The Common Good

Keepers of the Keys

One night after working a college basketball game, I stopped to use the restroom before heading out of the arena and making the drive home. I pushed on the heavy, gray door and found that it was locked.    

Anna-Mari West/
Are we committed to letting in or keeping out with our keys? Anna-Mari West/

Related Reading

Take Action on This Issue

Circle of Protection for a Moral Budget

A pledge by church leaders from diverse theological and political beliefs who have come together to form a Circle of Protection around programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world.

Uh-oh. This isn’t good.     

Neither were my options.    

I could wander around the arena hoping to find an unlocked restroom; they might all be locked by now. I could try to make it home — probably wouldn’t work. As I stood in front of the locked door trying to decide what to do, I heard a woman’s voice from down the hall.

“Can I help you?” said a middle-aged lady pushing a cleaning cart. “Do you need to use the restroom?”    

She had a friendly face, one that I was very glad to see. Yes, I needed help. She immediately pulled from her pocket a large, heavy ring of keys.    

“The key’s here somewhere,“ she said, sorting through more than a dozen of them to find the right one. She slid it into the lock, turned it and opened the door. I thanked her repeatedly.    

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Just glad I could help you.”    

Since that night, I’ve thought about her and her key ring quite a lot. Keys are a symbol of power. They represent the power to lock doors and open them — to decide where people can and cannot go.     

Most of us have keys to various things, each representing a chance to make choices. The question is how we choose to use them.    

This is an especially important question in areas like religion. You probably know the story in one of the gospels about Peter receiving the “keys to the kingdom,“ a phrase that ties into that idea that keys represent power. The Vatican flag and coat of arms include silver and gold keys as a representation.     

Over the centuries, many of these key-keepers have been more intent upon locking people out. They don‘t see that they’ve given keys to open doors and help people enter. Instead, they’ve been more concerned with deciding who should be kept out.

It’s that way in many other religions and in many of our other institutions, too. All too often, being a keeper of the keys has meant keeping people locked out or locked up.    

The lady who came to my rescue — I wish I’d gotten her name — was quite the opposite. She saw someone in need and used her keys to help. No questions about why I was there, no judgment about whether I was qualified to pass through the doorway, no admonition that the restroom was cleaned and I was simply out of luck.    

Instead, she happily unlocked the door, got out of the way and moved on down the hallway to continue her work. She saw it as part of doing her job.    

Her example challenges us to consider how we use our keys, especially those among us who aspire to be leaders. Are we helping people get where they need to go? Or are we more interested in demonstrating our power by locking doors?     

Are we committed to letting in or keeping out?

Joe Kay is a professional writer living in the Midwest.

Photo: Anna-Mari West/

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories


Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)