Before Rosaria Butterfield became a popular Christian author, she was a tenured professor at Syracuse University, a lesbian feminist fighting to advance the cause of LGBTQ equality, and an unlikely convert. In 1999, her life intersected with the gospel of Jesus Christ through a friend’s radically ordinary hospitality. From hating Christians to becoming one, the transformation took place slowly and outside a church pew when the church came to her. In Butterfield’s newest book The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post Christian World, she articulates a gospel-minded hospitality that’s focused not on teacups and doilies, but on missional evangelism. Writer Lindsey Carlson spoke with Butterfield about opening hearts and front doors to our neighbors.
You advocate a kind of hospitality that steers clear of teacups and doilies. How does radically ordinary hospitality differ from what most people think of as “Southern hospitality?”
First of all, it is not entertainment. Hospitality is about meeting the stranger and welcoming that stranger to become a neighbor—and then knowing that neighbor well enough that, if by God’s power he allows for this, that neighbor becomes part of the family of God through repentance and belief. It has absolutely nothing to do with entertainment.
Entertainment is about impressing people and keeping them at arm’s length. Hospitality is about opening up your heart and your home, just as you are, and being willing to invite Jesus into the conversation, not to stop the conversation but to deepen it.
Hospitality is fundamentally an act of missional evangelism. And I wouldn’t know what to do with a doily if you gave it to me. I would probably wipe up cat mess with a doily.
There are many hospitable people who don’t have a saving faith in Jesus. How do we ensure our hospitality explicitly reflects the gospel?
I look at a person as an image bearer of a holy God and I am not in any way spooked by whatever worldly identity that happens to be attached to that image bearer.
We struggle with understanding two things. First, a sin nature: what it means to be fundamentally distorted by original sin, distracted by actual sin, and manipulated by indwelling sin. And second, we struggle with what it means to carry with us the imprint of the God who made us. That means that by God’s command, we are called to reflect God’s image through knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. And all three things require a radical conversion and redemptive life in Christ.
In order to be the image bearers we are called to be, we must be born again. But the thing to realize is that people need more than a meal—they need a meal and the gospel of salvation. They need to know how their sin patterns and the sins of others land on them. They need to know who the real enemy is. People are not our enemy. Sin is our enemy.
How essential was radically ordinary hospitality to your own conversion?
When I lived as a lesbian activist, I had been in a lesbian relationship for some years, and I very much thought, “This is who I am, and this is how I want to live.” When I started writing my post-tenure book, it was on the Religious Right and the people they supposedly hated, like me. I got to know a neighbor, Ken Smith, who was also a conservative Presbyterian pastor. And what was striking was that his home looked a lot like my home.
Among my circles in New York, in the ’90s during the AIDS crisis, somebody’s home was open every night of the week. There was a lot going on. The community had to gather together, and not by invitation only because this was a crisis. This was an emergency. And we called ourselves family. I thought that was unique to the gay community. But it wasn’t. Because Ken Smith’s community was like this too.
Ken’s Christian community gathered at his house at all hours. I learned this because he invited me in. For two years, I was loved and welcomed by a Christian community that I mocked, despised, and rejected. I accepted them when it worked for me and rejected them all the other times. There is simply no way I would have walked into a church if I hadn’t had a genuine friendship with the man behind the pulpit.
For two years, I was part of Ken and Floy Smith’s ministry. I met with them once a week. At their home, the door was wide open. People were always in and out of the house—people from church and people not from church. Heated, genuine conversation would happen. People would speak honestly, and tears would flow. But it was different because Ken would open the Bible and sing from the Psalter, and then he would pray. It was so disarming; I couldn’t help but go back. It was in this context of hospitality that Ken brought the church to me, because it was impossible for me to get to the church without the bridge of somebody’s home.
Before you came to faith, did you ever try to escape your friend’s hospitality?
Oh, yes. The Bible is an amazing book, and I had never read it. I was more than happy to criticize a book I’d never read. I’m a bookish kind of gal, and the Bible really gets inside of you. And it made me confront some really haunting things. It made me face a whole category of sin—both mine and other people’s. It made me think about my own past, my childhood, my parents, and my previous Catholic faith. After a while, I would think, “You know, I’m busy. I don’t want this.” And then I’d just stop showing up. I’d stop answering email. And Ken would gently pursue me. He’d pop over with a loaf of bread Floy had made. Or a book we were talking about. We did book exchanges. When I would try to slip away, he’d just gently come back and check on me and tell me he missed me.