On this episode, we’re joined by Katerina Parsons, a recent Calvin University alumna who works in legislative advocacy with the Mennonite Central Committee. After graduating, she spent four years in Honduras and is now doing graduate work in international development. Katerina talks with us about beauty and resilience in Honduras, about the distinction between advocacy and activism, and about balancing small actions with global ones.
For more background
To learn more about the Mennonite Central Committee’s work, see their website here.
Read more about Central America’s “Dry Corridor” here.
Debra Rienstra: Refugia, a podcast about renewal. Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries life re-emerges and the world is renewed. We’re exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of refugia How can we create safe places of flourishing, micro-countercultures where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead. I’m Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University. And this is Refugia.
Katerina Parsons: There are people right now who are activists, who are leaders, who are entrepreneurs. And I think that when we don’t give those people enough credit, we continue to think that someone else needs to come in and save them, and somebody else needs to come in and cultivate this garden for them, when they’re actually already doing this really brilliant work there.
Debra Rienstra: Hi, everyone. Today I’m so pleased to introduce you to a young person with a wise spirit and a gentle grace. Katerina Parsons is an alum of Calvin University, now doing graduate work in international development after spending four years in Honduras. She is an excellent example of how young people are helping to lead us into a more just and flourishing future.
In this episode, we talk about beauty and resilience in Honduras, about the distinction between advocacy and activism, and about balancing small, meaningful local actions with work on a global, systemic scale. We talk about restlessness too, and young people’s desire for a deeper faith and a place to feel rooted.
I hope you’ll find encouragement in listening to how Katerina is trying to live into the world she wants to see. As always, thanks for listening.
Today I’m talking with Katerina Parsons. Katerina is a 2015 graduate of Calvin University, where I was lucky enough to have her as a student. She now lives in Washington, DC, where she is working in advocacy with the Mennonite Central Committee, and where she is also pursuing a master’s degree in international development at the American University School of International Service.
Katerina Parsons: Thanks so much! It’s great to be here.
Debra Rienstra: I’m so glad to be talking with you today, because I think it’s really important to lift up wise, younger voices and listen to your perspective and your fears and hopes. And I think we all have a lot to learn from young people these days.
Katerina Parsons: It’s huge honor to be considered wise. I’m still figuring a lot of this stuff out.
Debra Rienstra: Well, we all are, but I know a wise young person when I see one.
So, I wonder how you’ve been doing during these last few months of quarantine.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, it’s been—it’s been a lot. I mean, it kind of goes back—I was in Honduras for a number of years and only moved back to DC this last August. So I had, you know, started a new job, started a new grad program. about six months in everything shut down, and I’m, you know, in a row house with six—or, five other people that I don’t know very well, and in a city that I don’t necessarily know very well.
So it was a good exercise in suddenly having a lot of time and space to get to know the small community that I was in. And I’m actually calling now from Michigan. I’ve been in—staying with my family here for the last five weeks, one of those two-week trips that just kept getting extended and extended.
So that’s also been a really nice, life-giving part of all of this mess—is to have the flexibility to reconnect with family and friends from back home.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So in your row house in DC, you’ve had intentional community, whether you liked it or not, it sounds like.
Katerina Parsons: Well, four of them also. I mean, we’re all kind of young, and it’s this sort of, you know, age where when all of this happened a lot of them just moved back with their families. So there were only a handful of us in, and people were kind of coming in and out, so…
Debra Rienstra: And how has it been to be with your family?
Katerina Parsons: It’s been really good. It’s been nice to have this slow time with them. I think, as I think back to the last eight or nine years, I’ve been home for all the big events and all the holidays, but that’s always—it’s a different feeling than being anywhere with somebody for such a long time, where you start to see what TV shows they watch and what they eat as snacks and all of those little things you forgot about the family that you grew up with.
Debra Rienstra: Nice. Well, we’ve been thinking of these places called refugia. And in these last months we’ve had to make refugia in our homes. And some of that means learning new patterns and developing new patterns. Are there any patterns or habits that your family has sort of fallen into or deliberately established?
