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Becoming People of Refugia

Extreme weather, declining church influence, and environmental protests affect Christians around the world. Debra Rienstra explains why the biological concept of refugia offers a metaphor for seeing the Spirit at work despite deep disturbances in God's creation and among God's people.

Saving and selling Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans. Asking a legislator to care for God's creation and defend children's health by voting to control methane. Preserving 20,000 church forests—islands of green biodiversity in barren northwestern Ethiopia. Letting milkweed grow in your yard because monarch butterflies cannot survive without it. Leading worship outdoors with unhoused people who don't feel safe or welcome inside church walls.

For Debra Rienstra, these are examples of the biblical truth that "God often works in scripture in hidden, small, seemingly unimportant, surprising ways." As a writer and Calvin University English professor, she talks with young adults who despair of finding a faith community that cares about preserving and renewing God's creation for future generations. 

Rienstra uses the metaphor of refugia to maintain hope in what she calls "our deeply interrelated soul sicknesses and earth sicknesses." She explores this powerful scriptural image through essays, her Refugia podcast, and her forthcoming book, Refugia Faith (Fortress Press, 2022).

Co-sustainers in the community of creation

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Rienstra wrote an essay titled "Refugia" for The Twelve blog to explain how reading Kathleen Dean Moore's Great Tide Rising introduced her to the biological concept of refugia (re-FEW-jee-a). After the Mt. St. Helens eruption, the ecosystem began to recover more quickly than anyone could have imagined. The reason, scientists have discovered, is that bits of plant and animal life hidden under rocks and logs survived the volcanic ash. "These little pockets of safety are called refugia,” Moore wrote. “They are tiny coverts where life hides from destruction, secret shelters out of which new life emerges."

In her own essay, Rienstra asked, "What would happen if Christians determined to become known as 'the people of refugia'?" What if, she wondered, Christians decided to "put our spiritual and organizational muscle behind" reversing ecosystem destruction? Meanwhile, David Koetje, a Calvin University biology professor, was intrigued by how the refugia metaphor could birth hope in congregations that see themselves as declining in membership, budget, and influence. He encouraged Rienstra to start a podcast.

Rienstra begins each Refugia episode like this: "Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries, life re-emerges, and the world is renewed. We're exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of refugia. How can we create safe places of flourishing—'micro-countercultures' where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead?" Podcast guests involved in biology, politics, worship, and more shared where they see God working to renew the earth, the church, culture, and society. Koetje helps her sum up each podcast season.

In episode 17, Rienstra talked with Randy Woodley, a Cherokee of the United Keetoowah Band. He is a public theologian, author, farmer, and Christian pastor with a PhD in intercultural studies. He and his wife, Edith Woodley, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, founded Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice in Yamhill, Oregon. Its related farm sells Indigenous and heirloom seed varieties such as Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans.

Woodley said that the refugia concept resonated with him because its meaning is similar to a Cherokee word: "'Eloheh' . . . means 'a place of peace,' 'a place of harmony' where abundance is coming out of the earth, where justice is being done. It's sort of that all-encompassing vision . . . of shalom in the scriptures," he said.

Woodley talked with Rienstra about being co-sustainers with the Creator in the community of creation made up of humans and non-humans—plants, animals, waters, winds—with God in charge. Rienstra ended the episode with a quote from Woodley's book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision: "It appears, according to Luke and several of the other Gospel writers, that when God wants all humanity to know something important, he invests his time and efforts in obscurity."

Listen: deeply biblical, not political

A recent study published in the academic journal Climatic Change shows that younger adults are especially concerned about "the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world." Rienstra and Koetje often talk with Christian students who feel pained and betrayed by church mentors who taught them to love God and love their neighbors as themselves, yet dismiss concerns about how climate change already affects hungry families or neighbors with asthma and will affect future generations.

Koetje said in one podcast episode that he reminds students how often scripture reveals God working through remnants to accomplish renewal. He compared remnants to little refugia. Rienstra explored refugia and church in episodes with young professionals such as Katerina Parsons, a legislation advocate with the Mennonite Central Committee; Kathryn Mae Post, a religious journalist; and Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, who recently moved from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), the young adult ministry of Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), to become EEN vice president.

Meyaard-Schaap advised "de-politicizing and re-biblicizing" climate change conversations by starting with scripture and shared values. He found during his political advocacy work with YECA that older people changed their minds when younger Christians explained, "Because you all did such a good job raising us in the church . . . we love Christ. We love the church, and we care about the church's witness in the world. Thank you. . . . We feel compelled to urge you to take a stronger stance on the issue of climate change because of the moral and the gospel implications involved for our neighbors and for God's creation."

He added that involving young Christians in climate advocacy creates "spaces of refugia and community" among "young people of faith" who "feel like exiles in our faith community." Meyaard-Schaap often uses his Twitter feed to encourage young people that advocacy—such as asking a legislator to care for God's creation and defend children's health by voting to control methane—makes a difference. 

Ecological conversion

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Several Refugia guests have spoken about how getting to know local watersheds, birds, or sand dunes helped them understand how deeply God loves creation. Loving what God loves expands their view of what God sees as sacred. 

