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In this episode, biologist Dave Koetje returns to ponder with me what we have learned about refugia through the twelve previous episodes of the series.

For more background

Dave Koetje’s faculty page at the Calvin University website.

We mention two key books, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.


Debra Rienstra: Today, I’m talking with Dave Koetje, my colleague in the biology department at Calvin. Dave was my very first guest for the Refugia podcast, and he is joining me again today so that we can reflect together on the whole series. We’ve aired 12 episodes over the last few months, so it’s time to figure out what we’ve learned. I guess we could call this a final exam day.

Dave Koetje: Oh dear.

DR: Thanks for being here today. I want to thank you again for your enthusiasm for this project and for your inspiring encouragement. I really appreciate your willingness to think about all of this with me, and I’m really eager to hear your reflections as you’ve dwelt with this idea of refugia over the last six months. So maybe we could start with how things went in your Global Environment and Sustainability course.

Dave Koetje: Yeah, so I had a group of about 27 students in the course. At the beginning of the semester on the very first day, I gave them a survey and one of the things that was included in the survey were questions about where did they find meaning in their environment around them: what places stood out to them, were there specific animals or, or even plants or so that had meaning in their lives.  

I was amazed how often water came up in that little survey as places of meaning for people. I guess growing up here in the Great Lakes as a lot of the students in my class did, that shouldn’t be too surprising. But it really spoke to me and brought to my mind as well, the biblical imagery of water and the importance of water in the sacraments and so on. And I thought, yeah that does seem entirely appropriate.  

I also included in the survey some questions from the Yale Climate Communications group, their so called little “SASSY”–SASSY survey–and four questions that peg you on the continuum from, where are you about global warming? Are you alarmed by this, or on the other end of the spectrum, are you dismissive of this? And 60% of the class is alarmed, and that’s not surprising to me. The title of the course alone is something that would draw people in, if you’re concerned about that. But I think it also speaks to where today’s university students are with respect to this particular issue. And when we talked about the issue in the course, they were flabbergasted how people could be dismissive.

DR: It seems very real to them.

Dave Koetje: It’s very real to them.

DR: And did you, is this the class that you asked to listen to our first episode?

Dave Koetje: Yes.

DR: And how did they respond to the idea of refugia?

Dave Koetje:  It came up several times again. I had them write at the midway point of the semester, a response paper of all of the things that we had talked about so far and refugia was part of that. I said, so how do you put all that together? How do you think about the pollution issues, the climate issues and so on and so forth? The population issues. And, and several of them mentioned that that concept of refugia was helpful.

DR: In what way? What did it mean to them?

Dave Koetje: It meant for them a place where they could wrestle with kindred spirits. It meant a place where they didn’t have to worry about being judged.

DR: Oh, interesting.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. It meant a place where they could try to figure out how to collectively respond to these kinds of things. And so they appreciated that in the classroom as well.

DR: It’s been fascinating to me how quickly people catch onto and respond to this concept.

Dave Koetje: I know!

DR: I know! It’s wonderful and surprising and I’m so glad to continue to explore it. So let’s think back to the 12 episodes of the podcast, and I’m very eager to hear what were some moments that stood out to you or flashes of insight that you had listening.

Dave Koetje: Oh my goodness, where to start? There’s so many, and I know that you had shared with me as well some of the insights that you had gained. And I think I resonate with every one of them. This is something that can mean so many different things. But there’s… when you begin to pull all the threads together, there’s so many commonalities. The word humility comes up so many times.

DR: Oh yes. That seems to be the virtue of the day here.

Dave Koetje: Yeah.

DR: Yeah. So many people mentioned that.

Dave Koetje: Right, and you think, you know, there’s, there’s the humility of being gracious to those on the margins, to the other. There’s the humility of doing work that really, really matters, but you don’t really know where this is going to go.

