“The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” —Mark 1:15.
For Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove D’06, these verses from Mark, the first words from Jesus as he begins his ministry, raise profound questions:
If the Kingdom of God is at hand, what does it look like? How do we live in it? Does it overcome the kingdoms of the world?
Wilson-Hartgrove hopes to find at least some of the answers in a small white frame house in Durham, N.C., where he and his wife, Leah, live with a group of fellow pilgrims.
Located in Walltown, a poor, historically African American neighborhood north of Duke’s East Campus, Rutba House is an intentional Christian community established in August 2003 by the Wilson-Hartgroves and fellow divinity student Isaac Villegas D’06.
Shortly before the United States began bombing Iraq, Jonathan and Leah had traveled there as members of a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) determined to tell Iraqis that Americans did not all support the war. Their experiences became the subject of To Baghdad and Beyond (Cascade Books: 2005), which describes the couple’s conversion to the “new monasticism.” Officially launched at a June 2004 conference Wilson-Hartgrove organized in Durham, the movement was featured on the September 2005 cover of Christianity Today. A second book, School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of A New Monasticism, a collection of essays edited by The Rutba House, was recently published, also by Cascade Books.
The movement draws upon the work of Leah’s father, Jonathan Wilson, a professor of theology and ethics at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. In his book, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, Wilson, who has a Ph.D. from Duke in theology and ethics, describes “the new monasticism.”
U.S. culture, Wilson says, is experiencing a “crisis of fragmentation.” He proposes a return to disciplined monastic communities to guide the culture and a silent church out of the abyss of complicity and sinfulness.
Following their 2003 return from Iraq, the Wilson-Hartgroves graduated from Eastern College and moved to Durham, where Jonathan had accepted a full scholarship to seminary at Duke. But even as he pursued fulltime study, he and Leah were determined to build a lay Christian community.
They realized, however, that their commitment involved more than moving into a poor neighborhood. They developed specific disciplines, all practiced by Jesus and followed by the monastics of the Early Church, to be shared by all who join their community. Hospitality, prayer, fasting, simplicity, peacemaking, celebration and song are embraced and lived out at the Rutba House as a means of serving God through love of neighbor.
While a small group of divinity students form the core of the Rutba community, their ranks also include others, both from elsewhere within Duke and the surrounding neighborhood. Roy Poteat, for example, a 40-year-old who is recovering from addictions to drugs and alcohol, has committed to living at Rutba House. Although Villegas, the community’s co-founder, has since moved on, he remains a close friend and supporter. Another divinity student, Sarah Jobe, joined last May. Three other divinity students also live in the community for short-term stays.
As their ranks grew, the Rutba House rented a second house nearby. The home includes a garden, where volunteers recently prepared beds for a fall crop. Three Duke graduate students live in the second house, and a room has been set aside for hospitality.
Walltown neighbors are invited to communal suppers several times a week, and each Wednesday, after supper, the community fasts for 24 hours, gathering again for Thursday’s evening meal. Morning and night prayer are also communal.
“The door’s always open,” Jonathan says. “People stop by daily for meals, to get a ride, or just to talk.”
The Wilson-Hartgroves’ worship and work lives are also tied to Walltown. From the outset, they have worshipped across the street at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, an African-American congregation. Jonathan now works there as community minister, preaching, teaching a Bible study, and working with various community projects. Leah works at Walltown Neighborhood Ministries, a local resource center.
But Rutba House’s ministry extends far beyond Walltown and Durham. In late July, for example, members and some of their Walltown neighbors joined a Christian Peacemaker Team in Arizona. They were trained to offer water and medical assistance to anyone trying to cross the desert from Mexico into the U.S.
“It was an effort to make a connection between the life of the kingdom in Walltown and God's movement for justice and peace in other parts of the world,” says Wilson-Hartgrove.
The Rutba House is also working with the Christian Peacemaker Teams to reduce violence in Durham. The new project grew out of the Rutba community’s relationships with young neighborhood residents who have been gang members and families who have lost sons to gang violence.
Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe professor of theological ethics, says the 24-year-old Wilson is “wise beyond his years” and speaks with theological authority.
“Rutba House is beginning to live what some of us have been imagining through our work as theologians,” says Hauerwas. “Jonathan isn't accidental; that his father-in-law is Jonathan Wilson, it makes a lot of difference. That Protestants are doing this kind of thing is really quite extraordinary.”
Wilson says he is “humbled” by what his daughter and son-in-law are undertaking in Durham. North American culture, he says, is too closely identified with “the American nation state.”
“Few well-placed critical voices are in the public arena speaking a prophetic word out of the Christian tradition,” he says. “But the new monasticism is beginning to change that.”
While Wilson-Hartgrove has clearly been influenced by his father-in-law, his own roots shaped him even more powerfully. Born and reared in a Southern Baptist home in King, N.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he grew up in a world that was “just saturated with Jesus.” The church near his home, where his father was a deacon and his mother the choir director, was the focus of family life.
Early on, Wilson-Hartgrove developed a deep appreciation for Scripture, and dreamed of being a preacher.
But he often had trouble squaring his Bible lessons with the lived Christian life. He was being challenged by another voice, one that kept calling him to a deeper level of faithfulness. As an early teen, he became frustrated with his Bible teachers, who seemed to be saying don’t take “this Jesus stuff ” too seriously.
But Jonathan always took it seriously.
“I just really was fascinated with everything I could get my hands on to read about Scripture and about God,” he said. “I felt kind of called early on to serve God, and I was really captivated in the church by the way the missionaries came to our church and told stories about their service. They seemed to really take it seriously.”
When he was considering seminaries, Wilson- Hartgrove found that same seriousness about Christian faith at Duke. As an undergraduate he had read both Hauerwas and Richard Hays, G.W. Ivey professor of New Testament. His father-in-law also encouraged him to choose Duke for divinity school.
“At Duke, people seemed to be talking about things that mattered,” Jonathan said.
When he and Leah first visited Duke, they learned about Walltown Neighborhood Ministries and the history of Walltown's relationship with Duke.
In many ways, there seemed to be a master/servant component, Jonathan says. Indeed, many Walltown residents still call Duke “the plantation.”
“We sensed a call to reconciliation work and saw both a need and a movement of the Spirit in Walltown,” he says.
Since creating the Rutba House, the couple have immersed themselves in Walltown life. Both worked with the Urban Hope summer camp for teens. Leah leads a neighborhood after-school program.
Once Jonathan receives his M.Div. next spring, he and Leah will stay in Walltown. Indeed, they hope to have children and raise them at the Rutba House, both confident that the new monasticism will continue, grow and flourish.
Their vision is rooted in the “economics of providence,” with community members trusting that God will provide the means for them to do what they are called to do. Members work a variety of jobs to pay the bills, but support also comes from a wide network of people, especially divinity students and faculty. Last summer, Professor of Bible & Practical Theology Ellen Davis donated shares of produce from Infinity Farm, a nearby CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) participant, to St. John’s. Jonathan organized weekly distribution of the fresh food to Walltown residents. He also took a group of youth from the church to a community workday at the farm.
The Wilson-Hartgroves are in it “for the long haul,” says Jonathan. Long enough to see what real Christian community looks like. Long enough to see what success looks like in the unfolding mystery of God’s Kingdom.
And what would that look like?
“It would be dying here and having this community carry us over to St. John's and remember us as one of them.”
Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Garner, N.C.
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