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A pastor and education team leader at the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice, Kate Kooyman sorts out some confusing matters of immigration policy and explores how people of faith help immigrants and refugees move beyond refuge to community integration.

For more background

Kate Kooyman’s website.

Kate Kooyman

The Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice website. Here you can find loads of educational resources and learn about ways to pray and get involved.

The website for Sandra Maria Van Opstal, whom Kate mentions.

The website for Treetops Collective.


Debra Rienstra: Today I’m talking with Kate Kooyman. Kate is an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church of America, and she was, until August of 2019, an education team leader for the Office of Social Justice in the Christian Reformed Church. Kate spent a lot of time educating people about immigration and other justice issues, and she will be talking with me today about how church structures and church people can contribute to spaces of refugia. Hey, Kate. Thanks for being here today.

Kate Kooyman: I’m really happy to be here.

DR: I’m so glad you are. So we’re here in my office at Calvin University, but you’ve worked for the past six or so years at denominational headquarters, just down the road from here, fondly known as the Pentagon. Not the real Pentagon, of course—it’s just a building where the little Christian Reformed denomination has its offices. So, what does the Office of Social Justice do?

Kate Kooyman: So the Office of Social Justice works with members of the Christian Reformed Church to do education, so that people can raise their voices on social justice issues at the systemic level. We want people to understand things like how our immigration system works so that they can speak to the people making the immigration system that we think could be so much better, could be so much more humane, could work in ways that honor the dignity of human beings. So, what we want people to do is to feel really well equipped to understand what they feel like God is calling them to say as citizens and how to steward the power of their citizenship to try to effect change on that systemic level. So, that’s how I would describe what our role is, and we work on lots of different issues. The one that I’ve spent the most time working on is immigration.

DR: So, your task is really to help people be the influence of the church in whatever way they judge best in the public square.

Kate Kooyman: Right, right. So, you know, I grew up in a church that talked so much about stewardship. So, I really understood the idea that all of my material possessions really belonged to God and I was stewarding them on God’s behalf, right? Or that was true of the talents that I had been given, that was true of the time that I had. I think what I didn’t know is that I had a lot of power and I hadn’t been given the theological or the churchy tools to figure out what it looked like to be a good steward of the power that exists. I think that’s a hard conversation to have, but the older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve understood what it means that I’m white, that I’m American, that I am middle class or upper middle class—all of those things carry with them power. And what would it look like to consider that I should steward those resources as well on behalf of the kingdom of God and on behalf of—I think that that God wants from, you know, our communities and so, anyway, yes, so that’s the goal, is in the public square to try to help people be stewards of their power.

DR: Yeah, stewards of their citizenship and the powers that come with that.

Kate Kooyman: Exactly.

DR: Yeah. So your office certainly has its appreciative fans, but it also has some detractors. Why do some people object to the work that you and your team do? What’s the problem and how do you respond?

Kate Kooyman: Yeah. So, whenever you’re talking about systems and structures and sort of that level, you’re always talking about policies and policies are written by people who were elected and they’re politicians, right? And so it’s hard to talk about politics. I think we’ve gotten worse at it, actually, in the last generation or so. We feel like it’s rude or somehow breaking some social covenant that we have with each other. So, we don’t know how to do that in ways that feel faithful. And I think we’re very concerned, all of us no matter what part of the political spectrum you find yourself on. I think if you’re a Christian and a member of a church, you know church unity and being together as the body of Christ is really important and it feels when we disagree or have conflict, like we aren’t committed to unity. I think that’s a lot of what’s going on when we get pushback from folks. I mean, you can be a Christian and have many different ideas about how to solve the problems that face our communities, how to solve the immigration problems that we see, or the suffering that immigrants are experiencing. So, I’m not saying that my personal opinion is the only one you can have and be a Christian. I think sometimes people feel like that’s what’s being said. So, I think that a lot of the pushback really is just, can we disagree and what does it look like for the church as an institution to be putting resources towards saying a specific thing about policy and politics? Yeah, and then there’s just the sort of general, like, we don’t agree.

DR: Yeah.

Kate Kooyman: We don’t agree about what the solutions are.

