Homeless Advocate (1938–2012)
In the middle of a cold December night in 2001, Margaret Loehlin Shafer stood outside on 55th Street, risking arrest in the name of justice.
She was standing up for the men and women huddled beside the walls of the church. And she was standing up to the phalanx of police officers who wanted to clear them away. “She makes an unlikely freedom fighter, this apple-cheeked elder of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church,” the New York Times reported. Yet for all who knew Margaret, strength and determination
defined her character, and her faith.
One of five children born to missionary parents, Margaret grew up in Northwestern India and attended boarding school at her beloved Woodstock School in the Himalayas, where she learned the organizational and relational skills that would lead to her success. Margaret met her husband and soulmate, Byron, a professor, pastor and fellow advocate, at Wooster College, and thus began their lifetime partnership. She furthered her education with two master degrees, one in Christian Education and one in teaching, and became a consummate educator.
I met Margaret while she was serving the church as the Christian educator, working with Family Ministries and the Adult Education program. Margaret’s absolute joy in her work was obvious, and it utilized her many attributes: deep faith, sheer delight in the diversity of all people, endless stamina. Margaret had a gift for finding quiet souls in our community, discerning their gifts and guiding them into their own ministries of service. Nowhere was this skill put to better use than with the Befriending Ministry, which Margaret created as an outreach to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. As she reflected in her 2013 memoir, Home Is the Journey , this ministry “would not try to become another social service agency or feeding program. We would try to help people by encouraging them and loving them, even when they failed.” Dozens of congregation members eagerly joined Margaret in this work.
God had big plans for Margaret and for the church when she became the director of Outreach Ministries. Shortly after her confrontation with the New York City police, the church filed suit for the right to serve the people who camped each night beside our walls and on our front steps. I’ll never forget seeing Margaret on the evening news, besieged by police and reporters. Her work with the homeless became a powerful witness for the city and for the nation. Churches from across the U.S. contacted Margaret for assistance with their own homeless populations. Margaret was a tireless ambassador with many homeless organizations and served on their boards. Shortly before her retirement in 2004, at one of the many municipal meetings she regularly attended, government and nonprofit leaders gave her a surprise standing ovation as she entered the room.
Margaret and Byron made several trips to India (they led three mission trips on behalf of the church), where she continued God’s work by networking with Christians there. Her family life, roots in two cultures, great faith, love of education and people all contributed to the remarkable woman that she became.
About the Writer
Karen Johnson has had a full life at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church since she joined in 1975. This has included Outreach Ministries, Young Adults, Couples Club, Family Ministries and Christian Education, as well as serving on the Session. It was especially her privilege to be mentored by both Margaret Shafer and Joe Vedella as a volunteer with our Befriending Ministry to the homeless on our steps.