DR: Chronological humility, we can call it.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. And then there’s just the humility of, you know, you don’t, you don’t envision this grand triumphal, you know, utopian view. It’s more of a, you know, how do we work out the, the hard work, the hard questions? How do we work those out in a place that’s safe? But yet we’re dealing with really unsafe kinds of concepts, questions, issues.

DR: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe that brings us to this idea of crisis. So, initially when we were thinking about how to define refugia, we established that one of the requirements is that it needs to come out of a time of crisis or some kind of crisis. That’s part of the biological history of the term. So these are places where life survives in a crisis.

And as I reviewed the episodes, I was struck by the number of kinds of crisis the conversation partners talked about. So of course there’s a climate crisis. Several talked about that. US politics seems to be in crisis. A couple of examples of that. Hillary Scholten made clear the urgency of repairing current US immigration policies. Christina Edmondson spoke eloquently of how politics in the US these days can seem very traumatizing and toxic, especially to marginalized groups. And then the church seems to be in crisis.

So, I’ve been thinking about this weird crisis convergence. And I wonder if you’re feeling that too, and if maybe this whole business of humility is a way of looking at this crisis convergence and recognizing how large it is and how small we are.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. I see, you know, all you have to do is, is open up your browser and read the news. And it’s just one crisis after another. You know, at the time of our speaking today the crisis in Hong Kong has been going on and what seems like this building, building, building to what looks to be a horrific conclusion of perhaps even people’s lives at stake and you feel all of the unrest that’s happening worldwide.

It’s not just here, it’s not just us. It seems like humanity is feeling this moment of crisis. And a lot more talk, not just by people who tend to talk about end times, but more and more mainstream people talking about is this the beginning of the end?

DR: I’ve heard more than one young person say, well, you know, in 10 years–if we’re even here in 10 years.

Dave Koetje: Right. Right.

DR: That’s not the way we talked. 

Dave Koetje: That was not in our vocabulary.

DR: And we’re not that old, Dave.

Dave Koetje: No. Although one thing that was in our vocabulary regarding the end: we thought that we were maybe not going to see the year 2000 because you know, the big one would go off. Right?

DR: Oh sure.

Dave Koetje: Remember that? Right? Nuclear war.

DR: I must be younger than you.

Dave Koetje: OK.

DR: Yeah. No, but I think as, as we feel in so many realms the ground shift under our feet, maybe it’s a time where humility just seems to be the virtue of choice, the virtue most needed.

And that reminds me a little bit of, one of the things that has struck me and that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot, over these past weeks as we aired the episodes, is the opposition between the church of empire and the church of refugia. And to me, the church of empire has this very triumphalistic attitude. It’s about power, it’s about cultural dominance. And we have seen the poisons of that in such clear ways.

And so when I have posited that opposition to people, they immediately respond to that. And you can tell from the response, this is the time where we shift away from the church of empire and move toward the church of refugia. And I’m not sure what that means yet, but thinking about it, probably the signal virtue is humility and smallness and a sense that we are not capable of and maybe not meant to be some kind of triumphal conquerors, and that doesn’t diminish the power of God, right? It diminishes our power in ways that are appropriate.

Dave Koetje: So one of these, you know, funny things that happens every now and then, I had a student email me out of the blue, who’s taking a different class in philosophy. And he said, this is one of the papers that we read this week. I think you might be interested in this. And it was a paper that is entitled “Radical Hope in the Climate Crisis.” And this is, taking off on a book that was written some years ago about the Crow Nation as they were facing cultural annihilation. Yet the last chief of the, of the Crow Nation at that time, a man named Plenty Coups was, even as the people were being led to the reservation, he was offering this idea of, okay, how do we, we won’t have our culture anymore. Our way of life can’t exist anymore. So now what?

And he was presenting this vision of radical hope to his people. And as I was reading this paper, it struck me that, A, first I had to assign this in my class as well. But I also was struck by the idea that, especially as people face the unknown and the unknown seems so different than anything that we’ve experienced before: how do we live with that radical hope?

