Podcast: Practicing Hospitality in a Pandemic (Rosaria Butterfield)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Does Our Christian Calling Change during Lockdown?

In this episode, Rosaria Butterfield discusses what it looks like to embrace the Christian call to radical hospitality even during a pandemic. She shares about how her family has sought to continue reaching out to those around them with the love of Christ, reflects on our tendency to spend more time reading the news than reading our Bibles, and calls on Christians to fight against the fear that threatens to destroy our witness.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

Rosaria Butterfield

With engaging stories from her own life-changing encounter with radically ordinary hospitality, Butterfield equips Christians to use their homes as a means to showing a post-Christian world what authentic love and faith really look like.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:33 - Quietly Going About the Business of the Church

Matt Tully
Rosaria, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Rosaria Butterfield
Matt, it is my sincere pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Matt Tully
We last had you on the show back in May of 2019, which really feels like a lifetime ago, wouldn’t you say?

Rosaria Butterfield
Oh yes, I agree!

Matt Tully
It’s kind of a truism to say that 2020 was interesting, and in many ways, very challenging for all of us. I heard one person describe the year as feeling like everything was upside down. It wasn’t just a week or two weeks, it was months and months and months of things getting worse and worse. Do you resonate with that feeling? How has 2020 been for you and your family?

Rosaria Butterfield
I do. I would say that for the Butterfields, 2020 really galvanized and focused our Christian calling. It certainly was not business as usual. We relied even more heavily on the basic means of grace just to get through things. We prayed for discernment as we were hearing some, I would say, fairly inflammatory examples of government overreach and thinking about what our responsibility is as a church in that. We always pray for boldness around here because, I don’t know, that’s always a good thing; but it also became very, very clear early on that some of the core things that have always been a part of our ministry—hospitality being the ground zero of our ministry—that that had to continue. That was not going to go away, and the reason was whenever you have a situation where you’ve got lockdowns, people are feeling disenfranchised, depression is up, people are losing their jobs—there are all these things—what the Christian church needs to do is love better and love more. Be more connected, be more available, and really be more discerning. I would say we’ve been acting a little bit like the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1. We’ve just been quietly going about the business of the church. So far, here we are seeing God bless and magnify our ministry and specifically our hospitality outreach.

Matt Tully
Speak to the idea of hospitality in the deepest and richest and most distinctly Christian sense of the word. That’s been a real priority for you and your husband, Kent, for years. You’ve spoken a lot about even the theological significance of that word and to our calling as Christians. And yet, 2020 has been weird in that we’ve been under these lockdowns that would seem to cut against the heart of what it means to be hospitable and make that a core part of our lives. What has that looked like for you as you haven’t presumably been able to do some of the things that you maybe used to do?

Rosaria Butterfield
Actually, I would say that 2020 makes The Gospel Comes with a House Key look like hospitality baby steps. First of all, when the pandemic first was announced in March, what we saw were all of these schools closing before parents were home. So yes, we’re not supposed to open our doors, it’s airborne, please don’t breathe. Psalm 150 may tell you that “Everything that has breath praises the Lord,” but c’mon—breathing is dangerous, don’t do it. What happened was instead of having five kids, we had twenty. There were kids that needed a place to be before their parents were home to figure out what to do next. So that’s what we did. Immediately when this happened, friends of ours—specifically single friends of ours—who had been part of large churches that do big things, their lives were derailed. At the very basic level, everybody with a phone that could FaceTime had somebody on FaceTime during family devotions every night. And that was from the very beginning. We sort of limped around like that, checking in on our neighbors. One other thing that happened was that the food that the farmers—I live in North Carolina—had grown and sent and packaged for restaurants was being wasted because all of a sudden, there were no restaurants opening. So my 14-year-old daughter and I—we don’t stay home very well—discovered that the only way you can get out is if you’re an essential worker. So we got a job in food distribution. We started working for a company that helped farmers redistribute food from restaurants to homes. In the process of doing that, we met some really lonely people. We met people who were terrified to go out. Our church couldn’t meet for worship at the time. We could use our church very early on to sort of project worship, but gatherings were limited to five and ten people. Because people weren’t going to grocery stores and everyone was ordering food, we discovered a very useful use of the church building, and that was as a food distribution site. Our church, which had been closed for worship, was now open multiple days a week as a food distribution site. Our church is in a very liberal neighborhood. It’s three blocks down from the LGBTQ+ rights center, and all of a sudden you see organic vegetables out there—

Matt Tully
What would you say was their impression of the church before the pandemic?