DR: It’s just upsetting for people to feel as if something that we have so deeply in common with one another–our Christian faith or our membership in a denomination, for example–it’s just–it creates a lot of fear and distress to see people who have very, very different views on these political areas and it seems like some of the detraction from what the Office of Social Justice does has to do with this idea that the church needs to stay out of politics. And how do you, how do you folks answer that?

Kate Kooyman: I mean, I think staying out of it is making a significant choice as well. So, you know, I think that our church, the Christian Reformed Church, made a decision quite a long time ago that what it looks like to answer the call of God includes engagement in those, in the political realm, and so that doesn’t mean we’re always going to do it perfectly, but I think it does mean that the way that, that we as Reformed Christians understand what it looks like to love people includes trying to effect change on that level. So, I would say staying out of politics, I mean, we live in communities that are shaped by policies. I mean, we can’t stay out of it.

DR: Yeah, as you say that’s a choice, too. And the other option is to be intentional and thoughtful stewards, as you said before, of our power within those communities. It seems to me like one of the important–it’s not really a distinctive–but one of the important emphases of the Reformed faith is this concern with systems, and we used to use the word transform, right? We’re transforming society. To see sin and to see God’s grace within systems and to think of it as part of our faith to be active in the shaping of those systems is quite important to the Reformed—let’s call it culture, but it’s rooted in Reformed theology. So it sounds like that’s what your office is operating on.

Kate Kooyman: I think so. I think it’s a pretty old impulse that we’ve seen a lot of different historical iterations of, you know. John Calvin, who was himself a refugee, was very interested in what it looked like to form a community that was equitable and just and ran really well and that the church understood its role in. You know, I mean, I think we can interpret a lot of what Calvin said in different ways. That’s an interesting conversation, but I don’t think that we can interpret Calvin to be saying, just don’t worry about it, you know what I mean?

DR: For sure, yeah. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I wonder if Geneva was in some ways a refugia.

Kate Kooyman: Yeah! I mean, I wonder about that too and how people in that time would have had this conversation that we’re–about what does it look like for the church to, yeah, answer that calling in its own time and place. I think that’s the pressing question for us right now, too.

DR: So, we’ve been exploring the idea of refugia in this podcast and that has special resonance for migrants, immigrants, and refugees. So, just a little quick review of definitions. I know you do this all the time. Explain the difference between migrants, immigrants, and refugees.

Kate Kooyman: Yeah, so we talk about, the way I think about it is: migrants, just simply, it’s like a generic term for somebody who is not where they are from, right? They are moving. And so migration is just the writ-large concept that people move. It has happened since the beginning of humankind. It’s all over scripture. So, migration is just a truth.

DR: A fact of human life, yes.

Kate Kooyman: Yes, yes, not a modern phenomenon. An immigrant is a person who is, you know, given access to the ability to stay in a new country. So, when we talk about immigrants to the United States, we mean people who are intending to stay for their whole lives, start their lives over again as opposed to somebody who’s visiting, right? So, even the federal government has an immigrant system and a non-immigrant system for visas. The non-immigrants are students who are intending to go back to their countries of origin or it’s somebody who’s going to just be here for a little while to work, maybe, or to visit a family member and then intends to go back. Immigrant visas are the ones where people are intending to become part of this culture and this community for the rest of their lives, and then a refugee is a special kind of immigrant with a very distinct definition. So, a refugee is somebody who is fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution. So, they can’t just be afraid, they have to have a well-founded fear that they can prove. And not a fear of anything, it’s of persecution and it’s a persecution of a particular kind. You have to be able to prove you’re being persecuted based on your race, your religion, your national origin, your political opinion, or your membership in a specific social group. So, I used to think that a refugee was just a desperate immigrant. It was just a person who couldn’t stay home because of fear or danger and it turns out I was very wrong about that because if you’re fleeing from famine, if you’re fleeing from a natural disaster, if you’re fleeing just from violence, you are not considered a refugee. You have to be able to prove that your life is being threatened based on one of those five specific things. And then I think there’s another important definition that we’re really looking at right now in the headlines, which is asylum-seeker. An asylum seeker is somebody who fits that exact same definition. They’re fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution based on those same five factors. But unlike a refugee who got their permission while they were somewhere else—at a refugee camp, for example—an asylum seeker gets to a safe border and then requests safety. They have to still go through the screening process. So if you’ve met a refugee in the United States, that person got their papers before they got to the US. If you are talking about somebody who is just coming to our US Southern border, you’re talking about an asylum seeker, if they claim that they need to be here because they’re being persecuted. And I do think it’s so important to understand the differences between these things. You know, we’ve seen sometimes public policy gets shaped because of a misperception that we’re talking about an asylum seeker and really we’re talking about a refugee or something like that.

