Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Episode Resources

Listen to the series, "The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert."

Leslie Basham: Rosaria Butterfield was an outspoken atheist and lesbian activist. So when a local pastor and his wife invited her into their home, she wasn’t sure what to expect from the visit.

Rosaria Butterfield: He made it very clear I wasn’t a project. I was a neighbor, and he was going to respectfully treat me like that.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts, with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Adorned, for August 13, 2018.

Hospitality is powerful. God can use it to change a life. That’s what we’ll hear about today from our guest Rosaria Butterfield. This conversation took place at the Ligonier Ministry National Conference, so you’ll notice it doesn’t sound like our regular studio. Let’s listen.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Well, it is such a joy today to welcome back to Revive Our Hearts my sweet friend, Rosaria Butterfield. She’s sitting here smiling a smile as big as the world. She’s a warm-hearted, Christ-centered, gospel-loving sister in Christ, and I’m so thrilled for you to be able to hear her again.

Rosaria, welcome back to Revive Our Hearts.

Rosaria: Thank you so much. It is such an honor to be here today.

Nancy: And if people are hearing a little bit of hubbub in the background, it’s because we’re not in the Revive Our Hearts studio.

Rosaria: No, we’re not!

Nancy: We’re sitting in an alcove at a conference where you’re going to be speaking in just a bit.

Rosaria: Yes.

Nancy: When I heard that, and my husband and I knew we were going to be here at the conference, we said, “Rosaria, could we catch you for a little bit of time here?”

Rosaria: Oh, it’s an honor.

Nancy: You have a book that’s come out recently that’s a subject that’s been deep in your heart for a long time.

Rosaria: Yes.

Nancy: And in mine as well. I’m holding it in my hand, and it’s called, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. And here’s the sub-title: “Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World.”

I had the chance to read this book on the flight on the way down here to Orlando, and I love, love, love what you’ve done with this subject, but I mostly love . . . Well, there’s two things I love about it: One is how biblically grounded it is in the ways of God and the gospel of Christ. (We’re going to talk about that.) But I also love how this is a life message for you and Kent and your family.

Rosaria: Yes, it is. Right.

Nancy: This is not just theory.

Rosaria: Nope—feet on the floor.

Nancy: This is messy practice.

Rosaria: Yes, it is. (Laughter)

Nancy: So we’re going to unpack that. I think it’s a scary topic for a lot of people—hospitality. But we’re going to unpack why it is and why it doesn’t have to be.

I want to start with . . . You say at the beginning of this book if Mary Magdalene had written a book about hospitality in this post-Christian world, it would read like yours does.

Rosaria: (Laughter) Yes, it would.

Nancy: What made you say that?

Rosaria: Well, the impetus of this book came years and years and years ago in a time of my life when I was actually not a Christian. I was a lesbian activist. I was happily partnered to a woman.

I had just co-authored the first domestic partnership policy at Syracuse University that would be the forerunner to gay marriage. And what people sometimes don’t know is that the gay and lesbian community is a community deeply given to hospitality. It started that way, in part, through the way that the AIDS crisis in the late 80s and the 90s forced a coalition among people that do not naturally habit.

And this might be something that’s helpful for Christians to understand. There is no natural simpatico between a lesbian woman and a gay man, for example. This was a coalition that was built out of a crisis.

Nancy: So they came together.

Rosaria: They came together because . . . I mean, this was back in the day when AIDS was called “GRID”—gay-related immune deficiency order.

So, first of all, hospitality has been deep on my heart forever. But also, I was the recipient of Christian hospitality at this moment. I think that people imagine that the commands about loving the stranger, they’re just too hard. But that’s the reason that I’m sitting here with you, and that I get to be speaking at this conference, and be your sister in the Lord.

I mean, even if I never spoke at a conference in my life, just to be in Christ is because a pastor named Ken Smith read an article that I had written in a New York newspaper, and the title of the article (you know how the newspapers get the titles) was, “The Promise-Keeper’s Message Is a Danger to Democracy.”

Nancy: This is an article you had written.

Rosaria: I had written it because this Christian men’s movement had come to town and spent time at the university. I was a professor at the university, and I just loathed and hated the ideas that Christians espoused, so I wrote this article.

And one of the young elders in the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church brought this article to Ken Smith and put it on his desk and said, “Ken . . .”

Nancy: He was the pastor of the church.

Rosaria: He was the pastor—an old guy. I mean, he’s even older now and alive—praise God. But he was an old guy. He put the article on his desk, and said, “Ken, we have got to shut this woman up. She is trouble. She is the one that just commissioned the first domestic partnership policy. She’s a gay right’s activist. She talks at gay pride marches. She’s soon to be tenured. She’s the machine. We need to stop her.”

And Ken looked up from his desk and said, “Oh. Well, maybe Floy and I should have her over for dinner.”

