Skip to main content

Culture Q&A

Rosaria Butterfield

Gospel hospitality

Further adventures of a former lesbian, feminist, and tenured professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse

Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis

Twenty years ago Rosaria Butterfield professed faith in Christ. Subsequently, she married Kent Butterfield, a pastor, and moved to Durham, N.C. She told her story of God’s grace in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and in WORLD issues dated March 23, 2013, and Aug. 6, 2016. Her new book, The Gospel Comes With a House Key, describes why and how to be hospitable in our neighborhoods.

In your Durham neighborhood, a reclusive neighbor, Hank, had a meth lab in his house. You didn’t know what he was doing, but it had an effect on you. We were his only friends. And we learned something about what it means to love the sinner. You love the stranger, and you will be strange. You love the sinner, and your neighbors will hate you because they will think that you are colluding in some way.

So how did you react? By God’s grace, we decided to open things wide. The Drug Enforcement Agency rang my doorbell at 6 a.m. That morning I put out all the Bibles. I made copious pots of coffee. Scrambled all the eggs in the house. And we invited everybody in. That day unfolded to the next and the next. We started practicing radically ordinary hospitality, because our neighbors were terrified, angry, scared, hurt. Our friend is now incarcerated for 18 years and those are big things. And the gospel is ready for big things, but these big things unfold one step of grace at a time.

What did you learn about your neighbors? They don’t want to be invited to church. They don’t want to be told they’re being saved from their sins. Quite frankly they just want to be saved from you, not their sins. So these kinds of crises are wonderful opportunities to say we serve a Lord who is alive. He is risen. Authentic Christianity is not sucker-punched by sin because the blood of Christ has covered that.

‘Hospitality is about strangers to the gospel. Your home is an embassy, not a castle.’

Take us into the scene. The neighbors are angry. How did the conversations begin? The neighbor says, “You were friends with this guy. The problem with Christians is that you’re so open-minded it’s like your brains are falling out of your ears.” Kent came into the room and said, “We’re going to have family devotions now. Let’s open our Bibles to Philippians, Chapter 1.” We want our neighbors to see that we ask Jesus to enter into hard conversations not to stop them, but to transform them with the gospel of grace.

How do you make that transition? You just do it. At some point people stop eating their eggs. There’s a Bible in front of them. Kent says, “Let’s open our Bibles.” We have been doing this for many, many years. We’ve had some people who have said, “Is this some strange ritual you have?” OK. Whatever you want to call it. Then Kent will take prayer requests. Sometimes people are tentative, but there was a lot to pray about that day.

Then what happened? A few days after the meth lab was exposed, Kent put something out on Next Door, a social media app that arranges information among neighbors. Kent invited the 300 neighbors that are part of our community to come over that Lord’s Day after church for a cookout, so we could talk about what happened. That might sound crazy, inviting 300 people, but 10 percent of the people will show up, and everybody in your neighborhood will feel loved. You’ll get private messages from people that will let you know what they need, how to find them, and how to help them. They’ll tell you nobody has invited them to anything since the divorce, or they’re shut-in and they need help.

What happened next? Kent was able to proclaim the gospel again. To different neighbors that time, not just the ones on our block. One older woman told Kent, “I was a little girl once in a Baptist church. I heard that Jesus was there, to save me from my sins and to transform me with the blood of Christ. I stopped believing that, and it’s been decades. Do you think Jesus is still there for me?” Neighbors started to come over and say, “I’ll bring the pot of soup, and I want to understand where is God in my suffering.” “Why is my neighbor who is the sole parent of a special-needs child dying of liver cancer?” Why? Why? Why? And so, it was a season filled with these opportunities to be a bridge for the gospel. And I don’t think anyone was not changed.

Did some become more hostile? Yes. Certainly some people still think that we are raving fools. But you could offend everybody on Twitter or you could do what Jesus does: He came with truth and bread and fish. Even with our neighbors who persistently think that Kent and I are really just a bunch of wackos, we are continuing to come with truth and bread and fish. Or if you have a gluten allergy and you are vegan, with truth and Brussels sprouts and rice crackers.

Any way to predict which neighbors will get warmer and which colder? There’s no way. There’s a mystery of how faith works in the lives of all of us. A life transformed by the gospel is a life that has experienced the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed, over and over and over again, along with the application of grace by the Holy Spirit. I can’t be the Holy Spirit. I can be me. But we dare never ask the Holy Spirit to do our job. When we pray that our neighbors would come to faith, we need to do more than pray. That’s true if your neighbor is a meth addict or just a really nice cleaned-up heathen.

