Sunday, August 1, 2021

New Pastor at Coronado Community Church

Pastors Steven Mather (left) and Eric Smith. Photo by JD.

Coronado Community Church Announces New Pastor

The term, “Church without a building,” is not uncommon in Coronado. At last count there were four such non-denominational places of worship on the island. Perhaps the best known is Coronado Community Church, which, pre-Covid, met weekly in the Coronado Village Elementary School cafeteria and auditorium.

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Since 2005, Pastor Steve Mather has been in residence at CCC, replacing Pastor Tom Warmer. Now, after 16 years, Mather is retiring. In his place will be Pastor Eric Smith, another old Coronado soul.

Mather, you see, was born here, and graduated from Coronado High School in 1967. His ministerial duties took him all over the country before leading him back to Coronado.

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Both of Smith’s parents were Navy, and he came to Coronado in 1959, graduating CHS in 1972. For him as well, this is a homecoming of sorts, and a magical pairing by all accounts.

Mather, son of the late Coronado real estate icon, Lee Mather, became an ordained Presbyterian minister and served as assistant pastor at Graham Memorial from 1974-77. He then accepted a position at a struggling church in San Diego before moving to a church in Tucson. He served as head minister at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Fox Chase, Philadelphia, a 150-year-old establishment. In 1987 he accepted the minister position at a church in Anaheim.

Pastor Mather is known for leaving the pulpit, and physically carrying his message into the audience. He walks down aisles and engages his unsuspecting but absorbed congregation up close and personal. Photo by JD.

Throughout his long pastorate, Mather has been caught up in congregational upheavals and divisions within the church. His pro-choice beliefs made him unpopular with hundreds of picketers to the point that Anaheim police asked him to wear a bullet proof vest.

“Choice issues can often seem to be incompatible with faith,” he said. “Believing in reproductive choice should not be hostile to religion and Christianity. Fortunately, we found there was a law against disrupting religious services, which the police enforced.”

From 1998 – 2005, Mather served on the National Board of Planned Parenthood and clergy outreach. “I had often said I would never work a non-Presbyterian church, and never work in a school, and then, in one fell swoop, I bounced both of those,” Mather laughed.

On a visit home to Coronado, he attended CCC and was asked by then-pastor, Tom Warmer, to consider succeeding him. Warmer, after nearly half a century of preaching, was considering retirement.

Warmer had formerly been pastor of the Coronado Methodist Church. A disagreement with the Methodist Bishop, however, found him departing that church. Half his congregation left with him. This became the genesis of the Coronado Community Church. That was 1996.

Steven Mather admits that, in half a century of preaching, he had never felt closer to home, or happier, than while behind the pulpit at CCC. He grew up in Coronado, and regularly brought many of his own life lessons, some from here in Coronado, to his sermons each Sunday. Steve was a 1967 CHS graduate. Photo by JD.

“I had worked with churches before, which had endured splits within the ranks,” said Mather, “and this would have been my third. Still, I never thought I would do ministry in Coronado, but I surprised myself. I had been working with Planned Parenthood most recently, and yearned to preach again. I decided I wanted to do this.”

What he found was that this group of spiritual pioneers who had left the Methodist Church did not come out the other side scarred, angry or affected. They had become quite the family of worshipers, and were very excited about their future, while being elastic and adaptable as it pertained to the walls and roof of their “church.”

In fact, the CCC has developed into a very friendly church, with a terrific choir, a Sunday school, and extremely exciting sermons that fell just short of fire and brimstone. Mather was hooked. He was home.

“It’s truly a church that isn’t bound by doctrine or dogma, it’s open to diverse points of view, and the congregation is made up of Jews, agnostics, Unitarians and those who just don’t fit into a category. I’ve tried to celebrate inclusiveness as best as I could,” said Mather.

“People are hungering to hear from the minister identifying with the struggles they are dealing with in their faith,” he said. “I’ve done that. I’ve talked about my own doubts, my own faith. My goodness, I never would have done that 20 years ago.

“Looking back, I think I’ve had more fun in this church than I have had this past half century. Here at CCC, the people are the church. We don’t have a building to get in the way. We don’t have steeple envy.”

Mather enjoyed physically involving his audience in sermons. He would leave the pulpit, walk down the steps and through the people, stopping now and again to direct a question, or a look at someone. Sometimes he would lean over in a person’s face and ask them about a particular metaphor in his sermon, or, “And … how many summers do YOU have left?” in an effort to make his point. No one slept during Mather’s sermons.

“The sermons were provocative, I felt. But this is something I did, to get the people to invest in this, to galvanize the group,” he said. “Obviously, going to Zoom stopped much of the progress we had made. The hardest thing about a Zoom service is, when I say something I think is funny, I can’t hear the congregation laugh.” Of course, Mather laughed at the telling of that.

