Monday 5 August

The #NH2019 Media Team is delighted to bring you summaries of all the main sessions this week so you don’t miss a thing!   On Monday evening, Rosaria Butterfield considered how radical hospitality means taking risks and reaching out to strangers with the love of Jesus.   Here’s what she had to say:

Hebrews 13: 1-3

March 5, 2009 in Fairfax Virginia, was the day before our new son’s 16th birthday and my husband Kent and I were about to meet him for the very first time.

We stood at a precipice that was both familiar and foreign… we had already adopted two children and one of them was already a teenager. We knew that each life is a gift.  Each life holds treasures.

The current living situation of the son we had not yet met was what polite company refers to as a “therapeutic group home.”  So we put our children, Mary and Knox in their car seats and headed off feeling as if we are walking off a cliff. This was a most sacred risk.

The house we entered looked like any other, except for the neat rows of children’s shoes, ranging from very small to very large – this “home” was at full capacity.  We were welcomed by one of the live-in social workers.

None of the bedrooms had doors.  Alarms rang upstairs as children with monitors on their ankles set off buzzers by moving from place to place.  No one is allowed outside without supervision and everyone is supervised all the time.  Children must seek permission to use the toilet.  The rule charts on the kitchen walls are endless and daunting.

Each child has their own list.  Each list starts the same: rise at 5.30am, make bed, take medicine…  The wall charts paper the walls.

The rule charts record as a goal what the State sees as the goal for each child: reunification with birth family, adoption or permanent foster care.  I look at the charts and I can’t wrap my mind around how these goals can be successfully accomplished.

These children have become robots. They take medicine to wake up, to remain calm, to go to school and to go to sleep.   I want to like this house but this is no home; this is a prison and this is one of the finest government-run therapeutic homes in one of the wealthiest states in America.

Our son Knox has brought a present for Michael – a plastic dinosaur with its foot chewed off by our dog.  I notice that there is not one toy in sight.

I know that rules are important. The first question that foster children ask when they enter our home is, “What are the rules?”  I know that sin resides in the hearts of men and I do not look at orphans and widows and homeless people as sheer victims. But this house really disturbs me.  In the bedrooms are wards of the state, medicated to the hilt who need permission to use the bathroom.

I know I can’t save anyone – Jesus saves. But I also know that we have to show up. Here we were and we had shown up and this house gave me the creeps.

I thought of the 7,000 children who age out of foster care and end up in prison or homeless or dead.

I sat in this house, in my class and my racial privilege and I knew what i meant to pray for lost mankind (myself the chief of sinners) pleading with God that I will be able to do good.

Mrs. Jones brought Michael to us and I behold one of the most beautiful children I have ever seen!  He is scared.  He looked right past me and right past Kent and fixed his gaze on Knox and Mary. Suddenly his face lit up.  Mary gave him a hug and Knox gave him the dinosaur with its chewed foot. This looked like a family reunion and yet we were all still strangers.

Michael pleads to go back to his room to show Knox and Mary his family photo.  Moments later, he returned with a Polaroid picture cupped in his hands, the corners curling.  It is the only remnant of proof that he survived another life in another world with unfinished business that still dogs him.  Every child I have ever known who has spent time in foster homes has a picture like this.

Michael settled back down on the floor with the children. With his picture in his hands, he was no longer nervous.  Knox and Mary knew that this was a sacred moment and they waited for Michael to reveal the treasure in his hands.

They don’t know how to interpret the old picture of three children – the boys in the picture look strikingly familiar.  From that moment, on it was almost like I had twin boys. Michael said, “Look Knox, this is a picture of my brother Aaron.”  But Knox says, “That looks like me.”

The mystery of the covenant of family unfolds in places like this.  Majesty and miracle are on display.  In all of my years of parenting and with all of the children that I have held, comforted, tucked in, listened to, fed and prayed for… nothing had prepared me for that moment.

