For more background
In this episode, we refer to Ruth’s article “At the Table Their Eyes Were Opened”.
Learn about some of the work Ruth has been involved in with International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Latin American Theological Fellowship (Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana), World Vision International, InterVarsity, and International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation.
Read more about Casa Adobe, the Christian community that Ruth helped to start in Costa Rica.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Jesus demands revising our relationship with power and all its outworkings: its exclusionary tactics, its life-sapping outworkings. And so a church of refugia will be one that is introspective enough to admit, to confess, to lament, to recognize that complicity; to seek then to open up to the work of the Spirit to convict of truth and to bring change, to change those hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
Debra Rienstra: Welcome to 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. Today, I’m honored to welcome as my guest Dr. Ruth Padilla DeBorst. She is a theologian, practitioner, teacher, and speaker, with decades of experience in ministry throughout Latin America. She has served with organizations including the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Latin American Theological Fellowship, and World Vision International among others. She is a theological educator, both in Latin America and now in the United States with her new position as Associate Professor of World Christianity at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I talked with Ruth about Casa Adobe, the intentional Christian community she helped found in Costa Rica, and we ponder what it means to face our complicity in the church of empire, seeking a faithful response not only in understanding, but in daily practice.
Debra Rienstra: Dr. Ruth Padilla DeBorst, thank you so much for being with me today.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: It’s great to join you.
Debra Rienstra: I don’t usually ask guests for their whole life story, but I think in your case, it might be helpful for our listeners to understand your background a little more thoroughly. So I wonder if you could just give us some of the big outlines and maybe emphasize how your experiences have led you to where you are today with your current work and commitments.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Sure. So, yes, I was born in Colombia, grew up in Argentina, have lived now for a couple decades in Central America, so have quite a span of Latin America. But my engagement in education and theological reflection and teaching has been something really progressive as I engaged with the Christian student movement.
In this country it’s known as Intervarsity, but in the Latin American versions, each country has its own name. So I was very involved in that, and it really was a school for cross-cultural engagement, for learning from others, for engaging—seeing how our faith had implications in all areas of life and had to work itself out in those areas. So—and then being involved in the Latin American Theological Fellowship, which is, as the name says, it’s not a big guild or such, it’s a fellowship. It’s a gathering of women and men engaged in the doing of theology for the sake of living it out in the world.
So these have been communities that have nurtured me along also now in more recent years, the last 15 years or so, with the International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation that also just seeks to nourish a holistic perspective of the good news and consequently of our role in the world.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. I wonder if you could talk about your theological formation a little bit. Would it be fair to say that liberation theology has been important to you? Maybe you could describe a little bit about how you understand your kind of theological formation.
Something important to highlight is liberation theologies—plural, because it’s very diverse within Latin America—is one strand, but parallel to it, and more out of Protestant evangelical circles in contrast to the Roman Catholic circles, is a movement identified more as the movement of integral mission or, related somewhat to this, Latin American Theological Fellowship, which responded to the very same issues and concerns that liberationists did, but out of—as I mentioned—more of an evangelical Protestant matrix. And in many cases, also not wanting to espouse as fully as some liberationists did the Marxist reading of social reality and consequently revolution and such. So, this movement is the one I would identify more with, and that was something nourished from my very home, my local church. My dad was a well-known theologian. My mother also taught theology. So, it was almost unavoidable. But then I did—I studied linguistics in Argentina and got a degree in education. It was my basic, my bachelor’s, you would call it here. Then I went to Wheaton Graduate School to do Interdisciplinary Studies and then got my PhD at Boston University.
But all along, it’s been a matter of building an understanding of theology, not just for the sake of reflection and understanding and mind and concepts or doctrines or formulations, but really for life. And so engaging with social ethics and the mission of the church and such as essential outworkings and inworkings of the doing of theology.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. That’s really, really helpful. Yeah. So let’s talk about how that theological formation is being lived out right now for you. I’m really eager to get to Casa Adobe because my theory here is that it’s a perfect example of a lived Christian refugia space. And so as we’re working on imagining a church of refugia this season, intentional community is one really important model. So could you tell us about this intentional community—what it is and how you came to be a part of it?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: So just one caveat. I don’t know that I would identify it as perfect. We are in the learning. We are an experiment, we are exploring, but very much yes, seeking to live together in ways that resist some of the impositions of the ‘musts’ of a society that is really unsustainably racing towards supposed progress and leaving so many people behind.