And that’s where that sense of humility comes in. There’s things that we need to learn from our environment, to be more in tune with our environment as we face this, this new reality. But there’s also things that, you know, what does, what does an ethics look like within this new framework? You know virtue ethics comes up several times in our podcast.

DR: Sure. Steve Bouma-Prediger is the one we talked about that with.

Dave Koetje: Yeah, and you think what kind of virtue ethics do we need for the Anthropocene? What does it mean for us to have—humanity—to have so much power over things that occur in the natural world? The concept of wilderness doesn’t make sense anymore. Everything is touched by human beings.

DR: Yeah, this is Bill McKibben’s End of Nature from twenty-five years ago.

Dave Koetje: Right. And you think, okay, what does that mean? What does it mean to live an earth-, an earth-sensitive life? Yeah. A virtuous life.

DR: One of the most important people I’ve read in the last six months is Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass. And there’s so much to ponder in that book, but it reminds me of what we have talked about too, that the best place to learn about refugia is from the people who’ve been on the margins, the people who have been in some way exiled and apparently hopeless. And Native Americans are a crucial example of that.

And reading her and thinking about the way that she presents indigenous ways of living with the earth, makes me so skeptical about our typical Christian rehearsal of Genesis 1, and we’re made in the image of God and we are rulers of the earth. And now I just think: are we?

Dave Koetje: Yeah.

DR: Or are we just disruptors? I know that’s, that’s too strong, but have we ever ruled anything?

It is, and this is, Jamie Skillen, one of his points too, is that we don’t know the things we really need to know if we wanted to be rulers. I mean, the best we can do is strive not to do so much harm, and to, to strive to know, to continue to try to know how to be healers and restorers and not just destroyers, how to live in harmony.

And I think what Robin Wall Kimmerer adds to this so powerfully are the two ideas of gratitude and reciprocity. And I think, why have Christians missed that? That is so resonant with our calling as Christians. And she articulates it better than any Christian I’ve read.

Dave Koetje: Wow.

DR: So I’m kind of ashamed of that and yet thrilled to have that insight.

So, maybe we can shift to what these refugia look like? I think our definition has been quite broad and we’ve been groping for what they look like through these podcasts. And so as I read, or as I listened again, I kept an ear out for some features. And I gathered a whole bunch of them.

So refugia are welcoming. They’re open-bordered, they’re humble, as we’ve said. Work goes on there. That was from something you said, Dave. They’re places of capacity building. They’re places where one can safely take risks. This sounds like what your students were thinking about. They are particular and rooted. They are self-replicating. They’re places of lament and laughter. They’re places of honesty and creativity. They are inclusive. That is, they tend to gather people who maybe in other spots wouldn’t necessarily connect. They spread by making connections with other refugia.

So that’s a really long list. And I almost wonder, have we lost a concept at all here in this large list? But I wonder what stands out for you in that list? 

Dave Koetje: Yeah, so many things. The welcoming, the inclusiveness, the rootedness, all of those things really strike me as being important pieces of this refugia concept. I think of Christina Edmondson’s metaphor of the table and, and you think, you know, we need to be constantly asking ourselves, you know, who comes to this table? What do we do at this table? You think of a table as being a place, you know, where, where people talk about things, a place where we also, also share food together. And I think both of those things are crucial if we are to be a people of refugia.

DR: I’m thinking of John Witvliet, encouraging us to ask the question about worship: who’s in pain, who finds it painful to be here? Such a difficult question because we don’t necessarily want to face, honestly, that we have caused pain, whoever we might be in the context.

I know people, good friends who’ve spent their life in the church, who right now cannot bear to darken the door of their home churches. They find it so deeply embedded in the church of empire–is the phrase I would use. They just cannot do it. And so they are finding faith refugia in other places outside the sanctuary space, outside the structured church. You know, they’re, they’re not exactly spiritual-but-not-religious, because they would still love to be religious.