What if you had found out earlier that Hank had the meth lab? I would have called the police. I have sometimes had women call me wanting to pray about a situation of sexual molestation in the youth group in the church. I would say, “Stop. Let’s call the police first, and then let’s pray.”

Let’s isolate some other principles. Seems to me one is to understand our homes are not our own. God owns them. Absolutely. If you’ve made your white carpet an idol, repent of your sin right now. Many Christians experience the twin idols of acquisition and achievement. You need to know what your idols are, and you need to destroy them.

Lots of loneliness out there … Experience in our neighborhood forced us to repent of the sin of not being loving enough for singles within our church. It’s hard to be a single Christian. It’s hard to be at work all day and then go home to a lonely house. We started opening our home nightly for our church family. It is amazing what a meal put together with friends and a time of family devotions, and then saying good night, can do for a Christian. And then gathering our neighbors into that: Hospitality is about strangers to the gospel. Your home is an embassy, not a castle.

Sometimes we think of evangelism in terms of passing out tracts, but to our post-Christian neighbors, practicing radically ordinary hospitality equals street credibility. Right! And if you don’t feel adequate, you’re not. None of us is. We’re not adequate. But your friendship, your struggles, the way the Lord has worked in your very imperfect life, the transparency of that to a watching world: That is what matters. Share the gospel in intimate settings. Certain things in your life compete against that. You might not love your white carpet, but you foolishly think your best friends are people you see on a little blue screen.

Share this article with friends.

Kelly Shackelford

Justices, not politicians

Assessing the U.S. Supreme Court with attorney Kelly Shackelford

American Family Studios

Marvin Olasky’s interview with Kelly Shackelford, president of the legal firm First Liberty Institute, appears in the June 8 issue of WORLD Magazine. Here are additional excerpts from their conversation about religious liberty cases and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since the ideological tension around the Supreme Court is high, some people hope the justices will carve out some “middle ground.” What do you think? The court’s job is to follow the law. Five justices now have a judicial philosophy: Follow the written word of the Constitution. It’s not a living, breathing document that they can change in a way that they are comfortable with. They should follow the law.

They are justices, not politicians. They should be. 

If we occasionally see reports of Chief Justice John Roberts and perhaps Justice Brett Kavanaugh siding with court liberals on some particular issue, should we avoid feeling like Red Sox fans in the 20thcentury who faced hard losses and grew pessimistic? You seem optimistic, like a 21st-century Red Sox fan with four World Series victories. I am very optimistic. I don’t think Chief Justice Roberts will violate his judicial philosophy. He will try to be careful to protect the image of the court, but you are going to find Roberts, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito all following the written word of the statute or the Constitution: originalism.

If they get control of the White House, some Democrats want to add justices to the court above the current nine. Obviously, a move to dilute the power of conservative justices is underfoot. Thoughts on that? That’s a horrible idea. So many drastic things would have to happen that I don’t think it’s likely, but if it did you’d start a ratchet: Republicans on their next turn would add more seats, and you’re totally politicizing and ruining the court. 

When Franklin Roosevelt even with a Democratic supermajority in 1937 tried doing that, it turned into a huge political blunder for him. It would be a bad political blunder now. You hear a lot of crazy stuff these days, like get rid of the Electoral College, a system that doesn’t allow a few cities like New York and Los Angeles to control the country. 

Without the Electoral College, wouldn’t the opportunity for corruption—stuffing the ballot box in a few places—be enormous? If you had to look at voting fraud, you wouldn’t just open up one state in a tight election: It would be the entire country.

Share this article with friends.

Kelly Shackelford

Cross defense

Fighting Supreme Court chaos

Kevin Wolf/AP

Kelly Shackelford heads First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to defending religious liberty. First Liberty has aided the American Legion in its fight to keep in place the Peace Cross, which stands 40 feet tall on state-owned land in Bladensburg, Md. The Supreme Court will be issuing an opinion on that case sometime in June. Here are edited segments of our Q&A in front of students at Patrick Henry College.

Before we get to the main event, the Bladensburg cross case, I can’t resist asking about a couple of odd cases. Tell us about the Charlie Brown Christmas censorship at a senior living center. A couple of elderly women who live in a government-run senior living facility had some kids come through. This facility is their home. One of them starts to read A Charlie Brown Christmas. Some official realizes that would eventually get to Linus mentioning Scripture, so he shuts down the event.

Just a one-time extreme reaction, or is this becoming common? We’re getting a lot of cases where senior citizens want to use their common room for a Bible study. One retired minister, 80 years old, asked permission to use the common room. The reaction: “Not if you are going to use it for religious reasons.” He thought, “A lot of these people can’t go out. I’ll just hold a Bible study in my apartment.” He received a letter saying he would be evicted if he does that.

