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Maybe it’s because it’s a cool word: refugia. Re-FU-jee-a. As soon as I mention it, unfailingly, people seem intrigued. When I explain what it means, they get this hungry look. Yes, that’s what I want right now, their faces tell me: some refugia.

I’ve been exploring this concept since May, when I wrote a blog post here on The Twelve about this biological phenomenon, wondering how to translate the biological into the spiritual and cultural. Refugia are little sheltered pockets that survive amid a major ecological devastation—such as an extinction crisis or a volcano eruption. Against all odds, refugia preserve a little life, and these little places of life become seeds of restoration and regrowth. What would happen, I wondered, if Christians determined to become known as “the people of refugia”?

This past summer, with lots of support and encouragement from friends and colleagues, I interviewed twelve wise and willing people from a range of expertise areas—ecology, biblical studies, worship, political advocacy, art, and more. I asked them about refugia, and I recorded our conversations in podcast format. This past week, I brought back my first interviewee, biologist David Koetje, and we reflected together on what we had learned through this exploration.

Here’s a brief preview of some themes Dave and I discussed. The recorded episode will become available on Dec. 6.

Crisis convergence

We’re in constant crisis mode these days. The climate crisis looms large over our imaginations and threatens to up-end our future prosperity, comfort, even survival. US politics is in obvious crisis, most dramatically evidenced by the current impeachment hearings. Churches are in crisis over declining membership and they are wracked by conflicts fracturing denominations, congregations, and even families. People are weary, bewildered, and fearful, far more so those who have long been marginalized and suffered oppressions and injustices.

These immediate crises are embedded in larger arcs of history. If modernity began, at least in the West, with the European Renaissance, perhaps we have reached its conclusion. Our fondest enthusiasms and optimisms about human possibility and progress seem more and more hollow. The horrors of twentieth century wars, the nuclear threat, and now the climate crisis have shredded our cherished myths of progress and human goodness. We understand now: as our power and arrogance grows, so does our destructiveness.  

No wonder refugia seem like such a compelling idea. We are looking for places of shelter from our own cruelty, foolishness, and power. We desperately long for renewal.

Humility

Perhaps it’s time, then, to “not think of ourselves more highly than we ought.” We are sinful, sure, but we are also small and vulnerable and finite. As clever as we humans can be, there is so much we don’t understand. In his interview, Jamie Skillen emphasized the limits of human knowledge with regard to environmental management. And many of my interviewees remarked that humility is the virtue we must emphasize right now in every context. We have been arrogant too long.

Refugia are places where we relearn humility. They are humble places, “little pockets,” as Dave Koetje remarked in the first episode. Refugia are places where we are content to be small for a while. To wait, to be quiet, to practice simple virtues like hospitality and empathy. To build capacity on a small scale to prepare us for regrowth.

I’ve been getting a lot of traction lately when I posit for people an opposition between the church of empire and the church of refugia. To be the people of refugia, we need to recognize and reject the church of empire: a church obsessed with its own power, with cultural dominance, with protecting systems that abuse and degrade people. The church preoccupied with being big, impressive, and successful.

I know so many people, both young and old, people who love God and consider themselves deeply religious, who have just had it with the church. They have seen their congregations and their Christian friends capitulate to the church of empire, and they have found themselves feeling suddenly cast out. In some cases, they pretty much were cast out. They are bruised and betrayed, and they are seeking spiritual refugia wherever they can find it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find.

Something has to die

In our recent conversation, Dave wanted to go back to something my friend Jeff Chu discussed in his interview: compost. Jeff described with some enthusiasm the power of compost, that pile of scraps and organic waste that—through the magic of microbes—turns into life-giving soil. Compost takes time to ripen, and in the meanwhile, it looks like a mess. It requires a little tending—there’s work to do—but mostly you wait for life to do its work. And then it makes more life possible.

Are we in a cultural moment where we have to compost some things? I asked. Yes. Dave and I agreed with Jeff that compost is a great metaphor for refugia, in the sense that it’s a place where death becomes life again. And while there’s work to do there, mostly we wait for the Spirit to work—often rather secretly, it seems. We also agreed that these days we might have to compost not just the scraps, but some things that we find it hard to let go of: consumerism, structures of privilege and power, our assumptions about how church ought to work.

As I explored the qualities that characterize refugia, my interviewees often mentioned that refugia are places of honesty where pain is held and received gently. John Witvliet, in his interview, urged churches to ask, Who finds it painful to be among us? He urged us not to be afraid of facing that pain.

