Triad Baptist greeter says 'hi' with his hats
“Come on in,” Don Nichols says as a boy goes inside Triad Baptist Church’s Worship Center with his parents after exchanging a friendly fist bump with him.
The child holds his candy welcome gift from Nichols and can’t help but smile as he takes one last look at the hat atop his head this Sunday: a furry creation whose long ear covers droop like beagle ears.
Triad’s hat man has done it again.
“Don is so friendly, and we know from comments that people look forward to coming in the doors of the church just because of him,” says Jonnie Manuel, who leads the team of 75 greeters who welcome people each Sunday to Triad’s contemporary and traditional services.
“They’ll say, ‘I never know what the guy with the hat is going to say or wear,’ ” Manuel says. “When I asked Don to join the team, he was so excited. He considers it his ministry, and he looks forward to it every Sunday, and definitely gives a warm welcome to everyone who comes in our doors.”
Nichols and his wife, Linda, joined the church in April 2013 after first experiencing the church through visits to see their son, Jonathan, play guitar in the praise band.
At his former church, Nichols had plenty of experience interacting with people as a teacher in a bus ministry and volunteer for Child Evangelism Fellowship. He greeted people at the Dixie Classic Fair, handed out cards, and answered follow-up questions as part of Child Evangelism Fellowship’s telephone ministry.
But no one had ever asked him to be a greeter until Manuel.
“One day I was coming into the church and Jonnie said he wanted me to be one of the greeters on Sunday morning,” Nichols recalls. “I said I’d like to do that because I love to meet people, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Each Sunday, Nichols tries to get to Triad as early as possible so he’ll be in position at the door to greet the first person who arrives. Linda will go in from 8:10 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. to sit in the Worship Center and save Don a seat.
Nichols doesn’t leave his station at the doors until the last person arrives and is inside. He’ll hear Lead Pastor Rob Decker’s message and then go to his Sunday School class, led by Jason Caranci.
He says his greeting ministry, Pastor Rob’s preaching, and Caranci’s teaching and Sunday School class are what he enjoys most about Triad.
“The way I look at my job as a greeter is that I’m the first person visitors are going to meet, and I’m going to be as friendly and outgoing and exciting as I can be,” Nichols says. “Some people may think the way I act is put on but no, that’s the real me. I want them to be as excited about coming to church as I am about welcoming them into the church.
“When they see me and the way I talk to them and greet them, I hope they leave saying to themselves, ‘If everyone is like him, I want to come back.’ ”
Hats as conversation starters
Nichols says he realized the power of a hat to break the ice as a conversation starter one winter Sunday.
It was a bitterly cold day and Nichols, who had a short haircut, wore it for warmth — “not because I’m from Alaska or Russia,” he adds. He chuckled at all the comments he received that day, which sparked an idea: Expand the hat collection and look for interesting and different hats to wear throughout the year.
Now numbering about 15 hats, Nichols’ collection has grown to feature a host of fedoras, a U.S. flag hat, a red beret, and others depicting critters and characters. He found and wore an elf hat last Christmas, and already has his 2016 Christmas hat picked out.
He’s always on the lookout for hats but Nichols admits some are just too wild to wear so he passes, much to Linda’s relief.
“It’s really funny,” he says of visitors’ reaction to his hats. “I can see them coming across the parking lot and they will smile when they see me and say, ‘Hey, I like that hat.’ Some will ask me if they can have it and I’ll say, ‘No, you will have to get your own!’ ”
Triad’s hat man wasn’t always outgoing. In fact, the man who retired from an RJR subsidiary where he chrome plated cylinders used in product packaging was exactly the opposite for most of his childhood.
Then something happened in Nichols’ 11th grade history class at Hanes High School that brought him out of his shell and gave him the confidence to talk to anyone about anything: a five-minute speech assignment.
Terrified of talking in front of even a few people, Nichols wasn’t planning to participate. But then a student made a speech attacking people who were black and Nichols, who by that time had become a Christian, couldn’t sit still and not point out that God loves everyone.
“When I came into class the next day, they ridiculed me, and several got up and made similar speeches against civil rights for all. So I raised my hand and told the teacher I’d like to say a few more words on the subject,” Nichols says.
He’s been talking ever since, and using that skill to connect with people and point them to Christ — especially children who he’ll give gospel tracts and candy if their parents approve.
“My purpose in life is to tell everyone I know about Jesus Christ,” Nichols says, “and once they receive Christ as Savior, to tell them how to grow as a Christian.”