When Rosaria Butterfield responded affirmatively to a dinner invitation from a local pastor in Syracuse, New York, she considered it a prime research opportunity.
It was the late ‘90s and Butterfield was a professor of English literature and women’s studies at Syracuse University, specializing in queer theory. A leader in LGBTQ rights in an out lesbian relationship, Butterfield was writing a book on the Religious Right and “why they hated people like me.”
What she encountered instead of hate was the disarming hospitality of Ken and Floy Smith. One dinner with them turned into hundreds as Butterfield read the Bible and began to wonder if God was real. Throughout her conversion, which she terms a “train wreck,” she had a place at their table as she dealt with the fallout of her new faith.
Today, Butterfield is a writer and speaker. She and her husband, Kent, practice hospitality on an almost daily basis, opening their home to their church family, their neighbors, and those on the margins of society. For Butterfield, hospitality is not about “matching plates” or even a skill for entertaining. Instead, “it’s welcoming the stranger as your neighbor. And, if God wills, watching that neighbor become part of the family of God.”
In her book The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, Butterfield calls this approach “radically ordinary hospitality” because it acknowledges the dignity, value, and image of God in others. “It goes to the root of calling out biblical personhood, and does it knowingly in a world that defies that,” Butterfield says. Because of that, it needs to be a “consistent prayer-driven love for your neighbors—a pursuing of them as an image-bearer of a holy God.” She calls it ordinary because “it’s you being the kind of Christian that you are, only opening your arms a little bit wider so that you can bring other people in.”
Earthly good and spiritual good
Ken and Floy’s hospitality was, in some ways, familiar to Butterfield. Her gay and lesbian community also was given to hospitality, especially during the AIDS crisis of the ’90s. Every night of the week, someone’s home would be open for food, support, and comfort as new crises emerged. “It was a type of liberal communitarianism,” Butterfield says. “You had the kind company of someone in your suffering—not a small thing, but also not a solution.” And Butterfield had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t enough.
At Ken and Floy’s house, she experienced a taste of something different. At the end of an evening, Ken would gather whomever was present, and together they would sing a psalm, read a passage of Scripture, and pray about the difficult things they discussed. “It was almost like a punctuation mark,” Butterfield says. “You didn’t have to end the day in crises and that was so unusual to me that it forced me to ask, ‘Is God real? And is my soul something I need to be concerned about?’”
Today, Rosaria and Kent model their hospitality after Ken and Floy’s. “Everybody in the neighborhood knows that we’re the Bible-believing Christians that welcome everybody to their table and are willing to hear out almost any conversation. But at the end of the evening, we pull out the psalters and the Bible. And we also bring these appeals to the Lord.”
Butterfield believes that these “family devotions,” as she calls them, “have been the anchor of how we have been effective in this community—both in terms of spiritual good, but also earthly good to people. We’ve worked hard to arrive at a place where the words we speak to our neighbors are not stronger than the relationships we have with them,” she says.
“We’ve already cared for their children. We’ve driven them to the doctor; we’ve rescued their lost dog. We’ve taken care of their garden when they go away. When you’re in relationship with people you can say hard things because there’s no question that you love them. Love is not a clanging gong, but it emerges from the truth and it lands at a place that helps even as it challenges.”
The practice of hospitality
Before practicing this type of hospitality, it’s important to be steeped in the Bible—and to be convicted by it. Butterfield quotes from A.W. Pink’s Profiting from the Word: “‘There’s a grave reason to believe that much Bible reading and the Bible study of the last few years has been of no spiritual profit to those who engaged in it. … We greatly fear that in many instances it has proved a curse rather than a blessing.’ Pink goes on to say that the way to profit from the word is to make sure that the first thing the word does is convict you of sin. You, not your neighbor,” Butterfield says.
“For you to be good, useful Christians to your church and to your neighbors you need to be in a war with your own sin—your original sin, actual sin, and indwelling sin.” She encourages reading Psalm 119
because “it teaches you how to hate your sin without hating yourself. And that is extremely important—to take your own sin by the short hairs and wage an irreconcilable war. That is a daily practice.”
Church communities also need to “live like the family of God.” When Butterfield first came to faith, she believed many Christians lived on a “starvation diet” of community. She points to Mark 10:28–30: “Peter turns to Jesus and says, ‘we have left everything to follow you.’ Jesus confirms Peter’s words and talks about the promises to come.”
There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for my sake and the gospel, who shall not receive a hundredfold now at this time, houses and brothers and sisters, and mothers, and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mark 10:29–30)
“I encourage everyone to underline ‘a hundredfold now at this time.’ It says that the Christian life is not meant to be an isolated, lonely life. Christians are meant to be in each other’s lives—not two hours once a week on Sunday morning—but really, every day. We need to live like that hundredfold is already here.”
Butterfield encourages small groups or families to learn to love each other well and develop biblical fluency with devotions. Then, move forward in prayer about how to use your home—or someone else’s home—for hospitality. “The point isn’t that every single Christian is doing this. The point is, if nobody’s doing this in your church community, something’s not right. Because God’s people have to gather some place. And the watching world has to watch us gather some place and be welcome to gather with us.”
Much of hospitality is ordinary. For Butterfield, daily hospitality means beans and rice and always being ready to set a few extra plates at the table. It’s neighborhood prayer walks and intentionally asking people for prayer requests and opportunities for service. During the warmer months, it’s inviting the entire neighborhood over and having a cookout outside “so people don’t feel trapped; it’s very intimidating to walk into someone’s house.”
Butterfield acknowledges that choosing to engage in this form of hospitality may mean sacrificing other priorities. But what makes it doable is “having a momentum for openness in your hospitality at the same time that you have an anchor in the word of God. The practice of family devotions, but also the presence of members of your church who are participating with your hospitality ministry.”
The least of these
In a class-segregated world, hospitality to “the least of these” requires intention. Butterfield quotes Hebrews 13:1–3:
Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some have unwittingly entertained angels. Remember the prisoners as if chained with them, those who are mistreated, since you yourselves are in the body also.
Butterfield wonders, “how do you remember the prisoner as though chained to them if you don’t know them by name?”
“We have people in our lives—genuinely in our lives and in our home—who live in a prison but are on a five-hour leave. And we have people in our lives who live in group homes,” Butterfield says. She and Kent have also adopted four children, two of whom came to them at the age of 17 out of group homes. “I know for our church and for our community and for my children, this has changed our lives because grace means something behind bars that I think the rest of us can’t really appreciate.” She encourages Christians to be as involved as they can, whether that’s getting a home study to welcome orphans and prisoners into your home or by supporting organizations like Safe Families, a Christian alternative to foster care.
But risk in these situations is well worth it. “Jesus cared for the least of these. Jesus says, ‘Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me’ ” (Matt 25:40). Butterfield adds, “The times we have risked the most, that has enlisted our neighbors who are not Christians to serve in a Christian ministry. They see there is such a God who cares for the least of these, and that he works through regular, ordinary people.”