support, while they work towards a degree. It is run entirely by student volunteers and helped thrust the hidden issue of college homelessness into the spotlight.
“I didn’t know anything about homeless college students when I came here, and I dare to say most of the country knew nothing about homeless college students,” said Shafer. “Because of the publicity that we’ve gotten from your newspaper and others, we’ve raised the issue of homelessness among college students in the nation.”
Indeed the Bruin Shelter at Mount Olive has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, the New York Times, the LA Times and PBS. Under the sponsorship of Mount Olive, the student organization that runs the shelter, Students 4 Students, has opened three more shelters serving college communities in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Davis.
“Those things have helped other people become sensitive to this issue. Now there are initiatives for homeless college students across the country, and we help get that started. That’s very satisfying,” said Shafer.
In addition to the founding of the shelter, Shafer helped found the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council, which hosts monthly meetings, sponsors worship services and collectively stands up for justice issues in the community and nation. For example, after the mass attack on gay and lesbian people in Orlando in 2016, Shafer helped organize a “Love Orlando, Music Heals” fundraising concert at Mt. Olive.
“People of faith, whatever their faith, have such commonality you know, they believe in caring for the widow and orphan, to use the traditional language, for the poor,” said Shafer. “We don’t come to the interfaith table to change each other or convert each other—we even love to talk about our differences because they’re fascinating—but we know that we have so much more in common than we have different.”
Other notable accomplishments during Shafer’s tenure include the renovation of the church entryway to make it a more welcoming space and the removal of two-thirds of the fixed pews to create a gathering space that can host a much wider range of activities inside the church.
During the pandemic Shafer served as a pillar for many congregation members, by rapidly converting to online services and launching a weekly YouTube interview series called “Hope Matters.” The virtual service proved so popular that the church is continuing it to this day.
While Shafer and his wife Kris are looking forward to moving back to their home of Pennsylvania, they will miss the Santa Monica community and the community here is sure to miss them.