Pastor Jim Mindling, dressed in blue jeans and a bright orange T-shirt bearing the name “Church of the Open Door,” stood by the front door of the Boys & Girls Club on Middle Avenue in Elyria on Saturday afternoon with a big smile on his face.
The atmosphere was not exactly the same as in the main auditorium of his church on Telegraph Road, but Mindling seemed to be right at home as he ushered people through the doors. He made sure to point them toward tables where they could receive coupons to redeem for free backpacks full of school supplies or winter coats for their kids.
It was just before 1 p.m. and more than a hundred people — men, women and children — were lined up outside as a light rain fell. They had started gathering more than an hour before and were talking among themselves as they waited to get inside the recreation center, where the church was hosting its annual Family Fair.
“The first time we did this was four years ago and people were lined up out (into) the parking lot here,” Mindling said, pointing out the door toward Oberlin Avenue, “and all the way down the street. There were over 1,000 people here and we knew right then we were doing the right thing.”
The back of Mindling’s shirt — the same shirt dozens of other Open Door members wore as they handed out hot dogs, gave small children inflated balloons or plated up cookies that were quickly gobbled down — asks the question, “Why do I serve?”
On Saturday, the answer was found not only at the Boys & Girls Club of Lorain County, but also at three other locations – Eastern Heights Middle School, Northwood Middle School and the Elyria Schools Administration Building. Family Fairs were taking place at all four locations with the singular goal of showing the community the goodness of God by meeting its basics needs.
For residents like 41-year-old Betty Brown, Family Fair is about giving parents like her a hand up.
“It gives parents like me a chance to breathe, especially single families,” the Elyria woman said. “It’s a relief.”
Brown was a little shocked to learn Saturday’s Family Fair was the brainchild of one local church with the muscle to reach the entire city, but not totally surprised.
“When I was growing up, the church is where you went to for help,” she said as she put her son’s new coat over her shoulder as the sixth-grade boy ate a hot dog.
A Christ-like change
It was roughly nine years ago when a change came over Open Door.
Mindling, who was new to the church at the time, led the way. It was quiet and slow at first, but in recent years the church’s reach in the community has become undeniably strong.
Just this past May, its force was seen during the county’s annual Pride Day events. Hundreds of volunteers clad in the church’s signature orange volunteer shirts, fanned out across Elyria, planting flowers, removing trash and doing other small jobs to beautify the city in a day they simply billed “Serve Elyria.”
Mindling said he is often asked to explain why the church does so much in the community. And how it can sustain such volunteerism in a time when fewer people are participating in organized religion.
But it goes beyond just simply saying the church is striving to be more Christ-like. Mindling said he often has to connect the dots for people about how that translates into working in the community.
“We believe that when you come to Christ, he changes you and you begin a journey of becoming more and more like Christ,” he said. “You start loving like Christ, treating people like Jesus did.
“We think the greatest need in the world today is for more and more people to be like Christ,” he said. “Christians are to be like Christ. Churches are to be Christ-like churches. Too often we’re not, so we are trying to change that.”
Naturally, that mindset led to a new mission for the church: Leading people in the adventure of becoming like Christ.
Mindling said he saw it as a part of his calling to envision, equip and mobilize the congregants of his church as they walked that journey.
“In the Bible, we see Jesus feeding people, helping people, healing people, all out of his love for people. We try to do the same,” he said. “We see other organizations doing great things like helping people, feeding people, and we think that’s great, but our goal and purpose is not just to be philanthropic or to help out people physically, we want to help the whole person. Our goal is much more holistic.”
starts at home
While Open Door’s reach is vast — they have more than 1,000 members at two locations in Elyria and Avon Lake — its philosophy is not new among other area churches, many of which have long set their sights on community service.
For St. Mary Church, feeding the hungry has taken on a life of its own.
The church not only serves community dinners for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it also offers a hot meal to anyone in need about three times a month — every Tuesday in the month except the first Tuesday.
