Door to a better world

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

THIS IS A faith ministry:

Operating expenses have doubled in the last year. The gas and electric bill is $1,000 a month. Four employees have not received their past month's paycheck. It's the holiday season. Donations are down. The country is bracing for an economic skid.

And you're talking about expanding your 13,000-square-foot building. You're talking about removing standing water from the basement to use that space. You're talking about creating new programs. You're talking growth at a time when the world all around you is screaming recession.

This is the Rev. Joe Ehrmann's faith ministry. And it is the ministry of The Door, a Christian enterprise in East Baltimore trying to serve the many needs of its community.

Ehrmann, an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Colts in the '70s, doesn't flinch when it is suggested a severe financial crisis might force him to cut programs or people from his ministry.

"I don't think that way," says Ehrmann, who is executive director of The Door. "Somebody's liable to walk in here today with a check for $20,000. Go a couple months without a paycheck? That's not severe. It's a faith aspect. There's not a ministry in this country that isn't under a severe financial crisis. Does it panic me? Worry me? Make me want to make changes? No. We have plans for growth.

"I don't know where the money is going to come from. But our history is that we've always gotten what we needed."

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The history of The Door goes back four years. In 1986, Ehrmann started in an office on the 2100 block of East Pratt. Later, The Door filled the second floor of a warehouse on North Washington over a plumbing supply business. In its present form, it occupies a vacated church building at 219 N. Chester, between the Butcher Hill and Middle East sections of town.

This location, in itself, is an article of faith. It was a year ago this month that Ehrmann and his staff first spoke of the need for larger quarters to handle The Door's many projects. Within two weeks, Ehrmann heard about the availability of the former Lutheran church on North Chester. In three days, he received three unsolicited donations totaling $175,000. Like manna from heaven, the money came from the Rouse Co., Ryland Builders and a private donor. It enabled him to pay cash for the building.

From here, Ehrmann can walk the two blocks to his rowhouse on East Baltimore Street, where he lives with his wife, Paula, their daughter Esther, 7, and two sons, Barney, 3, and Joey, almost a year old.

From here, he can wage war on poverty, illiteracy, drugs, teen pregnancy, racism and other forms of social injustice.

From here, he can address his "urban agenda," a growing crusade to make life a little less harsh, and a little more fair, for people in the inner city.

His is a ministry that has turned heads in the community it serves.

"He's done a lot for kids and he's brought families together," said Lucille Gorham, director of the Middle East Neighborhood Committee Organization. "Kids have a place to go after school now, they have someone to help them do their homework. They can go to camp in the summer.

"He does social things, too, like giving out food and clothing. The atmosphere, the way it's given, is a lot different than other places. There's a little more humanness. It's not bureaucratic with a lot of paperwork."

Still, it's the essence of Ehrmann's work that impresses Gorham the most.

"The thing that stands out is that his ministry is what Christ's ministry was," Gorham said. "He's out on the street where the

people are."

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Ehrmann's ministry actually may have begun in 1978 at the grave of his 18-year-old brother Billy in Buffalo, N.Y. Billy died after a five-month bout with cancer. In his grief, Ehrmann, a non-religious man, groped for answers. Eventually he found them -- and Jesus Christ -- with the help of the Rev. Larry Moody, who was the Colts' chaplain then. It was the process of searching that led Ehrmann to his faith in Christ.

Might The Door have opened if not for the death of Billy?

"I can't say because I don't know how God would have worked with my life," Ehrmann said. "I do feel he used the death of my brother to expedite the process. I made a conscious effort to maintain that pain, to maintain that perspective I had at his funeral. I was standing next to that open grave, that casket. We had many of the Colts, coaches, owners, Chuck Knox of the Bills, and hundreds of people at this funeral for an 18-year-old kid. And after the last amen, everybody walked away, and I said, 'What is the purpose of life?' "

Ehrmann was at the height of his football career at the time. He was an integral member of the Colts' famed Sack Pack, whose defensive line members also numbered Fred Cook, Mike Barnes and John Dutton. He was considered the social leader, the resident comedian, and one of the best partiers on the team.

All that changed with the death of his brother. And it changed for good one day in February 1980 when Ehrmann underwent a "radical conversion process."

"I came to the realization I could not grow in the depth and integrity of my relationship with God maintaining the lifestyle I was maintaining," he said.

