When I began my career as a pastor in the 1960s, I read a poem that has shaped my life and my career ever since. It’s entitled “I Stand By the Door.” Before I share the poem with you, I’d like to tell you a bit about its author.
Rev. Sam Shoemaker (1893-1963) was one of the most eloquent preachers of his day. He grew up in a Baltimore family of privilege and attended a respected Episcopal private school in New York City, before doing his college studies at Princeton University. After two-years of missionary work in China, Sam returned to finish his seminary training and became an Episcopal priest. He was assigned to historic Calvary Church in Manhattan, where he spent the next eleven years and became more and more prominent as a Christian leader. Throughout the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, he found creative (and sometimes controversial) ways to meet the needs of homeless and poor people.
In 1930 he accepted a call to a church in Pittsburgh. Once again, he was in a place where he encountered a lot of people with troubled lives, since that church operated a rescue mission for people who were dealing with urban problems involving homelessness, alcoholism and criminal activity. Through these relationships, he became friends with Ebby Thacher, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, who in 1935 founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Sam Shoemaker helped shape the “Twelve Steps,” with their focus on a person’s relationship with God.
The poem, “I Stand By the Door,” was not published until four years after Shoemaker’s death, when his wife Helen included it in the biography she wrote in his memory. Here are the opening and closing stanzas of the poem:1
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—
It is the door through which men2 walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for the door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.
. . . . .
As for me, I shall take my old, accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear him, and know he is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door—
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But—more important for me—
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a doorkeeper…”3
So I stand by the door.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine
1 The entire poem is too long to print here, but it’s all worth your time. Here are three videos:
The first is a clear reading of the whole poem, with printed words at the bottom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSECKO5B7V8
The second is a more dramatic reading by a Pastor in Maryland, applying it to church evangelism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU0wxJulSYM
The third is a commentary from a veteran member of AA, describing how meaningful the poem is to people in Recovery https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdS_B7Zblik
2 Shoemaker, reflecting the patriarchy of his time, used masculine nouns and pronouns throughout. I began to change to inclusive gender words, but this made the poem sound awkward. I leave it to you to include women when you read men, he, him, etc.
3 From Psalm 84:10