Nancy: Which isn’t the initial response most people probably would have had.

Rosaria: No, because I was not the nice, friendly, same-sex-attracted, struggling neighbor across the street. I was the enemy.

Well, Ken wrote a letter to me—this was back before everybody had email that was available.

Nancy: Right.

Rosaria: So Ken wrote me a letter on very nice stationery. I could tell by his signature he was kind of an old guy, which I felt was somewhat endearing. He asked me some fascinating questions about my article, and I wasn’t really sure what to do with this letter. I had gotten lots of feedback—there was hate mail, there was fan mail—and both just kind of go in one ear and out the other and then in a box.

Nancy: Sure.

Rosaria: But his letter was somewhat disarming. I remember a colleague of mine in the Anthropology Department came over to my office, and we were talking about something, and I said, “Hey, John, what do you think of this letter?”

And John said, “Aren’t you starting to write a book on the religious right and their policies of hatred against people in the LGBTQ community?”

And I said, “Well, yes, yes I am.”

And he said, “Well, welcome to your new unpaid research assistant. This guy’s got it. He’s got the pedigree, and he’s got the subject position. You’ve got to have dinner with him.”

Nancy: To find out what he really thinks.

Rosaria: Yes, absolutely. So that’s really how it started.

Nancy: In that letter, did he invite you to come to their home for a visit?

Rosaria: Yes, he did. He really did. He invited me.

Nancy: And he wasn’t hateful or the things you had assumed he would be?

Rosaria: No. No. No. No. No. Not at all.

Nancy: But you could tell he didn’t agree with you.

Rosaria: Oh, yes, yes. No, he clearly didn’t agree with my position, but he disagreed with it intellectually and thoughtfully, and part of me was really intrigued. How do Christians live? I’d never been invited into a Christian home before. I had no idea. Like, “What did you all do in your home? Who knew?” (Laughing)

Nancy: Right.

Rosaria: I mean, who knew? And I thought, Well, this would be interesting. So he asked me to call him back, and I did. And it was very sweet. He invited me to his home, and then he really quickly after that said, “Oh, unless that makes you feel uncomfortable, and maybe you would prefer we met you at a restaurant.”

I had to explain, “No, no, no. Actually, this is wonderful because the LGBTQ community is a community given to hospitality.”

Nancy: So you were used to that.

Rosaria: I’m used to that. I’m used to a lot of people in my home with various ideas, all coming together, bonding together against the loneliness and the isolation that is just the next door step.

Nancy: Right.

Rosaria: So I thought it would be fun. Then I found out that he actually lived less than a mile away from me, which made him, really, a neighbor as well.

Nancy: When you went to their home that first time for dinner, were you apprehensive about how it was going to go?

Rosaria: I was. I almost cancelled. In fact, all day I was rehearsing the cancellation phone call. So that’s what I was rehearsing all day.

Nancy: But you did it.

Rosaria: I decided, “No, just suck it up. Do it.” I sat in the driveway for a while. I drove to his house, and I sat in the driveway. And I thought, My truck with my National Abortion Rights Action League bumper sticker and my lesbian labras, and all of the other symbols of a world that is so foreign to theirs . . . this is so weird. This is so weird.”

I sat there for a while just taking a deep breath and then reminding myself, “I genuinely have a question.” This was a research project, but it wasn’t just a research project.

Nancy: Right.

Rosaria: There was a deep desire to know why these people hated me, and why they thought that my life was immoral and wrong. And I also had a deep desire, to some degree, to explain to them that I am happy. I am a good citizen. I tried to date men. I went to Catholic schools. I really tried. And when I met my first lesbian lover, life finally came together for me and made sense. I didn’t understand fundamentally why Christians would not leave consenting adults alone.

So it was a genuine question that got me out of my truck and standing at the front door, knocking.

Nancy: And how did that first time in their home go?

Rosaria: It was lovely. It was very disarming—very much like Ken and Floy. They were very sensitive to me. Floy made a vegetarian meal, which she didn’t need to do. I don’t know if she knew that I didn’t eat meat at the time or if she herself was or if that was just an easier meal to make. But it was really, really lovely.

Ken is a deep reader of literature. And they were different. Ken was the humanities guy, and Floy was the scientist. And although they had very much of a “traditional” marriage, where Ken was the head of the household and Floy stayed home and did supportive things, she certainly wasn’t a doormat. They were clearly a team, and they really loved each other and that was compelling. That was really compelling.

We just enjoyed our time together. And then at the end of the evening, Ken said he would like to help me with my research project, which, of course, that was . . .

Nancy: . . . what you needed.

Rosaria: I needed, and that was kind of the sales pitch. That’s what I wanted. But he said, “You know, you’re going to have to read the Bible.”

And I said, “I know. I’m not an anthropologist. I can’t just go and interview people. But I enjoy reading books; I want to read. So I plan to do this. This is my plan.”