Annie Cunningham, director of development of St. Mary Church, said the hot meal program has been around for close to 30 years.
“It’s all about spreading Jesus’ word and doing what he wants us to do,” Cunningham said. “Feeding the hungry is so natural for us. It’s not just about going to church every Sunday. Father Charlie (Diedrick) will tell us every Sunday it’s also about sharing our talents and gifts to help others, people coming together to try to find a way to help people in need.”
Volunteerism isn’t a new thing for churches.
According to statistics released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, more than 64.3 million people volunteered in 2011 with a large majority doing it through their religious organization.
In 2011, the main organization — the organization for which the volunteer worked the most hours during the year — was most frequently religious (33.2 percent of all volunteers), the report said.
Don Denevic, Open Door’s director of global and local missions, said volunteerism grows from volunteerism. Since the movement started at Open Door, its contingent of volunteers has grown into the hundreds.
“Sometimes all you have to do is get people to serve one time,” said Denevic, who has been a member for 26 years. “They catch that joy of helping and it’s hard-pressed to get them to stop.”
Open Door’s first venture in putting the principle into practical use was the development of the Community Impact Organization and the renovation of the old Nordson Corporation Foundation building on Middle Avenue.
There, in the 22,000-square-foot building, the church set up a food pantry and offered people in the community job placement assistance and after school programming.
“But three years into that, we lost some funding and Nordson began looking to give the building to someone else,” Mindling said. “That is when the building went to the Boys and Girls Club of Lorain County. We were not mad because it was still going to serve the community and the Boys and Girls Club has done a fantastic job there. We fully support the work they are doing.”
At around that same time, Denevic said, he held a party in Ely Square for the community. About 500 people came out for a day of games and hot dogs. It was enough to spark bigger ideas for the church.
The next year, Denevic said, the church leadership decided such events aimed at helping the community would be the focus of the church.
“We always want to do more,” he said. “That is why we got involved in things like Family Fair and Pride Day. When we did our first family fair at the Boys and Girls Club four years ago, over 1,000 people were standing in line. We never in a thousand years thought we would have that many people.”
That first event centered on the back to school needs of area children and it set the precedent for events to come. The statistics from those events speak for themselves.
In 2009, the church gave away 675 backpacks full of supplies. In 2010, 1,070 backpacks were given out. In 2011, four locations were utilized as service sites and more than 1,100 backpacks were handed out.
This year, the aim is roughly 1,000 backpacks to children along with haircuts, brand-new winter coats and free oil changes to single mothers.
“It’s anything to help families,” Denevic said. “We are not out to making a name for ourselves. We really are trying to be a part of the community.”
Everyone knows about Open Door
In the process of working for the community, Open Door has made quite a name for itself.
Betty Moody White, president of the local NAACP chapter, said one of Open Door’s strengths is that it aims to work with the community. On Saturday, Moody White passed out information to families as they came through the door.
“They make a difference in the community and remind people what church is supposed to be,” White said. “It’s such a grand experience to see these young people happy because of what they are doing.”
Open Door also is gaining members as its reputation grows.
“People want to be a part of a church that cares about others,” Denevic said.
Holly Huff, head of the Cascade Furnace Block Watch, said she started working with the church to do community gardens several years ago. Eventually her involvement grew to helping with the distribution of GardenSoxx — nylon sacks filled with dirt ideal for raised-bed gardening — to those in her community.
She watched in awe as the church set out to do minor home repairs and clean in her neighborhood.
“I really like that they serve the community and they serve it large. Not only do they get out and serve, but they encourage you to serve,” Huff said.
Huff said she was raised believing in God, in the Roman Catholic Church. But as she grew older, she didn’t feel comfortable in some churches. Then last March, after years of working with members of Open Door, she and her husband, Ron, decided it was time to visit the church.
“Now, we go to that church as members,” she said. “The church’s whole philosophy is to serve others like God served. They do it for the betterment of others.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.