“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.