DR: Yeah. So, let’s focus on these people, the refugees and the asylum seekers, who are coming to the United States in particular. This of course is not merely an American phenomenon. It’s all over the world. There are more refugees now than there have ever been, just in terms of sheer numbers. These are people who are seeking refuge. So our word “refugia” is related to the word refuge. There’s a distinction. So, these are people who are seeking refuge. What can the church do to be a people of refugia in this situation?

Kate Kooyman: Yeah, I think there are a hundred ways to think about that question. It’s such a good one. I think one of the things that I hope that the work in the Office of Social Justice has helped Christians to understand is that Christians can’t, through their sheer goodwill and good intentions, help a refugee. We have to have this system that is provided by not just the United States, but the whole global community of the United Nations and all of that in order for people to be able to go from danger to safety. So, the way our policies work at–I can’t as a church member say, “We will take a refugee,” and then the government just brings one to us or something. So, we have to be engaged in and paying attention to what’s happening with public policy in order to be able to do the work of hospitality that we’re called to in scripture, so I think that that’s very important to understand. Providing spaces of refuge looks like being advocates to protect the systems that allow people to get safe.

DR: Okay.

Kate Kooyman: To me, the refugia piece is a little bit more the sort of habits that shape our relationships and I don’t know how you would– yeah, so I’d be interested in hearing how you would make those distinctions too but–

DR: I’m not sure. I’m listening to you at this point. Okay, I’ll try. So, a refuge is a place of shelter and safety that is not necessarily meant to seed or teach new habits or teach virtues or grow or re-emerge. It’s just a holding place. Which, at the moment, is a really difficult term because of what’s happening at the border now. Those holding places are not refuges either, but a refuge is just that. It’s temporary, it’s just safe, and it’s not meant to shape a new way of being that then grows.

Whereas refugia, if we go back to the biological definition of it, is a little place of life that is– that then re-emerges and grows. So, metaphorically we’re thinking about it as a place of relearning and of preserving virtues or habits. And then it’s meant to connect with other refugia, it’s meant to spread, it’s meant to grow, it’s meant to renew. So, I guess what I’m curious now is to think about if we as the church can influence those systems in the way that you’re talking about to create refuges. How can we go from that to be– to thinking of ourselves as people of refugia where we create more than a refuge? It’s a refugium.

Kate Kooyman: Yes.

DR: So talk about that a little bit.

Kate Kooyman: So, there’s a, there’s an organization, a non-profit in Grand Rapids, that is called Treetops Collective, and what they try to do I think has everything to do with this, what you’re talking about. So, Treetops works with women and girls who came to the US through the refugee system and it’s a very–it can be a very, impersonal process, I think. What I hear when I hear people who came here through refugee resettlement talk about, they are treated like projects or like they’ve got a case manager. They’re sort of always receiving help. What Treetops Collective has tried to do is say, you know, there’s beyond refugee resettlement, there is becoming at home in your new location. There’s putting your roots down so that eventually, you have children and your children raise their children here and this becomes the place where you live and flourish and thrive and part of what that looks like is that you are not treated like a project all the time. You’re not treated like you’re perpetually a guest. You are a whole person with strengths and weaknesses, and so those strengths are expected to be part of the community that we’re forming here too. And so Treetops tries to help women who have skills, like, in sewing for example, that come from the cultures that they came from. Well, how can that contribute to what we’re doing here in Grand Rapids in a really meaningful way? How can we find out? What are your creative gifts that you have? Are you interested in pottery and crocheting and screen printing and what do you—how did God make you and how can the way God made you impact our whole community? Because we need you. We don’t just need to help you.

DR: Yes.