Katerina Parsons: Um, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how different it is, because it’s newer for me to be here with them. But I think some of the things that I’ve been trying to do more intentionally are just building more outside time into my day. I think I was in the habit of leaving the house and going from work to school to back home, and not taking long, meandering walks [that] I think we’re all finding very necessary now. So that’s been a new practice, I think, that I’ve been enjoying a lot, just a deeper connection to nature.
Debra Rienstra: Absolutely. We’re all feeling that, I think. So tell us about your work with the Mennonite Central Committee.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah. Mennonite Central Committee, it’s a relief, development, and peace organization. Definitely not speaking on behalf of them—on my own capacity here—but they have a Washington, DC, advocacy office. It’s a small group of people, and we do domestic and foreign policy advocacy. I’m on the foreign policy team, and I advocate about Central America and North Korea—U.S. policy towards those places.
Debra Rienstra: And when you say “advocate,” what does that mean you actually do?
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, and that’s the question. There’s a lot of connections with MCC’s partners around the world. So the programming that they do in the places where I work—so I connect with those teams to sort of see what the U.S. is doing that makes their work really difficult or that’s exacerbating the causes of migration.
And then I am really honored to be their intermediary, bringing those stories to members of Congress or to people in the administration, the State Department. I regularly have meetings with congressional offices….
One of my favorite things to do is to actually bring constituents or people into those meetings and show them how accessible people in Congress can actually be, and willing to listen to their priorities, and willing to make small, incremental changes towards the sort of policy that we want to see.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, I think for most of us it all seems so exotic and far away, but they actually are people with offices, and you walk in and you say your piece, and… Tell us a story of an example of a particular policy that you went and told some stories about from Central America.
Katerina Parsons: Sure. Well, just this last week, we’ve been talking about asylum policy. And asylum is essentially the right that someone has when they come to the U.S. border to say that they’re facing fear of persecution or fear for their life, and by law, by international law, they should be granted a quick interview and access to come into the country and be safe.
But, realistically, that’s a policy that’s just been chipped away at over the past three and-a-half years, making it harder and harder for people to have access to that. So we brought in people who knew asylum seekers, who had worked at the border, who had been to the border, who felt strongly about this issue because of people that they knew and connections in their community.
And that was a really powerful thing, to be able to hear their story and to be able to create that space. And I think that makes a difference. You—it definitely—as an outcome of these meetings, you see additional members joining legislation or making public statements.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, that’s amazing. I remember, as a student, you were even at that time thinking of yourself as kind of a curator of stories, or even a shepherd of stories. And it’s really neat to see you actually doing that work again in a real and practical way.
So tell us what led you to go into international development work and now into international development studies.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. And I don’t know that I have a great or a simple answer. I started out as an English major and just took classes that really interested me that were related to the rest of the world and the U.S.’s relationship with the rest of the world. And I ended up studying abroad in Honduras, where there was a big focus on development and justice.
And it was something that was really interesting to me. So I came back and I wanted to study it more and then worked for four years in Honduras. I worked in communications, so the English major came in handy, but I was at a development and justice organization. And was just able to see all the different facets of this field that I hadn’t even really been aware existed. It’s not something that in rural Michigan you really give much thought to: development as an industry, as a profession, a field and a business.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Well, as we all know, the English major is the perfect launching pad for anything in life.
Katerina Parsons: I absolutely affirm that.
Debra Rienstra: So those four years you spent in Honduras, you spent a lot of time and energy thinking about systemic corruption, poverty, injustices of all sorts. So I wonder if this idea of refugia resonates with you. For example, how did the Hondurans that you know find refugia, even amid contexts where any kind of change is really difficult and dangerous and long in coming?
Katerina Parsons: Yeah. I want to thank you, first of all, for introducing me to the idea of refugia, I think it’s an idea that’s so rich in metaphor, and right away I could see how it applied to a place like Honduras, which is often described as a very violent, very poor place that’s very difficult to live. And I think when we talk about it in that way, we ignore those pockets of resistance and pockets of resilience where beauty is happening and flourishing. I think that’s a mistake that I see a lot of times, and even in well-meaning advocacy work, where people talk about these countries as if they’re just hellish and unlivable.
And that’s not the stories that I hear, even from the people who’ve fled horrific violence. They still think about their country with longing, with—they miss it. They think it’s beautiful, and I think we’re not very good at holding that in tension.
