Risking a World Without Enemies

What happens when you open your door to a complete stranger?
July 18, 2014

Eleven years ago, when my wife, Leah, and I were far from home in the Anbar province of Iraq, American friends with whom we were traveling had a car accident. Three of them split their heads open on impact and stumbled out of the car onto a dusty highway strewn with the debris of war. A car of Iraqis stopped, took them into their car, and drove them to a town called Rutba. There a doctor spoke to them in perfect English: “Three days ago, your country bombed our hospital. But we will take care of you.” He sewed up their heads and saved their lives.

As a kid raised on the Bible in North Carolina, I memorized the story Jesus told about how the Good Samaritan, who was supposed to be the enemy of the Jew, shows us what God’s love looks like by stopping on the roadside and saving his enemy. At the end of that story, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Leah and I knew we’d met the Good Iraqi in Rutba. Jesus’ words felt like instructions to us.

So we came to Durham in the summer of 2003 and opened the Rutba House. Rutba is a hospitality house in Durham where the formerly homeless and the formerly housed share life together with people who graduated from Ivy League universities and friends coming home from prison.

Among them was Roy, a middle-age man with some success in sales. Roy’s main hang-up was that his product always had been illegal. He had the gift of gab and essential charm, a knack for connecting with people and making them like him. When he joined us, the Rutba House was a little community of four people. Roy became the life of the party.

But a hospitality house isn’t just a party. It can’t be all smiles all the time. As fun loving as Roy was, we knew we had to be honest about the patterns he wanted to escape— the people, places, and things that led him back to prison, time and time again. Roy’s weakness was women. His way with words and affable demeanor made it easy to meet lonely single women. But as much as they longed for companionship, most of these women had little experience of what a healthy relationship might look like. Roy was, likewise, inexperienced in going deeper than a good time. At the root of all this was fear. About the time someone really gets to know you, Roy had seen, they’re done with you. Time to move on.

As the months went by, we got to know Roy. Our sympathy for the angry women grew. At house meetings, Roy always was willing to volunteer, but when his dinner night rolled around, we sometimes showed up at the table to realize that he was not home. “Sorry, I forgot,” he would later explain.

It was Leah, the only woman in the house at the time, who channeled the collective anger of all the women who had to suffer Roy’s careless ways over the past twenty years. She decided she couldn’t take it any more when one week, after fulfilling his commitment to make dinner by frying chicken, Roy left the pot of used oil on the stove. It sat there for a week.

One night when Roy was out late, yet again, she took the pot, marched it upstairs, and placed it on the middle of his bed. There. If he couldn’t deal with his own mess, he could at least keep it in his own space.

No one witnessed Roy’s discovery of the pot on his bed, but everyone on the block heard about it. Roy was livid. He pulled the race card. “Black folk would never do something like that,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

The pot in his hands, Roy was raging in the middle of the kitchen. We all migrated to the living room and eventually sat down. After an hour—or maybe two— Leah had apologized and Roy had, too. We went to bed, exhausted.

We did not see it at the time, but a little miracle had happened. Roy was learning—and teaching us all—that other people can know the worst about you and still, by grace, love you. Leah was learning—and teaching us all—that we can tell the truth about someone else’s nonsense and not push them away, but draw closer. Indeed, a raw self-honesty that so often seems impossible is suddenly imaginable. Together, we can know ourselves as we really are.

Of course, it doesn’t happen all at once. But this knowing and being known convinces me that home is possible. It happens when we draw close to another despite our fears. It is, at its best, a glimpse of glory. Is it safe? No. But finding our way home never is. Home is the risk we take because we long for a world without enemies.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove M.Div. ’06 lived with his wife, children, and other friends at the Rutba House in Durham’s Walltown neighborhood for eleven years. He is a writer, speaker, social activist, and leader in the New Monastic movement. His book Strangers at My Door was published earlier this year.