And so it is an exploration. So this community really began, oh, say probably about 12, 13 years ago. My husband, James, and I arrived in Costa Rica and really with a sense of, “We need to see what this next phase of our life looks like. Our children are growing and pretty much at the point where they’re ready to leave home and begin their own explorations in life.”
But we had a real sense of calling to receive people that needed community. And we tease about this because we identify as an intentional Christian community, but some people say, “Well, maybe we’re more of an accidental community.” Because there was no big master plan. It was more of a response to opportunities and to needs along the way, and just seeking to discern what that should look like.
But, in sum, who we are today is several families sharing life; sharing a common pot for all our expenses; sharing morning prayer; sharing a significant and growing garden that provides for a lot of our own needs, but also then can spill out into our neighborhood and be a bit of a provocation to a different way of thinking about our relationship with the land and with food; composting and facilitating a composting program with our neighbors where we collect their compost, help process it, and either return it in seedlings or produce or process compost for them to continue their own cycle with. And, also engaged in cleaning up the local river and seeking to advocate for just a more responsible relationship with her. And so, it’s really, as I mentioned, I think a way of saying, “We do not need to live according to the obligations imposed by a story, by an imaginary that says that the more we have, the more we’re worth.”
And so the other dimension is related to people. We’ve received refugees from El Salvador, Venezuela, helped facilitate reception and kind of relocation of refugees or migrants from other places. And we see that as part of our calling in the world is not just serving ourselves, but really being open to responding to the needs of others.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So do you have land in common? Do you have dwelling places that each family lives in that are shared in common? How does that work?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: So we’re not huge. But the property initially was my husband’s and mine, but we have begun a limited liability corporation in which now, the members of the community own portions of it or shares in it, and so we’re exploring that kind of next level of really sharing.
But there’s one main house in which two families and a few single people live. There’s a smaller house right on the very same property where another family lives. And then we’ve cut a hole, a door in the wall to our neighbor’s house. And they also are part of a community, even though they live just a few steps away on another property. And there are a few other people that live, you know, in the neighborhood, but not adjacent, that are also part of the community.
Debra Rienstra: Sure. So what does a regular day look like? You mentioned it starts with prayer.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Yeah. So we begin with morning prayer. Different people take turns facilitating that moment. So it could be silence. It could be Taizé. It could be scripture-reading. It depends on whoever’s leading. Some people have breakfast before, some people have breakfast later, and then we all go about our particular duties. Some people are more related to the outreach in the neighborhood, some people more with other things—like I’m involved in theological education. So I’ll typically go up to my computer and prepare my classes or begin teaching and such.
And lunches are pretty much on our own, at our own schedules, because people have different rhythms, but we always share our evening meal. We take turns. We have a rotating schedule for cooking, and we always have a big sit-down meal with everybody involved. So you have to be ready to cook for 15 to 18 people once every few days, but not every day because it’ll be somebody else there.
And then we often, in the afternoon, will be receiving kids from a local high school who do tutoring with the kids from our neighborhood. So we facilitate that whole process. There will be somebody going out to gather the composting from the neighborhood, other people in the garden and such. And then on Sunday afternoons, we have a community gathering for worship and sharing and fellowship and a much bigger dinner that day because people come to our Sunday gathering that are not part of our daily routine.
Debra Rienstra: I see. Yeah. And how is the garden managed? Does everybody just pitch in, or..?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Yeah, we actually have a couple people that are kind of our main gardeners that have the bigger plan and know what’s where and such. One of them, for example, is—and it’s just been a beautiful, beautiful development. There’s a Venezuelan refugee family and Selah, who is 60 something—very battered by life and the traumas she’s gone through, the reasons for which she’s now a political asylee in Costa Rica—and she just thrives spending her whole day out in the garden, making sure the bugs aren’t getting things and harvesting and planting seedlings, and she basically is full-time gardener. And then others can pitch in under her leadership, but it’s given her a space of healing and just a life-giving opportunity to her, in the midst of really difficult, difficult circumstances.
Debra Rienstra: One of the things I really appreciate hearing about this as an example of a refugium is this kind of unplanned nature of it. And that seems to fit the biological model. Refugia respond when there’s a crisis, and it’s not necessarily the way things normally would be in a balanced system, but it responds to the crisis, and it’s, in its own biological way, kind of improvisatory. And it sounds like that’s happening with your community as well.