And if I think about, like, specific examples of refugia, one thing that comes to mind is—and this is, you know, throughout the world, too—but I think you often see that in indigenous cultures and how hard people have to work to hold on to the language and the traditions that have been stripped away them through generations. First of, you know, the conquista, and then schools that aren’t teaching it and governments that aren’t prioritizing it and international industries that are pushing indigenous groups off their land. But you still see elements of culture and language and tradition passed down and protected in those spaces. And that’s another thing that I think about.
Debra Rienstra: What sort of spaces are you thinking of? What did you see in Honduras? How are those stories and traditions preserved?
Katerina Parsons: In terms of indigenous groups?
Debra Rienstra: Or whatever, mhmm.
Katerina Parsons: Well I think—I mean, when I think about instances of refugia, it’s often very, very small things. And I think about the birthday parties and I think about soccer games and I think about spaces where there is joy happening. And I guess a quote that comes to mind—there’s, you know, Oscar Romero, the archbishop who was assassinated in El Salvador, he has a quote that I really like that says, you know, “The glory of God is the poor person fully alive.”
Debra Rienstra: Oh, he’s borrowing that from Irenaeus.
Katerina Parsons: Oh, is it? Yeah, okay, so I don’t know the history.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, “The glory of God is every creature fully alive.” That’s fantastic.
Katerina Parsons: The focus, then, being specifically, if— you know, every creature can’t be fully alive if the poor person is not fully alive. And I think we lose the richness, we lose what we’re fighting for, if we think about people as only miserable and only oppressed in this hellish country, when it’s really a gorgeous country, full of potential and full of people who—well, and I don’t even want to use that word, because it’s not just “potential.” There are people right now who are activists, who are leaders, who are entrepreneurs. And I think that when we don’t give those people enough credit, we continue to think that someone else needs to come in and save them, and somebody else needs to come in and cultivate this garden for them, when they’re actually already doing this really brilliant work there.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Katerina Parsons: And so I think… yeah. I just try to think about when I saw Hondurans fully alive, and in a way that was different than what I could have come up with or I could have even dreamed for them, if that makes sense.
I think that that’s a reality I’ve really tried to bring into international development, because we absolutely bring in our own idea of what flourishing looks like and what well-being looks like. And if I try to impose that on someone else, that’s not allowing them to create and cultivate that space of protection and well-being that they could otherwise come up with.
Debra Rienstra: Mmm. I’ve been reading about the biology of refugia among conservation biologists. And one of the things that’s happening now is an effort to identify where refugia already exist and then are likely to exist in the future as the climate changes. And the conservation biologist’s job is just to nurture those refugia that are already happening.
So it sounds like that’s what you’re describing in Honduras. There are these amazing Hondurans who are already cultivating refugia, and what other people can do, what international people can do, is just help them do that.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: Where they identified already.
Katerina Parsons: I feel like one of my soap boxes is that when everybody, especially white people, find out about injustice, they want to start an organization and be the director/CEO of the organization that’s going to fix that for someone else. And that’s absolutely the wrong approach. I think one of the most radical things that we can do as people who have money and power and privilege is to go find the person who does not have those things and serve them, and help them, and resource them. But that means taking a step back and listening to them. And when I think about that in the context of international development, I really get a lot of inspiration from more grassroots solidarity groups, which are our channels of connection between people who have access to this power in DC and people who are actually on the ground as activists, as the people facing danger and putting forth proposals for change every day in the countries that are affected.
Debra Rienstra: Did you see, when you were there, any impacts of the climate crisis in Honduras? How are Hondurans experiencing that and attempting to manage it?
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, that’s a great question. And honestly, it’s the one thing that—well, there are many things. It’s one of the root causes of migration that people really don’t talk about. Honduras is hugely impacted by climate change. There’s a stretch called the “Dry Corridor” that stretches up through El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. And it’s called the Dry Corridor, but it’s really much more resilient to extreme weather on both sides. So there are extreme droughts and extreme flooding and rain storms, and that’s exponentially increased over the past few years, ruining farmers’ crops and their ability to continue to provide for their families.