Fred Bahnson is a writer whose works include the book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, the essay "The Ecology of Prayer" (Orion magazine), and an essay paired with a film by Jeremy Seifert about the church forests of Ethiopia (Emergence Magazine).

In episode 21, Bahnson explained that most of Ethiopia's northern highlands have been deforested, except for the native forests surrounding and preserved by 20,000 Ethiopian Orthodox Church congregations. He described the forests as "living arks of biodiversity, tiny green vessels sailing over a barren sea of brown." Ethiopian Orthodox Christians' understanding of sacred space led them to protect church forests. In fact, forest ecologist Alemayehu Wassie sees church forests as the key to restoring Afromontane biodiversity.

Rienstra said, "I love that these forests are literally refugia in the biological sense: they are preserving these small places of biodiversity. And I love that they’re preserved and sustained by churches, and not just by happenstance, but because this is part of their fundamental understanding of what a church is and does."

Bahnson spoke with Rienstra about how God can use repentance and mystical connection "to turn the climate crisis around." As he wrote in his church forests essay, "When it can be channeled, there is no force on earth more powerful than the religious imagination." He cited Saint Isaac of Syria, who said that a merciful heart is a heart that's on fire for all creation, and Pope Francis, who has called for "ecological conversion." 

Honest grappling with fear, resistance, and joy

Hosting her podcast prepared Rienstra to write her forthcoming book Refugia Faith (Fortress Press, 2022). "I've been appalled by what I've learned about species extinction because of climate change," she said. "We've devastated the monarch butterfly population, mainly because we've killed so much milkweed, their only host plant. The oceans are warming and acidifying. We are destroying creatures that God loves and that give God praise. 

"The book isn't meant to convince you about climate change or prescribe actions. Instead it weaves nature writing, personal narrative, and theological and biblical reflection on this moment in history. I grapple honestly with my own fears of and resistances to loss and change—as well as my hope and joy in seeing the work of the Spirit in creation," she said.

Her book follows the pattern of the liturgical year in organizing its theological reflections and takes a memoir format as she describes reconnecting with dunes and woods in her home state of Michigan. "I took a semester class from Calvin University geography professor Deanna Van Dijk, who's one of the world's experts on sand dunes. Learning more about where I live makes me think about Indigenous people and why displacing them is so spiritually damaging."

She writes about trying to better care for the earth through getting solar panels, driving an electric car, using a composting service, and learning names of birds and plants. "Moths have the coolest names in the world," Rienstra said. 

After listening to webinars about the A2Zero Carbon Neutrality Plan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she said, "Their leadership puts the church to shame. They center minority leadership and emphasize local action. The church does too but is often more concerned with getting people in pews. The climate movement prioritizes justice, equity, and concern for the agency and wellbeing of poor people. It's not about building an empire."

Church of refugia, not empire

Rienstra thinks, talks, and writes about how churches in many places are losing cultural dominance. "How do you explain why the North American church often chooses to be a church of empire rather than a church of refugia?" she often asks. 

John Witvliet, director of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), gave this answer in episode 7: "Thousands of congregations really think that they are or should be in a significant or dominant cultural place." He added that it's popular to point out how the psalms model lament and to suggest that lament should have a larger place in worship. Yet culturally comfortable congregations often resist practicing lament. "Drop three, five, ten lines inside of a prayer about lamenting species extinction. Feel the temperature in the room drop ten degrees," he said.

"Who finds it painful to be among us, and why?" Witvliet asked. He said this conversation is the first step to learning from people and "congregations that have never been in positions of cultural power and have always been oppressed" and are therefore more likely to experience worship as refugia. He gave examples from Christians in Pakistan and Hong Kong and from CICW Vital Worship Grants projects, such as leading worship outdoors with unhoused people who don't feel safe or welcome inside church walls

Rienstra and Witvliet talked about reclaiming biblical metaphors—seeds, yeast, salt, light, nesting under the shadow of God's wings—to become churches of refugia. Witvliet said that if churches choose not to "fear depth" in pain, beauty, the Trinity, the Lord's Supper, music, and people we may see as "other," then "metaphor will do its work."

LEARN MORE

Read Debra Rienstra's essays on her blog. Listen to (or read transcripts) of Rienstra's Refugia podcast episodes. Bill McKibben recommended Refugia in this New Yorker story.

While you're waiting for Fortress Press to release Refugia Faith, gather a group to read and discuss:

Debra Rienstra and her husband, Western Theological Seminary professor Ron Rienstra, will lead Western's new D.Min. cohort Church of Refugia: Preparing the Church for Sustainability and Crisis Resilience. The Rienstras may also write a book together about “refugia church,” including worship.

Explore creation care resources in your denomination. Debra Rienstra is part of Climate Witness Project (Christian Reformed Church in North America) and the Refugia sub-team of the creation care team at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church. 

Find a climate change avenue that fits your interests and gifts: 

START A DISCUSSION

Feel free to print and distribute this story at meetings of your staff, board, youth ministry, or education, worship, or outreach committee. These questions will help people start a conversation about becoming a church of refugia:

  • How do you, your congregation, or your community experience climate change or find joy and hope in the Spirit's work in creation? 
  • How do these experiences shape sermons, prayers, songs, and other elements of public worship in your context?
  • When you talk with young adults who have left your church, what reasons do they give?

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