One of the other things that we have been thinking about is the way that refugia spaces like this build capacities. And so I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on what sort of capacities for Christian community your community is building.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Yeah, they’re definitely—again, I would use the word school. We are at school in our community. We are learning as we go. What things do you need to kind of preempt? What things should you talk about before a crisis hits so that you can be more ready to respond? Say somebody wants to join. At some point, we might have just accepted whoever, whenever, and such, but we’ve learned that we need to say, “Okay, these are our expectations. What are your expectations? Let’s give it a try. Let’s set up conditions so that we can review this so that it’s really working for you and for those who have been here a longer time.” So making explicit some of those things that might, in some ways, might feel like it’s countering what you just said about the spontaneity, but it actually is more of a guaranteeing that there’s a balance between the organic development and the care for people so that we are more sustainable and don’t burn out in the process or hurt one another.
Debra Rienstra: I wondered about some of the challenges that you’ve encountered as you go to this school of refugia community. What are some of the challenges, but also what are some of the joys?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Well yes, it’s a lot of work, definitely demands, you know—anybody knows what it is like to be part of a family, more functional, less functional, whatever. But just, you have to multiply that by incorporating more families and a pretty ambitious understanding of our calling in terms of being good neighbors in the neighborhood, being good neighbors to the whole of creation, so caring for the river, which we see as our sister. And then, you know, the dreams never end. But yes, the challenges of just living together and working out rhythms and accepting each of our own flaws and quirks and trying to fit them so they don’t rub too roughly against other people’s quirks and such. I mean that’s a constant.
Just the beauty of—so one of the families has two little kids that are pretty challenged. One is on the allergies and such. But the joy these kids bring, just by being part of their questions and their trust and their creativity, just keep us light and engaged. And then the possibility for all of us, I think very significant, is the fact that by sharing, for example—if we were living as “normal” people live, there would be—from our footprint, we would have six washing machines, six microwaves, six refrigerators, probably 10 cars and such, but we are just so happy to be able to say, “No, we have one washing machine between us all. We have two cars between us all. We have a bunch of bikes.” We work things out and we learn to manage with less so that, also then, we’re able to free up means to be of service to others and to—the joy of learning to live with less and to be satisfied with that, and to celebrate shared meals and conversation and accompaniment. We have a single mother—for her to have community and not be isolated. So there’s just so many pluses along with the challenges.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. I wanted to follow up about the conservation aspects, which sounds like a real commitment in this community. How is Costa Rica experiencing the climate crisis? And are you responding directly to that or is it more of a underlying principle of simplicity?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: No, we definitely are seeking to engage with the challenge. Costa Rica is feeling it, though not as markedly as much of the rest of Central America, where climate change is growing the deserts and changing the whole patterns for cultivation and such. That is part of why there are so many new migrants coming up to North America from Central America because of the impact of climate change. It is very, very significant—these hot spots, literally hot spots, that are unsustainable.
So Costa Rica overall as a nation has set pretty high standards for itself regarding carbon footprint and reduction of emissions and such, so in a way, there’s at least a stated prioritization of these concerns. Some of it, to be honest, is a bit of greenwashing and trying to get more tourism and such, but for us as a community, being first aware of this and then also having a role in bringing awareness to our neighbors, to our local municipality, regarding trash disposal and all kinds of different things, and then working and engaging with the watershed itself, with the conditions of the river that’s just a few hundred meters away.
And we’re seeking actually right now to stretch into a property that’s higher up on the mountain, where our property is, and that is near a national park, and seeking to develop that as a conservation space and education for sustainable living. So we have pretty ambitious goals, and it’s just a matter of stepping in the right direction a step at a time.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. One of the things I’ve been observing as I talk to people about their— let’s call them refugia church communities; I know church isn’t quite the right word here, but Christian refugia communities—is the role of conservation education in their communities, as well as advocacy. It’s almost as if these groups are finding their job to be, “We need to figure it out, educate ourselves, and then share what we’ve learned with others and help others come into this work together with us.” And that’s kind of a wonderful refugia sort of action as well.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Absolutely.
Debra Rienstra: I wanted to ask you now about your new role. So you are now a professor for six months of the year at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. So you’re dividing your time between the United States and Costa Rica now. And so I want to think about “church of empire.”