And so what it means is that they’re no longer able to make a living on these farms in these rural areas. And so then you have internal migration to cities, and then in the cities, you know, there are other issues related often to violence or to lack of access, lack of jobs. And then you have—you see the migration happening up through Mexico and to the United States.
But I think I just saw a statistic that almost a third of people, really the root cause of what at least started their migration journey is climate change sustainability and inability to continue to farm in the way that they have been.
Debra Rienstra: And from what I understand, one of the difficult things about this is that that is not recognized as an official reason to define someone as a refugee. It is not among the reasons.
Katerina Parsons: No, refugee or asylum-seeker, it wouldn’t be. The only thing that counts as an asylum-seeker is if your government has been actively oppressing you for your political stance. They’ve been chipping away at all the other reasons.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So do you think that’s going to have to change? Are we going to have to change international refugee and asylum laws to reflect climate migration?
Katerina Parsons: I think we have to rethink a lot of things about our immigration policy and… I do know that there’s a growing movement, like through UN bodies and things like that, to recognize climate refugees and offer them similar protections.
Debra Rienstra: Good.
So I wonder if we could think about the idea of refugia in two different ways in the context of international development, and I’m just making this up and running it by you to see what you think about it. But these are ideas I’ve been grappling with as I think about what refugia could mean for culture and spirituality.
So it seems to me that, as there is in biology, there might be in culture and spirituality, what are called “relative refugia,” which means spaces or practices that help people get through while living in difficult conditions. So they’re not ideal, they’re not great, they might not necessarily be stable, but they’re better than the surrounding crisis.
And then the second idea would be maybe something I would call “prototype refugia,” which means something more like small-scale versions of healthy systems or healthy ecologies that might then get scaled up. So I wonder if those ideas prompt anything for you, or maybe there’s a way to map those onto what you understand about international development.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, I love having new kind of categories to start to put things in. What that made me think of right away is the tension between advocacy and activism. That’s something that we talk a lot about in our office. Thinking of advocacy more of influence—influencing people with power to slowly, incrementally move toward the vision that you want, and activism being more mobilizing people who don’t have power to paint this vision of, what could be.
And obviously, I mean, it’s not a perfect dividing of the two, because activism is also influential. We’ve seen that especially in the last few weeks. And actually, I mean, seeing what’s been happening the last few weeks has made me think that maybe we rely too much on the slow and incremental, what you’d call sort of “relative refugia,” and we’re too satisfied with that, because we think that that’s the only way that we can help others is through these small incremental changes.
At the same time, I think you do need both. You absolutely need to start with this compelling vision of the future and as much as possible create and model that in your own spaces. But we also are cognizant that that change takes time, it takes a lot of time, and people are in need today.
I think some ways that I’m seeing that even in DC is the difference between people who are actually delivering groceries to hungry people right now, because that’s the need, versus having the much more complicated long-term policy decisions that relate to housing and minimum wage and all of the other underlying things that mean that some people have food and others don’t.
Debra Rienstra: Right. And I think it’s discouraging sometimes when we long for those gigantic infrastructure and societal changes, and it seems like moving a gigantic ship with one oar. And we want that to happen, but at the same time, we have to start on [a] small scale sometimes. And sometimes those small prototypes are actually more effective than just hammering away at those big systemic changes.
The small changes—and this is how refugia work in nature, too, is that the small micro refugia can sometimes be connected or just connect to other refugia, and then, in that way, the sort of overall ecology becomes more healthy. So it’s a way—those prototypes are a way to manage the kind of frustration of moving these big systems, which just does take time. It’s just human nature.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, and that—I was thinking about that just the other day, you know, being frustrated because I was working on an issue that was connected to so many other things. And there’s a temptation to fall into just frustration and saying, “Well, there’s all these other things connected, so why does this make a difference?”
But I think you can flip that mindset and say, “This is connected to so many other things, so this small, incremental, or very specific issue that I’m working on has this ripple effect that I maybe can’t even envision or imagine.” I think in my experience with advocacy, absolutely that’s where people find the most success.
