Welcoming the Stranger: A Q&A with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Welcoming the Stranger: A Q&A with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove December 13, 2013

Two of my favorite Patheos bloggers – Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Bruce Reyes-Chow have published important books this past year that speak of the Christmas message in different ways (and make great stocking stuffers as a result). I’m sharing a bit about each book and a brief Q&A with the authors today and Monday on the blog.

“They come here with pressing needs, and they have taught me hope. I’ve seen the miracle repeated time and again, right here in my home. A knock comes at our door, and we are saved.” — Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, from Strangers At My Door

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book Strangers At My Door: The True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests recounts the stories he and his wife Leah have lived since moving into a depressed, inner-city neighborhood in Durham, NC and opening their door to anyone who knocked. Inspired by the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger, Wilson-Hartgrove began to look for Jesus in the outcast, the homeless, the hungry, the fatherless, and the drug-addict who came knocking at his door.

Since starting their hospitality house a decade ago, some 60 people have walked through the Wilson-Hartgrove’s doors, some staying for days, others for years. Sometimes, a knock has brought incredible joy and surprise; other times, risk and disappointment. But as we learn through Jonathan’s beautiful and searingly honest story-telling, the greater gift of this radical way of living has been deep transformation, “an invitation into a new family where all of us find a home.” Where complete strangers become brothers and sisters — and friends — in the opening of a door.

I asked Jonathan a few questions about his book and the remarkable stories within.

What inspired Strangers At My Door?

Where I grew up we didn’t have live shows downtown. We weren’t on any entertainment circuits (unless you count traveling evangelists). But we had some great local story-tellers. They gathered on the Coke crates at the gas station most evenings. They sat around with their coffee at the Hardees early in the morning. They smoked Camels on the church porch after services and tried to one-up each other.

Strangers at My Door is a book of stories. I’ve been living in a hospitality house for the past decade, getting to know people who used to be homeless one story at a time. I tell these stories–in sermons, in classes, in articles. I tell them because they convey the truth I’ve known here. This book was inspired by the thought that maybe I should just write the stories down and let them speak for themselves.

What is one or two of the greatest “truths” these stories convey, in your opinion?

What they’ve taught me, I guess, is that we’re all broken and we’re all beautiful. And we’re made for community. But we only find what we’re all looking for by opening ourselves to the other.

But all of that sounds a little thin to me when I say it. The story tells the truth in a way that you can’t “sum up.”

What do you think will surprise people about your book?

Maybe how funny people are. These stories are about people who’ve fallen through the cracks, so they’re filled with tragedy–some so heartbreaking it makes you sick. But people who have to deal with life’s worst use humor to survive. And sometimes laughter is the thing that breaks us open and invites us into community with one another.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of answering the door, time after time, sometimes literally in the middle of the night? How has this radical hospitality changed your faith?

I suppose it’s akin to what parents learn about themselves caring for children, what children learn caring for their elderly parents. It’s what artists and athletes learn if they’re paying attention: that real life happens when we open ourselves to something beyond ourselves–when we let go, out of control. “Welcome everything,” Rumi says, and I think this is what he’s getting at. I don’t really want to call that “radical.” I want to call it human. I want to say that until we find some way to embrace this mystery in each of our lives, we’ve not begun to live.

Has “welcoming the stranger” in such a literal way ever become too much for you and your family?

Oh sure. Truth be told, some days I’m too much for my family. We all have our limits. One thing we learned early is that it takes community to practice hospitality. We couldn’t do this on our own. On the day when I can’t listen to one more story, someone else is here to lend an ear. Sometimes it’s a guy we welcomed years ago. Sometimes the the person he’s listening to–the person he’s welcoming–is me.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?  What was the most life-giving?

I still can’t believe I get to write everyday. It’d be dishonest, really, to call this hard work.

But each book does have its own internal challenges. With this book, I had to listen closely to hear where these stories were taking me. But that turned out to be the most life-giving part of the process. By the end of the book, I was sitting with this peculiar family that God has been knitting together here over the past decade, listening to Vincent Harding tell us that we are building up a new world and how builders most be strong. And I knew that God has given us all the strength we need to press on together, one day at a time.

What does this book have to do with Christmas? (What makes this a great Christmas gift?)

Well, the great gift of Christmas is that Mary welcomed Jesus into her life. Then the field workers came in to be with them. Then the gurus from the East. Pretty soon the Holy Family had a little hospitality house going, showing us what God’s new family looks like.

I know the ads teach us to want a new iPhone or a get-away trip or at least a novel that will make us feel happy. But I think God still wants to give us this peculiar family where the poor find bread and the rich find meaning because we find one another. I hope Strangers at My Door gives folks a taste of that. It’s what I want for Christmas.

Who do you hope reads your book, and what is the message you hope they take away?

I hope it’s a book you can give to your aunt who loves a good story and to your uncle who cares about “social issues.” And I hope it finds its way to that nephew who went off to college and wants to change the world but thinks people of faith don’t have a clue. I hope it’s a book for people who love Jesus enough to care about what he said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

What will they take away? Well, I guess I sort of hope the story takes them in.

For more from Wilson-Hartgrove, visit his blog, The Everyday Awakening.

Next week, I talk to Bruce Reyes-Chow about his new book “But I Don’t See You As Asian”: Curating Conversations About Race.


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