Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth by Debra Rienstra
Review by Dr. Kellie Brown
Fortress Press, 2022
There is a beautiful expression in the Korean language, ma-eum-e dul-eoyo (phonetically), which translates “It enters my heart.” The phrase refers to when we experience something for the first time, and it speaks to us, resonates with us. It could be a view in nature, a piece of music, a poem, a never-tried recipe. This describes how I felt just a few pages into Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress Press, 2022) by Dr. Debra Rienstra. This book is a stunning meditation on the natural world, a rallying cry to awaken those apathetic to how greed and injustice have summoned the climate crisis, and an inviting overture to people of faith to lead the restoration effort. In addition to courses in British literature and creative writing, as Professor of English at Calvin University, Rienstra teaches environmental literature and explores ecotheology, which focuses on the intersection of faith, nature, and the environment. Through her love of words, images, and metaphor, along with a deep commitment to her faith, Rienstra frames the requisite scientific information more like the beloved essays of Barry Lopez than a dry recitation of doomsday facts. Above all, she returns again and again to the hopeful amid the distressing reality of the situation in a way reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s “Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.”
In structuring the book, Rienstra provides preludes to each chapter that reflect on her family and on her connection to place—the lakes, flora, and fauna of Michigan where she grew up, raised her own family, and continues to live. Each of these vignettes helps the reader know that this writer has more than just an academic or even theological interest in the environment. We witness Rienstra’s personal investment in its renewal and sustainability through her determination and physical labor to restore her own backyard to a more natural habitat. What follows each personal preface is a thoroughly researched narrative of the past and present climate crisis along with the stark future implications of our failing to act quickly and decisively. Rienstra draws on the work and words of leading environmental scientists, activists, cultural elders, poets, theologians, and many others to paint a holistic portrait of the enormity of the problem and of the dogged determination of those long at work to bring solution, all in hope of being a prodding catalyst to pull the rest of us along.
On the opening page, Debra Rienstra establishes her purpose for this book, and indeed for her life, through a series of questions she examines as divine prompts— “What might God say to me if I can be quiet enough to listen? What did God mean a few months ago when I heard in the Scriptures, in my prayers, ‘I am making all things new’? How shall I look for new life when everything seems chaotic, churning with sorrows both ancient and fresh?” In reading her questions, I am reminded of the scripture passage from Philippians that instructs people of faith to “work out your own salvation.” Her inquiries seem a possible path for doing that personally and for helping others along as we join the writer of Hebrews in considering “how to motivate one another toward love and good works.” The environmental crisis did not come about by just a handful of people, and it will not be solved without a global concerted alliance, without the whole creation groaning together.
In partial answer to her questions, Rienstra calls on the work of Catholic theologian Thomas Berry, who asserts in his 1999 book The Great Work that the age which allowed us to use the earth’s resources for our own flourishing is drawing to a close. We must repent of our exploitive attitudes that the earth’s resources exist to be ravaged at our discretion for pleasure and prosperity and that we humans sit as creation’s centerpiece. Berry explains that we are transitioning to new roles in the emerging Ecozoic Era, “the period when humans will be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community. This is our Great Work and the work of our children.” His is a call to recognize what the human species has often neglected to know or refused to know fully—that we are part of an interdependent system of all living things on this planet. This appeal is not a new message, just a repeated tolling of the warning bell. In his 19th century novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky speaks to the connectedness we have with the other creatures around us. “My brother asked the birds to forgive him: that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.”
While this interconnected mindset seems like such a daunting shift from our self-centered human tendencies, Rienstra thankfully offers new language to help us move from hierarchical anthropocentrism toward greater recognition of the beingness of other creatures in what she calls the “more-than-human world” and of ourselves as “fellow beings in the household of creation.” Rienstra also directs us to an accessible path forward in what she calls the “little work” that each of us, without exception, is called to do.