Ehrmann played only one more season in Baltimore, spent two in Detroit and three in the USFL before a shattered left ankle ended his career in 1985. He entered the seminary in the offseason during his USFL years.

Moody watched the conversion in wonderment and appreciation: Here was a guy who was really caught up in all professional sports offered, from money to the heavy partying life, to all that entailed. But he was a fellow who had a tender heart and was always a caring person. The amazing thing to watch is how he has given himself to that community, and they to him."

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The brightest memory Ehrmann has of football is that moment when it all came together on game day.

"The highlight of my 13 years in football was Sunday morning when you could bring in 45 men, black and white, rich and poor, from every background, and have them totally come together for one purpose," he said. "That's the goal of this ministry, to see all of society come together, focusing on an urban agenda. Black-white, rich-poor, suburban-urban must learn how to come together and address the tremendous problems this city and cities like this are facing."

Ehrmann, now 41, tackles the challenge with the same fervor he once used to chase down quarterbacks. He has instituted an incredible number of programs for Middle East neighborhood families. There is a program to provide food, as well as gas and electric shutoff assistance. There is a program to assist families in parenting skills. There is an after-school children and youth program for first-to-12th graders. There is an Arts and Athletic Center program that places academics ahead of athletics. There is a community program to deal with debilitating structures in the neighborhood. There is an adopt-a-family program that ensures The Door's 148 families will have turkey, trimmings and presents this Christmas. There is a drug prevention program.

Starting in January, there will be a legal aid clinic at The Door, and a crisis pregnancy center. And in the prime season for evictions, Ehrmann helps families cope with that emergency as well.

Peggy Coleman is an example of what The Door can do. Two years ago she came with a cousin to 219 N. Chester and volunteered to help with clothing distribution. Today she is the receptionist and oversees food distribution. Two of her four children participate in the after-school program, and another helps out with odd jobs. Her 11-year-old daughter Felicia likes coming to The Door so much that Peggy has to "push her out of the building every day."

"It is hard to imagine being without The Door myself," Coleman said. "I was always taught you can't do this, you can't do that. But The Door says you can do some of those things. Reverend Joe is one of the best men in the world."

Bob Kirk, meanwhile, runs the children's program at The Door. In a typical three-hour session, he'll help children with homework, try to establish relationships, play games and deal with emotional problems. He also works with the area schools and speaks to parents.

Kirk faces as many defeats as victories, it seems. He has one student who did poorly in school before coming to The Door a year ago. "After a few months in the program she passed all her subjects and improved her self-esteem," Kirk said. "This year she's having trouble again. She failed every subject."

Then there is the boy who is in constant trouble at elementary school. "His home has a lot of drug abuse and prostitution," Kirk said. "There are a ton of people in his home, a lot of adults. He's heading down the same path."

Kirk is not discouraged, however. "I've seen a lot of people develop concern over the people here," he said. "And hundreds of people have changed attitudes about the people here. What the kids need to know is that God created them and loves them, and that he has a purpose for their lives."

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The Door transcends the traditional bounds of the church in that

reaches out to touch every facet of day-to-day life in the inner city.

"We do not want to do what other people have done," Ehrmann said. "We want to cut paths where there are no paths. We really want to change lives.

"My goal is to use my reputation and access I have to bring resources into this community. But if those resources stay within these four walls, this thing would be a miserable failure. They must come in here and flow out. We don't want to be a reservoir, we want to be a stream, getting resources into the hands of people who do not have those resources.

"When an inner city family walks in those doors, our goal is to have distribution of services -- spiritual, social, economic, physical. The problem with services in this city is that the poor family has to go nine different directions to get them. It means they have to get on the bus, take the kids . . . it just doesn't work.

"I want one-stop shopping, a little mall here so that if the family comes in as a whole, they'll all be taken care of right there."

And what Ehrmann wants on a grander scale is to see his program, or parts of it, anyway, replicated throughout the city. Community to community, neighborhood to neighborhood.

His urban ministry is a lifetime commitment, Ehrmann said. So even when he goes five months without a paycheck -- as he did last year -- his faith doesn't waver. And despite his current financial shortcomings, he managed to get nearly $6,000 worth of new furniture donated to Public School 27, just a block away from The Door, in the past month.

Says Ehrmann, "There's nothing in the world I'd rather be doing than what I'm doing right now."

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