This weekend, to celebrate the release of my new book, Strangers at My Door, several organizations here in Durham partnered to host a story-telling event called “I Was A Stranger.” Ten people told their own story of how they found welcome in an unexpected place. It was a wonderful evening of sharing.
When we started a house of hospitality ten years ago, we hung a knocker on the door that said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Opening your door to Jesus, you learn how often the guest becomes your host, just as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, when they knew him “in the breaking of the bread.” As I listened on Saturday, I was overwhelmed by the power of telling how we’ve been welcomed. This is the excerpt I decided to read in closing:
When Debbie calls to tell me about Cameron, she has to first tell me who she is. These are the days before caller ID, before you can know who’s calling without having to guess from the sound of their voice. Were it not, I might have let this one go to voicemail. But I answer, and Debbie from Jewish Family Services introduces herself. She’s curious if this thing we call “Rutba House” might be able to help Cameron. His is, she admits, a peculiar case.
Debbie met Cameron several months ago when he came by her office with a couple seeking assistance. Not part of one of the local synagogues, they said they were new to the area. They were caring for this elderly gentleman, Cameron, struggling to find work, and coming up short on money to pay the bills. They needed a little help. So Debbie helped them. But each time they came back, their story wore a bit thinner. Debbie began to suspect that this couple was playing the charity game—another town, another story. She’d seen it enough times to know that the minute she called their bluff, they’d be gone.
But Cameron beat her to it. He stumbled into the office one afternoon, wheezing and out of breath, asking for Debbie, the only name he could remember. She helped him to a chair and listened as Cameron confirmed her suspicions—the couple was, indeed, a team of professional charlatans. What’s more, they had kidnapped Cameron under false pretenses, seeing his monthly SSI check as a potential income stream. When he objected, they told him it was in his best interest. When he tried to resist, they beat him up and locked him in a room.
Cameron made it to Debbie’s office by escaping the apartment while both of his captors were out. He ran to the only place he could remember how to get to. Bewildered, he told Debbie that he couldn’t believe he let himself be taken in like that. But he admitted that he had begun to wonder if he was ever going to make it out alive.
Since that meeting, Debbie has been putting Cameron up in a hotel across town. But she is reaching far outside her normal circles—beyond any reference she’s given this couple—to see if she might find a safe house for Cameron. I invite the two of them to join us for dinner, and we meet the rail thin, white haired man who has survived this terrible story with a smoker’s cough and a dry sense of humor.
Cameron is a likeable fellow, and his immediate need is evident. We’re a house for people like him. But the decision about whether to invite him to come isn’t an easy one. We have room enough, yes, but part of the reason a bed has been vacant for the past couple of weeks is that everyone here feels over-extended, worn out by a steady stream of other people’s needs on top of an intense season of work for all of us.
We’ve been hosting people—one, two, three at a time—for several years. By now, we have what professionals would call “experience.” But experience does not make opening your life any easier. I start to think experience may even make it harder. Sure, you know the story about Roy and Tim becoming friends. You know dozens of stories, not only about people becoming well, but also about how guests have helped you heal, pushed you to grow into the person you were made to be. You know these stories, but you are not naïve about their cost. Saying yes to Cameron is a yes to the light that can shine out of a life. But it’s also a yes to the mess that he finds himself in.
So, what to do? Like prayer, this process of discernment is a mystery. By what calculus do you measure the costs and benefits of another human life? I’ve listened to people considering marriage, to couples who are thinking about having kids. We all try to figure this out at one time or another. But our familial relationships depend upon the fact that they are almost never the result of calculated decisions. We fall in love or we fall into bed. No one thinks about the years of dirty diapers. Our fragile human existence depends on people remaining true to commitments we make not because they are the “smart thing to do,” but because we long for another—because we cannot, in the moment at least, imagine doing anything else.
What, then, binds together this peculiar family that is not born of passion or blind love? It is not easy to pin down. We sit in a circle, listening to one more story that is too often like the stories we’ve heard before. But each story is also always and incontrovertibly its own story. We sit in the presence of another life. I do not want to mislead. We do not always say yes. Communities have their limits, and we have learned to be honest about ours. But the mystery to me is in seeing how the yes comes, how a group of people can choose to open themselves to the light, even when we cannot see it yet, even when we are stumbling in the dark.
These yeses, I realize, are what make us into a community. We say yes not once and for all, but to Cameron at this moment. We say yes to the light that can shine out of one life. We say yes together, as if holding hands in the night, and step out into the unknown.
