Eric Gerhardinger is simultaneously a man with a five year plan, and a student who never grew up. The combination of these qualities, contradictory as they may seem, brought him to Hope Horizon’s Elementary Spiritual Program as a volunteer.
Eric works primarily with the fifth graders during the program’s dinner events (on Mondays and Wednesdays). He arrives early to help set up, eats dinner with the students outside, asks how their weeks are going, and plays sports with them—American football, soccer, foursquare, or basketball. During the prayer and worship part of the evening, Eric leads a discussion with the fifth graders on the verse of the year:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)
The last part of this verse—‘Love your neighbor as yourself’—thematically links what brought Eric to this program at Hope Horizon, and his strongest takeaways from his year and a half of volunteering thus far.
While seeking out opportunities to volunteer, Eric found Hope Horizon on Central Peninsula Church’s website. This was in mid 2021, which was also during the fallout of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the many anti-Asian hate crimes that have been occurring in the Peninsula and San Francisco. After those events, Eric felt a strong calling: “To me, it seemed like the only answer is Christ. It gave me a renewed sense of urgency to go out into the community and share the gospel. I’ve always been on the operations side. If you need someone to run your organization efficiently, I’m your guy. But the events of 2021 shifted my thoughts. What’s needed in our communities is the gospel. It motivated me to be in the frontlines, to learn to share the gospel, especially in the underserved communities in my neighborhood.”
In his earlier years, Eric has always been quite self-directed. However, he learnt that striving to be in charge of his own life only got him so far: “I would reach a lot of dead ends, and five years ago, I came back to the Lord in earnest. When there are big decisions on the horizon, they are all directed by the Lord.” His shift in perspective during 2021 brought him to Hope Horizon, but his decision to volunteer is absolutely also part of a long-term plan—this time, more loosely held. “I was looking for a way to learn how to share the gospel directly. In the future, I hope to transition to full time ministry and missionary work. It’s not in the immediate horizon, but I realized that the thing I can do right now is to go out and teach the gospel.”
And although Eric admits to being a bit of a pushover with the students, he is putting his God-given talents to good use in the elementary program. Specifically—his talent of being a big student. Growing up in Ohio, Eric was part of a large family. He credits them for keeping him always young in spirit. He has also lived in California for 12 years. “Growing up, I moved around a lot. Because of that, I struggled to have mentorship and to have people want to invest in my life.” Due to his experience moving around, he sees the mentorship work at Hope Horizon as a vital part of students’ lives. This kind of work is especially urgent coming out of the isolation of the pandemic.
“We initially had three students regularly showing up. God has blessed it, and we now have 20+ students. After lock down, there was a lot of bullying behavior going on. A lot of conflict going on between multiple students all at once. After they’ve spent so much time by themselves, going back into large groups can be overwhelming. So many new faces. A lot of it was anxiety related. I myself, as an adult, was struggling with similar social rust. But this year, we have seen a drastic reduction in all of that. They are treating each other a lot kinder, a lot more patiently. Not as much name calling going on. They have grown and matured as disciples in Christ, blessing Hope Horizon as a place of peace. I can see it happening week by week.”
Eric links this change in behavior to practices like gentle reinforcement, positive feedback, and consistency of message. But he thinks that the focus on Matthew 22:37-39 played the biggest role. “Having that message come across every week, it was very helpful for the students. They’re seeing the truth that in God, there is this agape love, which I hope to be displaying to them every week.”
His most memorable moment is when some of the students in the program embodied this “love your neighbor as yourself” ethos: “One of the boys got injured playing sports. It wasn’t too bad, but I saw other boys pick him up and carry him together to the Hope Horizon office. I don’t think that would have happened a year ago. I’ve been seeing the children within the program grow together, and help each other.”