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by Kate Kooyman
Weeks ago, I was with my family in a small, old cabin. It was the middle of the night, and I woke up to the sound of the shades blowing wildly against the window. We were in a storm — a strong one. There were trees surrounding the cabin whose branches were waving wildly, every one now seeming like a weapon. And suddenly, that cabin didn’t feel like much of a shelter.
I woke my husband up in a panic — we didn’t have a basement to go to, and both of the rooms in the cabin had lots of windows. I didn’t know how to keep my kids safe. We woke them up, and crouched with them on the floor of the kitchen. We reasoned that there was at least a bit more structure around us that way, and maybe the countertops would offer an extra layer of protection if a tree did fall. We snuggled our blankies. We tried to make jokes. We checked our iPhones. We waited.
It was scary.
Soon, though, the storm had already passed through. We went back to bed. In the morning, we walked out into the yard and saw it was covered with sticks and branches. We also saw that a tree had, in fact, fallen — on my minivan. But not on the cabin. Not on my children. Not on me. Thanks be to God.
Shelter — which I’ve taken for granted every day of my life — is a human need so basic it’s biblical. In fact, it’s one of the ways we learn about who God is. God is described in Scripture as a shelter, a strong tower, a fortress, a refuge.
I was reading this week Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell’s book Our God is Undocumented. They point out that Ephesians 2:19-22 is simply full of the root Greek word oikos, which means “house”. It is a passage about shelter.
In this passage, we learn that God’s house is a place where we are invited to dwell, to gain shelter. We are no longer those “outside the house” (paroikoi, which is translated as “aliens” in the NRSV). We are now members of God’s household (oikeioi). We are safe, we are inside. We are sheltered.
I thought of this passage when I learned of President Trump’s proposed legislation that aims to sharply cut legal immigration to the U.S. The RAISE Act (Reformed American Immigration for a Strong Economy) would cut by half the number of legal immigrants accepted into the U.S. each year. It would cut the number of visas for immigrants reuniting with family, halve the number of refugee visas, and eliminate the diversity lottery entirely.
In short, it would make sure that the paroikoi, the aliens, are kept outside the house.
What’s been challenging me is that Ephesians 2 doesn’t stop after it tells us we’re welcome in God’s house, calls us citizens, deems us members of God’s household. We aren’t just invited to take shelter — we also called to become shelter.
“…in [Christ] you also are built (sunoikodomeisthe) together spiritually into a dwelling place (katoiketerion) for God.” To be welcome in God’s house is to be part of God’s house — to become shelter.
I received some challenging words this week, asking what my level of willingness really is to risk safety and comfort in order to be a shelter to those targeted by racist and violent policies of exclusion. It’s made me think hard about what, in the storm of this moment, it looks like to be a dwelling place for God — the God of radical, sacrificial, restorative, courageous love.
While there are clearly issues of justice in the immigration and refugee debate, it seems a little misguided to equate entry into the United States with entry into God’s household. Not quite the same thing.
I highly doubt that Paul was making a case for expanding Roman citizenship to a wider group of people, so we should be wary of making that case in our own time.
Tom — true, the two don’t equate. The U.S. isn’t, by any stretch, the Kingdom of God. But I don’t think Paul was being purely spiritual here. Our call to be welcoming/become a shelter has to take on real-time, practical significance for us or it’s meaningless. As for Paul expanding Roman citizenship: this bill would decrease legal immigration by up to 70%, not prevent its expansion. I’m not at all wary of making a case that this is based on a nativist ideology and is contrary to Christian faith. I think I get that from Paul. And Jesus.
Yes, Kate.. I agree that we are called to “become” shelter…
I so appreciate your thoughtful pieces and am also grateful your family was safe in the storm!!
Kate, I really appreciate this article. As a Christian, I find scripture squarely lining up behind welcoming, offering hospitality to, and protecting the poor, powerless, and the foreigner. We like to tell stories of how the members of the early church collected abandoned infants from the garbage piles of Roman cities because it reinforces our current fights about the value of protecting the lives of the unborn. But we are generally unaware of the radical multiethnicity of the New Testament church, and the way the early church stood against the immoral abuses of power which intended to stratify the various ethnic groups under the oppression of the Roman Empire. It literally is where the word “Christian” came from – because there were no ethnic slurs Romans could come up with to describe the blossoming of multi-ethnic house churches in Antioch – the crossroads of the Roman trade routes and entry-point to the Silk Road. No, we are DEFINITELY encouraged by the Bible NOT to buy into the worldly values of protectionism and economic self-interest. It isn’t “stewardship”… that is just selfishness.
We in the CRC need to ask ourselves if we would try to pressure the US government to take in refugees from the Netherlands if there were a famine or repressive regime there. Would we feel the same if refugees and those fleeing hunger or poverty were white? We need to be honest about what is happening in our country – attempts to use the legal system to prop up and prolong the maintenance of power for the white majority in a world where non-white people are actually the majority.