Light Musings: Reflections from My Inner Sanctuary


Front Door Guests

These days the overwhelming societal temptation is to obliterate vestiges of history thought to be disagreeable by the current generation. Although what happened in the past can’t be undone, this trend prefers to destroy what it can and bury the rest in the back of a closet where it will hopefully never again be noticed. In the quest to change attitudes and practices those actions are understandable to a degree, but some reminders teach us about the struggles that have been waged to bring us to where we are. They are important to know, even if we are not proud of what they say or satisfied with where we are.  As reminders they can motivate us to work against their resurgence.

Like most places, the small city of Paducah, Kentucky holds reminders of times gone by tucked into a largely forward looking landscape. One site that captivates attention is a walk through the old Metropolitan Hotel. In the name of progress it was nearly razed with other dilapidated eyesores in the neighborhood a few years ago. Today it is being restored and visits there come complete with a narrated story by a volunteer portraying Maggie Steed, the original proprietor. The tour concluded with a piece of Maggie’s homemade Chess pie as well! That in itself is enough of a reason to stop by the hotel.

The Metropolitan is not a spectacular or elegant structure architecturally. It looks like many other houses from its era. Its power comes from the vision it represented and the story it tells. Built in the early 1900’s, it is from a time when hotel chains didn’t populate the roadside. McDonalds and Subways weren’t stationed at interstate exits. Government funded rest stops weren’t available every fifty miles or so. Were you fortunate enough to find food and lodging, there was a chance that you weren’t welcome to stay there – especially if you weren’t white. If, by chance, admission was permitted for a person of color there was a distinct possibility that they didn’t receive the same level of service as others.  Through what door do they enter the establishment? Where do they sit while eating? What restroom can they use? Travel was not easy.

At age 24, a young widow named Maggie Steed managed to obtain a loan for the purpose of opening a hotel for African-Americans. The local bank resisted initially for the usual reasons, but also in part because they assumed there was no market for such an establishment. Maggie insisted that wasn’t true—that “people want a place where they could come in the front door.”  She was right. Over time, the likes of Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and Thurgood Marshall found rest and restoration within its walls as they traveled through the area. Those are names we all know. Their talents held wide appeal to a broad segment of the population – a fan base that spans many colors. They are so well-known that some of us may never imagine the difficulties they encountered on their road to success.

“People want a place where they can come in the front door.”  Her words had no sooner left her mouth and immediately I understood it was true. On the dairy farm where I was raised, summer presented a need for a few extra hands over the course of a couple of weeks to help harvest silage to feed the cows. On those days, the workers usually ate lunch prepared by my grandmother. One day when she was unavailable, my mother cooked lunch instead. As the group sat down around the dining room table in our house, my father noticed an empty chair and realized one of the men was missing. Daddy found him, an elderly African American man, sitting outside on the steps with his plate in his lap. My dad called his name and said, “Come inside and eat with the rest of us.” The man answered, “No, thank you. I’m fine out here.” My dad insisted, apparently already aware of the underlying problem, and said, “This is my house. It is my table. There is a place for you at it. Please come in and eat with the rest of us.”

I’ll never forget what transpired next. As our friend joined the group at the table one of the other men announced, “Well, if he is eating here I’m not sitting at this table.” To this my father responded, “Then you can leave, and don’t bother coming back after lunch.” We had one less driver that afternoon.

Being white, I have been spared the back door experience based on race. Being from the rural South, I have occasionally felt rejection and barriers rooted in ridiculous attitudes about geography and language. Even so, I wouldn’t equate my experience with theirs other than to say what little experience I have had was enough to let me know the world shouldn’t be ruled by such unfounded assumptions. Maggie’s words stayed with me after the visit concluded. Why is it the sentence resonates so easily? What does that front door entrance symbolize?

Could it be rooted in the fact that front doors are made for receiving visitors? Some people go to great expense to create elaborate entrances, possibly to show their wealth but perhaps to set the mood and accentuate a sense of hospitality. Being allowed to pass through those doors is, itself, a sign of respect. Walking through it allows an opportunity for recognition and welcome by representatives of the home or business. Perhaps it is the owner, a family member, or an employee who is assigned that task, but the front door is where guests are expected to arrive. It is there that they are greeted, invited in, offered a seat and perhaps refreshment. On the other hand, back doors are often designated to receive packages and supplies. It is where we send deliveries whose arrival would be disruptive or out of character with the ambience of the front door. I have seen artsy signs that say something like “Back door friends are the best.” Perhaps the difference is those folks are already friends for whom questions of welcome and acceptance have been settled – not typically the case for passersby, or when the designated door for use is based on something other than friendship.

Perhaps more so then than now, a place that takes you in also allows a sense of safety. In some cultures, a host’s obligation of hospitality included protection as well as lodging or provision. Sleeping in meadows, beneath bridges, or over an exhaust grate on a cold evening, anywhere out in the wide open leaves a person exposed to whomever or whatever comes along. There is a lot more good in the world that we often recognize, but there is a fair amount of mischief as well. Who can get a good night’s sleep if you need to sleep with one eye open? Within a home or hotel there is no explicit promise of safety, but there is an implied commitment of a safe space. Electronic key systems or a night security guard help to create a perimeter of protection.

I can scarcely remember how hotels were located and reservations were made in the days before the internet put them within a few clicks’ reach, but on one trip to the Northeast I’d booked a room outside of Philadelphia just over the New Jersey state line. It was a reputable budget chain brand, but when I arrived the appearance suggested otherwise. Weeds growing where landscaping was expected, paint flaking off the building, hardly any cars in the parking lot, and a cast of assorted characters hanging out on the balcony all left me wondering what exactly I should expect. Safety seemed suspect in this case. After scoping out the joint I followed my instincts and searched for different accommodations.

It turns out that welcome and safety are two prerequisites for a third thing we desire when we come through the front door: rest and renewal, whether that is through a good meal, a restful night, or even a few hours shopping (depending on what kind of front door welcomes you). It is difficult to relax when you know you aren’t welcome. It is impossible to let go of pent up stress or sleep the deep slumber that drives away fatigue when you feel unprotected and at risk. It is a challenge to engage in conversation, rekindling old friendships or forming new ones when worry distracts us from being fully present in the moment. Being welcomed in the front door sends a clear message that, for better or worse, you have a place within this group.

Life gives us the challenge of balancing important values like freedom and private property with other worthy commitments like human rights and equality. When bias or prejudice relegates a person or group to a second tiered status, things like welcome, safety, and relaxation evaporate like morning dew. There will always be things that make us distinct from one another, but we should consider if “distinct” is necessarily synonymous with “separate” or “different.” I’m guessing it doesn’t have to be so – at least not always — especially when an appreciation of creation allows us to enjoy its beauty and diversity and we understand that our many distinctions are part of that whole. Whatever progress we have made on front door matters, there is still plenty of work to be done.

I think Maggie Steed was on to something. For several good and right reasons people want to come in the front door. It’s a small way to help address some of life’s important inequities. So think about putting out the welcome mat.

Further Reading

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