Dave Koetje: Right.

DR: But they’re trying to find…

Dave Koetje: But there’s no space for them.

DR: Yeah. And in fact, that whole Evolving Faith Conference was people who, in one degree or another, have found the churches they were raised in, or knew, to be the church of empire in ways that they just cannot take anymore. And often because they are the ones whom church of empire marginalizes or otherwise continually pounds with messages of unworthiness.

Dave Koetje: Yep. Heard those.

DR: And so, yeah, so they are finding other places. It’s, it’s a time of great ferment in the church in ways that aren’t necessarily recognized or measured by Pew Research polls. Which are useful and have their place. I saw a really remarkable one even this morning, about the number of, you could just, it was visual. You could just see the number of people identifying as Christians shrinking across the generations, and the number of unaffiliated–which doesn’t necessarily mean people without faith, it means they’re unaffiliated.

Dave Koetje: Correct.

DR: And the number of unaffiliated just increasing across the generations. So that’s just a statistical measure of what we’re seeing in so many other instances. And yet the context in world religions is that Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in other countries. And one of the questions I, I just wonder and worry about is: well, is that going to be the church of empire in another cultural idiom?

Dave Koetje: And I fear very much like you do that that’s just going to be a different face, but it’s going to be the same empire.

DR: Yeah. Yeah. Which raises the question, I think: What does the American church have to offer, if anything? What have we learned? What? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that, but it is something I wonder about.

So this is all lovely and theoretical, but what examples of refugia have you noticed in the last little while that seems to, that seems to fit these definitions that seem to be kind of shining examples?

Dave Koetje: Well, I’ll give you one biologically. First of all, compost.

DR: Wonderful. Let’s talk about compost.

Dave Koetje: Compost is a community that doesn’t look like anything’s happening there. At least if you’re just a casual observer. But, if you take a moment to get your hands dirty and to dig through compost, you see that this is teeming with life, but it’s life that is, you know, otherworldly in so many ways. Right?

And yet this is the place where there’s dying going on, important dying. Dying to things that can’t be anymore. And there’s new life just proliferating, you know, there’s, there’s, you know, the statistic is that within this, a teaspoon of soil, there’s more microbes living there than there are people on the planet. Which is pretty astounding, but you know, you think about all of those things going on in compost, and then what’s the end result of compost? Something that is life giving.

This is something that you can put on a plant and the plant becomes so vibrant because it’s taking up nutrients. It’s, it’s, it’s getting–it’s not just taking up nutrients. It’s also interacting with all of these microbes that have made the compost their home and the microbes help this whole process of taking up nutrients or water from the soil. Without them, the plant couldn’t do it.

DR: So are we in a cultural moment where we need to compost a lot of things?

Dave Koetje: I think so. Yeah. I think there are things that we have to let go of.

Again, going back to this radical hope article, we have to let go of consumerism. We have to let go of the idea that we are masters of our own domains. And I think there’s work of, you know, being far more attentive to our contexts. There’s a few people who in the series talked about their sense of place. And I think we have to really cultivate that a lot more. A sense of place, what is it that you appreciate? What draws you in to a particular place? What pulls on your heartstrings.

DR: Yeah. I’m thinking of a conversation with Jeff Chu, a moment in that conversation where he was insisting that–and rightly so–that refugia have to be particular and rooted and in a place, and, we were thinking it can’t be franchised. There’s no formula.

Dave Koetje: Right.

DR: So it, it depends on what is needed in the context of who you are and what is also available. I suppose compost works nicely as an analogy here too, because you compost what you’ve got. You take the waste products of whatever you are doing, wherever you are, the kitchen scraps, kitchen scraps of culture and the church.

But, as you were saying, it’s not only the things you’re so willing to give away. Sometimes we have to compost things that it’s hard to say goodbye to.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. I just threw the last of my tomato vines into the compost.

DR: And they are going to make beautiful dirt someday.

