Addie Greeley, a deaconess in the Methodist Church, and Miss Lizzie Evans came to Columbus in 1924 and began doing children’s programming in the basement of Hamp Stevens Methodist Church in Bibb City. They believed that the community needed a way to respond to the suffering experienced after one of the largest mills operating in the area closed and the people were in need.
Mrs. George (Weeta) Watts-Mathews was waiting for the need to be identified. She insisted that space be provided to minister to the needs of the community, so a small cottage at the rear of Hamp Stevens was donated. Mrs. Mathews organized a small group, which included Mr. Jess Schrimshire and Mrs. Ralph King. The group, members of St. Luke Methodist Church, bonded and set about working together to run the active community center.
The original group raised $10,000 — in 1935! — during the depression, to operate the donated facility. A day nursery provided child care for women who were able to find work. Compact living quarters were also available for Miss Greeley.
In just two years, the work of Open Door had outgrown its original location and additional volunteers needed space to conduct their various duties.
Mrs. Mathews dreamed of a more abundant life for the people in the area and sought to provide life-enriching experiences. As the activity at Open Door continued to increase, the need for more space was evident. The space available was just too small to provide more services, so when she spotted a tiny dilapidated church, Northern Methodist Church on 27th Street, she envisioned more for Open Door. The Northern Methodist Conference was asked to rent the building at 2700 Second Avenue to Open Door, and agreed to do so at a rate of $1 per year.
Volunteers completely renovated the building and the name “Open Door” was chosen. A depiction of Christ knocking at a door was erected as a sign. The formal opening at 2700 Second Avenue was January 31, 1938.
With the move into the new building, developing the spiritual life of individuals became the emphasis in the mission of Open Door.
Mrs. King was responsible for finances. She was quoted as saying, “I was to handle finances — of which there were none.” Saturday morning clothing sales helped pay utility bills and the committee was proud to say, “They were never turned off!”
Mrs. Mathews noticed an abandoned brick two-story fire station at 2400 Second Avenue. She and other volunteers visualized the nursery, the scout room, the kitchen, the auditorium, the sewing room and living quarters for staff in that fire station. A representative group met with the Columbus City Commission on May 10, 1951 to ask to buy the old fire station, even though no funds were available at the time. City Manager J.A. Willman informed the group the building had been appraised for $9,500.
Mrs. Mathews remarked that they were not interested in the building, but would pay $5,000 for the lot. Mrs. King admitted that she blanched at the thought of coming up with $5,000 to close the deal because she was well aware that they were operating on a hand-to-mouth budget. But Mrs. Mathews was a lady of great faith. She believed that her God was a supplying God who created people, directed their lives and did not leave them to carry out His commandments unaided.
The Methodist Church had been unified by this time and, in the confusion, the committee members mistakenly assumed that the building they were currently leasing from the Northern District now belonged to Open Door and sold it for $5,000. Needless to say, they encountered a few legal problems. This experience led them to establish a Board of Directors to include a lawyer to help prevent future legal entanglements and to establish local ownership of the building.
A fundraising campaign began on February 14, 1953. The slogan was “Open your heart to the Open Door.”
Mrs. Mathews was ill and could not attend the kick-off of the new building, but her words to the volunteers were inspirational: “May you feel that you are giving to each person you visit an opportunity to invest in the Kingdom of God.”
Mrs. Mathews died May 31, 1953 but the committee was inspired to complete the work she had put so much of herself into. The money for the gym was raised. The gym was dedicated in February 1955 by Bishop Moore as the “Weeta Watts Mathews Memorial Gymnasium.” At the dedication ceremony of the gymnasium, Bishop Moore said, “A door is a lovely thing. Jesus said, ‘I am the Door.’ The door is so wide that all who need the Savior’s care can come in, so narrow that it will shut out all sin.”
In 1967 the operating budget was $24,000 with four full-time workers, one half-time worker and many volunteers. The 1969 budget included raises for all full-time workers and rose to $30,000.
In 1994, the Board of Directors took a step on faith. The building was in need of repair and refurbishment. Rather than repairing the old, the vision of a new building for Open Door was presented. A capital fund drive was initiated, and this drive raised 3.2 million dollars. The result of this campaign is the current facility of Open Door Community House, Inc. at 2405 2nd Avenue.
In 1995, Open Door had eight full-time staff members and three part-time staff members. Ministries at Open Door have run the gamut in ages from nursery school to Golden Agers. Many valuable programs were started at the present Open Door facility and have spun off to thrive on their own in the community, such as the Interfaith Food Bank, Columbus Jobs Council, Muscogee Area Literacy Association, Columbus Day Care, and the Alliance for Battered Women.
Today, Open Door has 30+ staff members and continues to be on the cutting edge of programs offered in our community to create long-term solutions to poverty. While time and growth have brought about many changes, our mission has remained virtually the same.
Although the physical structure was the tool that enabled the vision of the founders to become a reality, the current value of this or any ministry can only be measured in the terms of its ability to meet the needs of the people who are touched by and received through their ministries. Mrs. Mathews once told Mrs. King, not to “major in the minor.” Thus, the aim of Open Door Community House has been to give a better, fuller life to the children, men and women of the community, to help them become useful citizens and, in turn, to glorify God.
In 2010, at the 75th anniversary celebration of Open Door and in memory of Mrs. Mathews, the afterschool and summer camp ministry of Open Door was renamed the “Mathews Promise Academy,” reflecting a focus on reading development and academic enrichment, and our promise to do all we can to prepare the children in our care to be adults living free of poverty.