Kate Kooyman: And I think that, that, it really helped me, I guess, to watch Treetops do this work. It really helped me to understand something about what I thought it meant to be Christian. I think was tied up for me in privilege. So, I thought that to be a Christian was to be a helper and a fixer and a saver and a server and I think that all those things are true, but what I missed is that in Scripture, Jesus receives help and receives meals and receives hospitality and receives a cup of water and you know, he’s not always just fixing stuff for people. He’s also letting people help him. This is part of what I think it looks like for Jesus Christ to be fully human. And so, then I need to do that too, and I need to let others be that for me. So, what does that have to do with refugia? I think that part of what we mean is that it’s not curated, it’s organic. People are meant to flourish, that’s how God created all of us, what God wants for all of our lives, and we can’t flourish if we have no agency, you know, no ability to express the new growth, the new life, the creative gifts that God has given us. And I do think that we can tend to be very programmatic about our helping, saving, serving as Christians. So, what would happen if the church, beyond just helping to co-sponsor a refugee family, really thought it was their job to allow a refugee family to belong, to put their roots down deep, to be complicated? And what would it look—how would that change the way we think about loving people beyond just meeting their needs?

DR: Maybe that’s a great distinction, is that we are in a lot of contention right now over the systems that create refuge. And that’s true more so, not exclusively, but more so for the more desperate people who are moving from their homelands to here. But maybe that’s only the first step. Maybe we need to think harder about the next step, which is more about integration and mutual flourishing, giving and receiving, and that’s more the refugia piece. So, maybe we have more work to do as a church than we thought. It’s more than just dealing with the systems that allow people to become safe. It’s actually creating these places of integration and maybe that’s more the refugia piece.

Kate Kooyman: And what I love about this sort of—the part where this word is rooted in biology, is it helps me to remember that, like, we are all part of an ecosystem here. You know, I mean one species’ flourishing actually really does impact another species’ ability to flourish and I think what we’ve lost, at least in the culture at least that I’m from, is we don’t, we don’t always see. Privilege allows us to not have to see the ways that we are really deeply connected, one to another, and so we think we’re standing on our own two feet or we think that we are the ones with the help to give, but if, if my flourishing is actually, really caught up in yours, meaningfully so, not just my feelings of being a good person are caught up in how I treat you but if you are able to put your roots down deep and flourish and, and, you know, all that. And that actually makes my life better in tangible ways.

DR: We have biodiversity.

Kate Kooyman: Exactly. I think it’s true.

DR: Yeah, those ecosystem metaphors really are helpful.

Kate Kooyman: And when scripture talks about us being the body of Christ, right? I think that that’s sort of the same idea.

DR: Yeah. It’s analogous for sure. So, you mentioned Treetops Collective. What are some other groups or people who are really stepping up and doing some of that really good refugia work?

Kate Kooyman: Yeah, you know immigration and communities of immigrants and refugees are in pain all over this country. I think that it’s–

DR: And not just the really, really desperate ones, but immigrants too, and not just new immigrants.

Kate Kooyman: Right. Yes. I think it’s a time where the rhetoric that we’re using is just as damaging as the policies that we’re making. So, I think it is a time where– when I think of people doing really, really good work to create, you know, these spaces of refugia, I’m thinking of people who are telling the truth boldly. So, there’s a, there’s a minister in urban Chicago. Her name is Sandra Van Opstal and I see the work she’s doing as being that. She is Latina, she is an ordained minister, she’s a worship leader, but she uses all of those gifts as ways to try to help proclaim the truth and bear witness to what she sees happening in her neighborhood, which is just so full of stories of families suffering, people living in fear, just nonsensical sorts of ways people are treated, whether they have legal status or not. So, I think of that, you know, there’s a church that we’ve been connected to through our work that’s just on the Mexico side of the border and they have been basically overwhelmed with people who are trying to come into the US as asylum-seekers, and our policies in the US have in many, many ways started to really trickle and stop the flow of people who are able to go through that system of being screened and vetted and given permission to come into the state. So, they are effectively stuck at the border. And what do you do when you are somewhere, you know, you have no family, no resources, and so vulnerable, but turn to the church. And so it’s churches all along our border who are just making it up as they go along to try to meet the needs of these people who have nowhere else to turn. To me, this is the Kingdom of God, right? It’s just–I can’t think of anything that looks more like the church than those actual humans doing that actual day-to-day work.

