taking the words of Jesus seriously



Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Red Letter Book Club. It is an interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about his new book, “Strangers at My Door.”

One decade ago, a group of friends established an intentional community centered on radical hospitality in Walltown, a poor, historically African American neighborhood in Durham, NC. The community, Rutba House, is named after an Iraqi town, where co-founders Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove received radical hospitality in 2003 after a car bomb seriously injured one of their friends. Most recently Jonathan authored a new book, Strangers at My Door, intentionally speaking to the good news and unexpected gifts that come from centering your home and life on the radical lifestyle demonstrated by Jesus. Today, Jonathan speaks with us:

Your new book is story after story of relatable, personal, complex people. It’s not a lecture but a dialogue, and it’s both funny and painful. What was the inspiration for this format?

I grew up in a little community in rural North Carolina where folks sat around on Coke crates at the gas station and told stories. We didn’t have much live theater in King, NC. But I heard live story-telling from some real masters of the art.

When I went to seminary and took preaching class, I learned about something they called “narrative preaching.” The point, as I took it, was that stories don’t illustrate a point but rather deliver it. The story is the point–it carries the truth you want to proclaim.

This is, of course, what novelists do. But it’s also what writers of creative nonfiction do. Strangers at My Door is my first stab at this kind of book. I had a ball writing it because I found that I could say better what I’ve been learning in a hospitality house by simply telling the stories than I could by trying to make a list of “lessons learned.”

This book is also about opening the door, not just the fact that strangers are at your door. What’s it take to open the door, and why do it?

We opened the door at first because some folks in Rutba, Iraq opened the door to us. They literally picked up our friends of the side of the road and said, “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital, but we will take care of you.”

I think gratitude is always at the heart of Christian hospitality. We love because Jesus first loved us. But how do you sustain gratitude–how do maintain what Dorothy Day used to call “the duty of delight”?

We have to remember our story. That’s why we tell it, over and over again. It’s why we gather for prayer every morning, why we sing the old songs like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” It’s why we need All Saints Day and Thanksgiving right here in November. Because when humans forget how much our life depends on grace, we forget who we are.

How has this practice of radical hospitality affected not just your life but that of your wife and kids?

You know, people sometimes look at how we live and call it “radical.” But I’m not sure that evokes the right image. We’re a family that eats and prays together with our friends–an extended family that includes black and white, the formerly homeless and the formerly housed. Maybe that’s not the norm in America. Maybe it’s not the norm among Christians. But I’m not so sure it’s exceptional.

A few years ago, when we didn’t have room for a friend coming home from prison, a couple of guys he’d known in prison let him stay on their couch for a few months. They didn’t think they were practicing radical hospitality. They just welcomed their friend like they figured anyone would.

Our kids are always reminding us how simple hospitality really is. Someone knocks at the door and they run to answer it. “A little child will lead them, ” the Scriptures say, and it’s true. This is just normal life for them. It hasn’t occurred to them yet that there’s any other way to live.

What are some of the spiritual practices that help you continue to open the door day after day?

This being a hospitality house has made me a more traditional Christian, I think. Not conservative, but traditional. You just realize how much wisdom there is in the ancient practices when you can’t live without them. Fixed hour prayer has been huge for our community and for so many others. We helped put together a resource called Common Prayer because the practice had been so life-giving for us.

For me personally, silence and fasting are more and more important. Life is so full of so many things–so many good things–but I need to strip away the noise and the stimulation to focus on the one thing that matters most. This is why I get up early. I couldn’t have written Strangers at My Door without the dark silence of our kitchen at 4am.

I love how your stories of strangers are intertwined with Jesus’ story of strangers and pain and suffering. Radical hospitality does present itself at the heart of the Gospel, doesn’t it?

This is the great mystery of the gospel–God has taken on flesh and gotten all tangled up in our messy lives. “They knew him in the breaking of the bread, ” Dorothy Day used to say. And so do we know Him know. A hospitality house is a great place to cultivate an expectancy for Jesus. It’s a great place to read the gospel stories because they’re so often coming to life around our table. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” we read. And we know what it means.

I love what Clarence Jordan said about the resurrection–that it doesn’t mean Jesus has risen up on high and we’ll be with Him when we die. It means that Jesus is alive and out here in the world and he’s liable to come by your house today, bringing his tired and hungry sisters and brothers with him. This is why Christians practice hospitality–not because it will end homelessness (though it might if we did it). We open our doors because we want to see Jesus.

This post is an interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about his new book, “Strangers at My Door, ” currently featured on the Red Letter Book Club.

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