Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a writer, speaker, native of North Carolina, and a graduate of Eastern University and Duke Divinity School. In 2003, Jonathan and his wife Leah founded the Rutba House, a house of hospitality where the formerly homeless are welcomed into a community that eats, prays, and shares life together. Jonathan directs the School for Conversion, a nonprofit that has grown out of the life of Rutba House to pursue beloved community with kids in their neighborhood, through classes in North Carolina prisons, and in community-based education around the country. Jonathan is also an Associate Minister at the historically black St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church.
KW: Your new book, Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests, is a collection of stories from Rutba House. What is Rutba House and why did you want to tell its stories?
JWH: We’re an extended family of the formerly homeless and the formerly housed, trying to figure out how to welcome one another. We’re not the first Christians to do this. Dorothy Day started a hospitality house in New York City in 1933 to practice the works of mercy in the midst of the Great Depression. During World War II, she started saying that the works of mercy are the opposite of the works of war. War makes people homeless, but Christians are called to welcome the homeless. The love of Christ compels us not only to feed the hungry, but also to ask why they’re hungry. And that’s really why I want to tell the stories of the formerly homeless friends we’ve known at Rutba House. Each person has a story, but together I think these stories teach us something about the justice issues that matter for all of us in America today.
KW: The stories you tell are complicated. They’re not simple success stories about people you’ve helped. They’re not just stories about how though you were helping someone but they ended up helping you. Neither are they stories where the homeless are simply victims. What have these stories taught you about justice?
JWH: I love the psalm that says truth and mercy will embrace, justice and peace shall kiss. In the messiness of real life, it’s hard to even imagine true community. But Scripture holds up these pictures of what it looks like. Every once in a while, by grace, we see it.
The great temptation, I think, is to make life more simple than it is. We say, “It’s their fault. They could get their lives together if they really wanted to.” Or we say, “It’s the system’s fault. The poor will never have a chance until the system is changed.” But I think justice is always both relational and systemic. It’s always about mercy. And its always about personal transformation–mine and yours.
“The harvest of justice,” the Bible says, “is sown in peace.” We’ve learned at the Rutba House that there are a whole lot of us that will never get fixed, but there’s not anyone we can’t love. Likewise, there’s a whole lot of injustice that we’ll never fix, but there’s no system–no set of relationships–where we can’t sow peace. Like all planting, we can’t make justice grow. But if we sow the seeds, God is faithful to send the rain. Justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
KW: What justice issues are important to you and the community at Rutba House?
JWH: When we opened our doors and said, “Come on in,” we met all kinds of people. But two groups stuck out. At dinner every night, there was always a gaggle of kids. And they were almost always black and Latino. We learned their names and we started to learn their stories. They had fathers in prison or they didn’t know their fathers. Several of them lived with grandparents who worked two or three jobs. Many of them had families who loved them, but their families were fragmented. And they had very little time.
The other thing we noticed was that a lot of the adults who needed a place to stay were men coming home from prison. When some of the kids we’d gotten to know went to middle school and got in trouble with the police, we started to hear from guests stories about how the same thing had happened to them at that age. We started to see what some people call the “school-to-prison” pipeline in our country. And our country’s broken criminal justice system became a central justice issue for us.
KW: As a community, how does Rutba House pursue justice? Or, to use your language from before, how are you sowing the seeds of peace?
JWH: We believe that Jesus taught and practiced direct action. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” It’s essential that each of us learn to take personal responsibility for the injustice we see. So we welcome the stranger, stand with the young brother who’s being racially profiled on the street. We visit and write to our friends in prison.
But we’ve also learned from our mentors in the civil rights movement that justice work is about empowerment. The iron rule of organizing is “never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.” So we’ve tried to build a community where each person can contribute, where all gifts are celebrated.
KW: In the book, you have a chapter of stories about the “prison line.” You and others from Rutba House walked with people who’d been in prison and ended up starting something called Project TURN. Tell us about that.
JWH: Well, it happened because we ended up in jail. As part of a civil disobedience campaign against the death penalty, almost everyone at Rutba House back in 2005-06 was arrested. Some of us several times. The last time I was arrested, they didn’t let me out until I could see a judge. So I got processed into the general population. There on the cell block, I got a crash course in America’s system of mass incarceration. I was blown away by the insights of those guys. “The train that ends at death row starts here,” one of them said to me.
I started saying that we needed to help other people go into prison to learn to see our society from the other side of the bars. Then Sarah Jobe from Rutba House took the idea and ran with it. She’s a force of nature, and she got the state prison system and Duke Divinity School to partner with us initially. Now we run courses at three state prisons and one federal institution, bringing nearly a hundred students a year into prisons to learn alongside folks incarcerated there. Those classes are some of the most beautiful gatherings I’ve seen in America. Almost to a person, everyone who takes them says, “It’s the best class I’ve ever taken.”
KW: What do you hope these stories in Strangers at My Door will do for readers? What’s your dream for this book?
JWH: You know, I did a reading in Philadelphia a couple of days ago. After I had told a few stories, we all sang “This Little Light of Mine” and then we had a few minutes for conversation. The first comment was from an older man in the back of the auditorium. He stood up and talked about how depressed he’d felt after watching the nightly news the evening before. “But these stories are good news,” he said. “They make me feel hopeful.”
I don’t believe hope comes from ignoring the ugly in our lives or from pushing what’s messy in society into a ghetto or someone else’s back yard. Hope comes when we pay attention to how God meets us in the messiness of our lives. Without hope, we can’t even begin to imagine justice.
My dream is that these stories would inspire people to practice hospitality in their own way–to open themselves to the messy realities of their communities. I pray it’s good food for the great movement of people who are sowing seeds of peace for the great harvest of justice that is to come. I’m so very grateful to get to be part of that movement here and to witness it in little communities of God’s children everywhere I go.