Writer’s Envy: Strangers at My Door

photo (26)“Every writer needs writer friends. There are no water coolers in the writer’s office,” writes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in the acknowledgements of his new book. Yes, even the acknowledgements is quote-worthy. It is enough to make one of his writer friends go mad.

Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests just pubbed this month, and it could hardly be more compelling. A perpetual critic and contrarian, I gush only when feeling particularly dopey or grateful and Jonathan’s book serves up heaping spoonfuls of the latter with none of the former. Jonathan is director of the School for Conversion and a member of the Rutba House, a community in Durham that takes many of its cues from monasticism; out of this context he shares striking stories of hospitality.

It’s hard not to envy the man. He wrote his first book in two weeks. He wakes up in the wee hours of morning before the kids are awake to put thoughts into words, and says, like running, the discipline gives him a high. He’s the kind of guy my also non-gushy friend Juli says she could sit at the feet of for hours. The first time Blair heard him speak at a panhandling forum here in Durham, he said Jonathan’s country accent put him at ease. If the world needs more folks with a “non-anxious presence,” it’s hard to think of a better model.

I met Jonathan through another writer friend named Jason. And because we do what we are told when Jason’s involved, we met up and swapped writing. His is powerful. Sparse on adjectives and adverbs, his stories let the Spirit of God work her way into the reader at her own pace.

It’s a simple enough premise. On the knocker of his front door, the words of Jesus read: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. We know the words to be true, we know the gift of strangers, how they douse us with surprise in a world dripping with boredom. But we also know how we deceive ourselves when we are hearers of others’ conviction rather than doers of our own. Jonathan writes in the book,

“I have often found myself sorely disappointed, both by my own easy answers and by my fellow Christians, as I’ve tried to wrestle with the unspeakable reality that so many homeless friends face. This book is a confession that, at precisely the places where we should have been, people of faith have often been absent. What’s more, many homeless friends who have struggled in the darkness, lonely and losing hope, have prayed, “Who’s there?”- only to hear silence. These stories seek to honor their struggle with faith.”

Perhaps that’s the best thing I know how to do these days: tell stories. Stories are the way we speak about what matters to us in detail, rather than dogma. Nonprofit consultant Andy Goodman says, “If you don’t have the kinds of stories that people want to tell and retell, you haven’t gotten the most basic skill.”

It’s how I know Strangers at My Door is worth reading. I found myself wanting to tell Jonathan’s stories over and over again like they were my own. It’s the kind of book you read aloud to someone else while sitting shotgun. It’s the kind of book you don’t lend out, instead grunting, “Get your own,” followed by an apologetic laugh. It’s the kind of book that could give you writer’s envy if you let it, but it doesn’t.

Because strangely, you recognize yourself as the stranger, too, knocking on the door of belonging and waiting, hopping from one foot to the next, for it to open wide enough for us all.

Want a free copy of Strangers at My Door? I’m buying. Enter to win by answering the following question in the comments section: When were you the stranger who was welcomed? I’ll choose a winner on Monday, November 25th. 

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10 responses to “Writer’s Envy: Strangers at My Door

  1. Youre a brilliant writer. I love reading whatever you write. So I not only bought your book but Jonathan’s as well. :O) (miss you two)

  2. Ooh! Your review is so enticing – i want to read this! 🙂 Here’s my submission:

    The summer i lived in Uganda i only slightly qualified as an intern with only eighteen years and two semester of college behind me. I’d had those ridiculous, National-Geographic hubris hopes of learning all about cross-cultural conversations. Intended to deepen my faith whilst living in the remotest corner of the country.

    Then i got sick. The housemates thought it was malaria at first, then some sort of serious tropical disease. Whatever the hell it was, i honestly thought i was going to die in my REI travelers pants now three sizes too big. It had already been a fraught summer, on the heels of my parent’s separation. The housemates were kind, but not affectionate. And affection, physical touch and gentle words, were absolutely what i needed.

    That’s when Sister Rosemary stepped in. A morning fairly early on in my sickness, when i was still mobile, she offered to teach me how to make pancakes. I was a wretched cook, unable to pull my weight in the kitchen with my housemates, which had only led to bigger puddles of self-doubt. But Sister Rosemary insisted, teaching me to grind out the flour for smoothness and add pecans for taste. “A-plus!” was her rhythmic affirmation. What a moment of realizing my own privilege, my inability to make a real meal more a product of laziness and wealth than knowledge. But Sister Rosemary, with plump hands guiding mine and more hugs than i’d had in two months, beckoned me into her home and taught me all those lessons i knew i wanted but didn’t know i needed. It wasn’t the kind of cross-cultural conversation i’d envisioned, something involving traditional dress and being given a true Acholi or Ngkaramajong name. More evidence of my own prejudices. It was vulnerable, mundane, and over a gas stove. Making pancakes was suddenly the revelation of my summer, not because of anything i in my white-savior-complex had done, but because a nun saw a bony girl, thousands of miles from home, in need of mother-love.

