Keeping the Door Open
by Dan Baumgartner
I am a pastor. What does this mean? Eight months into the Covid-19 era with no concrete end in sight, and possibly never a return to our previous normal, here is my answer: I’m not always sure right now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in despair. I’m leading session meetings by Zoom, Anne and I are taping a midweek update in our yard and I write a weekly Musing column for the electronic newsletter. Last month we started a Read Good Books group on Zoom, I video sermons, we’ve had Zoom conversations about racial injustice, we’ve tried worship outdoors with masks and distance, I take socially distanced walks with people. All good, BUT…I still feel unmoored. Slightly dissatisfied. Face to face interaction with people is just such a major part of my call to walk with people.
Then, in the midst of an unsettled day, I looked at the whiteboard above my desk. I read the somewhat random assortment of names I’ve scribbled there, mainly not church folks but people from the neighborhood. It struck me that they all have this in common: the open door.
On the left below is a picture of my office door, which opens to the outside of our building at The Cove, near two small parking lots. On the right is a picture of what I look at from that open doorway. Being on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, our neighborhood is a mix of town and suburb, just blocks away from acres of vineyards. The “street” you see is a sort of alleyway that gives entrance to our parking lots but is also is a shortcut connection from one neighborhood street to another. Neighbors walk their dogs here regularly, kids skateboard, service vehicles roll through, bikers pedal past and runners puff along. For a quiet little neighborhood, there is almost always someone passing by.
I started leaving my door open most mornings so I could drink in the crisp morning air of Sonoma County (*caveat: not during the recent wildfire smoke!). The open door has turned out to be a bit of a magnet for people. That’s how I met George, who lives across the street from The Cove and walks his large white poodle Einstein twice a day. We visited a number of times before he told me two weeks ago that he had been diagnosed with cancer and had to choose between surgery and radiation.
Mark and Lynne check in once or twice a week as they take a morning walk together. They are strong Christians who go to First Presbyterian, but live close by and share some mutual friends with us in Seattle. I look forward to their visits, and we talk everything from faith to football, kids to politics.
One day I found a large truck parked in the far corner of our little parking lot. A few days later I met Peter the Truckdriver. Peter wears a bright turban, and as we talked outside the office, I learned he had grown up in India and recently moved to Santa Rosa from Fresno. He drives for a local asphalt company and lives in an apartment just across the highway.
Last week, a twenty-something named Matt appeared in the doorway. He just moved here from the east coast, getting a fresh start in an addiction recovery program a block away. He’s from a Greek Orthodox background and can’t help calling me “Father.”
Last month, George told me that his neighbors had just lost an adult son. I knew the dad, Nils, from one brief interaction. I dropped a note and my phone number on his porch. Two hours later, Nils called. The next evening, Nils and his wife Jill sat outside with me for an hour and talked and prayed together. When their marriage relationship hit a bumpy spot last week, Nils stopped by in tears, after he found…my office door was open.
Jan, a senior citizen, stopped to tell me how grateful she was that The Cove was in the neighborhood. I sometimes chat with Percy the Mailman. Or Elijah, a 12-year old neighborhood kid who skateboards by occasionally and seems to have far too much time on his hands. Remarkable, really. Nothing planned, strategized or particularly intentional. Just an open door. Do I know what to do with this? Or how to invite our distanced congregation to be part of it? Not really, to be honest. I only know that after these brief encounters, I feel like…a pastor.
So for the moment, I’ll just keep the door open and see what happens.
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.