When Cameron moves in, he assumes a position on the couch by our front door, where he sits ten to twelve hours a day with a cup of tea and a Bible. He’s never really read the Bible, he tells us. So Cameron decides to start at the beginning and read straight through. He makes this his full time job. But he is flexible, always eager to hear how you’re doing when you come in the door, always glad to tell you about the most fascinating story that he was just reading—“Did you ever hear this one?”
I remember how when I was growing up my great Granny lived with us. She was always there when I got home from school, always eager to listen. When I sat and ate her biscuits, warm out of the over, she told me stories about growing up in the hills of Southern Virginia, fetching milk from the spring box and carrying chickens down the main road to trade them at market. When you’re eight years old, the great wide world of school can feel like a wild and crazy place some days. Coming home to Granny’s stories and biscuits was a stabilizing rhythm, I realize. Maybe my parents thought we were caring for Granny. Maybe we were. But to me, her presence was an anchor in life’s early storms.
After several weeks of chatting with Cameron on the couch in our front room, I recall my Granny, now long dead. She and Cameron came from different worlds, but they are alike in this way: they are there when I come home, ready to listen and talk. They have time to be present. This world where police officers raid houses with compression grenades and friends are snatched up off the streets without notice can often feel as crazy as an elementary school to an eight year old. But here is Cameron, keeping vigil by the door with a steady smile and a listening ear. For this struggling little community, he becomes an anchor in his own way.
In a rule of life that became the bedrock of Western monasticism, the 5th century saint Benedict of Nursia wrote this simple and practical instruction:
By the door of the community, place a sensible older member who has basic secretarial skills and is glad to sit and welcome people. This member will need a room close to the entrance so that visitors will always find him there to answer them. As soon as anyone comes knocking or asking for help, he should say, “Praise the Lord,” or, “Blessings,” as he answers the door promptly with all the warmth of God’s love. If he needs help with this job, the doorkeeper should be assigned a younger member as an assistant.
As far as I know, Cameron has never read these instructions. His secretarial skills are somewhat questionable. He often has a story about someone who came by today, but can’t remember their name or exactly what they wanted. Still, Cameron keeps Benedict’s ancient rule more closely than some of us who’ve tried to re-shape our lives around it. He’s not just a good guest. He’s become our host, keeping vigil by the door, practicing the kind of radical hospitality that first inspired us to come here.
Some of the guys from the street realize that this Jewish grandfather who sits by our door is willing to listen to their woes without judgment, willing to bear their troubles without trying to fix them. He is not put off by their crude language. He simply greets them as they are with the blessing of his presence and a smile that is for their sake. Everyone once in a while, he chimes in with a story of his own. “Killer Cam” they start to call him, and I notice that a circle of these twenty-something guys is almost always gathered around Cameron when I come home.
After a few months, Cameron finishes his survey of the Bible, all conducted from the same seat on our living room couch, punctuated by community prayers and dozens of rap sessions with the young guys from the neighborhood. Undeterred by the interruptions, Cameron has obviously been captivated by his reading. I ask what sense he makes of it all. “Well, I’m a Jew,” he says. “But Jesus was a Jew, too. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be a Jew and a Christian. But I’m not going to be one of these Bible thumping Christians. I want to love people—to live like Jesus lived.”
I think of John’s gospel—that story of Jesus’ life that begins like the Jewish Torah with the words, “In the beginning… .” Since the foundation of the world—since the beginning of all things—John says that the logic of the universe was a person and that his “life was the light of all people.” Wherever there is life, this light shines on. Even in the deepest darkness. John says nothing has ever overcome this light.
If Jesus showed us what it looks like for this light to shine out of human flesh, he also invites us to see that it’s there beneath all our skin—that we kindle the flame when we embrace it, especially in those who’ve been forgotten and pushed aside. The light that is in each of us can shine out, illuminating the person across from you so that you see him, often as if for the first time. Your eyes wide open, you don’t only see the child of God across from you. You also reflect their light back to them. By the light that shines out of each of us, we learn to see each other.
Cameron helps you to see something that’s hasn’t quite come into focus before. This opening your life to Jesus isn’t so much about finding the light in the stranger at the door as it is about watching a peculiar community catch fire, the light in each person shining more brightly as we receive the gift of another. Four months ago, we weren’t sure we had it in us to welcome Cameron. We weren’t sure we could bear the load of one more person. But as Cameron prepares to move into the subsidized senior housing that we helped him apply for just after he moved in, we’re not sure how we might go on without him.
Maybe Benedict was right. Maybe we don’t only need an older member by the door to welcome visitors. Maybe we also need a younger person by his side, apprenticing himself to the grandfather’s practice of hospitality. When Cameron is gone, I realize that I have been that apprentice. Cameron has been my teacher in a school I didn’t expect, inviting me to see the light that shines brighter than any darkness.