It’s Not Easy Being a Tree Planted by the Water

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Tuesday’s keynote speaker for NOAC 2011, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, shared his life story and his faith story — one that has taken him from roots in rural North Carolina, to places like Iraq where he served with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and back to Durham, N.C. He advocates stability as a gift from God, like the tree planted by the river of the water of life.

It’s not easy being a tree planted by the water, but if you’re willing to stay in one spot, there’s no telling what sort of fruit you’ll bear. That’s what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove got around to saying by the end of his keynote speech Tuesday morning at National Older Adult Conference (NOAC). Along the way he took his audience on a startling journey, from a bombed out crater in Baghdad, past the doors to Death Row, through the creation of an intentional Christian community in a difficult neighborhood in Durham, N.C.

Wilson-Hartgrove told how he grew up in a small town near Mt. Airy, N.C., best known as the birth place of Andy Griffith. His Baptist upbringing including Bible memorization and eventually attendance at a Jesus Boot Camp. As a teen he went on a mission trip to Zimbabwe. But it was as a young adult, working as a journalist for a religiously based news organization as the US drew closer to the second Gulf War, that he began to question some basic assumptions.

He and his wife accepted an invitation to travel with Christian Peacemaker Teams to Iraq in the final days before “Shock and Awe” began. Two days before the fall of Baghdad, they were expelled by the Iraqi government and driven on bomb-cratered roads to the border. One of the three cars that carried their team members hit shrapnel and was thrown into a ditch. The parable of the Good Samaritan came to life as locals from the village of Rutba drove them to a doctor, who, despite the fact that US forces had blown his hospital out of existence only three days before, stitched up those whose heads had been split open in the car crash. He realized that “God is using our enemies to show us what God’s love looks like.”

After reexamining the underpinnings of his life, the couple formed Rutba house in a neglected part of Durham as a “New Monastic” community. The families that live there open their doors to the community and work on what Wilson-Hartgrove identifies as “the gift of stability.” Noting that along with all the good things that have come with technological advancement there has been a notable lack of discernment about what is really working for humanity and the earth, he identified “cultural homelessness” as a key problem. “People aren’t sure where they belong.”

Using the story of Jesus crossing over to the country of the Gerasenes, he identified the demoniac as one familiar in our culture–the person who gets no rest, but is always on the go. When Jesus healed the man, however, he was discovered dressed, calm, and seated at Jesus’ feet. Jesus encouraged that stability by discouraging the man from following him, instead insisting he adopt a stable life at home.

The Rutba Hospitality House is an attempt to live out the love of Jesus. The gift of stability includes grace and space to deal with internal problems as well as work and prayer creating a balanced rhythm of life that extends love to the surrounding African-American neighborhood, to the neighborhood youth who have been lured into gangs, to those who end up in jail. Eventually the work of the house has extended to civil disobedience to halt the use of the death penalty in the state of North Carolina, Wilson-Hartgrove shared. He himself has been arrested and held in jail for attempting to block the doors to a state prison on execution day, all the while, he said, quietly encouraged by the police who were forced to arrest him. It is a continuing story, as Rutba House further extends to both sides of the prison wall.

“The real gift of staying in one place over time is that it makes possible for you to bear fruit that would otherwise be impossible,” he said. He encouraged all to find peace and community, anchored to daily prayer, and alleviated by God’s work.

— Frank Ramirez is pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren and a member of the NOAC volunteer communications team