Some things have to die before new life can grow. But we know that, as Christians, or we should. Dying and rising: that’s the shape of the Christian life.

God works with nothing

Dave and I both appreciated some comments that (fellow Twelver) Kate Kooyman made in her interview: that sometimes, with refugia, it looks as if there’s nothing there. I have thought with renewed amazement lately about the clear patterns in scripture: God is always working with remnants, the most unlikely people, the most unlikely things, the losers and the people without power. Little seeds, mustard seeds. That’s how God likes to work.

Reformed folk tend to love big systems and big dreams. We do quite well with institutions. That’s our Kuyperian heritage, perhaps. And our systemic thinking is one of our most important distinctives. We perceive systemic sin and we set out to battle it—with God’s help. We perceive systemic possibility and we set out to build it—with God’s help. That’s all good. But when we face so much disruption in our social and cultural infrastructures—including our churches—we have to remember how God loves to work. We may be watching our cherished systems crumble, but meanwhile, God is creating those little refugia.

Finding or making

I haven’t quite figured this one out yet. Do we create refugia? Or just find them? Or both? I think it might be both. As I asked people where they were finding refugia, I got all kinds of answers. Yosemite wilderness areas. The intercultural student affairs office. A conference lovingly curated to be inclusive. An honest classroom. A lakeshore retreat. Working with other activists or among incarcerated women. Singing in church. Gathering around the communion table. Sabbath.

One of my favorite words to describe refugia is “micro-countercultures.” They are the moments and practices and people and places where, in a small space for a little time, we can be honest, share our pain, share our joy, rest from our fears and strivings, practice some virtues, sense God’s presence. Three of my interviewees, when I asked them about their hopes for the future, expressed their longing for creativity, depth, and imagination. Perhaps if we long for those things and do our best to create refugia for ourselves and others, we will find the Spirit already at work in ways we cannot engineer or even imagine.

The Refugia Podcast is available on your preferred podcast platform. For an episode release schedule, go here. If you prefer, you can read transcripts of all the episodes at refugiapodcast.com

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. I am also the mother of three children old enough now that I can’t tell you exactly where all of them are at the moment. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin College, where I have been on the faculty for twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over a hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers.

9 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Marvelous. A great inspiration for congregations, although of course you mean much more than that. Reminds me of the Moravian churches under Commenius, or the Frisian Anabaptists under Menno Simons, or even the Hollanders under Albertus van Raalte. Dangers that way too. Thanks for the summary, for us oldsters who have never come around to podcasts.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thanks, Dan. You can read transcripts of the episodes at refugiapodcast.com (which is attached to my website). Of course, hearing people’s voices is better, but I understand that wrangling podcasts is not always easy.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you for this. I hope you’ve been to Camp Fowler and interviewed Kent Busman and staff, committed refuge and refuse makers, patient tillers of the soil, helping people learn to wait and watch. Albany Synod’s gift to the world.
    I’m also interested in the idea of the Reformed being empire builders, big systems people? I didn’t know that. Hmm.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thank you for mentioning Camp Fowler! I haven’t been there (yet!), but Steve Bouma-Prediger mentioned it in his interview! https://debrarienstra.com/episode-3-seedbed-to-be-a-blessing-steve-bouma-prediger-on-refugia-in-scripture/

    • Fred Mueller says:

      Thanks for mentioning Fowler, Jan. It didn’t occur to me but when I read your comment I recognized what you meant right away. It is personal for me as for you. My children’s maternal grandmother was one of the first camp cooks. My wife was camp nurse. I was out camp leader and in camp worship leader, preached, served as president through the synod and program council and so many other things. And my dear father died of heart attack at the camp late one summer evening. So much of the soil of my family was cultivated in that refugia. It is a priceless treasure to countless people and a crown jewel of RSA.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    So many challenging thoughts, but especially the one of ‘how church ought to work’. Trying to lean into a way of being church that values people and refugia more than structure and programs. Being church in this manner instead of following the way of a world that values power and the ability to win instead of humility. Keep following this path of thinking and keep sharing it to inspire all of us, wherever we are placed. It is in the quiet acts of our everyday lives that the kingdom is built.

  • I found this to be wonderfully enjoyable, challenging, and thought-provoking. Thank you. May God bless you richly in this season of Thanksgiving.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thank you for your work.

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