I asked Rev. Alma Crawford her thoughts and ideas about Church of The Open Door. Many Americans regard December as a time to celebrate the birth of Santa Claus on the North Pole by buying what wise men of Madison Ave. advertise and by kissing under mistletoe, full on holiday cheer.
Pastor Crawford's ideas? It's a season of Advent full of new possibilities. The new year offers a break from the past. The principles of Kwanzaa and the hopeful spirit of Christmas are to be lived the other 364 days of the year.
A graduate of Howard University School of Divinity, and a current doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Chicago, Pastor Crawford was ordained a minister with the United Church of Christ in 1993. Ministering from inside the closet was not an option for her. UCC has ordained out same-gender-loving [SGL] clergy since 1972, one of the first denominations to do so.
Open Door is affiliated both with UCC and the Unitarian Universalist Assoc. Several SGL holy unions have taken place there. Rev. Crawford and Open Door co-pastor Rev. Karen Hutt affirmed their commitment to each other in a formal solemn ceremony before the congregation in October 1998. Pastors Crawford and Hutt are from East Coast cities and met at a ministers' conference in Boston. Both understood hurtful ways SGL folks are excluded from or silenced by most churches. Whether because of Ebony magazine, Soft Sheen cosmetics or Black-owned banks and other businesses, both agreed Chicago is the most hospitable of cities for growing and developing Black institutions.
Upon moving here in the early 1990s they started actively listening to what people of color wanted and needed in an inclusive Christian church. The main interests were: It has to be a real serious church among churches, most certainly not just another gay club. It has to be an independent voice guided by Christian principles and values, certainly not ever to be co-opted by City Hall. Its location needs to be accessible by CTA from West and South sides, near communities of greatest Black LGBT oppression.
From a prayerful Bible study group in the Crawford-Hutt livingroom, a small band of believers moved into the chapel at Operation PUSH. The mission statement is: Church of The Open Door is a sacred assembly of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and heterosexual sisters, brothers, lovers, friends and allies gathering at the invitation of Christ to seek justice, to extend hospitality, to deepen understanding and wisdom, to affirm our identities, to receive healing and power and to celebrate the transforming presence of the living God.
The spirit of God went before the Open Door congregation. Demographic changes in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood led so many European-American Protestants there to move to suburbs that by 1996 the beautiful church building at 60th St. and Albany Ave. became vacant. Residents moving into the neighborhood from Mexico turned out to be Open Doorís closest allies. Rev. Crawford's response to an ad for that church building, held in trust by the Illinois Conference of UCC, led to its purchase by the congregation. Thus Church of The Open Door became among first LGBT groups in Chicago and the first out Black LGBT group in the USA to own its own property. In October 1996 Open Door moved from Operation PUSH to 5954 S. Albany Ave. The property features a large sanctuary with stained-glass windows, a basement theater stage and cafeteria, and a Christian education wing, built in 1966 with eight classrooms. An Afrocentric shop offering Christian-themed books and gifts with a SGL focus is projecting a grand opening to celebrate Black history month in February 2004.
On weekdays 74 pre-school children are in day care, while many of their parents study English as a second language. Because some are undocumented immigrants who cannot marry without proper U.S. citizenship papers, they have shared feelings of stigma and reproach from the Catholic Church for having babies out of wedlock. The welcoming atmosphere at Open Door opens these neighbors of the church to exploring educational, documentation and marriage options.
In keeping with the spirit of Advent year-íround Rev. Crawford's sermons are consistent with the theme of being ready; of being open to being blessed, of moving on with life from deprivations of the past to expecting with optimism and preparation a better future.
People in the congregation living with HIV and any other physical disorders are encouraged to adhere to healthy eating, daily exercise and taking of meds on their prescribed timetables. Then when new medical breakthroughs come along they will be here to take advantage of them. Pastor Thom Ford administers Open Door Health Ministries with individual counseling for holistic health maintenance.
Open Door has awarded high school grads with college scholarships. Open Door encourages those over 18 to register and vote. Many many phone calls come to Open Door at (773) 778-3030 from people emotionally battered in homes, schools and other churches with anti-gay messages. Recently a young man was expelled from and Englewood neighborhood school for wearing red fingernail polish. Open Door intervened with the school principal to keep him from dropping out and becoming hopeless, jobless, homeless or even jailed. Among the most difficult calls to the church are from LGBT teens rejected by parents. A parent may say they hate their childís lifestyle, when in fact they may fear for the childís safety. Or they may really be angry that the child has stolen grocery money from grandma's purse to go to a gay party. Once understood, these problems can be reconciled.
The church also challenges the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Police Dept. and other city and state agencies to be responsive to LGBT concerns on the West and South sides.
Within the church people are empowered. Butch studs and aggressives and Femmes with a purpose groups address changing roles people play in relationships. Rev. Ford, co-pastor and sign language interpreter for the deaf, has developed a men's ministry Brothers of The Open Door. Transgendered People Living for Christ shares the wisdom and insight of two-spirited gatekeepers.
All are welcome to Bible study at 2:30 p.m. and to worship services Sundays at 4 p.m. A Kwanzaa and watch night celebration is held Dec. 31.
e-mail OpenDoorIL@aol.com, ChurchofTheOpenDoor@Yahoogroups.com