Q&A with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of Strangers at My Door
Q) Jonathan, you and your wife opened Rutba House, a Christian community that welcomes visitors, guests, neighbors, and strangers, 10 years ago. Tell us about what inspired the concept and the name of this idea.
A) In the spring of 2003, we were in Baghdad with a Christian peacemaker delegation. Our country was bombing Iraq, but we were overwhelmed by the hospitality they showed us. Outside of a town called Rutba, a car in our caravan hit a piece of shrapnel in the road, blew its tire, and careened into the side ditch. Three of our friends split their heads open. When they stumbled out of the ditch to the roadside, they didn’t know what to do. But some Iraqis stopped, took them into their car, and drove them to a doctor in Rutba. This doctor said, “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital, but we will take care of you.” He saved our friends’ lives.
We came back to the US in 2003 telling that story, and the more I told it, the more I realized that it was the Good Samaritan story. The people who were supposed to be our enemies had stopped by the roadside to save our friends’ lives. They were the Good Iraqis, the Good Muslims. We moved to Durham, NC, that summer and started Rutba House as a house of hospitality to put into practice the welcome we’d received in Rutba.
Q) You recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Rutba House. What’s changed in the decade you’ve been part of this experience? What do you have for the next 10 years?
A) Looking back, we didn’t know what we were doing when we started here. The gift of our first decade has been friends—the people who’ve welcomed us and helped us figure out what we’re doing. When we started we were three outsiders—re-locators to the neighborhood. People were naturally suspicious. The guys on the street said we were a "police house." But we welcomed a brother who was coming home from prison, and he ended up being our host in the neighborhood, introducing us to half of the people we know.
Ten years ago, we put a lot of energy into connecting. We sat on front porches talking to neighbors, and we invited people over for big potluck dinners four nights a week. We had to work to establish rhythms that are sustainable for everyone. We had to die and get resurrected a few times. But as I think about the next ten years here, I think we have a lot of work to do for justice. We want to stand with these beautiful people who’ve shared their lives with us. And many of them face huge challenges—criminal convictions that keep them from getting a job, the stigma of a story they want to change. We still get to know new people every week, but a lot of our energies these days are spent keeping up with the extended family of Rutba House and learning with and from them what kind of world we need to work for.
Q) Can you share a story or two about some of your first visitors? Are any of them still involved with Rutba House today?
A)The brother I mentioned who came home from prison and welcomed us to the neighborhood—he rents the apartment next door to our first house, owns his own cab company, and stops by for dinner (and to do his laundry) every few days. So, yes, several folks are still around. Not all of these are "success stories." One dear brother who lived with us for a year was stabbed on the street just a few weeks ago. We met him when we first came to the neighborhood, and he’s taught me so much about what it means to learn to trust someone across the lines that so often divide us. But, wow, I was angry when I heard that he got in another fight and was nearly killed.
Life in a hospitality house is messy. Or maybe life here is just a little more honest, and all of us are a mess in one way or another. We’ve learned that there are lots of things we can’t fix, but there’s not anyone we can’t love. And, as Dorothy Day used to say, "love is the measure by which we’ll be judged."
Q) What have you learned from the people you’ve welcomed in the name of Jesus?
A) Little by little, I think I’m learning what it means to be human. The strangers who’ve showed up at my door and walked into our life have helped me to see that my fears do me a great disservice. They often separate me from the very people I need to help me find my way. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Sometimes I think about the difference between me and most of our guests is the difference between people in the ER and people on the cancer ward at a hospital. You know, if you come in with a flesh wound, everybody knows you’re messed up. But if you have cancer it’s a hidden wound. Something has to reveal the problem if you’re going to have any hope of healing.
People who become homeless have flesh wounds that everyone can see. Most of them don’t try to hide their junk. Sharing life with them, I’ve learned to be more honest about my own hang-ups. They’ve forced me to. Without these friends, I might have easily wrecked my marriage on the shores of ambition. But the Jesus at our door is always reminding me that what I’m about in the world is bigger than me. We need one another to survive and we stay together by grace.