And that’s what I tell people when they go in to meet with their representative. If you say, “I want better immigration law,” they’re going to say, “Okay, that’s nice, thanks for talking to me today.” But if you come in and you say, “I have a neighbor who’s going to be deported. This is her case number, this is where she lives”—you know, the specificity and the personal connection make it so much more likely that you’re actually going to see the change that you want to see. And I think that, yeah, that connects to this idea of tending your own garden almost, but with the understanding of how that connects to the broader ecosystem, as you said.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. What might be the limitations of the refugia idea in the context of international development?
Katerina Parsons: I think something that comes to mind is the idea that you can carve out your own garden and put a fence up around it and just take care of what happens in there. I think with globalization and with so many of the root causes of poverty and injustice around the world being that global connection, global capitalism, extractive industries, pollution that’s exported from the United States—you can’t just say, “All right, I’m only gonna focus on this community and only gonna focus on this group of people,” because it is connected everywhere else. And so I think I wouldn’t want people to overly focus on an issue in a way that made them think that the global or more systemic issues were irrelevant or they didn’t have to worry about them.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Right. Refugia can’t be bunkers. They’re not necessarily safe, they can’t be walled, they have to be permeable. And they’re meant to be temporary. They’re meant to float you through the crisis and then be the seedbed of what life comes after. Of course, you know, there’s always a crisis.
So I’m going to quote now some things that you’ve written recently on the post calvin. So I’m going to say a little bit about what the post calvin is. the post calvin is a blog that is run by Calvin University graduates who are all under age 30. And every day, there’s a fresh essay written by a writer who’s a graduate of Calvin, all under age 30, and we have 28 regular writers, and you are one of them. And you are the one who gets to write on the first day of the month. Every first day of the month, Katerina posts an essay, it comes around, and each writer has a particular day of the month. And then we have guests for the last few days of the month if there are more than 28 days.
So I’ve been reading your recent posts,and I want to quote one of your posts about your church life. So here’s what you wrote:
You wrote, “My story is not of leaving the church, but of rediscovering it.”
And so I want to ask you about that. Could you tell us a little bit about how you have adapted your spiritual life in the last few years, especially during these last few months of pandemic crisis?
Katerina Parsons: It’s ironic that you chose that post, because that’s a post that I wrote about how much I was enjoying the practice of church, and the handshaking, and the communion taking, and the singing. Two weeks after I posted that on the post calvin, all of that stopped, and I haven’t been back to church in person since. And we’ve been adapting in ways that I think have been really meaningful. The first month of quarantine, every single night at 8 p.m., you know, a group of people in our church would hop on Zoom and pray evening compline together.
And in a really scary, uncertain, confusing time, just the ritual of saying those same words over and over again, and knowing that people were going to be there to say them with me, was a huge encouragement. And I think more broadly, when I think about how my spiritual life has changed over the past few years, I think it’s been a movement away from an individual faith and into really looking for a communal faith.
I grew up in an evangelical Baptist church where the focus was very much your personal relationship with Jesus, and prayer and worship at church was often very emotional and often very personal. And that’s really difficult at times when you aren’t really feeling the connection.
I think it was really difficult being in Honduras and not having necessarily a church where things felt familiar or things felt comfortable. And not being surrounded by a community in the same way. I had a lot of really—experiences that really stretched me and helped me grow in my faith, but I didn’t necessarily have that community of people and that ritual of “I know what’s going to happen every Sunday.”
And so, coming back to D.C. this year and looking for a church, I actually—I feel like I rebelled in the opposite direction that a lot of young people do, where I found a church that practices liturgy and has incense and has, you know, real wine in the communion cup, and that tradition and the knowledge that every Sunday, whether I’m feeling it or not, people are still going to be there doing the same thing. And I can go and I can go through the motions until I do start to feel it and start to believe that again. It’s almost backwards from how I was taught to experience faith, and it’s a huge thing that I miss in quarantine, as much as we’ve been able to maintain some connections.
I’m really looking forward to the day when I can go back and hear singing and hug the people again.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, I think we all are.
So, actually, what you’re describing is a very common journey right now among young people: going from a more free-church, even Pentecostal background into a high liturgical, more sacramental experience. That’s actually a very common journey, and the way you talked about patterns and the need for patterns, especially in times of upheaval, might be a reason why that’s happening.
