Colin Henderson, founder of the Friendship Shelter and former associate pastor at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, who is credited with stewarding a more compassionate culture toward people experiencing homelessness in Laguna Beach died July 26. He was 87.
As he confronted frail health and memory issues, Henderson moved to a retirement community in Leeds, United Kingdom. While living there, he was infected with COVID-19 and initially appeared to initially handle the virus well but his condition then deteriorated suddenly, Ros Henderson, Colin’s daughter, wrote in an email.
The British ex-pat arrived in town in 1985 after being hired by the Rev. Robert Cornelison. He and his wife Elin were married at St. Mary’s at a time when they couldn’t be wed at Henderson’s home parish in England because of her Jewish background.
Shortly after arriving at St. Mary’s, the parish noticed a man sleeping in the church, said Rev. Lester Mackenzie, current rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Cornelison tasked Henderson with making a lasting change in the homeless community. The priest would eventually see this endeavor as a calling from God and lead the founding of Friendship Shelter in 1988.
“I admire how he lived out, truly, what it means to love your neighbor, irrespective of their social status, irrespective of their class, irrespective of who they are especially homeless siblings. How interesting, how wonderful in a city like Laguna Beach that can seem very comfortable,” Mackenzie said.
In 1987, Henderson and a group of like-minded residents identified and purchased Friendship Shelter’s first residential building at 1335 S. Coast Hwy. After Henderson’s lobbying, Laguna Beach not only approved the shelter but helped fund the purchase.
“He was always very reluctant to be considered the leader or founder because he always said ‘there were a lot of us there.’ But when you talk with anyone who was there it was his influence and quiet leadership that really led us right up until the time he moved back to the U.K.,” Friendship Shelter executive director Dawn Price said.
In the mid-1990, the priest helped find two San Clemente apartment buildings that would become to be called the Henderson House, Price said.
Henderson was one of the original community members who co-founded the Laguna Beach Interfaith Council, a coalition of faith-based organizations, Interfaith Council co-chair Beth Garlock said. In times of need, the Interfaith Council members rotate providing sleeping space for guests who can’t be accommodated at the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon.
Henderson served multiple terms as Friendship Shelter’s board president including the first couple of years after Price joined the organization in 2008. She tried to emulate his even-keeled leadership style from the start.
During his tenure in Laguna Beach, Henderson was also deeply involved in city officials’ efforts to grapple with homelessness, serving on two city task forces, including one that lead the response to a 2008 lawsuit filed by the ACLU. This litigation led to the creation of the ASL.
“He had a really good way of understanding multiple points of view. I think he understood what prompted the lawsuit and I think he also understood the constraints that any city or public entity has in trying to respond to homelessness. But everything he did started with the people in need,” Price said.
The concept of using city-owned land and taxpayers’ dollars to serve people experiencing homelessness had been labeled by critics as enabling drug users and petty criminals. Henderson was successfully able to deescalate spirited debates by advocating for decency and respect for all people.
“There wasn’t an aggressive bone in his body but he was driven to help,” Councilmember Toni Iseman said.
The priest regularly walked his dog throughout the hills of Laguna Beach before he moved back to England, Iseman said. Mackenzie recalled the St. Mary’s congregation wrapping him in a traditional blue prayer shawl after he delivered his final sermon on June 11, 2017.
“Our mission could only work if we worked as a team, if there was trust, if we listened to each other, [and] if our community included not just those who serve but those who were served,” Henderson said in his final sermon at St. Mary’s.
Henderson is preceded in death by his wife, Elin Henderson. He is survived by his children James Henderson, Ian Henderson, and Ros Henderson.
A celebration of Henderson’s life is in the works for September. Please email [email protected] to receive details as they become available. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Friendship Shelter at friendshipshelter.org.