Door to a better world

December 21, 1990|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

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."


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."


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."

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