Because when we are feeling discombobulated and bewildered, we look for those patterns, and it happens that the liturgical traditions have figured those out. So to be able to just sink into them feels restful. You don’t have to whump up your own emotion, you don’t have to whump up your own motivation. You just do the patterns, and that can be very, very soothing. So I understand completely what you’re talking about.
Are there theological ideas or biblical passages that you’re dwelling on or depending on right now?
Katerina Parsons: I’m not sure if I could pinpoint the theological language for this, but something that I keep coming back to—and it’s sort of a connection between my Christian and my ecological practices, if that makes sense – is this idea that the little things that I do matter. And when you read about, you know, the need to practice love and joy and peace, or have a specific posture before God, it reminds me of things like you know, not using plastic bags, or biking instead of walking, where in the broad scheme of things, you know, if you were really looking at those small activities as a means to an end, it would seem a little bit futile in the face of so much that you’re up against.
But when you see it, you know, as part of faithful living, and as part of a right relationship before God in a faithful living out of your faith, then those small things start to take on a spiritual significance. And the way that I answer an email, or the people that I include in an invitation, those small things can take on that spiritual significance.
Debra Rienstra: Virtue development. We think about that, right? As virtue formation. Absolutely.
Katerina Parsons: And this idea of, you know, living into the world that you want to see, even if you don’t necessarily see the connections between the one small action and the really broad vision, you know. It seems like walking to work one day, you know, isn’t going to do anything about the climate crisis, but you are living as if you believed that the things that you say matter actually do matter.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
What is your vision for the future of the church? What do you imagine? What do you wish were left behind? What do you wish for?
Katerina Parsons: What you said earlier about this pattern of young people; I think there’s sort of a false conception of what people think young people want and what people young people actually want. And there’s this idea that if we can just make church seem less like church, then we’ll all come flocking back. And the music is, you know, more electric guitars and, you know, everyone gets to wear jeans, or—these more superficial ideas.
And I think for me, at least, I want church to feel a little old fashioned and awkward, like that doesn’t bother me. I like that church feels different than the rest of the world and the rest of the things that I do in my life.
But something that really has been a struggle for me and in my faith and in connecting with religious spaces is the way that people are excluded from positions of leadership and positions of being equally heard. And I think I speak for a lot of people in sharing just the simple vision that women and LGBTQ people and people of color and people with disabilities—that all of these people would not just be seen as having equal access, but that we would actually recognize their unique contributions in the way that without the voices of these people we are not a complete church and we are not completely hearing the voice of God.
That would be my vision, is that radical inclusivity—that’s not just having people in the room and the pews that represent all of those groups, but that we actually could imagine or envision a church that’s uniquely shaped by them. And I think that that looks different even than I have experienced, because I have never been part of a church that’s fully lived into that vision.
But I think that that should be a hopeful and not a scary idea, that the church of the future, if it continues to manifest itself like that, that that could be very different than the one that we’re experiencing now.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. One of my main questions in this podcast is “What does it mean for Christians to be the church of refugia?” And I think one important answer to that is to center people who have been on the margins and who know what it means to survive in refugia. And those are the people that we need to learn from, those are the people that need to be teaching.
Okay, here’s my second quote from your essays on the blog. You wrote this:
“I’ve been reading Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver”—as one should—“authors,” you say, “with close attention to small places. And I, always picking up and moving can’t decide if I am more terrified or eager to be so bound to a place.”
“In reading,” you say, “I feel place-starved, lonely for a home that I have never had, that I don’t know if I can have without getting restless again.”
So I want to ask you about connection to place and restlessness, because I think your experience is like a lot of our students at Calvin and all over who have traveled around quite a bit, they’ve lived pretty restlessly in their twenties. So I wonder about that connection to place. You feel that in yourself; how do you see that in your peers too?
Katerina Parsons: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about place, and, that I wrote actually after coming back to Michigan and thinking about how little thought I had even been giving to this place where I spent my childhood. That I didn’t have necessarily the depth of attention to this place where I grew up. I remember—I wish I could remember the poet’s name, but— somebody talking about how traveling abroad gives you this sort of hyper-attention, because everything’s new and you’re on high alert. And that the gift of traveling is that sometimes we can come back home and we can bring that same attention to places that are ordinary, and we can see the extraordinary in that.