    The sicker i got, the more Sister Rosemary and the other nuns fluttered around me. There were healing crystals and teas, soups and crowding around the TV to watch soap operas. I’m convinced even now it was more their hospitality towards me that made me well than the cargo of antibiotics i was on.

  3. When I was 22, I moved to Southeast Asia for two years. Vietnamese people welcomed me, guided me, fed me, & spoke for me. Through their hospitality and graciousness, I knew Jesus in all kinds of new ways.

    (PS- love both your writing and JWH’s. I’ve been following your blog for a while thanks to Micha Boyett.)

  4. I so want to read this book! I saw him speak last summer at Wild Goose and then his blog encouraged me to get involved with the Moral Monday movement.

    I can’t really think of anything – I have the privilege of assuming that I am welcome most places I go. I do work as a librarian at a school where most of the staff and students are black. They have been very patient with me and welcomed me as I have learned about black culture and my own privilege.

  5. Perhaps because Thanksgiving is approaching fast, my first response to that question is a time when I was sad and feeling alone, a sophomore at FSU and preparing to spend Thanksgiving alone. My college roommate invited me to join her family in Florida, since I couldn’t fly to Missouri to be with my own family. They took me in, and her mom even had a sweet care package for me with a mug and a candle on my bed when I arrived. It was totally unexpected, and it sparked a desire in me to invite others to holiday celebrations whenever I could. You never know when it will mean the world to someone– that day certainly meant a great deal to me.

  6. When I showed up to work, I was paired with a veteran nurse in hopes that her experience would keep me upright during my first day as a nurse practitioner. It worked. However, I am sure that the balancing act came at the expense of her shoulders. On more than one occasion I read her face saying to me, “You’re late. You’re slow. I wish I was working with anyone but you.” We made it through, but the following day, the veteran nurse (who was in charge of the schedule) did not sign herself up to work with me.

    The next week, I got to work early to beat traffic and go for a walk. I dropped my bag at my desk, and the veteran nurse was there sitting at her computer. I asked if she’d like to join me for a walk. Her eyes looked back at me trying to find a way to say no, but the holy spirit moved, and she said ok. We’d been walking for a block when I my body stayed straight and her body veered right. “Don’t go that way,” she said. “That neighborhood’s not good. I knew you wouldn’t know the area,” she said disdainfully. “That’s why I said I’d come.”

    Her direction took us to a local park. As we walked around the baseball field, her demeanor changed from inconvenienced to indifferent to almost chatty. She started by telling me about her children, and then about her immigration story, and then her journey through nursing. The air could have been mistaken for friendly when we looped back to the clinic. As we settled into our clinic routine, the veteran nurse said, “tomorrow we’ll walk longer,” and she wrote her name next to mine on the morning assignment board.

  7. I arrived in the sleepy little town of Harralson, GA in August of 1987. At the age of 21 I was to be the new pastor of a two-point United Methodist charge while attending seminary at Emory University. Standing on the front porch of my parsonage upon my arrival were two gentle, elderly saints with arms full of groceries for the new preacher.

    Within months this stranger from the north would learn to put up hay, cut up hogs for sausage, run the register at William’s Grocery and give shots to a herd of cattle. He would also bury the town’s patriach with dignitaries attending from the capitol and preside at his first infant baptism with quivering hands and voice.

    Haralson, GA made a stranger a friend. My life would never be the same. Today, 26 years later, I run a homeless shelter, making a living by welcoming strangers. I still use food and work to build friendships just like I learned in what today seems like such a far off place and time.

  8. Thanks to all of you for your generous sharing on this blog. It was a gift to me to read all of your comments, however Emily’s humorous story of a stranger who stiffened, then softened to her was one I found myself wanting to retell. While the free copy will go to her, I hope you’ll all pay the small price of purchase to snag one of your own. With gratitude, Erin

  9. I was the stranger who was welcomed, oh many times. As an undergraduate at Oxford, my tutor and other friends invited me over during the Christmas holidays. Ditto, as a graduate student in America (friends). And as young foreign married, without family, American invited us for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
    For all of which, we are grateful.

  10. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized
    it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking bback
    frequently!

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