And so he said, “Well, great. Come back next week.”

And that began a two-year friendship. At the end of that first meeting, he omitted two very important rules in the rule book of how Christians deal with their heathen neighbors. Everybody’s read the rule book. I’ve read it. You’ve read it.

Number one: You’ve got to invite her to church. And number two: You’ve got to share the gospel.

Nancy: Especially considering the fact that he was a pastor.

Rosaria: Oh, my goodness. So I was just bracing myself for that at the end, and then he didn’t do it. He just said, “Great. Well, this is a good night for us. We’ll see you next week. Have a nice week.”

And that was just disarming, too, and it made me feel safe. It wasn’t that he was erasing his Christian life. In fact, he spent most of the evening talking about what he perceived to be the differences in our world view. He asked me a lot of questions about my life. He didn’t fall over dead when I actually answered those questions, which was very nice.

Nancy: And he listened.

Rosaria: Oh, yes. He listened, and he didn’t have a heart attack when we talked about . . . I don’t know. He was lovely.

He also prayed for our meal in a way that was very unlike any prayer I’d ever heard before, and that was somewhat intriguing.

As an English professor, I studied narrative form. I’m what’s called a “whole book scholar” so my background is to take one book and put it together and see how it fits. And that means you have to understand how different narrative voices fit together.

I had heard a kind of programmatic Catholic prayer. I was expecting something more like that, but his prayer was very different. And what was really strange—this was really strange—he was talking to God as though he were on good terms with God.

Nancy: Like he actually knew Him.

Rosaria: Yes, and that they were on good terms. And I thought, Well, what’s up with that?

So at the end of that first evening, I felt like it was actually safe to engage in this research project with somebody I considered to be the enemy because he made it very clear I wasn’t a project. I was a neighbor, and he was going to respectfully treat me like that.

Nancy: And they kept inviting you back into their home, and you kept going.

Rosaria: Right. I had countless meals in their home. I had two years of meals in their home. Some of those were private meals. But then there were other days, like on this day they called “the Lord’s day,” which I thought, Well, that’s whacky. I wonder what that means. (Laughing.)

It’s on this day they call “the Lord’s day,” which, of course, I now call “the Lord’s day.” But they would invite me, and they would have lots of people from their church, but also lots of people from the community. People would come in with their Bibles and their psalters, and they’d be engaging in philosophical discussions, and they’d open the Bible, and they’d talk about things.

And I thought, Well, that’s weird. It’s like the Bible isn’t a museum piece. I thought it was something you’d keep pressed flowers in and not spill coffee on. So that was fascinating to see people use an ancient book in that way. That was fascinating.

They would also engage in this practice called “singing psalms” from a book called The Psalter. That was a book filled, just page after page of the grand staff with 150 psalms in meter for four-part harmony. They would sing a cappella, which is beautiful.

Nancy: Yes.

Rosaria: I’m a singer. I love to sing. I think the only word that I could keep coming back to to describe their Christian home was disarming, because the music was compelling and beautiful and drew me in. I’m a music person. It speaks to my heart.

And the words . . . well, they were repulsive to me. They were repulsive and obnoxious and horrific and frightening. And it was that combination of compelling and repulsive, really.

Nancy: And yet those very words were doing a work in your heart.

Rosaria: You know, they really were. There’s something about singing those very words because if you sing it, they go pretty deep inside of you.

Nancy: Yes.

Rosaria: So, I would also go to their home on Sunday, and then throughout the week sometimes Ken would always find some reason I had to stop over to drop something off, or he would drop over, stop over at my house.

He was very comfortable with my friends. I had a friend who was transgendered—and that means this is someone who was biologically male, but had taken enough female hormones to be chemically castrated, lived in a liminal state. Like, when you would see this person, you would know. It would not be clear maybe who this person was. Although Jill was very tall, so that might be a sign—over 6’ tall—and had an Adam’s apple. That might be a sign also.

But Ken was very gracious to Jill, and that was really amazing to me because even in the gay community at that time—this is the 90s—the trans-community were not seen as a political cache, which is how I believe the gay community is using the trans-community now. They were not seen as the front line of a civil rights movement. They were the embarrassing cousins or something.

So even in the gay community, Jill was not treated well. So for Ken to come in and sit down and just treat Jill with utter and complete respect was amazing.

Nancy: Which came out of his theology, that she and you were created in the image of God.

Rosaria: Right.

Nancy: Even though your thinking had been distorted by sin, by deception.

Rosaria: Right. It came out of his theology. Absolutely. But at that time I didn’t know what it came out of, but it was a beautiful thing, and it made a world of difference to Jill.

I mean, people may or may not know this, but the transgender community, there’s a very high degree of mental health issues. It’s only a barbaric culture that would take a community that is ripped to the core of mental health issues and make that a political tool for some civil right advancement.