But how do we decide what our “little work” should be, and how can we frame that work in the context of our faith? Again, Rienstra helps us find our footing by offering the scientific and theological construct of the refugia. She cites the important work of Kathleen Dean Moore, a moral philosopher, nature writer, and environmental activist who urges that the quest for social justice and human rights must encompass moral responsibility for the earth. In her book Great Tide Rising, Moore describes the miraculous nature of refugia as witnessed after the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. As scientists viewed the magnitude of destruction to the flora and fauna by the coating of ash and the scorching of lava, they could not imagine renewal in this region except in painstakingly slow increments that might take hundreds of years. But that is not what happened. Now, a mere 40 some years later, that region features lush verdant life and houses diverse animal species. How is this possible? Refugia—the term used by scientists for sheltered pockets under a rotting log or in the crevice between boulders. In these tiny places of refuge, life persists, and waits, and grows. These refugia function as sanctuary and incubator. They are also, in Rienstra’s words, “brave spaces” because in severe crisis these places can be painful, layered with simultaneous death and renewal. The Alpha and Omega of creation.
Directed primarily toward a faith-based readership, Rienstra’s words make a compelling connection between biologic refugia and sacred refugia. It is not a difficult leap. The Bible repeatedly references images of refuge and sanctuary. God hid Moses in a “cleft of the rock” to assure his safety during a divine encounter. This story offers assurance of God’s abiding care and has inspired numerous songs including the enduring hymn, “He Hideth My Soul,” written in 1890 by Fanny Crosby, one of hymnody’s most beloved writers.
Spiritual journeys can also hinge on refugia, and it is from the vantage point of spiritual refugia that Rienstra asks another series of questions, this time directed toward the reader. She first wants us to contemplate how people of faith can transform into people of refugia. Then, she invites us to ponder how we can become both finders and creators of refugia in the Earth’s biomes and in our human-constructed cultural systems. Finally, she calls on us to decide whether it is possible for all of us to work together, to apply our creative gifts and labors to these tasks as never before.
In searching for answers, Rienstra reminds us that we don’t have to do this work alone because “God is always at work somehow” despite how God can seem absent (Deus absconditus) or long overdue in bringing divine help. The psalmist felt this, crying “How long, O Lord?” Nevertheless, Rienstra insists that not only is God at work, but that “God loves to work in small, humble, hidden places.” It is through this acknowledgement that she then declares that God loves refugia and therefore so should we. Rienstra assures us that we are called “to look for the seed of life where we are, concentrate on protecting and nurturing a few good things, let what is good and beautiful grow and connect and spread.” She exhorts us to cast off old habits of either conquering or hiding, and instead, wants this book to offer an alternative. “God’s preferred way seems less like walls or combat boots and more like a tray of seedlings. God seems to appreciate the humble, permeable, surprising potentials of refugia. I think of refugia faith…as a posture not of retreat or conquest but of humble discernment and nurture. Refugia faith continually asks, Where are refugia happening, and how can we help? Where do refugia need to happen, and how can we create them?”
Some have been wrestling with similar questions for decades, especially in the literary world. Astute readers of Refugia Faith should keep in mind Rienstra’s primary work as a literature teacher and consider how that has undoubtedly informed her work. Octavia Butler’s chilling 1993 novel Parable of the Sower particularly comes to mind. Octavia Butler imagined the United States in the year 2024 in an almost total collapse due to climate change. Amid the daily struggle to survive, a gifted teenager named Lauren Olamina becomes the leader of a rag-tag group through Earthseed, a new religion she has created that centers around God as Change. She understands the connectedness and interdependence of the whole of creation, and as she seeks out physical and spiritual refugia for her followers, her sacred text provides this vital lesson— “Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true. All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you.”