Rosaria Butterfield
Very suspicious of the church and very suspicious of me. But now we are a food distribution site, and that’s a wonderful bridge. Distribution of food in a pandemic is holy hospitality right there. We also have food that we can give away, and often I’ll meet people who need food and people will say things like, Hey, nothing is free. And I’ll say, Well, this broccoli load is, and so is the gospel. Do you want to hear it? So it has been a wonderful opportunity to meet people and also to support other working people. On food distribution days, I clock about 20,000 steps on my phone. It’s hard work. In the rain it’s miserable, and these are long days and so we would keep the church open so that the workers could have respite. There’s the coffee pot, there’s the restroom. Again, this is in a season where people don’t want you to come in. But part of being a Christian means being discerning about the things you hear about what you’re supposed to be scared of. We’re told that COVID-19 is the great equalizer. That’s not true. Original sin is the great equalizer. Actually, some people have comorbidities that make COVID-19 a lot worse, and other people don’t. By God’s grace, in our family we don’t have those comorbidities and so we have felt like it is logical and Christian for us to get on the front line of helping people.

10:30 - Don’t Panic

Matt Tully
Let’s dig into that dynamic of fear and our response as Christians to a situation that is very scary for a lot of people. A lot of Christians would say this year has been a year full of fear and anxiety.You mentioned going out on these food distributions with your 14-year-old daughter. How have you sought-with her and in that work together and then the other things you’ve done as a family with your other kids—how have you even thought about that and talked to them about the danger and the fear and our calling as Christians?

Rosaria Butterfield
Again, I think that’s where Christians are really called to be discerning. We are not called to panic. Kent and I were foster parents for ten years, and one of the realities of being a foster parent is that everybody around you can be in panic except for you. The birth parents can be in panic, the kids can be in panic, the social workers are always in panic, and you just have to be Christ’s man, Christ’s woman seeing God’s providence in this. This isn’t an accident; this isn’t a mistake. God is good and wise and just, and he is good and wise and just all the time. He has a purpose—a godly purpose—for COVID-19. Christians are to pray to be of one mind, and that one mind is the mind of Christ. I remember being in New York in the 90s when this crazy pandemic hit, in a very disproportionate way, my community, which was at the time the gay community. At that time it was called GRID for gay-related immunodeficiency. People don’t remember that. That’s what HIV was called at first. I was not a Christian then. I remember the panic. So we talk to our children about that. The Lord knew from the foundations of the world that this is what it would be like. He loved us so much that he decided we would steward well this moment, and we’re going to try to do that in sickness and in health. Anyway, we early on included our children and appointed them to high positions in the roll up your sleeves and care for your neighbor that had to happen. The very worst thing that could happen to a Christian is that you would lose your assurance of salvation, that you would lose your confidence in the Lord, that you would fail to keep your hands to the plow, that you would listen to the words of Satan and not trust the Lord. Those are the worst things that could happen to you. So we need to make sure that we are helping to uphold and uplift each other, and also really think about and care about the people who don’t yet know the Lord and the people who’s lives are in financial ruin not because of the pandemic but because of the shutdown. In Durham alone, we are anticipating between 20 and 30,000 evictions—that’s a lot of children to consider during a time when people just don’t want to touch each other. How can you virtually take care of children who are homeless? That makes no sense.

14:40 - Maintaining Consistency amidst Chaos

Matt Tully
That’s such a hard thing here because I think one of the biggest temptations that we’ve all probably felt to some extent over the last year or so has been to, as we quarantine, to sort of circle the wagons. It's like, I’ve got to protect myself, I’ve got to protect my family, and it can be very easy to get self-focused and lose sight of other things. You’ve written about how one of the biggest contributors to this is when we are so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of other people, their needs, and any way that we can meet them in that. We lose sight of even simple spiritual disciplines that help us to be thinking that way. Has that been a temptation for you? Have you felt that pull to be so focused on yourself that you would neglect some things and so you’ve had to fight against that?

Rosaria Butterfield
I am married to Kent Butterfield, who is a rock. I don’t know if you know this about Kent, but he is Steady Eddie. Our home, crazy as it is, we are always consistent with morning devotions and evening devotions and bringing in the people. We also do live in North Carolina. I don’t want to rub in, but we have wonderful weather. Would you feel more comfortable if we open the windows in the dining room? Okay, I’ll do it! I think that it is extremely important to remember that pastors and their families are called not to a higher calling, but actually a more consistent standard in applying a Christian calling. I really believe that. Kent has many, many times in our marriage and in our life brought us together and said, Okay people, everybody’s panicking—we can’t. Let’s remember who the Lord is in this moment: he is the King of the universe, and we are going to follow him. As you go through devotions, one of the things that happens when you just read the Bible consistently is you discover how many times the question of providence is really hard and how many times the question of calling and giftedness is really hard. How many of the prophets wanted to say, Hey look, I don’t like that gift. Could you give me some other gift, please? Can I repackage it? So we also spend a lot of time in this house listening to sermons and feeding off of the Word of God. Nobody in this house is on any kind of social media, so we weren’t really being fed with the mania. But we would read things. We read Daniel Defoe’s book, A Journal of the Plague Year, and it’s hilarious because—he was five-years-old during the plague—he starts out with, What would have made it worse is if we had had newspapers. And you’re like, Wow!

