Christ Following Group: Uffizi Mission Project
Activity Attended: Meals with Friends Without Homes; Wed., 5:30 p.m.; Pershing Park
Founder: Jeff Shaffer
Denomination: Open to all; based on the gospel
Group Size: About 45
Special Offerings: Numerous opportunities for mission work, get-togethers, and discussion groups. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Jeff Shaffer was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence when he felt called to change the way he shared the gospel with his community. A pastor at Community Covenant for 14 years, Jeff was standing in front of Boticelli’s “The Annunciation” when he had the realization that he needed to start “a different kind of church.”
“I thought, Jesus didn’t have a building people had to go to; he was out on the street, where the people were,” Jeff said. Upon returning to Santa Barbara, Jeff decided to literally follow his example, bringing his experience with Christ to the streets of his community.
The goal of his church – which he appropriately calls Uffizi – is simply to help wherever help is needed. Although the fledgling group has its work cut out for it in helping Santa Barbara’s large homeless population, Jeff also hopes to reach “street kids, gangs – the places no one else goes,” he said.
Every Wednesday evening, about a dozen Uffizi members gather at Pershing Park, where they share homemade dinner with the transients who call the park home. All of the congregants – or wanderers, as Jeff sometimes calls them – contribute food and drinks. The scene is idyllic and welcoming. People in bare feet pass babies around and play guitar; others settle under towering oaks with paper plates of lasagna, beans, and rice. This laidback picnic atmosphere is a sharp deviation from the images most people associate with hanging out with homeless people on their own turf. Jeff enjoys seeing this “paradigm shift” in people who do have homes and would otherwise have little or no contact with the transient population, in keeping with his hope of breaking down barriers wherever they exist.
Although Jesus’ teachings are the driving force behind his work with Uffizi, Jeff does not preach or pray for people unless he’s asked to – which seems to happen frequently enough, judging from the interest in worship displayed by many of Pershing Park’s residents. Pointing to numerous Biblical references to Jesus as a servant, Jeff spreads his experience of Christ by helping others in practical ways. Given the heated philosophical discussions about Buddhism and various religious commands to be overhead at Pershing Park on Wednesday evenings, it’s clear that Uffizi is about bringing people together, not telling people the right (or wrong) things to believe.
Although Jeff has the concrete goal of getting two or three people off the street a year, he also feels a sense of uncertainty about how best to help. When he drives around the city, he naturally notices those areas that are prone to gang violence and poverty and wonders which ones to target next. “I don’t have the answers,” he said. “When I was a pastor, I always knew exactly what I was doing. Now my work is very day to day.”
The evolving nature of Uffizi was well described in a recent newsletter: “So, the focus of the week will be on the state of the poor in Santa Barbara – and our desire to befriend them, love them, feed them, pray for them, share the gospel in word and deed. Let’s see what God does with it this week….”