Father Jon-Stephen Hedges: 1947-2021

On February 25, Santa Barbara County, the Isla Vista community, and the Sheriff’s Office lost a great community organizer, spiritual leader, and social justice advocate. Father Jon-Stephen Hedges — known for his ministry to the homeless people of Isla Vista, members of his church, victims of tragedy, and first responders alike — died following a short illness. He was 73.

In 2016, Father Jon was elected to the Isla Vista Community Services Board with Spencer Brandt (left), Natalie Jordan, and Ethan Bertrand. | Credit: Courtesy

The son of a naval chief petty officer, Father Jon came to Isla Vista in 1968 to attend UC Santa Barbara. He met and married his devoted wife, Melissa, and they had children Benjamin and Sarah, who in turn blessed them with grandchildren. Known for his compassion, tenacity, and dedication, he became a longtime assistant priest in St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, an elected member of the Isla Vista Community Services District, and a beloved member of the Sheriff’s Office, serving for 20 years as a Volunteer Chaplain.

The Sunday before he died, Father Jon telephoned me and asked for a favor. Matter-of-factly, he said he was terminally ill, that he didn’t have long to live, and that he would like to have bagpipes at his funeral. I wasn’t even aware he was ill, and as the shock and gravity of what he had just said set in, I was hit with emotion. But while my voice cracked, his had not a hint of fear or anxiety. He knew where he was going and told me he had been preparing for the journey his entire life. I thought how ironic it was that I was having more difficulty with the conversation than he was, and that through his acceptance, peace, and grace, he gave me comfort, just as he had done so many times before.

I remember the first time I met him. I saw this distinguished-looking, white-haired, trimly bearded man in black sneakers, black socks, black jeans, a black short-sleeved shirt with clerical collar, a silver cross about the size of a door knocker on a chain around his neck, with John Lennon–style eyeglasses, a tactical satchel containing first aid equipment slung over his shoulder, and a belt laden with equipment that included a shiny gold Sheriff’s Chaplain badge. I thought, “Wow. That’s quite a look,” but somehow he managed to pull it off! I don’t think anybody else could have done that.

As we got to know each other, I came to understand how proud of that Chaplain’s badge he was, and how he carried and wore it with such honor and devotion. 

He was always there when we needed him. He reached out to help in the aftermath of the Goleta postal shooting. He was there following the mass murder incident in his beloved Isla Vista. And for those whose homes and memories were destroyed by some of the many fires we’ve experienced in past years, he was there. He was there for the victims of the 1/9 Debris Flow that devastated Montecito and claimed 23 lives, for the families of the 34 people lost during the Conception dive boat fire, and for the first responders to all of these catastrophes. He even traveled across the nation to be there for strangers whose lives had been turned upside down by disaster, comforting victims and first responders alike in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. He was a man who was called to be where tragedy, destruction, death, grief, and anguish struck — places that most people flee from, or avoid at all cost. He could always be counted upon to be where the need was. Whether providing ease through a wise thought or a prayer, a hand on a shoulder, or simply through a look of understanding and empathy, he helped, comforted, and inspired so many over the years.

Father Jon didn’t just excel during disasters. He was a man who sparkled and lifted you up when you were in his presence.

Over the years he influenced countless others to do good works. One was Dr. Jason Prystowsky, a physician in the Emergency Room at Cottage Hospital. Dr. Prystowsky said of Father Jon, “He maintained the humility of a sage while wielding the booming voice of moral outrage. He taught me to show up, take care of the people who need help, and then ask forgiveness later. He will continue to remind us to walk the path of virtue and integrity, no matter how hard it looks.”

The void left by Father Jon’s passing is at least partially filled with many happy memories of him. He was a man of the cloth with a smile from ear to ear and a heart of gold. A brave, dedicated, and hard-working Orthodox priest who wasn’t afraid to use unorthodox means to help those he loved and cared about so much, especially people who struggle for things the rest of us so often tend to take for granted: a clear and sober thought, a place to live, a meal to eat, a hot shower, treatment for a worsening ailment, a person to talk to, somebody to allay our fears, someone to love. He selflessly dedicated his life to three noble endeavors: helping those impacted by tough circumstances, misfortune, bad choices, or calamity; supporting, nurturing, and fortifying those who are called to respond to their needs; and to serving God by doing those first two.

The Very Reverend Father Jon-Stephen Hedges was a shepherd who tended his many flocks with devotion, energy, compassion, and kindness. He made us better people for having known him. He died as he lived, filled with courage, brotherly love, and an abiding faith that inspired us yet again.

Per his wishes, this good and faithful servant was laid to rest in a fitting ceremony that blended the smoke of incense from the Eastern Orthodox burial rites with the poignant sounds of “Amazing Grace” being sweetly played on Scottish bagpipes.

Father Jon-Stephen Hedges, may you rest in earthly peace and live in eternal glory as you reap the heavenly rewards you so richly earned by your countless good deeds. Yours was a life well-lived, and we will never forget you.


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