Matt Tully
That’s so interesting. I think in this past year a new term has arisen, maybe you’ve heard it—doomscrolling. Have you heard the term doomscrolling?

Rosaria Butterfield
No, but I believe it!

Matt Tully
It’s this idea of how we can get so sucked into surfing and reading online, through Twitter and social media, all this bad news. That impact is really detrimental.

Rosaria Butterfield
What you miss is things like Exodus 10 during the plagues of Egypt. I was listening to a wonderful sermon by Toby Sumpter and he just nailed this. When there was a darkness that could be felt, there was light in the homes of the children of Goshen. That’s where we are. Okay, I get it. There’s darkness all around, and that is really scary. But there’s light in our homes. I think it is important for Christians to remember that what was always the hallmark of the Christian church, back when it started with twelve people, the hallmark was not the worship music or how big their small groups were. The hallmark was hospitality. The hallmark was Christians risking their lives to share their lives. That’s just not different. The other reason that maybe things have been easier for us is we’re psalm singers. You want to have a worship service? You don’t have to plug in anything. You have your pitch pipe, you have your psalter, you have the voice that God gave you, and we will sing the songs of Zion. In some ways, ours is a faith tradition—not better, not worse—but one that is made for these kinds of moments.

Matt Tully
Has there been a psalm over the last months that has stood out to you and been a real encouragement to you?

Rosaria Butterfield
We sing through the psalter, and so there have been so, so many psalms; but I would say the Hallel psalms and the psalms of ascent. When you think about those psalms of ascent, you think about what it would mean to pack up everything and make that trek to Jerusalem. You know what’s going to happen on that trek—babies are going to be born and people are going to die. There’s a lot going on. You see your fragility when you sing psalms. When you sing psalms, you are stepping into a great cloud of witnesses who had to risk their lives to worship, and I think we need to remember that. What were we delivered from in the book of Exodus? Exodus is a book of redemption, not a book about slavery. What were we delivered from? Slavery. What were we delivered to? The opportunity to worship.

21:33 - Repentance Is the Threshold to God

Matt Tully
Speak to the Christian listening who would say, I get that; but if I’m being honest, that just hasn’t been the case for me. I have let my fear overwhelm me. Maybe they have neglected the means of grace that God has given to us and they have felt the distance from their church and from their community. And maybe right now, if they were being really transparent, would say, I’m not doing well. What word would you have for that person?

Rosaria Butterfield
What I would say is that it’s very simple, and it’s a daily thing. Repentance is a daily thing around here. You get up in the morning and the first thing you do is you take a good, hard look at yourself through the reflection of the Bible and you say, Lord, I repent. I have so failed to see you as the King whose purpose for me in this situation is good and wise and just and holy. And you pray that the Lord would bring Christians into your life who are bold. Let me say, too, that if you do have a comorbidity, I don’t think you should be doing the things I’m doing. This is not a one-size-fits-all proclamation. We’re not talking about works righteousness here. I have the great privilege of delivering food to Christians who have not really been able to leave their home since March. We’ve been able to sit—me on the outside of a slightly cracked window with my mask and gloves on and the other person on the other side—and sing psalms together. We’ve been able to pray together. We’ve been able to connect. So everybody needs to be connected to somebody everyday. This is especially crucial for singles. We cannot abandon our singles. What that means is that we who are not living alone need to go find them. And this is including a good and godly use of technology. Christians should never wallow in feeling bad. What we need to always do is look at where Jesus is, and go there. We do that by repentance. Repentance is the threshold to God.

Matt Tully
That’s such an interesting biblical perspective. I think a lot of what I’ve heard during this pandemic, from Christians in particular, is an acknowledgement that this has been hard, none of us are at our best right now because of the stress that we’re under, and what we all really need to do is give ourselves a little bit more grace. How would you respond to that?

Rosaria Butterfield
If you want to give yourself more grace, you’re going to give yourself more repentance. Give yourself grace—I hate it when Christians say that. I really do. No offense, Matt, maybe you say this! Giving grace doesn’t mean being a slacker. Do you know what grace is? Grace is the blood of Christ shed for you, Christian. Not one drop—which would have done the job because he’s God—but he gave everything. He bled out for you. That’s what it means to give grace. So you want to give some grace? Awesome. Man up. Hear the commanding charge of your King: Gird up your loins; roll up your sleeves; get in there. I’m not saying that you should not use this as a good time of reflection. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t realize that our students are really grieving. I’m not saying that you should be careless with the feelings of others, or that you should be foolish in how you apply the Word of God. But I think it’s a biblically faithful thing to say that while your circumstances have changed, your calling hasn’t changed. That should give you a lot more bandwidth to be sensitive to others, to be alert to others, and to move in and see what you can do to help. But if everybody slacks off right now and calls it grace, that’s not the gospel. We only have grace because of the blood of Christ, which was the boldest, riskiest, most sacrificial act of love that we have no words to even really adequately represent.


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