I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word and hast not denied my name. – Revelations3:8
It was from that scripture, that the late Rev. Dr. Henry Curtis McDowell got the name for the church he helped found in April 1959: The Church of the Open Door.
On Friday, more than half-a-century later, the community turned out for a ceremony at which a section of a street was renamed in honor of McDowell.
It was a glorious time and a day of remembrance and thanksgiving for McDowell's family and his church family.
His great-granddaughter, Mary McDowell Lafavier, and her husband, Keith, came in from Fort Myers for the ceremony.
Many long-time church members recalled that Marie Faulkner Brown, daughter of the late Congregational minister William Faulkner and widow of the late civil rights leader Dr. John O. Brown, had, in the late 1950s, attempted to worship at an all-white Congregational church. She was turned away because she was black.
The Browns met with the then Congregational State Superintendent Robbins Ralph on Feb. 18, 1958, to discuss the possibility of starting a new Congregational church to be under Conference sponsorship. Race would not be a factor at the proposed church; it would be open to all and would be located and organized to meet the needs of African Americans and other members of the African Diaspora, specifically.
Two months later, Ralph met with the Browns and a group of other people who were interested in starting a new Congregational church. The group initially called itself the Greater Miami Congregational Fellowship and met for a while at the home of the late Dr. Kelsey Pharr. When membership grew to more than 30, the worship services moved to the auditorium of the Bethany Junior Academy. From November 1958 to April 1959, it was led by the Rev. Charles Wicks, a retired Congregational minister, who agreed to serve as the organizing interim minister.
McDowell entered the picture on April 5, 1959, when he accepted the call to pastor the Fellowship. By August of that year, the congregation had grown to 75 charter members and was formally declared a Congregational church on Aug. 30, 1959.
It was at a meeting that September when McDowell asked parishioners to turn to the Book of Revelations. He read the passage and declared that the name of the church would be The Church of the Open Door, a place where no one would be turned away because of skin color.
McDowell was remembered as the man who walked the streets of Liberty City, knocking on doors and introducing himself to the community. He was active in civil rights. At the street-naming ceremony, Enid C. Pinkney, one of the founding members of the church, showed a photograph of McDowell in a “Sympathy March” held in Overtown on Sept. 23, 1963, to honor the civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi that year.
McDowell retired in 1967. The idea for naming a street in his honor came from Dory Lingo, who joined the church in 1968.
“There was never anything to document his being a part of the community and I wanted to make sure people knew who he was and the kind of man he was,” Lingo said. “He was a very loving man and he used to visit many people in the community and was always very encouraging, which probably came from his many years as a missionary.”
Lingo said McDowell served for many years as a missionary to Angola in West Africa.
“He was committed totally to serving the people and he deserves this honor in his memory," Lingo said.
The street renaming was made possible with the help of Miami-Dade County Vice-chairwoman Audrey Edmonson and Miami City Commissioner the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II.
A touching moment during the street-naming ceremony came when a tearful Don Michelson and his wife Eneida spoke of their love and devotion to McDowell. They were among several white members of the church and so loved McDowell that they named one of their sons Curtis, in McDowell's honor.
After the ceremony the congregation went outside the church to the corner of Northwest 61st Street and Eighth Avenue, where the formal street-naming took place. The section of Eighth Avenue between Northwest 57th and 62nd streets on which the church is located is now known as the Rev. Dr. Henry Curtis McDowell Way.