“We have a guest,” the Rev. Louis Henderson Zbinden Jr. of First Presbyterian Church would tell his wife and children.

The girls would double up in one of their rooms so that a homeless stranger could sleep in a bed for a few nights to “get back on their feet,” the reverend’s son, Louis Zbinden III, said.

“In retrospect, that’s crazy,” he said. “As a kid, it just didn’t even dawn on me. … It was just the way things were.”

His father, who passed away at age 84 on Sept. 11, just thought helping out “was the right thing to do.”

Zbinden was surrounded by family when he died of medical complications. He led the local First Presbyterian Church downtown for more than 30 years and played critical roles in founding Christian Assistance Ministry, San Antonio Metropolitan Ministry (now SAMMinistries), the Samaritan Counseling Center, the Christian Dental Clinic at Haven for Hope, and Bexar County Detention Ministries.

Finding the money and building for SAMMinitries’ shelter was a big point of pride for his father, Zbinden III said. “He [also] took a lot of pride in the church itself and the growth that it had.”

When he came to the church in San Antonio, the reverend noticed right away the dichotomy between the worshippers who drove into downtown to attend service and the people who lived on the street.

“[The church had] people from all over San Antonio, mostly from the North Side. … It’s a fairly well-off church and congregation but at the same time you’ve got homeless people sleeping underneath the bushes,” Zbinden III said.

The death of a homeless man on church property in 1981 further ignited his desire to find a solution.

So Zbinden used the monetary resources and civic leadership of the church and its congregation to try to help these people, his son said. “He was able to utilize those relationships to effect change.”

He started SAMMinistries in the basement of First Presbyterian and helped the community put together the plan for the shelter, said Navarra Williams, who served as president and CEO of SAMMinistres for 13 years until he retired in May.

“Without his efforts, [opening] both the SAMM shelter and Haven for Hope would have been more difficult,” Williams said. “We’ve housed thousands and thousands of people. .. We have more than 30,000 San Antonians who have benefited from homeless prevention programs. That’s part of his legacy. He has really helped expand the opportunities to reduce and prevent homelessness.”

Zbinden was born Feb. 11, 1936, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduated from Southwestern University at Memphis (now Rhodes College) and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He became friends with Katherine “Kip” Shoaf at Southwestern and they celebrated 61 years of marriage this year. They have four children, three daughters (Betsy, Anne, and Katie) and one son (Louis).

His father was working for a car dealership when he graduated from college, his son said, when  “he just had a moment when he was called to the ministry and ever since then that’s just what his life was. That calling to serve God and serve others is really what drove him his entire life.”

The Rev. Louis Henderson Zbinden Jr. (seated) and his family. Credit: Courtesy / Zbinden family

After serving at Presbyterian churches in Virginia and North Carolina, he came to San Antonio and became senior pastor in 1971.

“He kind of had this drive to go west and see what was out there,” Zbinden’s son said. “He found this church and saw the opportunity to really take a church that had a strong tradition but wasn’t doing as well as it did in the past and build it up again and use it for good in the city.”

After he retired in 2004, he continued to serve on numerous community leadership boards and teach at seminary schools as close as Austin and as far away as Zambia.

“As his career when on, he moved from outreach within the community to teaching. … He wanted to pass on what he knew and loved: the value of service,” Zbinden III said, noting that he certainly passed it on to his children.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 404 N. Alamo St. The maximum occupancy is 150 people due to COVID-19 restrictions.

First Presbyterian will be livestreaming the service.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org