And the case of the postage stamp? On the internet you can pay to turn a photo into a stamp to put on an envelope. One person had a family picture taken in front of Moscow’s famous St. Basil’s Cathedral. He was told he couldn’t use that picture because it shows a religious building. We are going after this regulation because it’s clearly unconstitutional—the kind of nonsense we see sometimes from people who think religion is not allowed in public in the United States.

‘Let’s go back to the Constitution. If a religious symbol is not establishing a national church, if the government isn’t coercing people regarding their religion, then it’s OK to have religious symbols through our landscape.’

That case impressed me because I went in St. Basil’s when the Soviet Union was still around and the Communist authorities had turned it into a museum of atheism. A photo then would have been OK. But let’s move on: Please tell us about the Bladensburg cross. It’s a memorial put up almost 100 years ago partly by mothers who lost their sons in World War I. At the bottom of the Bladensburg cross are the names of local men who died. One cool fact: Despite the segregated units back then, and the Ku Klux Klan about to march on D.C. with 30,000 people, the memorial has black and white soldiers listed in alphabetical order with no delineation.

The American Humanist Association doesn’t want it on state land. During the appeals court oral argument, one of the judges said, “Why don’t we just cut the arm off the cross because that way, we won’t have to destroy it and it won’t offend anybody?” This was the mindset we were dealing with as the appeals court said 2-1 it’s unconstitutional. So we’re off to the Supreme Court.

If the high court decides against you … Not only this memorial will go down. They’d have to take down large free-standing crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. They would have to go into every community that has religious symbols.

Are you hoping the court will restore the “compelling interest” test regarding religious liberty? The normal approach in fundamental rights, whether speech or religion, had always been that if the government burdens your religion, the burden of proof shifts to the government. It has to show a compelling governmental interest requires it to burden your religion, and that the burden is the least restrictive means possible to meet that interest. It’s a heavy burden because we so treasure religious freedom. The Employment Division v. Smith case in 1990 threw out the “compelling interest” test and said any law or government action not specifically aimed at religion is neutral, unless you can prove something very special is at stake. The government no longer has the burden.

Could this case also affect the Lemon Test and the “offended observer” approach? It is a lemon of a test for sure. It’s also called the endorsement test: If a passerby were to walk through your community and look up and see a religious symbol, and if that person felt like an outsider, that’s a violation of the Establishment Clause. We said to the court: Let’s go back to the Constitution. If a religious symbol is not establishing a national church, if the government isn’t coercing people regarding their religion, then it’s OK to have religious symbols through our landscape. We’ve got religious and secular symbols everywhere you go because we’re religious people with a religious heritage.

What’s your prediction? At the oral arguments it was clear that the five conservative justices will not favor tearing down the memorial, so you began to see Justice Stephen Breyer saying, “How about we keep all the ones that are already up but we don’t allow any new ones?” That’s problematic because the 9/11 Memorial would have never been allowed to come into existence. Plus, that would be discriminatory against minority religions because let’s say the city of Pittsburgh wanted to put up a Star of David at the site of the synagogue shooting there.

So if Breyer and maybe another justice join the majority, it’s likely to be a narrow decision? If this decision is 7-2, it’s probably not a very significant decision. If it’s 5-4, it will likely be more significant in cleaning up the complete chaos that exists right now. If I were a justice on the Supreme Court, and I had to figure out whether a Nativity scene is OK based upon whether Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is within 5 feet of it, I’d be embarrassed. So I think the court is ready to clean this up and stop a lot of crazy attacks that are going on around the country against the 9/11 Memorial, against veterans memorials.

But hasn’t the court already had many chances to clean it up? As with pornography, the Supremes have had opportunities but have left it muddled. I’m optimistic because several justices have written that the religious liberty issue is in hopeless disarray. They said during the oral argument that this is a mess. The only issue to me is they’re not sure what the new solution is, but they’ve got to move away from the Lemon Test because if you’re a lower court judge you need a guideline, or else a local official might just shut down all the religious stuff. That creates a government hostile to religion, which is never what the Founders wanted.

Are we seeing a new problem as Google, Facebook, and Twitter act in religiously discriminatory ways? They currently have protection that doesn’t make them responsible for what people post or tweet. If they want the freedom to ban people because they’re conservative or religious, then that protection should be taken away. We need to be careful that all our information isn’t being funneled through a couple of companies: While we don’t want government regulation of private groups, we do want to make sure that people aren’t censoring by algorithm. If they don’t police themselves properly, I think the government will end up coming in.

—For Shackelford’s thoughts on several other issues, please go to

Share this article with friends.