Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Red Letter Book Club. It is an excerpt from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, “Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests.”
The house if cold at midnight, so I put on slippers before going downstairs. Everyone else has gone to bed, including my son, whose asthma was complicated tonight by a cold. I tiptoe across the hardwood floor, careful not to wake anyone, and take a drinking glass from the cabinet. But before I turn on the faucet, I hear the shuffle of feet at the door.
Whoever is standing outside, I know, can read the words of Jesus engraved on our door knocker: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The visitor who is knocking probably has heard the story about how my wife, Leah, and I were part of a peacemaker delegation in 2003. We visited Iraq at the time of America’s intensive bombing campaign. On a desolate desert road, our friends were nearly killed when their driver lost control after hitting a chunk of shrapnel in the road. But some locals picked them up and took them to the doctor in a town called Rutba.
“Three days ago, ” the doctor said, “your country bombed our hospital. But we will take care of you.”
Literally by accident, we lived a modern-day Good Samaritan story. The Good Iraqi – the Good Muslim – showed us what God’s love looks like. When we heard Jesus say, “Go and do likewise” at the end of that gospel story, we knew it was an invitation to practice the love we had received. So we named this place Rutba House. We put a knocker by the front door that bears Jesus’s statement about being a welcomed Stranger. We invited folks who were homeless to consider this their home.
For a decade now, they have. They have come here after fleeing abusive partners, and they’ve come straight from prison – sometimes for a night, sometimes for life. They’ve shown up scared by the trauma of war abroad and haunted by the horrors of violence in homes that fell apart. They’ve been drug dealers who wanted a fresh start, lifelong addicts who needed a place to die, kids whose families had come undone, street workers who wanted to sit down and eat a sandwich. They’ve brought with them a universe that’s every bit as broken as that bombed-out highway in the Iraqi desert.
They come here with pressing needs, and they have taught me hope. I believe in the miracle of Rutba, and not just because I lived it in the desert of Iraq. I’ve seen the miracle repeated time and again, right here in my home. A knock comes at our door, and we are saved.
“This being human is a guest house, ” wrote the Sufi poet Rumi. We are, each of us, a hospitality house of sorts. We go about our daily lives on busy streets, often strapped to a piece of steel moving at forty miles per hour. But even if it’s through a car window with the doors locked, our eyes connect with the stranger who stands on the corner of Fourth and Main, holding a cardboard sign. Whether we invite him to or not, this stranger comes knocking, asking to be heard, begging to be seen. So, what to do?
Be smart, our instincts tell us. Your spare change will not help the addict who’s only going to use those dollars to get another high, another drink. Better to send a check to the local homeless shelter. Maybe vote for someone who’ll mend our tattered social safety net. Besides, you can’t stop for everyone. Best to keep on going.
If you’re honest – if you’ve ever stopped to have the conversation because your kid said, “Help him, Dad” – you know there’s more to this than smarts, more than a simple, rational response. That knot in your gut that makes you feel stuck – that sounds the alarm to say, Get out of here – is a weight you’ve felt before. You felt it every time you saw the bully on the playground in elementary school. You felt it when the doctor said, “I’m sorry. It’s cancer.” You felt it that time when you looked out over the kids playing in the swimming pool and couldn’t for the life of you spot your kid. That feeling, you know, is fear.
“Welcome everything, ” Rumi wrote, because however frightening, however unwanted, the person who comes across our paths – the unexpected visitor – may be “a guide from beyond.” To leave the door locked – to close ourselves off from another person in fear – is to reduce our capacity to connect, to love, to be fully human. If, indeed, this being human is a guest house, then hope comes to us, as Mother Teresa often said, in the “distressing disguise of the poor.”
I am an eyewitness to all of this. But still I stop in my tracks at midnight, as I get a drink of water. I am tired from the day’s work and a host of concerns. I am worried about my sick kid. Yes, that could be Jesus out on the porch, knocking. But it also could be Greg, drunk off his tail, ready to tell me (way too loudly) about how he lost his cell phone for the fourth time this month. It could be Larry, nervous as a cornered cat, wondering if I’ll buy the brand-new toaster he just “found” – still in the box. Or it could be Patrice, out of her head again, wondering if she can sit and chill for a minute so she doesn’t go home and “kill that big mouth, Lamont.”
Over the years, I have seen a few folks get up from the dead. But I also have stared death in its ugly face, wondering if I would survive. Welcome everything, and you’ll witness miracles. Welcome everything, and life can get complicated. So, as much as I cling to Rumi’s wisdom and Jesus’s identity as a Stranger, I also appreciate the succinct honesty of William Stafford’s poem “Easter Morning.” Stafford knew the miracle that can happen when you open the door and welcome a gift from beyond. “You just shiver alive, ” he wrote, “and are left standing there suddenly brought to account: saved.” But Stafford also knew that sometimes the stranger who comes knocking wants to sell you the moon. Sometimes the slick voice at your door will try to sell you hell, “which is what you’re getting by listening.” I’ve been there too.
So, what to do? A decade of stories flash across my mind as I stand in our kitchen, silent, half praying that whoever is outside on the porch won’t knock again.
But they do.
This post is an excerpt from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, “Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests, ” currently featured on the Red Letter Book Club.