Book review: ‘Strangers at My Door’

CorrespondentJanuary 4, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    Strangers at my Door

    Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

    Convergent Books, 212 pages

For more than a decade, Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove have opened their home in Durham’s Walltown neighborhood to those in need. Recovering addicts, the homeless, recently released convicts – all are welcome at the Rutba House.

Rutba House is modeled after Christian hospitality houses that offer food and shelter to the needy but it is different in many ways. Everyone who stays with Jonathan and Leah and their two children lives as a family. Some stay for a few days, some for years. Decisions are made by consensus. Meals are large and communal, with anyone from the neighborhood welcome.

This experiment was inspired by a missionary trip the couple took to Iraq in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War. A doctor in Rutba treated several injured Americans who had been traveling with the couple – even though the town’s hospital had been bombed by U.S. forces three days earlier. The incident inspired Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who grew up in nearby King, N.C., to establish Rutba House while attending seminary school at Duke University.

In his thoughtful, engaging new book “Strangers at My Door,” Wilson-Hartgrove tells the story of Rutba House from its first wobbly days as a single-family dwelling to its current incarnation as a multi-residence community center.

The stories of those who have passed through Rutba House, and in this unlikely community that’s been built in Walltown, linger: The crack-addicted prostitute who stops in for a 3 a.m. grilled cheese sandwich. The wandering 20-something kid who passes through town on a walkabout from Pennsylvania. The chronic alcoholic with cancer who spends his last days at Rutba House. Wilson-Hartgrove tells each story with clarity, empathy and the casual authority of a natural storyteller.

He doesn’t shy away from the hard realities, either. The historically African-American Walltown was initially a rough place to land for the Wilson-Hartgroves, who are white. Racial issues are explored with the same clear-eyed spirit of inquiry that the author brings to the book’s other recurring subjects. A longtime social activist, Wilson-Hartgrove is curious about the roots of poverty and crime. The book bounces about through issues of social justice, the prison system and the cruelties of addiction.

“Strangers at My Door” takes its title from Christian scripture – the subtitle is “A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Places” – and it’s very much concerned with spiritual and religious ideas. Wilson-Hartgrove is an associate pastor at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, but he isn’t preaching here. He’s as likely to quote famous sociology texts and civil rights leaders as he is to quote scripture.

Still, for secular readers, the theological musings in the book can register as speed bumps. Toward the end, especially, the author tends toward abstract riffs on light and faith and Jesus. “Strangers at My Door” is much more engaging when the focus is kept in the here and now, on people and their stories.

The book can be funny, too. In one lively chapter, Wilson-Hartgrove talks about how, after a decade living in Walltown, he finds himself squaring off with an over-earnest do-gooder-come-lately. Warning bells ring and the author observes that his own instincts have changed: “Humorless white people with extra energy can be dangerous.” In context, this is a funny throwaway line, but it later develops into something more profound. Walltown is home now, for the author and his family, and he knows how things work.

“Strangers at My Door” is a fascinating book in many ways and provides some stories you won’t get anywhere else – stories from right next door.

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