Before Leah and I moved to Durham to start Rutba House in the summer of 2003, we spent a long weekend at Mary’s House Catholic Worker, a hospitality house for homeless families in Birmingham, Alabama. We knew we wanted to start a community of hospitality and peacemaking, but we had no idea how to do it. With patience and good humor, Jim and Shelley Douglass answered our questions… and taught us several new ones. They showed us how hospitality can shape you over a lifetime, and they gave us courage to face the mystery beyond our questions. We didn’t come to Durham knowing how to live a life of hospitality, but we knew by grace that is was possible.
For several years, before we had kids, we made an annual pilgrimage to Birmingham at the beginning of Advent to retreat with Mary’s House. They host the best retreats. Having started there with our questions, our return trip each year was a great opportunity to remember our vision, to reflect on stories that inspired us, to keep asking the important questions. We don’t make the trip every year any more. But I always think of Mary’s House this time of year.
And I think of Mary, the young woman whose eyes were opened to God’s messenger, whose womb was opened to God in human flesh. The Greeks call her theotokos—the God-bearer. She is the one who welcomed Jesus to make his home in her. Blessed among women, she is a model for us. She’s not just an inspiration for a house of hospitality. She is one.
Two years ago, Leah was very pregnant during Advent. Because of high blood pressure, she was on bed rest for most of it. So we waited. We waited for our daughter to come, and we waited for Christmas. We waited with Mary to greet face-to-face the One whom we invite into our lives every time we whisper a prayer.
Waiting, we learned, changes your relationship to time. You stop partitioning it into blocks, and you learn to receive it. Sometimes it stretches out like a desert you feel like you’ll never cross. Then, sometimes, a whole hour will pass and you realize you didn’t count the minutes. Somehow, you opened yourself to the present. You greeted time rather than marking it, and it stopped to have a cup of tea with you.
At the beginning of Advent this year, the Rutba House community felt pressed for time. Folks were busy with work, with projects, with family, with emergencies. Our schedules were full with the sort of things we set out to do eight years ago. And the voicemail was full, too. Six different people had called to ask if we might have a place for them to stay.
Did we have a place? Yes, sort of. We could squeeze one person into the top bunk in a single guy’s room. We might be able to fit another couple in the guest room—for two weeks, at least. All of this would be difficult. But how is a Christian house of hospitality going to say no to the stranger who might be Jesus, right at the beginning of Advent?
And then, in the middle of our house meeting, a moment of honesty. One member said he felt an almost obsessive urgency to say “Yes” to these requests. It wasn’t healthy. It came from a deep need to prove something—to convince himself that he hadn’t been neglecting the community, that we weren’t struggling. He felt like we had to do it to prove that we were OK.
But there, in that moment, we knew that we weren’t OK. We weren’t taking care of one another. We were in no place to welcome someone else.
Jean Vanier says that people come to Christian community because they want to serve the poor, but that we can only stay when we admit that we are the poor. However important our work may be, our ability to do it isn’t what makes us a community. We’re not a house of hospitality when we figure out how to take care of everyone who’s homeless. We’re a house of hospitality when we learn to wait, when we learn to open ourselves to grace, when we let love transform us, one relationship at a time.
This, I think, is Mary’s gift to us this season: the good news that a hospitality house isn’t something we muster up the courage to “do, ” but something we’re invited to “be.” In waiting and opening ourselves to God, we become the sort of people who can see that Jesus has already slipped into our midst. Folks who get used to being with Jesus know better how to greet him when he comes knocking at the door.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. He is an author, speaker, and activist who currently resides in Raleigh, NC at the Rutba House. You can reach him at his website, www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com