Column for September, 2017
When we were on our honeymoon in California, my wife and I found our way into an art gallery where we were struck by a series of photographs of doors. Ever since then, I have found myself taking photos of doorways when I travel. In early August, I had the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic to work with Habitat for Humanity on a trip sponsored by Thrivent Financial, a non-profit financial services company. And while I was there, I once again found myself contemplating doors.
Some of the most fascinating doors are in the Zona Colonial in the capital, Santo Domingo, where we stayed when we flew in and out of the Dominican Republic. Those doors are characterized by beautiful colors, fascinating textures, and even some intricate carvings. Heavily fortified wooden doors date back to the decades after Christopher Columbus made his first landing in the New World at Santo Domingo. At the ruins of a Franciscan monastery, stone carvings framing the doors evoke the simple ropes which belt the robes of the monks who lived there. Plain doors of simpler residential and commercial buildings were nonetheless decorated with tiles and paint in yellow, pink, turquoise, rust, and other tropical hues. Even the Denny’s restaurant up the street from our hotel had rustic wooden doors which clearly communicated the history of the building.
But we spent most of our time in the smaller city of San Juan de la Maguana, tucked in the mountains near the border with Haiti. From San Juan, we went into the countryside to a small village called El Capá, where we helped complete construction on a house and poured two concrete floors for existing houses. There, the doors were remarkably different. Many of the houses were built of sticks and mud, with palm leaves layered to form the roofs. In those houses, the doors were thin and wooden, and many of them barely covered the openings in the walls. Some openings didn’t even have doors hung on them; the frames were draped with fabric, or they were simply left open. The houses we were helping to build were made of concrete blocks, and they had sturdy steel doors which could withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. Still, they were simple, plain, and functional, rather than the more colorful doors surrounded by tiles or sculpture in the historical city.
In scripture, among other functions, doors represent passageways between contrasting realities. Besides serving as the passage between the public world of work and social life and the private world of the home, they are the threshold between the everyday and the holy. In the psalms, pilgrims and priests leave the routines of everyday life to enter the most sacred spaces through gates and doors. For instance, Psalm 118 commands, “Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” These gates refer to doors in the temple where a grateful person who is making an offering might get as close as possible to the place where the glory of God dwelled. In the Gospels, doors marked the boundary between the greed, cruelty, and death of the Roman Empire and the eternity and abundance of the Kingdom of God. Jesus advised that his followers seek the narrow door; the wide door seems like it leads to an easy way, but that is the way of destruction and death (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus himself showed that he had passed from life through death to life again by repeatedly walking through a door which the disciples had locked in fear after his crucifixion (John 20:19-29).
These images from scripture help me understand how I experienced the doors in the Dominican Republic. In El Capá, we got to know Señora Nina, who was one of the grandmothers of the village. On the first day we were there, there was a distance between us: we were the American volunteers, and she was one of the people we were there to help. The next time we came, though, we were pouring a cement floor for her, so we went through her door to enter the three-room home where she and her family cook, eat, sleep, and do all of the other things of domestic life. And we knew her better then because we passed through her doorway. We saw the oregano broom she used to sweep her home. We saw the posters and religious pictures she chose to hang on her walls. We saw the colorful fabrics she used to cover her tables. And we saw how her simple home of concrete with a roof of corrugated sheet metal was nonetheless far more safe and healthy than the mud and stick structure of her neighbors just a few feet away.
Throughout that day, we passed through her door again and again with wheelbarrows full of cement. We saw her flirtatious joy as she insisted on giving friendly hugs to all of the men in our group. We saw her desire to communicate with us, so that our little bits of Spanish could meet her little bits of English to make a deeper connection. We saw the ways she cared for the children of the community while their parents were at work; I never did figure out which of the children were from her family and which were parts of the other families, but it really didn’t seem to matter much. By crossing that boundary of her door, we forged a relationship with her, and in that relationship, we discovered something basic and human, yet filled with holiness and life. She was no longer only someone we were there to serve, and we were no longer only people she was supposed to be grateful to. We were all just people who are different in many ways but share the need to keep house and raise children and appreciate what we have, even while we seek some greater sign of God’s promises of abundance and eternity.
Jesus told his followers that the abundance and eternity of God’s kingdom are available; all they have to do is to knock, and the door will be opened to them (Matthew 7:7-8). I find myself in the weeks since I returned from the Dominican Republic praying that I will accept Jesus’ invitation and keep knocking. I pray that I can continue to travel between the everyday streets and the holy spaces where I can encounter God and other people in new ways. And I pray that I can continue to bear witness as the power of God overcomes the power of fear, so that I can see Jesus Christ himself come walking through the doors which we have closed and locked that keep us from understanding the abundant joy and eternal beauty of the life God wants for us.