When the pandemic forced everyone indoors, Zoom became the pathway to Sunday services. Undaunted, Pastor Mather held his audiences of often 60 or more, captive with his vibrant sermons. He could no longer physically walk from the pulpit, down into his congregation, but he was, nevertheless, extremely physical and active in those Zoom services. Photo by JD.

In the Zoom sermons, Mather continued to lean into the camera for effect, still taking the breath away from those watching, causing his audience to stay in the moment, but, as he suggests, it just wasn’t the same.

Indeed, Steve Mather remains passionate about this church and this community. “I keep telling people, you don’t own this church. This is not your church. Jesus owns this church. It is His church, and yet, that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises or unexpected turns ahead.”

Indeed, it is a small world. This photo captures Steven Mather (left) and Eric Smith, in 1975, as they pose with Father John Hauser, former rector of Christ Episcopal Church, to announce the launch of Release Time Religious Education for Coronado High School. The three men were teachers in this program.

Mather spoke eloquently and optimistically about his successor. “Whatever changes occur in the CCC, or the route it might travel, I think Pastor Eric is the trailblazer to do it. He has so much wisdom, energy and passion. I’m very excited for this church and this community, and what they will experience in the years to come.

“Not just anyone could step in and sail this ship. Eric brings an awful lot to the table with his style and experience. He has a different set of eyes and ears. It’s no coincidence he has come to our church. I think the Spirit is pulling all of that together, and I have no doubt this church will adapt, succeed and flourish under his leadership. It may be different than my time, but it will be very, very good.”

Steve Mather will continue to serve as Pastor Emeritus, and perform the occasional sermon.

Eric Smith is no stranger to the pulpit. He served Methodist churches for 40 years and retired from active status with the denomination this summer. In his career he has pastored seven churches, ranging in size from 100 to 1,300 members. His last congregation was St. Andrew’s By-the-Sea in San Clemente.

His own church background, while perhaps not as controversial as Mather’s, is filled with highlights. He was pastor at the Holliston Church in Pasadena for 12 years. The Rose Parade passed by each year, so the church constructed grandstands for the parade to host 1,000 people. “It was like an urban barn raising every year,” he said.

Pastor Eric Smith in 1998, sharing the Word with his congregation.

He also recalled hosting movie shoots on church property. “It wasn’t uncommon to have stars like Eddie Murphy, Tom Hanks, John Travolta and Robert Stack on site, either in the church, or in the courtyard. Stack used our facility backdrop to introduce episodes of his TV show, Unsolved Mysteries.”

Smith also worked with Prison Ministry for several years. “Going inside the prison to spend time with men who are incarcerated, with little reason for hope, often serving life sentences, was a powerful experience of the grace of God. It has had a profound effect on me.”

As his life and ministry come full circle, Pastor Eric is always quick to share a memory of his youth growing up in Coronado. Anyone who was here during those car-carrying ferryboat years, can’t help but sit spellbound listening to his stories.

“Coronado is my home,” said the tall preacher, with a wide smile on his face. He stands well over six feet. “Coronado is the ground of my being. I was raised, loved, and nurtured on this island.

A young Eric Smith, at a Coronado High School pep rally, showcasing a western theme. He graduated from Coronado High School in 1972, and was very active in the arts, music and sports.

“I was given so much, by so many, that it has always been my dream to return and offer something back to this community. When I was approached by the Coronado Community Church, there was a wholeness in it that struck me immediately.”

Ironically, Pastor Tom Warmer, the first pastor of Coronado Community Church, was Smith’s mentor in ministry all those years ago. “What a gift to anticipate pastoring the church he founded,” said Smith. “This is a new and exciting chapter of ministry in my life. Pastoring this church is a joy to imagine.”

The Pastor Eric Smith is married to Karen, his partner in life and ministry; she is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the Equity Actors Union. The Smiths have four grown children and four grandchildren.

Coronado may not be the center of the universe for everyone, but for anyone who has lived here for any length of time, particularly in the early pre-Coronado Bridge days, coming home takes on a whole new meaning. One can only imagine the excitement felt by Pastor Eric Smith as he returns to his hometown, and to this spiritual challenge.

A celebration to honor Pastor Steve Mather and welcome Pastor Eric Smith, will be held Sunday, July 4, at First Church of Christ Scientist, 1123 8th Street. Worship will begin at noon with a luncheon to follow. Reservations required by June 25 at missc9725@gmail.com.

Pastors Steven Mather and Eric Smith, sharing stories and making plans for the future of Coronado Community Church. Photo by JD.

Coronado Community Church normally meets in the Coronado Village Elementary School cafeteria and auditorium Sundays at 10 a.m. Physical services are expected to resume soon, as activity on the island slowly returns to post-virus normality. Over the past year, pastor, choir and congregation have meet weekly on Zoom.

For more information, contact Coronado Community Church, P.O. Box 181680, Coronado, CA 92178, or, www.coronadocommunitychurch.org.

 

–Story by Joe Ditler

 

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Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover "Coronado Storyteller." To find out more, write or call joeditler@gmail.com, or (619) 742-1034.
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