My identity as a mum comes into full view when faced with a frightened, angry, misunderstood teenager.  I love them instantly.  No parenting book prepared me for what it meant to love at first sight my newly-met son. Teenagers placed in foster care feel broken and unwanted.  They feel like lepers – marked and shamed, outsiders, rejects.  Even the rules of the system work against them. They need contagious grace.

One year later, we have the privilege to adopt Michael and something earth-shattering happened when we stood before the judge.  When you adopt a teenager, they have to asset to the adoption.  When the judge asked him the question, he replied, “I belong here.”  They were such powerful words.

I was feeling so good about myself.  Later that same day I was speaking at an adoption rally. Before I took the podium our social worker came up to us and said, “Rosaria, I have terrible news.  Jessica is dead. She was found in a homeless shelter and we think it was suicide.”

Jessica was the girl we didn’t adopt.  I sat down and wrote her name in the corner of my Bible.  That day that I was speaking, they had asked me to talk about the risks of adopting teenagers.  Apparently teenagers are risky.

All of a sudden, all I could think about was a different kind of risk.  It was the risk of not showing up. It was the risk of being afraid of people because they have a bad reputation.  It was the risk that makes us feel entitled to say “no” before we even consider saying “yes”.

What I came to learn is the importance of saying, “Yes” even when it is scary.

Teenagers in foster homes are not people you would ever meet unless you seek them out.

Maybe because of our busy-ness there is no time to seek a stranger.   The Lord Jesus Christ seeks people.  We are called to look out for people.  Seeking the stranger always means that you don’t get to do something else.  One of the ways that we have found it easy to seek out strangers is to become a “safe family” (whole family care).

A few years ago, we had an amazing experience. A friend of  from church had been fasting for three days. On the third day, which was the Lord’s day, we were finishing up teaching the children’s programme and a woman walked through the door with a little boy.  It was obvious that they had been sleeping in their car.  My friend said, “We need to take these people in.”

We sat down with Emerald and little Sammy and made a plan – our two Christian families committed themselves to take care of this one family displaced by homelessness.  The mum and the son were happy to move in but the dad didn’t want to because he didn’t trust us. So Kent when out to find him and bring him home (with just the clothes on his back).

We immediately contacted our neighbours for help getting the family to work on time.  It all took a lot of organising and working things out.   On the third day, when we could finally settle down, we were at the table and Kent was sharing the Gospel and this family started sharing the Gospel back!

We realised that we were living with a Christian family displaced by homelessness!

So I wrote their names in my Bible too because it had happened, we were living with angels unaware!

We had a challenging summer.  We lacked privacy. We did all summer child care. We enlisted our neighbours to help out with driving them back and forward to work.

Our church treasurer was able to help them with their finances and eventually another family from a bigger church was willing to rent out their apartment to them without a credit check.

My daughter missed a couple of swim team challenges and our water bill went up but when I look back on the great opportunity it was to host angels unaware, I cannot believe that the Lord allowed us that privilege.

When a stranger walks across the threshold of your house that stranger becomes part of the family.  But it is risky.

You cannot have a commuting relationship if you genuinely care for people.

In this world where you may be frightened about votes that are coming, in this potentially post-Christian Northern Ireland, there is no better reason to do mercy work with abandon.

Remember what Jesus has done.  Remember that our Lord took condemnation so that we could be free.  He took stripes and beatings so that we could be healed.  Jesus took false accusations.  He even took the wrath of God so that we could stand in robes of righteousness. He took betrayal from friends so that we could belong.

Some people may need to be carried across the threshold.

There is no way to put the hand of the stranger into the hand of the Saviour without standing very close.

But don’t fear loving the stranger, because you too may have an opportunity to entertain angels.

But what about the children?  Yes my children have grown up in this environment and they are doing just fine. They love the Lord Jesus Christ. They know how to witness to their friends.  They have seen some of the most unlikely people come to Christ because Christ specialising in unlikely converts.   We could all use a good dose of courage in loving the stranger!