DR: It makes me think of Luke 15 and Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. Being a neighbor is about that moment of crisis where you do what needs to be done.

Kate Kooyman: And you know, I think that I always heard these stories about, you know, the Civil Rights movement and other times that came before my lifetime when people—it was very clear and they stood up for justice and it was very clear what they should do and it was, the line between Good and Evil was bright, you know?

DR: Yeah.

Kate Kooyman: I think now that I’m living through this moment, it’s clear to me that nobody knows what they’re doing. You know what I mean?

DR: It’s the truth of adulthood, I definitely know what you mean.

Kate Kooyman: Yeah, like–

DR: The people running the world don’t know what they’re doing either. I know.

Kate Kooyman: And, and, it’s, you do the next right thing. Just– and I think that the stakes are pretty high right now, but you know, maybe that’s part of what happens with the Earth too, is it’s just one seed sprouts. It’s just, you just do the next thing that’s possible to do and you hope that what that does is it grows into something that will live.

DR: Yeah and often it does. Not always, but often it does. I was going to ask you about your view of the church. You went to seminary to become a pastor and then you were a chaplain. You had, you worked for the denomination, you were a chaplain, then you worked for the denomination again. So you’ve had a chance to interact with a lot of people from a lot of different congregations. So, you have a pretty good view of life on the ground, so to speak, at least in our denomination. I want to know how you think about the church differently now than you did in seminary.

Kate Kooyman: One thing that comes to mind is, I think in seminary, I think I thought more about the church as a place where we learned to be correct, or—and now I think I believe the church is a place where we come to be known. And I think that has a lot to do with just being older, maybe being a mom, maybe interacting with people, you know, like immigrants and refugees, who have taught me so much about resilience and good news in the face of really hard stuff. I think that we, you know, I think that we are our best as Christians when we’re seeking to know one another and to be known by God and by one another. And we can be at our worst when we’re seeking to be correct and right–do you know what I mean? It brings out such a different part of me.

DR: That leads to my next question, really, which is what do you make of the reality that we’re seeing everywhere right now that for some people the church, which should be this place of being known, of life-giving refuge—it’s become a place that people need refuge from. What do you make of that?

Kate Kooyman: I think I feel relieved when I remember that there are stories in scripture of the same phenomenon, you know, that people of faith have gotten this thing wrong for a really long time and yet we still tell the stories, we still gather together to worship, that there is such a graciousness in the idea that it’s not ours to mess up or to perfect. So, it lets me hold it a little more loosely and maybe be a bit more creative about what do we do now. But I do, I think of LGBT Christians and my heart really breaks for that. I have friends who, who have asked the wrong question and essentially stopped, you know, being part of a community of faith because they had questions, you know, or a doubt of some kind and then certainly there are all kinds of ways that race and ethnicity and class and all those other dividing lines that exist in our society can show up in our churches and do and sometimes worse in our churches than in other places.

DR: Yeah, there’s such brittleness sometimes for keeping things the way they are and sometimes for good reasons, but often it’s driven by such fear, and that’s when the anger comes, when people are fearful.

I sometimes think now that it’s the people who have been most hurt by the church that need to teach us what the church should be. So, it’s the people with other skin colors that aren’t the majority. It’s the LGBTQ Christians. It’s the people who have for one way or another been rejected or hurt that need to be the ones training us what it means to be a people of refugia. They’ve often found their refugia somewhere, and we so often are very tempted to be the church of empire, which is the opposite of the church of refugia. Does that make sense to you? Do you see evidence of that as well?

Kate Kooyman: Yeah. I kind of wonder if the church of empire is an oxymoron, you know, that it’s just not, that’s not the church, that once it becomes about maintaining power over against each other that we’ve actually started doing something wholly different than what the church is and that when we talk about people who have left something they were calling church and found refugia, maybe what they found is church, right? And I’m a person who—I’m ordained in an actual institutional church, you know, I attend one every Sunday and so I’m not saying we all just go pick, pick and choose what feels, makes us feel good every week, but I do think that you’re right. If we have closed the door as a community to the people who can bring us the most wisdom about resilience and suffering and belonging and—

DR: Death and resurrection.