In a similar way, Rienstra draws on the Psalms to help us navigate the human condition with its complexities and contradictions. Each chapter contains an epigraph of a psalter verse that relates to the focus of that chapter. There is indictment to be found in these words and also solace, even in the cries of lament and frustration. We can relate when the psalmist says, “I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.” We find hope also in the psalmist’s promise of renewal when “all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”
Although she operates from a position of hopefulness and possibility, Rienstra does not sugarcoat the situation. “Our glittering panoramas of prosperity are built on ugly scaffoldings of environmental devastation and injustice.” She also doesn’t shy away from blunt words for her faith community, particularly in the United States. “As for my fellow Christians: how often they disappoint. We are distracted or indifferent. We drag our feet and justify our complicities in evils small and great. We are swayed by lies and seduced by power. We are supposed to be people of hope, people who witness to God’s good purposes. But are we?” She calls out “careless, sinful arrogance” that abuses creation and destroys ecosystems. She also denounces “culpable arrogance” that has led some Christians to believe that they alone have exclusive knowledge of what is right.
Instead, Rienstra invites us to embrace the scriptural concept of kinship, as refugia faith is “radically inclusive.” “At best, we humans are merely wise and gracious partners with God and with plants, animals, microbes, oceans, rivers, winds, sun—all the more-than-human world.” As writer John Green reminds us, humans comprise only .01% of life on Earth, and paleontologists know that we are the “new kids on the block” in comparison to countless species of flora and fauna, including those we have driven to extinction.
In seeking the kinship model, Rienstra cautions that some church doctrines of “stewardship” and “creation care” do little to help or even exacerbate environmental injustice because they can be deeply rooted in the concept that we take care of the earth because it gives us things, and we want it to keep giving us things. This faulty paradigm “assumes we are in control, we are in charge, and we get to choose our benevolence.” As an alternative, Rienstra suggests reciprocity, a system acknowledging that “humans and the more-than-human creation all take care of each other.”
Rienstra ends the book with an appeal to renew our sense of wonder, a process she defines as paying attention and acknowledging the beauty of things other than ourselves. She views wonder as both an act of gratitude and a spiritual discipline. Creation offers much to inspire our awe. Jesus pointed his followers to the natural world with stories of seeds, trees, fruit, and vineyards. Jesus instructed us to “consider the lilies of the field.” From their sense of wonder, naturalists remind us of the unique beingness of the more-than-human world: otters who keep a favorite rock in a pocket under their arm or sea turtles who can sense the earth’s magnetic fields to navigate back to their place of birth.
In the course of its almost 300 pages, Refugia Faith teaches us many valuable truths, and one of the most important of these is that refugia are only intended as temporary starting places. They provide shelter for tender roots and germinate the seeds of new life. They are “neither bunkers nor beachheads,” but arks in a flood. “They are places of trust, because in biological as well as cultural refugia, we have to surrender our illusions of full control. In fact, sometimes what seems impossible is exactly the place to begin, because divine powers are at work far beyond our ability to perceive.” Refugia teach scientists and us all how life can be sustained, and with this knowledge, we go forward better knowing how to do the work of ecological restoration that promotes the biodiversity needed for a healthy planet. In the end, people of faith know that ultimately all healing work is God’s work. As writer Annie Dillard said, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” So along with Rienstra, we trust God to give the increase, and meanwhile “we begin small, where we are. We dig out and repair, we plant seeds, we nurture what we can. We seek joy and give thanks.”
Brinkmann, Trudi. “Home in My Heart.” Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2022, pp. 6-7.
Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, 1999.
Berry, Wendell. “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1999, p. 100.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial, 2013.
Green, John. The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet. Dutton, 2021.
Moore, Kathleen Dean. Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. Counterpoint, 2016.
Dr. Kellie Brown is a violinist, conductor, music educator, and award-winning writer whose book, The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation during the Holocaust and World War II (McFarland Publishing, 2020), received one of the Choice Outstanding Academic Titles award. Her words have appeared in Earth & Altar, Calla Press, The Primer, and Musing as well as in numerous academic journals such as the American String Teacher. She has forthcoming essays in Ekstasis and Writerly Magazine, and a book chapter for Oxford University Press. More information about her and her writing can be found at www.kelliedbrown.com.
Image description: Cover of Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth by Debra Rienstra.