My Walk with Father Jon-Stephen Hedges
It Started Around a Stew Pot
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.J.R.R. Tolkien
In 1999, at the tail end of a long existential crisis in my life, I landed in the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Athanasius. It was there that I met Father Jon-Stephen Hedges (affectionately known as Father Jon). He initially came off as a quiet, reflective man. With time I learned he was classicist at heart with a soul as deep as the ocean.
I am a clinical social worker. My first exposure to the world of “homeless outreach” was at the age of 11 years old when I had the honor of serving in a “park feed” for neighbors on the street. Out family did not have excess, but my mother always allowed me to take some pinto beans and simmer them up with some tasty spices to serve. Looking into the grateful eyes of brothers and sisters for this simple meal on the streets changed me forever.
At the age of 15, after two years of deep depression and my eyes being opened to suffering on a worldwide level, I began searching for people who had full knowledge of the human condition and how to live with it. I returned to the streets looking for answers and found willing teachers who showed me how to live with this awareness of suffering and still see humor, beauty, and hope in the midst of it.
In 2002, Father Jon took over the responsibility of cooking a weekly homeless outreach dinner on the grounds of St. Athanasius church, which was in Isla Vista at the time. Soon after, he invited me, as a social worker, to join and provide mental-health assessments, crisis counseling, and social-service consults. We would laugh as we took a gallon of milk, some donated veggies, a few other items, and a large stew pot with the challenge of making a tasty meal for 80-100 people in less than a couple hours. The angels must have been hanging out in the kitchen in those days as dinner always seemed to work out somehow!
As Father Jon became more involved with social service work himself, others from the parish, and later other churches and organizations, joined us in the rotation of cooking. We found an amazing volunteer dinner coordinator, Richard Barre, who took over organizing meals so we could focus on the social service work.
I.V.’s First Homeless Drop-in Center
The name St. Brigid Fellowship was decided upon in 2005. The church gave us a space to use on the grounds of St. Athanasius Orthodox Church and a part-time case worker, Jill Wallerstedt. A sense of community developed, and people gained a sense of belonging in addition to breakfast, mail service, computer use, a phone, and social service referrals. We helped connect people with medical and mental-health care, assisted people in entering detox, reconnected people with family, and many more things along their journeys we were privileged to witness. The drop-in center was closed when the church moved out of Isla Vista, but we promised to continue the weekly dinner, which continues to this day. We dreamt of a time we would again have a place where our friends could feel at home.
Over time Father Jon increased his connectedness with UCSB, the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, and the community partners of Isla Vista. He became a chaplain for the Sheriff’s Office. When Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, Father Jon began traveling as a chaplain. He soon became something like the Forrest Gump of disaster work. When something was “going down” in the country, there he was — either through Red Cross or as a frontline volunteer with the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).
In January 2006, a crisis struck with the Goleta post office shooting. Father Jon was called to support family members who had learned of the death of their loved one and support law enforcement impacted by the event. In 2006, we met Dr. Mimi Doohan and became founding team members of Doctors Without Walls–Santa Barbara Street Medicine and not long after, the first Medical Reserve Corps of Santa Barbara County. We began the discussion of the overlap between work on the streets and disaster response work. Both worked with people in degrees of crisis, both tool place out in the field, and both made creative use of limited resources.
From July 2008 to May 2009, three major fires hit Santa Barbara and Goleta. We both spent countless hours providing crisis-mental-health hours to evacuees. The magnitude of the need and heartache in our home community was a soul-stretching experience. In the years to come I was unable to travel spontaneously as much as I would have liked, grounded for a time by graduate school and later overseeing care for two parents with brain injuries. I could not join Father Jon for most of the disasters that required travel out of Santa Barbara County, but I attempted to support him the best I could from where I was.
In disaster response work and crisis work in general, we understand the risk of acquiring something called Vicarious Trauma, an “occupational hazard” from caring for those with lives displaced by trauma. When working a disaster, Father Jon would often call me for evening check-ins to debrief from the day. I would remind him of his self-care commitment — walk it off, breathe, drink water, eat healthy. Rest does not happen until afterward. It is impossible for us to unplug when the acute need is still there.
A Place to Call Home
Our last big work together in Santa Barbara County was assisting the County Housing Authority in visioning and launching Pescadero Lofts, the home we had hoped for so long ago for our friends on the streets of Isla Vista. It was to be a “housing first” model — come as you are. The idea is to place folks in low-income housing with wrap-around supportive services, rather than doing what we called “chase management” on the streets, attempting to gather together all the pieces of a person’s life without walls to contain them. I become the first onsite resident manager and Father Jon the first case manager to link the residents to sustainable services in the community.
Over the years Father Jon and I taught together on the subjects of mental-health crisis intervention and homeless outreach. We spoke with groups of chaplains, medical professionals, law enforcement, and big-hearted volunteers around the U.S. and Canada. In February 2017 I moved to Oregon to begin engaging a livelong vision of having a place of respite on land for healers to heal so they can continue to do the precious work they are meant to do.
Father Jon and I have always shared a love of trains. The rails for both of us have always felt like somewhere outside space and time, a bubble of peace, a place of respite to recharge. As soon as I heard Father Jon was being moved from Cottage Hospital to Sarah House Hospice where I could visit in pandemic times, I bought a train ticket. I did not have the strength to fly on an airplane, never having felt comfortable with my feet off the ground. I began writing this reflection in the morning. He passed away in the afternoon, before I could lay eyes on him again.
Father Jon called me anam cara, soul friend. Our connection went beyond words and it remains, but how we do grieve the loss of the physical presence of those we love when they leave this earth! Yet they live on through us as we continue to do the work we are meant to do before us. When our souls touch and sometimes fuse as we work together here on this earth, the hands of those who remain behind carry on the work we shared. In this way we all become immortal. There is so much more to say about the work of this man in his too-brief time here with us, but I know the sharing will continue.
A dear friend, Debbie Mcquade, director of Sarah House for 25 years, recently reminded me of Father Jon interrupting his own Sunday sermons when a train would blow its horn on the nearby tracks while he was speaking. He would exclaim, “This train is bound for glory!” I know now Father Jon is on that final northbound train to join those who went before us.
My father, my brother, my friend, my comrade in the trenches, anam cara; I will so miss your face. May we honor you in the work before us in the days that remain for each of us.