Kate Kooyman: Exactly.

DR: Yes, those people who have suffered the most are the ones who know the most about death and resurrection. They’re the ones that show us Christ.

Kate Kooyman: Yeah, that can tell stories of new life. And I think the other thing is, I’m guessing with the biology of refugia too, you know, there are moments it looks like there’s nothing there.

DR: Oh, absolutely.

Kate Kooyman: I think it’s those in-between moments that is actually most of our life that it’s not a story of, it’s not a testimony. We’re in the in-between. We’re not yet. We’re not there yet. We haven’t gotten to that—to the Resurrection, to the good news. We’re Saturday people most of the time, right? And I think that there’s something really freeing about the idea that, you know, you can point to God without pointing to a sprout or a, you know, new life all the time. God can still be there with us when we’re in the middle of it. I think people who have been—have felt rejected by the church probably have a lot to share about what it’s like to be in that middle place. Maybe not yet in a place where you can proclaim something or give a testimony or tell a truth that you know to be true. You’re still asking the question. I think there’s something really important about making some space for that to be holy too. I hate to—I just hate to tell stories about suffering as though the only helpful part of it is the part where you’re done suffering.

DR: Absolutely. Yeah.

Kate Kooyman: And you’ve got some sort of helpful, helpful word to share. I think people that have gone through suffering know that the bulk of it is actually kind of awful, you know? And not tied up and ready to uplift other people.

DR: Yeah.

Kate Kooyman: It’s, it’s the part where you just need somebody to bring you dinner or watch your kids or—

DR: Yeah, we have to know that that’s—Christ is there too.

Kate Kooyman: Right. Yeah, Christ is in that, definitely.

DR: Let’s talk about your adventure that your family is about to go on. Tell me about that. What are you doing and why?

Kate Kooyman: We are, next week, going to pack up a little bit of our stuff and put it in a little tiny travel trailer RV and we’re going to go on a road trip for a year. I have two elementary-age sons and my husband and my dog and me and we’re all gonna just take a kind of a sabbatical, I guess would be probably the best word to use for what we’re hoping it is for us. And we’re super excited and a little nervous and–

DR: Where are you going? What are your destinations?

Kate Kooyman: We’re going west and that’s pretty much the extent of the planning we’ve done so far. So, I think we’ll do the, you know, the national parks and we’re going to see some friends that we have not been able to connect with deeply in a while and we might go to Canada and we might go to Mexico and we’re going to try to stay out of the snow and–

DR: How did the children feel about this?

Kate Kooyman: So, I think that they think it’s cool and I think it’s a little hard for them to understand what it’s going to be like because it’s hard for me to understand that. So, there’s parts they’re really excited about like seeing a moose and a whale, and there’s parts they’re not excited about like not being on the basketball team.

DR: Oh dear.

Kate Kooyman: I know.

DR: Tragic.

Kate Kooyman: I know. It’s a big deal.

DR: So, is this a little traveling refugia for your family?

Kate Kooyman: I hope so, I think, yeah, so, I think this idea is really interesting. You know, we can—I’m sort of at that stage that, like, midlife stage where, you know, we’ve—I’ve been doing the career thing and the parenting thing and the consumer culture thing and all of that for long enough that I can tell how it’s not serving me well. So, I think the deeper goal, really, is to relearn some habits and ways of being in relationship with each other, with the natural world, with God, that give more life—which sounds like refugia to me, actually, right? Like, this idea that, you know, I think you can kind of go, go along without realizing that you’re not connecting to the things that give life and you’re dying a little bit.

DR: Yeah, it’s either refugia or compost, maybe, would be the other… Throwing a little compost.

Kate Kooyman: Not quite as attractive, but maybe it’s that. Yeah.

DR: Very true though. Kate, I’m so grateful for your courage and for your patience with conflict and with the education that you do over and over and over and over again saying the same things, but it’s all important, and I’m really, really grateful that you spent some time with me today. Thank you.

Kate Kooyman: Thank you.

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