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The Open Door’s ‘next season’

After 16 years, Perry Hines (left) has served his last meal at the Open Door. The Open Door’s new Executive Director Tom Owens (right) will begin work in early July. After 16 years, Perry Hines (left) has served his last meal at the Open Door. The Open Door’s new Executive Director Tom Owens (right) will begin work in early July.

One memorable afternoon several years ago, Perry Hines was sitting in the dining room of the Open Door after it had closed for the day, discussing with officials from a nearby church a grant opportunity, when there came a knock at the locked front door. 

Hines, executive director of the Frog Level ministry, had himself an awkward dilemma — interrupt the important business meeting, answer the door and get tied up in some sort of problem, or ignore the woman they could all through the sizeable glass windows plainly see standing on the sidewalk outside.

“Guys, if you don’t mind, this is really what we’re all about,” Hines told them. “Let me go see what this lady wants, what’s on her heart.”

He remembers the woman looking emaciated, and weakened.

“May I help you?” he asked her.

“I wanted to come to the Open Door,” she said, “because I knew this was the one place I could get a prayer.”

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After more than 16 years, Hines has left the Open Door, but has left the door open; a new executive director will take his place in July, and will attempt to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for services from the area’s impoverished while simultaneously guiding the organization into a bold new future. 


Changing perceptions

“I guess it just crystallized in my mind what our ministry was all about,” Hines said of the incident when reached by phone last week, shortly after his last day.

He was on his way to Charlotte, where come July, he’ll become an associate pastor at the Central United Methodist Church in Concord; the move was prompted by his wife, who secured a position as the controller for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. 

“Part of my work, I’m sure, will be missions,” he said. 

Hines’ mission for the past 16 years has been to head the Open Door, a ministry of Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church. Established in 1996, the Open Door is funded to the tune of about $250,000 per year, but earns 70 percent of that from its social enterprise, Second Blessing Thrift Shop, located right next door. 

In 2016, the Open Door provided more than $33,000 in cash assistance, over a thousand food boxes, hundreds of showers and dozens of haircuts, all while serving exactly 34,367 meals.

In 2017, I was the recipient of one of those meals. 

Over Thanksgiving, I embarked on a three-day undercover journey into homelessness, in order to increase my understanding of resource availability here in Haywood County. The Open Door was the first place I stopped, for lunch. 

I had finished my meal but was already trying to plan for my next one, so I returned to the counter to ask if dinner would be available later that night.

Behind that counter and washing a dish was a man who I’d later come to learn was Hines himself. The executive director. Washing a dish. On Thanksgiving Day. 

At the advice of Hines, I sought out Haywood Pathways, where my story took an interesting turn that led me further afield, to Canton. 

Over the course of it all, I’d also come to learn firsthand of the important hub-like role Hines and the Open Door play in the lives of Haywood County’s neediest citizens. 

Although the Commerce Street building itself sits just feet from the Blue Ridge Southern Railroad tracks that serve as an informal shoe-leather highway between Pathways, Open Door and points beyond, Hines himself earned a reputation as an eager networker and creative problem solver, just as when he literally pointed me to Pathways.

Because homeless women with children can’t be accommodated there — don’t worry, they soon will be — Hines negotiated a partnership with a local hotel that was willing to make certain concessions in working with Hines’ clients. 

With his finger on the pulse of Haywood’s most vulnerable citizens, Hines said the need isn’t going away, but it is changing. 

“A lot of people share the same heartfelt isolation and emotional distance, and a lot of people face addiction in various ways,” Hines said. “Some are just dressed in different clothing, and you don’t see them so clearly.”

Misconceptions about who, exactly, the Open Door serves are commonplace — it’s the hard-core homeless who come from under tarps in the woods to scrounge up two free meals a day, right?

“A lot of our ministry dealt with people who maybe didn’t even come to eat with us that often, but they came through the door to the office for financial assistance, for rental assistance, for medical assistance or things of that nature,” he said. “That just as easily could’ve been my father, my mother, my brother, my son, my daughter — people just in mainstream society that are really struggling that you don’t realize that the Open Door had a major impact on. There’s a lot of people out there that’s just like us, and I think that puts us in context a lot to the people we minister to.”

Into this role — administrator, networker, problem solver, cleaner of plates, opener of doors — steps Tom Owens. 

“He’s been doing some brilliant work in Denver,” said Long’s Chapel Pastor Chris Westmoreland. “He can build on the rich history and tradition of the Open Door.”

A Virginia native, Owens comes to the Open Door after what Westmoreland called an extensive interview process, and also comes, appropriately, with a restaurant background.

“As a pastor, these kinds of opportunities for working outside of a traditional church setting are far too rare,” said Owens in a statement from Long’s Chapel. “When I got the fateful call that I would indeed be a part of the staff, the sense of gratitude and excitement that I felt deep in my soul was confirmation that something very profound was at work in this new ministry relationship.”

Bridging the gap between Hines and Owens will be Assistant Director Mindy Rathbone, who will serve as interim until July.

Westmoreland said he thinks that the Open Door is entering the next season of its life, and is ripe for expanding its services to populations that remain underserved. 

As an example, he said that the forthcoming women and children facility at Pathways will relieve the Open Door of some of the demand Hines had responded to in the past, freeing up resources to be utilized elsewhere.

“All that is going to happen because Perry has done such a fine job of leading,” Westmoreland said. “And of building that foundation.”

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