Dave Koetje: And in the very first podcast, there’s several people who mentioned tomatoes.

DR: That’s right. Another theme: humility and tomatoes. I think we found something here.

Another question I’ve been trying to think about, and I don’t know the answer yet, is whether we can create them, create refugia. Or whether we just look for them and find them. Do they arise on their own? Do we engineer them? Is it a combination of both?

So in my conversation with Tim Van Deelen, we thought a little bit about wildlife management or ecosystem management. And of course, he was very positive about the idea of, yeah, we have to try to create refugia and we talked about connecting, finding ways to create corridors and matrices of refugia for certain endangered species. So that was very much in the wildlife, rather than in the metaphorical realm.

And I think of, as you mentioned, Christina Edmondson basically creating what could we could call a refugium space in her offices here on our campus. Christina Edmondson and Kyle Meyaard-Schaap mentioned a leadership program that, in their own ways, turned out to be refugia for people. Jeff’s involved in that Evolving Faith Conference. He created that retreat. I’m thinking also of David Jellema’s Lost Valley on the lakeshore, which is just so delightful to me.

So I think we do try to engineer them, but I also think they just arise in certain ways. So is our posture to be busy engineering or is our posture to be looking? How do you think about that?

Dave Koetje: That’s a great question. You’re good at asking those, that are pretty hard. That, that’s another theme that comes up in this series is that. Well, there’s a hard question.

And as I’ve been thinking about that question, I do agree with you that, that there’s sort of a both/and. It, on the one hand, we can set up conditions and nurture the potentiality of refugia. I don’t know if we can franchise this. I’m pretty sure that we can’t. So I agree with your guest who mentioned that.

But, I think that we can be in a posture where refugia are more likely to come into existence and then to thrive. And that’s where that humility comes back again, of course. You can’t go into this with this triumphalistic attitude and say, we’re going to make up a refugium. It’s probably not going to work.

DR: Yeah.

Dave Koetje: But you can say, where are the places where a refugium could make sense? Could thrive? There will be sources of stability that will be necessary for nurturing the life-giving forces within this place. And then how do we protect those? How do we make it possible that those kinds of interactions can, can become stronger and stronger?

DR: Yeah. I’m thinking of Hillary Scholten’s comments about the role of government as creating these kind of baseline conditions. They don’t, government doesn’t do the soul work.

Dave Koetje: Right.

DR: And maybe there’s a way to think about that model elsewhere too in the church. And I had a chance to attend the Evolving Faith Conference. And the, one of the key words at the conference was de-colonization. That was a little bit of a buzzword, which is fine. It’s a useful word, and it was explored quite extensively in lots of ways, which was very useful.

But maybe that’s the church and the cultural equivalent of kind of baseline law, that decolonization. By which is meant a kind of disassembly of power structures that leave people out or that marginalize or oppress people. And some of those structures go back in history quite a long ways.

So the process of decolonization is like this disassembly and that process maybe is what can create conditions for refugia to exist for people. So that, so that refugia can do what they’re meant to do, which is create capacity, retrain, places where we can relearn different ways of doing things.

So in the church, I think John Witvliet had some good suggestions about worship practices in the church and some very practical approaches to that, where we can start thinking of ourselves not as this dominant cultural force or have these triumphalist goals. That’s God’s business.

Dave Koetje: Right.

DR: But our job is to nurture these little seeds. And if you think about the scriptures, God is always working with remnants, and little seeds, and the most unlikely people, the most unlikely things, the losers and the people without power. I liked what Kate Kooyman said too, that sometimes when new life is forming, it really looks like there’s nothing there.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. Yeah.

DR: Compost is a great analogy there too, where it just looks like a pile of trash.

Dave Koetje: Yeah.

DR: And yeah, there’s this magic, this microbial magic going on, that is preparing for new life.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. And Steve Bouma-Prediger talked about, you know, the ark, Noah’s ark, and he said, you know, this is really a seedbed to be a blessing to others. And I thought, that’s in a nutshell what a refugium should be.

