The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Chip Minemyer

September 4, 2011

Labor of love: Local pastor ‘out there all the time’

— For the Rev. Charles Zimmerman, every day is Labor Day.

The tireless pastor of the Community Open Door Church is a familiar site for those passing by on Menoher Boulevard in the West Hills.

He’s often outside the church, planting flowers, trimming hedges, painting lines in the parking lot or just generally keeping the place looking nice.

For the past month, he has spent a couple of hours each morning wearing sandwich boards promoting the church’s second annual canned-food drive and walking back and forth in the driveway of the former Church of Christ Scientist, which Zimmerman purchased last year and converted into a nondenominational house of worship.

“I’ve always had high energy,” said Zimmerman, who is 80.

“When I played football back in high school, by the fourth quarter everybody else was dragging. But I would say, ‘Come on, fellas. Let’s go!’ ”

And go he has. Zimmerman has lived a life of hard work and faith.

His father died when Zimmerman was just 2 – “in the heart of the Depression,” he said. That meant growing up with little, but Zimmerman said he developed a strong work ethic and perseverance.

Zimmerman early on became something of a handyman. That has served him well since he purchased the church at the stoplight where Menoher meets up with Luzerne and Gardner streets.

He refurbished the structure’s 30-foot tower – “That took all the courage I had.”

– and handles maintenance on the boiler himself.

Zimmerman is involved with local schools, supporting programs to teach remedial reading, to address children’s personal relationships and to provide equipment for members of sports teams.

And there’s all of that walking to promote the canned-food program.

Zimmerman estimates he has logged between 45 and 50 miles a week, despite bad knees – carrying the signs to and fro in front of his church.

“That’s a lot of walking for an old person,” he said with a laugh.

The effort runs through this weekend, and donated items will go to local food banks and soup kitchens.

Last year, the church had a goal of 1,000 items and received more than 1,700.

This year, Zimmerman set a goal of 2,000 and was approaching that as Labor Day neared.

“We think we’ll easily make that goal,” he said.

“But I knew I had to set it higher.”

Zimmerman doesn’t do all of the walking.

He has volunteers who join him or take shifts.

One of his helpers is 88 years old.

“We have a lot of people who really respond to the walking,” Zimmerman said.

“We had one guy bring in 16 cases of food. And a lot of people just stop and talk. I’m out there all the time.”

Zimmerman grew up in Westmont, and the Community Open Door Church sits on land once owned by his family. Several streets in the nearby neighborhoods bear the names of his ancestors.

He has been a licensed United Methodist pastor for more than 30 years. But as his new church’s name suggests, all are welcome – regardless of their spiritual background.

“My congregation is about half Catholic, a quarter Baptist and a quarter United Methodist – with a sprinkling of everything else,” he said.

He said about 30 people began attending between Palm Sunday 2010 – when he purchased the place – and the end of last year, and more have joined since.

“Attendance hasn’t gone up as much as I’d like,” he said.

“They come and go. Now, these are people who didn’t go to church, or who had maybe left a church. And I don’t want to take people away from another church.”

Zimmerman said his work at the Community Open Door Church is “the most exciting ministry I’ve had.”

He credits Nancy, his wife of nearly 60 years, with keeping him focused and feeling spry.

One particular project that makes Zimmerman smile is his efforts to turn the former Scientist church’s portico outside the main entrance into a prayer garden, where he holds outdoor services when the weather allows.

He said he’s even been visited by neighbors who have found comfort in that garden late at night.

“Every morning I walk through that garden and pray and do my devotions,” he said.

This weekend, the church property will be adorned with American flags in honor of Labor Day.

And the hardworking pastor will gather the last of the donations to the canned-food project and send them off to organizations that help people in need.

Zimmerman’s life has seemingly been one long labor of love – on full display for those passing by the Community Open Door Church, and especially those who choose to stop by.

“This church isn’t here to be served,” he said. “It’s here to serve.”

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.

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