When I was growing up in Burlington, North Carolina, a couple of miles from our home up Route 7( now called West Front Street) was Elon, home to Elon College.
Elon College has been magnificently transformed into Elon University. That transformation illustrates that leadership, vision, and pennies can be a powerful partnership.
Elon was a sleepy speck of a town. A railroad track ran behind the college. To either side of the steel rails ran parallel dirt and gravel roads.
The one sided storefronts of Elon also sat across from the college. I know there was a barber shop, some kind of grill, and a small grocery store was down a side street.
I can remember eating cheese dogs at the grill. A rectangular shaped block of cheese was shoved into a hot dog bun, and then smothered in chili. Horrible for the health of the heart, but it was tasty.
Just past the storefronts, on the west side of North Williamson Avenue sits Elon Community Church. According to the church website that building opened in 1959. Prior to that opening, the church met in various spaces at Elon College.
On the morning of Thursday, August 11, 2022, I was meeting my sister there. We were going to drive together to visit our mother’s niece, Martha, and her husband, John.
We had a good visit with Martha and John. Our conversation centered upon our families. We remembered, laughed, pondered, and learned.
When I met my sister, we had parked in the parking lot behind the church. Once we had returned, and said our goodbyes, a display in front of the church caught my eyes. I stopped and parked my car.
The display was six doors painted in rainbow colors with these words singularly spaced on each door: “God’s doors are open to all.” At the base of each door were religious symbols.
I took a couple of photographs, and started my drive back to Greensboro.
Over the course of the next week, I showed the photograph to family and friends. All responses were positive.
Thumbing through photographs on my phone, I see those doors, and I say to myself, “too bad that churches don’t really embrace those words.” We church people, myself included, might talk a good game, but our doors are not always open and welcoming.
On the afternoon of Friday, October 21, I was on the front grounds of our church. A second shipment of pumpkins and gourds had arrived. I looked up and saw a young man with a bicycle, a skateboard, and no helmet.
He rode the skateboard, near some steps off of a brick walkway. I always worry when I don’t see a helmet. So, I said to the young man: “how’s your head?” He looked perplexed. I repeated my question with some elaboration related to him not having a helmet.
This time he responded with “I lost it, and my mom has ordered a new one, but it’s not here yet.”
Then, I gave him some gentle grief about protecting his head, with a reminder about all that could go wrong if he were to fall.
I asked him where he went to school, and he stated, “Quioccasin Middle School.” Then, I asked if he lived in the neighborhood around the church and he said, “no.”
With that exchange, we both parted.
The old educator in my brain started to wonder if he was suspended, or maybe skipping school, or maybe he had a legitimate early dismissal for the afternoon.
Maybe because I fussed at him about not having a helmet, or I asked too many questions, he grabbed his bike and skateboard, and started walking toward Forest Avenue.
I called out to him again. Even though, I never told him he couldn’t ride his skateboard on our front grounds, I let him know if he wanted to skateboard some more, he could on the backside of our building.
He had no response to the offer. He returned to his walk heading to Forest Avenue. Forest Avenue is a narrow two lane road, it always has traffic, and there are no sidewalks. I hoped he could navigate riding his bike without a challenge from a car.
One afternoon this week, I was in the preschool wing of our building. As I glanced out a window facing Forest Avenue, I saw a young lady walking on our grounds heading toward Rock Creek Road. She caught my attention because her hair color was purple.
I wondered what her story was with the hair. Internally, I pushed that question a bit further. I wondered how I and other members of our congregation would respond to this young lady if she showed up in our Sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
Also, I’d like to know what the skateboarder thought about his encounter with me.
Maybe he internalized, “If church people are like that grumpy old guy, I don’t want anything to do with churches in my future.”
Matthew 7:7 states: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Even before the pandemic, churches didn’t exactly have people knocking down their doors.
Those six doors on the lawn of the Elon Community Church should serve as a gentle reminder for churches.
Coming out of the pandemic, it is quiet possible that churches might experience more knocks on their doors.
If this happens, then churches must be ready to respond to those knocks in the same manner as the words on the doors state: “God’s doors are open to all.”
But, it is also possible that churches should consider being the door knockers.
How might churches, without being evangelical or overbearing, communicate to their communities?
In my old mind, churches need to keep it simple.
It is a two way street of stories—telling the story of the church—the past, the present, and the future.
But perhaps more importantly for a community, it is the capacity for the church to listen and learn the stories of the community where the church is located.
For the church, that two way story telling needs to be grounded in— we’re here.
If you need an ear—we’re here.
If you have a question, we’re here.
If you are curious about our work in the community, we’re here.
If you want to meet for coffee or a beer, we’ll be there.
If you have an idea, we want to hear it.
If you’re struggling, we struggle too, how can we help?
Clearly, the focus of the dual storytelling and learning can be more or less.
However, for the church, it is absolutely essential that either side of the knock needs to be grounded in the words on the display at Elon Community Church: God’s doors are open to all!
Elon Community Church door display on their front grounds. Photo by Bill Pike