DR: So where do we go from here? How do we go out therefore and make refugia and look for them?

Dave Koetje: I think we look for them in unexpected places. We try to find places where people are hurting, people are feeling that angst of, you know, this, this, this world seems to be coming apart. What do I do? We look for opportunities that seemingly come out of nowhere to interact, to nurture, to support, just to listen.

DR: And to be heard and to receive. I don’t want assume we are not people that need that too. We do. 

Dave Koetje: Yeah. Right. No, of course. We do. We definitely do. And so how can we–because this is not individual work.

DR: No.

Dave Koetje: This is work that needs to be done in community because it’s, it is by nature, communal work.

DR: And that is another capacity that we need to rebuild, at least in the United States. We’re so individualistic.

Dave Koetje: Exactly.

DR: We like to be autonomous and…

Dave Koetje: We think we are. But I think we look for opportunities to reach out. We look for opportunities to be received. And part of the humility is I don’t have all the answers.

DR: Yeah.

Dave Koetje: And yet there is this idea that somehow if we hold each other, we can get through this. And I think that’s what we have to hang on to. We have to have that radical hope that there is something beyond what we can see.

DR: Yeah. And that’s where I think faith has to come in and we have to recognize that the ways of God are always making use of the little and the nothing and the, the unlikely. And if we cooperate with that, life is resilient. As we’ve said about organic life. Life is very resilient.

I was struck with Jeff Chu and John Witvliet and Christina, when I asked them, you know, what is your hope for the future? They said: creativity, and depth, and imagination. Those were their three answers, in a nutshell.

What we need is enormous creativity. John said we can’t be afraid of depth, depth of pain, depth of insight, depth into the scriptures. And we’re just going to need a lot of imagination. So it is a crisis in the sense of opportunity as well, I suppose. But it’s, it’s exciting and terrifying at the same time, to be in this place where there’s so much letting go and so much need for humility.

Dave Koetje: And there’s pushback against that letting go.

DR: Of course.

Dave Koetje: There’s, there’s things that we have grown accustomed to. How do I let go of my privilege? How do I let go of my ability to avoid pain and embrace the pain? But in a very productive way. What does that, what does that look like?

DR: I think it looks like dying and rising. That’s our deep Christian theme in all of this.

Dave Koetje: Yeah.

DR: It’s the theme that, of course, we are marked by in our identity in baptism. That, that is, baptism is the mark of dying and rising. We are the people who die and rise.

Dave Koetje: We are.

DR: We just have to live into that in ways that we haven’t yet.

Dave Koetje: And I think that’s the source of this radical hope that, you know, we will rise again. We don’t know what that’s gonna look like, but it certainly can’t be any worse than we are now.

DR: Anything else you want to add? Anything you’re still thinking about.

Dave Koetje: No, this has been a very, very productive series. It’s exciting to see how this concept of refugia is so easy for people to grab onto. And say, yes, I think I have a glimpse of what that might look like. And I see an example of that here. And here’s a metaphor that really helps me to understand and appreciate this.

And the relationships that develop within these places become such a key piece. And I think that too is our central calling as Christians to say, okay, how can we live in communion with each other and with the Lord? And, and do so with more of a focus on, you know, how is, not how is this feeling to me? But how is this, how can I minister with you? How can I partner with you? How can I help you help others to meet needs to, to find comfort, to find assurance?

DR: In new ways, new ways of thinking.

Dave Koetje: New ways. Yes.

DR: Good. Well, Dave, I’m so grateful for your helping me think about this, for your conversation, for your insights.

Huge thanks to all my interviewees and to all the people involved in this project, including especially John Hwang and our students, Lauren Cole, Garrett Strpko, and Kayla Cooper. Thanks to Calvin University for supporting this through the McGregor program, the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, and through several of our centers and institutes.

And finally, we’re grateful to you, our listeners. Thank you.

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