HILLSBORO, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — In the span of a few short months, COVID-19 ushered us all into an unfamiliar world. As windows of normalcy shuttered, organizations and churches searched for new ways to continue offering God's healing and hope to increasingly isolated communities.
For one organization, this closed window meant the opening of a literal new DOOR.
The pandemic forced DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), a partner agency of Mennonite Mission Network, to re-imagine itself.
In the former world, DOOR invited volunteers to learn that everyone plays a role in creating justice for their neighbors. These volunteers have been mostly members of youth groups and their leaders who traveled from home communities to the DOOR network cities of Atlanta, Chicago and Denver. Their goal was to return home with greater empathy for their neighbors, expanded insight into some of the nation's most complex social problems, and a heart-rooted desire to continue to serve within their own communities.
Then COVID-19 squelched travel.
Enter a new DOOR opportunity, a virtual experience called "A Different World."
Going virtual was a no-brainer, said Andrea Sawyer-Kirksey, executive director for DOOR. The organization is striving to meet youth and young adults — who need to stay home to be safe — where they are. DOOR's resilience as an organization is not a surprise. Each of DOOR's cities has strengths and struggles.
"For example, DOOR stands with organizations fighting against putting babies in cages," she said. "We have marched for Black lives. And we have invited those suffering from housing and food insecurity to be teachers and educators who lead the way in organizing together for policy and systemic change. Whether or not we are in a pandemic, DOOR continues to look for every opportunity to engage youth and young adults with purpose and conviction to stand against the status quo."
A virtual DOOR experience has some distinct advantages, according to Anquette Williams, DOOR Atlanta city director. The virtual experience enables the directors to cultivate campaigns for the groups to become involved with, either at a DOOR city or their local community. One challenge for DOOR occurs when groups want the instant gratification of "doing service." Now, meeting virtually via Zoom, the young adults are given more time to deeply consider their values and perspectives, and it also positions group leaders to think differently and to lead those initiatives.
So, if youth and leaders don't all pile into a van and drive hundreds of miles to do a mission trip with DOOR, how does it work in "A Different World?"
Participants and DOOR leaders gather in virtual Zoom or Skype rooms where they engage in community building exercises, times for input and reflection, goofy times, and prayer times. They also plan service projects, which include book drives, back-to-school drives, and other campaigns that support and serve their local community.
Doug Wolff and Heather Jackson walked through the new virtual DOOR with their youth group from Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kansas.
"I think they did a great job engaging us in this unique setting," Jackson said. "I appreciated how they modeled mutual invitation and embodied their teachings. They were well prepared and that helped streamline the online experience and made it easier to engage."
Wolff added, "They turned a virtual Zoom meeting into a personal situation that both relaxed me and gave me a truly spiritual experience."
Maddie Cox is a leader of the Roswell (Georgia) Presbyterian Church high school group.
"They made Zoom fun and engaging by offering different pieces of programming and avenues to try, like guided mediation, videos, and interactive games," Cox said. "The topics were fantastic."
DOOR plays a crucial role in bringing awareness and change into a society where systemic racism is being addressed, said Nicolette Penaranda, DOOR Chicago city director.
"When we redirect the narrative from 'White, middle class, Christian youth coming to urban cities to help poor Black and Brown people' into 'Black and Brown people, united, inviting strangers into their communities to be in relationship together,' the experience is redirected as well," Penaranda said. "We move from Savior to servant, from conqueror to companion, from observer to accomplice. DOOR is so important to the wider church because we are going to push each other into discomfort and sit there together."
For now, the "sitting together" may include being in a Zoom room as well as in local community campaigns. However, wherever it happens, DOOR's work is grounded in these words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."