A youth member from the Samoan Congregational Christian Church places flower crowns on an altar for Isamaeli Mata’afa, the 29-year-old divinity student who was killed in a shooting on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The vigil was held at San Lorenzo Community Church on Thursday, Oct. 13. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Around 100 people gathered at an East Bay church Thursday evening to honor Isamaeli Mata’afa, a compassionate, community-minded 29-year-old divinity student at the Pacific School of Religion, who was killed in a shooting last weekend on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. 

Framed photographs of Mata’afa decorated with flowers formed an altar outside the San Lorenzo Community Church. Mata’afa had grown up as part of a largely Samoan congregation and later played a central role as a youth pastor. On a small stage, friends, family, teachers and members of the congregation remembered Mata’afa, who they called Eli, or Ish, for his boundless spirit, his faith in God and his service to youth in his community. 

Donate to a GoFundMe started by Eli’s sister Mitaina

“Eli, we love you, and we will always miss you. You’re never forgotten, and your spirit will always live on among your community and your church,” said Taunu’u Ve’e, who knew Mata’afa since he joined the congregation as a child. Her brother, Rev. Ulysses Ve’e, ministers the congregation. 

“He had this amazing vision,” Ve’e said, describing him as a mediator who tried to resolve conflict. “The bottom line was, ‘What can we do for our youth?’” 

It was the first time in recent memory that the congregation had lost someone to violence, and the death of Mata’afa, who was so central to the church, stunned the congregation. The vigil had been organized by teenagers in the youth group Mata’afa helped lead. 

Mata’afa died early Saturday morning after a shooting that, police said, stemmed from a fight that broke out earlier. Three other men, ages 22, 24 and 28, were also shot and taken to Highland Hospital for treatment, police said. 

It was the third death due to gun violence to impact the Berkeley community this month. On Oct. 1, two Berkeley High brothers were killed while attending a birthday party in North Oakland.

Mata’afa remembered as being ‘there to uplift any difficulty’

Voloti Mata’afa, father of Eli Mata’afa, thanks family and friends for attending a vigil for Eli. “I miss my son,” he said. The family, who migrated from American Samoa 20 years ago, found its roots in the San Lorenzo church. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight

Isamaeli was the fifth child in a family of seven that immigrated to San Lorenzo from American Samoa 20 years ago, joining a tight-knit Samoan diaspora community. In San Lorenzo, the church became a center of Mata’afa’s youth and, later, adult life. He was studying to be a minister and hoped to one day lead a congregation in the Samoan Congregational Christian Church.

At the vigil, Mata’afa’s father, Voloti, thanked the community over and over for attending.

“I miss my son,” he said. Looking out at the crowd standing before him, many holding candles, Voloti said he saw among them “the spirit of my son” spread out for “all who needs.” “I am very happy to see all of these people coming to support what happened to me and my family.” 

Mata’afa’s siblings wrote about the loss of their brother online. “You were always there when I needed you,” his older sister, Carrie, wrote on Facebook, posting a photo with her family and Eli. “You [were] always there to uplift any difficulty and always remind us. That there is a God.”

His sister, Mitaina, started a GoFundMe to raise money for their family, writing that Eli was a primary breadwinner for their parents. “This loss is going to deeply affect our family for years,” she wrote.

Mata’afa aimed to transform communities through his ministry

Children play during a community gathering celebrating the memory of Eli Mata’afa. The death caught members of the community by surprise. “We didn’t know how to make a vigil,” said Taunu’u Ve’e, a youth organizer and family friend. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Mata’afa was a student in the Master of Divinity program at Pacific School of Religion, where he was studying to become an ordained minister. During the vigil, his professors described him as a charismatic student devoted to deepening his faith and putting it to action.

We “try to see people as God might see them,” said Leonard McMahon, an assistant professor who taught Mata’afa in a class on the New Testament this fall. “Eli was not only good at it, he was the best at it. He inspired us to see into and through people, into their hearts.” 

“His life and ministry already had clear signs of the way he would transform the communities he was a part of,” said Rev. David Vásquez-Levy, the president of Pacific School of Religion.

Vásquez-Levy said Mata’afa dug into challenging texts, seeking to better understand some of the most complicated issues in Christianity. In preaching class, Mata’afa chose to examine a text called the Syrophoenician Woman, about an outsider who stands up to Jesus. Vásquez-Levy said he made the connection with his own Samoan community “finding ways to claim their rights.” 

Mata’afa enrolled at Pacific School of Religion on a presidential scholarship, which is “awarded to the top incoming students who best exemplify PSR’s mission,” according to a statement from the school. 

Before attending Pacific School of religion, Mata’afa graduated from Kanana Fou Theological Seminary in American Samoa.

Tipisone Tuiolemotu, who became friends with Mata’afa at Kanana Fou over countless evenings spent exchanging stories and wisdom, said he envied his friend’s ability to see the good in things.

“Eli was able to see love and compassion when you felt that there was nothing to love and be compassionate for,” Tuiolemotu said. “I would rather live 29 years of looking at this world, through the lens of love, than to live for an eternity looking at pain.” 

Tuiolemotu raised three fingers in the air to represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and asked the crowd to do the same. When he turned his hand sideways to make an ‘E,’ Tuiolemotu said it represented Eli. “Kisses to the sky,” he concluded. “We love you.” 

After the speeches, teenagers from the youth group sang hymns in English and Samoan, including one of Mata’afa’s favorite worship songs — Sweet Holy Spirit. Members of the congregation joined in and, in Samoan tradition, the singing carried on for over an hour.

In Samoan tradition, family and friends of Eli Mata’afa sing hymns during a vigil in his memory. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...