So Ken was very tender with Jill, and I really appreciated that. I didn’t know why at the time. I really didn’t know where that came from, but I sure knew that we all need that. Whatever Ken Smith had, I know, and I knew that we needed a lot more of that.

Nancy: In time the Spirit used his kindness and the Word and the gospel to draw you to faith.

Rosaria: Right! Yes! Two years of reading my Bible over and over again, seven times through in all.

Nancy: Wow!

Rosaria: Two years of working through this with Ken, I just had a crisis. I told Ken, “I’m sick of this. I don’t want to talk to you again.” I tried to write him a “Dear John” letter, whatever that was (laughing), “I can’t do this research project. It’s over.”

And Ken said, “Great. Let’s not do a research project, but just get to the bottom of this. Let’s just get to the bottom of this. Just keep reading the Bible for the big life questions.”

And the only reason I did that is because he and I were friends. And what happened was the Bible just got to be bigger inside me than I. I came to a point where I realized that Jesus is who He says He is in the Scriptures.This whole time I really thought I was on the side of peace and social justice and diversity and compassion and care, and it was horrifying to realize that it was Jesus I was persecuting the whole time—not some historical figure named Jesus, but my Jesus, my Prophet, my Priest, my King, my Husband, my Friend, my Savior.

So I did it. I committed my life to Jesus. I think people often assume that that meant my lesbian desires went away. Well, no. No. I committed my life to Jesus, not because I stopped feeling like a lesbian, but because Jesus is who He says He is.

Nancy: Yes.

Rosaria: It was a slow go. It was not an easy. Sexual sin and sexual identity goes very deep inside a person. But slowly, over time, I had been praying that God would make me a godly woman. And by that, I didn’t mean any of the stereotypes of that, but I really meant covering. If somebody said, “What would that mean to you?” In fact, one of my friends did say, “What does that mean to you?”

I said, “It means covering. It means being covered by God.” I just wanted to be covered by God.

And then slowly over time, that prayer morphed into praying that I could be a godly wife of a godly husband. And that seemed ridiculous. Right? It seemed absurd. But God specializes in the absurd.

Nancy: The whole concept of being born again is pretty absurd.

Rosaria: Yes. It’s pretty absurd. God specializes in the strange and in reaching the stranger—someone like me—and taking that person and giving that person a new heart.

So for years after that—for a couple of years, at any rate—everything about me had changed and nothing about me changed. My heart changed. I desired the Bible more than anything. I wanted to read theology. I suddenly wanted to see my story under the covering of the ontology of the Bible.

But then, again, I just didn’t stop feeling like a lesbian overnight. That’s not how it happened.

Nancy: Well, it was a journey.

Rosaria: Yes, it was.

Nancy: Coming to Christ and then growing in Christ.

Rosaria: Yes.

Nancy: As it is for each of us, every person.

Rosaria: Right.

Nancy: One of the things I love about that story, which you’ve written about elsewhere, and you’ve talked about previous on Revive Our Hearts—and if you want to hear that whole series, it’s really worth listening to, go to ReviveOurHearts.com, and you can pull that up.

But one of the things I love, in light of this new book you’ve written, is that the incubator, if you will, for that journey, that process, for that rebirth in you was a home.

Rosaria: It was a home.

Nancy: It was meals.

Rosaria: It was.

Nancy: It was friendship.

Rosaria: Right.

Nancy: It was extended inside the four walls of a home where people were not . . . Where a pastor and his wife, who were known for a different viewpoint than yours, were not afraid to open their door, to welcome you, to sit with you.

Regardless of what somebody else might think, in their church or elsewhere, about all of this—it was this hospitality, this radically ordinary hospitality that God used as context, an incubator in which to change your heart.

Rosaria: Yes.

Nancy: We want to unpack over the next couple of days some of those. We want to unpack what that kind of hospitality looks like—it clearly had a radical impact in your life.

Rosaria: It did!

Nancy: And now you’re challenging others that God can use them to be a means of grace in the lives of the least likely, the ones you would never expect would be open to the gospel.

The book is called The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and you’re talking about how to practice this radically ordinary hospitality in our post-Christian world. We’re going to continue this conversation tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth and Rosaria Butterfield have been talking about how genuine hospitality can make way for the gospel.

To get a copy of the book they’ve been talking about, ask for The Gospel Comes with a House Key when you send a gift of any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts. Just visit ReviveOurHearts.com, or you can call 1–800–569–5959 to make your donation. Be sure and ask for the book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

Tomorrow we’ll hear how Rosaria Butterfield has been privilege to witness friends and neighbors come to know Christ inside her own home.

Rosaria: We have watched people have their lives turned around by Christ, and all we’ve done is open the door to a pretty messy house.

Leslie: Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you develop a heart for hospitality. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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