In terms of other students and other people my age, I mean, I do think I want to name that there is a privilege inherent to being able to travel and having the flexibility of not necessarily being tied, you know, by having to care for a parent or other responsibilities. So I know it’s not—yeah, it’s not a universal experience, but I do think for people from similar backgrounds who—at least from my class at Calvin, I do think it’s something that a lot of us are going through.
And I don’t think it’s that we’re pursuing material wealth, or that we’re, you know, climbing a ladder and that’s what’s causing us to travel around. I think it’s a curiosity and I think it’s a hunger to engage with different groups of people, and there’s a lot of good there. But I think we miss out on the deep roots and the gift that a deep connection can offer.
And now, five years out of college, being very widely traveled but not necessarily having anywhere that I’ve been quite so deep, it’s something that I really miss. And it’s been sort of rolling around in my mind now for weeks, and I’ve started watching even like cheesy TV movies with new eyes, because… I mean, how common is that trope where it seems like it’s a love story, but it’s really, like, the city girl moving to a small town and falling in love with the guy, but also falling in love with the town. And there’s this trope of “You become fully yourself when you are fully known by that rag-tag, you know, small town that you moved to.”
Debra Rienstra: With all the quirky characters.
Katerina Parsons: Absolutely, you know, that you put up with. And I don’t remember if I wrote this, but you know, I feel almost the same way as, like, someone reading romance novels, you know, that’s the sort of thrill of, like, “Ooh, maybe someday,” you know? I don’t know that we are really aware of or talk enough about how much we crave that familiarity, even when at the same time we think it’s kind of provincial. Like, I think that’s what we’re looking for, whether we can articulate that or not.
Debra Rienstra: So I guess one thing I’m wondering about for your generation is, are you going to be able to be the world citizens that you really are, and have commitment to a place? I wonder if you think about how that could be balanced.
Katerina Parsons: Yeah. I think young people—and of course including myself in that—there’s a lot of hubris. There’s a lot of urgency of wanting to go out and make big systemic change right now. And there’s some reason to that. I mean, when you think about something like the climate crisis, that’s not something that can wait. But I think we’re often too quick to think that we can go out right away and make these global changes when we haven’t even figured out what that looks like locally.
When I think about something like development, I mean, people have this idea that, for some reason, building a school in another country is easier than building a school in their own backyard. And I think in the same way, people have this idea that, you know, resolving a big global issue is somehow going to be easier than working it out in your local, you know, committees and things like that. I think we run a temptation of trying to be too much of a global citizen, because I think that we get the tools that we need to make global change by making very small change. And if we were all more active in our city council and in our local politics, I don’t think that would only make improvements on our local level, but it would give us the tools and it would give us the connection and the insight to then multiply that outward. Which I think kind of connects to this idea of, um… I can’t remember what you called it, not prototype refugia…
Debra Rienstra: Oh, relative refugia.
Katerina Parsons: Or—no, prototype refugia. So that idea connects to prototype refugia because sometimes you have to figure out what works on a small scale, and there’s more flexibility and more ability for people to come in and out. Rather than, you know, trying to work on the Amazon where it’s so much harder and there’s so many more things going in and being involved in that.
Debra Rienstra: Right. Maybe it’s the challenge of straddling both. Being grounded and committed to the place where you are, but then also doing whatever work you can in this larger arena, which is really where your specialty is.
Katerina Parsons: I think it’s been helpful for me to think about my expanding spheres of influence, and what seems like my community, and then my state, and then my country, and then, you know, the connections that I have in the broader world, and seeing how each connect outward. I think that that also gives me a lot more hope, because you can see change on a smaller scale than some of the really big and heavy issues that we’re working on.
Debra Rienstra: Katerina, I’m so glad to consider you a colleague now. You’re a deep thinker and a compassionate and committed and capable person, as well as a beautiful writer. And I’m just so grateful for the time that you spent with me today and for our conversation. So thank you.
Katerina Parsons: Thank you so much.
Debra Rienstra: This has been Refugia, a podcast about renewal. If you enjoyed this episode and you have a moment, please write a quick review on your podcast platform. Reviews help other listeners find us. You can find us on Facebook at Refugia Podcast. Leave us a comment, and send us your ideas about what refugia means for you.
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