By Gaye Clark
Marcia’s voice cracked as she spoke, “Hello, Mrs. Clark. Is your husband home? I’d like to wish him Happy Father’s Day.”
I handed the phone to Jim, smiled and said, “Your other daughter is calling.”
Months before while sitting at my computer an email caught my attention. The subject line read, “Young woman, broken and alone.” The sender was Dr. Robert Campbell, a local internal medicine specialist who had opened an inner city clinic to reach the poor of Augusta, Georgia. “Marcia fled an abusive relationship and is now in a temporary shelter. Will you meet with her?”
On my way to meet her it occurred to me, I don’t even know what she looks like.
But fear and loneliness doesn’t require a description. Twenty-nine-year-old Marcia Mitchell sat in the back of the restaurant and brushed tears from her face. She jumped at every noise and her eyes locked onto each customer who walked in.
When she saw me, Marcia jumped to her feet and wrapped her arms around me. “Are you the woman Dr. Campbell sent to help me?”
I still had no idea what help looked like.
I touched her shoulder, “Tell me how you came to be in a shelter.”
Marcia leaned forward. “I don’t earn enough money to make it. Bills I couldn’t pay kept coming.
Then I met Jonathan*. He offered to move in and help with expenses. He was good to me, at first. After a while, he grew controlling. When I did something he didn’t like, I caught his wrath.
One night, I thought he was going to kill me. So I just got out. I didn’t take anything with me.
Just got out of there. I’m in Safehomes right now, but I have to leave in two weeks.”
Safehomes (and most shelters) place a time limit on how long a woman can stay. Although shelters do their best to help battered women relocate, many women have no choice but to return to their abuser when their options dwindle. At the time I met with Marcia, she worked two jobs and still struggled to survive.
She continued, “What I did was wrong, letting a man move in with me, and I paid a terrible price.”
Indeed she did.
Marcia Mitchell, without a home, adequate income, or a family to fall back on, qualifies as a modern version of both the widow and the orphan. But what does it mean for her to live in community with other believers?
Marcia and I agreed to talk again in a week. Although risky, I believed the Lord called me to bring Marcia into my home. As I began to pray, several passages of Scripture came to mind. Hebrews 13 exhorts us, “Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Job modeled radical hospitality when he said, “the sojourner has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler” (Job 31:32). In Matthew 25:35b, in the day of final judgment, radical hospitality is a mark of those on Jesus’ right. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” or “invited me in,” as some translations read.
Meanwhile, I pitched the idea of radical hospitality to my husband. Jim, the engineer with a keen sense of detail, asked hard questions. How can we be certain that this woman’s abuser would not put our family at risk? Is Marcia sure she is ready to leave her abuser permanently? How wise is it to invite a stranger into our home?
As I prepared to hear Jim’s rejection a sense of relief filled my heart. Of course this was unwise, I mean, we can’t save everyone we encounter—
Jim squeezed my hand, “I think God is calling us to it.”
What? Had I heard the man?
For additional advice we contacted a police officer in our church. He told us Marcia’s abuser was well known to the sheriff's department and a very dangerous man. “The cop in me says don’t do it, but the Christian in me says go for it. I can encourage additional patrols in your neighborhood. It’s a good thing you live so close to the police station.”
We waited a week before inviting Marcia to live with us on the outside chance she would find an apartment. But as Marcia’s alternatives for housing dwindled, I realized how much confidence we place in the secular community to care for the orphan and widow without understanding the limitations those agencies face. What did we expect someone like Marcia to do?
Dr. Paul Tripp writes,
“We are not self-sufficient in any way. We are constantly dependent on God and others in order to live. Self-sufficiency is a delusion. Hundreds and hundreds of people have contributed to what we know, to what we are able to do, to what we have become . . . We were made for community.”
Our invitation shocked her. “Really? You guys would do that? I mean, what in the world? Are you sure? Thank you. Really, thank you.”
When our deacons learned Marcia had a large loan from Titlebucks that would take years to pay off at a high interest rate, they paid the debt in full.
I handed the title for her car back to her and said, “Promise me that Titlebucks and all agencies like them are part of your past. If you need help, we’re your family now.”
When tax season came, Marcia expected about a $300 return. Jim frowned, “That doesn’t sound right. May I take a look with you at your forms?” Together in front of a computer, Jim carefully typed in numbers. Two hours later Jim said, “It looks like your return is $1,200, not $300. I like that number better, don’t you?”
Marcia burst into tears and hugged him. “No one has ever showed me all this before—helped me figure out a budget and plan for the future. Nobody believed I had a future.”
After living with us for two-and-a-half months, Marcia located an affordable apartment near several members of our church. She learned to maintain a budget. She ran out of money twice before the month’s end and asked me for a loan. She took only half of what I offered, “I want to be able to pay you back.”
And she did. Both times.
God does not call every family to the front lines of radical hospitality. I don’t claim to have all the answers to poverty and domestic violence. But I have to wonder. How would the body of Christ look if more of us were willing to risk for the sake of another? I think part of the answer was in that Father’s Day phone call.
“Thank you, Mr. Clark, for showing me how things ought to be. You taught me how a man should love his wife and children. The love in your house spilled over to me. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Things to Consider Before Inviting a Stranger In
- In the case of domestic violence, ask the woman to commit to severing the relationship with her abuser permanently.
- Be certain your entire family favors the invitation and is capable of maintaining basic precautions for your family’s safety.
- Have the local abuse shelter or housing authority run a background check on the woman to insure the need is legitimate.
- Communicate ahead of time by writing your house rules and expectations. Revisit that list frequently.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from church members for meals, help with moving, transportation or childcare.
- Make your neighbors and local police aware of your circumstances.
- Be patient. A woman in crisis may have difficulty planning her afternoon let alone the following week. Help her make lists and prioritize her needs.
- Create margins in your schedule: this is no ordinary houseguest. Be available to talk, pray, and listen. Limit unnecessary demands on your time and energy.
- Encourage her to communicate often with friends and family with whom she had healthy relationships in the past. Abusers often cut off or discourage such contact.
Recognize radical hospitality comes with enormous risks. There is no “happily ever after” guarantee. Seek to look at current disappointments through the lens of eternity. God often changes hearts over a matter of years, not months.