I was just reading your essay, which is called “At the Table Their Eyes Were Opened.” And in that essay, you consider the implications of the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24. And there’s an emphasis on the power of empire in that essay. And we’ve been sort of thinking on the podcast here about the opposition between what we’re calling the church of empire and the church of refugia. And I was surprised in your essay to read that apparently the Latin American church folk are tempted by the church of empire, too. It’s not just in the US. So I wonder if you could describe how you understand what the church of empire is and how can we effectively resist its allure.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Yeah, so to me, the church of empire is a church that is oblivious to how complicit it is in the power structures that are sapping the life both of people and of the rest of creation. And that lack of awareness and of taking responsibility might be seen as just par for the course. That’s normal, that’s natural. That’s the way things are because there’s no recognition of privilege and of how complicit that church is. But I believe that following Jesus—a Lord who questioned the acritical association of religiosity with abuse of power in any form—that following Jesus demands revising our relationship with power and all its outworkings: its exclusionary tactics, its life-sapping outworkings. And so a church of refugia will be one that is introspective enough to admit, to confess, to lament, to recognize that complicity; to seek then to open up to the work of the Spirit to convict of truth and to bring change, to change those hearts of stone into hearts of flesh so that we will feel, we will recognize.
And of course, nobody really wants to feel the pain of a groaning creation or the pain of refugees. It’s not pleasant, but we’re invited into that fellowship of taking on each other’s burdens and feeling them, not so that we may become the new saviors because we won’t be, because we also are broken, but so that we can invite the Holy Spirit to bring the lordship of Christ into those cracks, into those broken spaces, and to live in light of the fact that Jesus has really inaugurated a kingdom of goodness and full abundant life. That is God’s intent. And so we can live into it in spite of all the brokenness in us and around us. And I think that is the call of the church of refugia is to say, “Yes, let’s live into the already, even as we are fully aware of the not yet of God’s full recreation of all things.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I think for me, the challenge is that self-awareness. It’s so hard to discern how we are complicit in the church of empire, especially because that life of abundance seems to come to us through the powers of empire. And yes, that’s what we want. We want that life of abundance. And yeah, it’s hard to trust that it could come in any other way.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: And the question is: what is abundance, right? What is life in abundance? And so society will tell us, “Well, you need more stuff, you need more things, you need more prestige, you need more name, you need, you need, you need, you need.” You never cease needing, right? But the question then is: what is really the life and abundance that is God’s intent for the whole of creation?
Debra Rienstra: As you think about teaching now in the US, what are some key insights that you want to bring from your work in Latin America to your American students, whether they’re Spanish-speaking Americans or mostly English-speaking Americans? What are some insights that you want to bring from your work in Latin America?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: So just one clarification. I have begun teaching, and I will be teaching year-round for Western, just that only one part of that will be in Michigan. So the hope, in a way, is to—you know, we were talking about how easy it is to be unaware of the church of empire. And I think one way to counter that lack of awareness is by engaging with brothers and sisters from other contexts that have other experiences and can, in some ways, then provoke our imagination about what’s possible: about different ways of being and experiencing and building communities of faith.
And so one of the things I hope to be able to be: to serve as a bridge between these worlds and bring in other sources—both bibliographically, so that people will read from the experience of Christians from other places, and models of being church and of living in the world that are different from what you might have experienced thus far—but also hopefully being able to bridge, even beyond bibliographical sources, with people. So one of the hopes is that there will be possibilities of intercultural immersions or exchanges of sorts and such. So there are possibilities there too that would be even more grounded, more holistic, than just reading, because you engage in new relationships. So those are some of the hopes.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. This is a big question. As you look to the future in a climate-stressed planet, what is your vision for the church? What would you like to see happen in the church in the next two decades? Three decades?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: There is so much work to be done on that front because the hope in some ways—I do believe our theology, our conceptual articulations about the world, about its future, about God’s intervention in it and such, do color our involvement or our lack of involvement in relation to the reality of our planet. And so I think there does need to be a re-casting, a reframing, a renewal of our theological understanding. If we think that the world is just—we’re just here passing by and we’re waiting for heaven, which is somewhere else, then yes, let it just all go to, you know, just deteriorate, and so what?
But if we really take seriously the fact that we were called to care for this garden—and in a way I talk about planetary gardening—if we recognize that we are to be caretakers and that we actually are a part of this network of life without which we would not be alive, if we recognize our place as part of creation—and also that heaven is not some abstract other place with little chubby angels floating around with harps, but that the New Jerusalem, that the portrayal in scripture and revelation of the new creation is descending and coming to renew this, then we better be living in light of what we know and trust will be that future of goodness and of rivers and trees for the healing of the nations and of just an overall recovery of all that we lost by trying to make it on our own without submitting to God.
And so, what I would hope for is a church that recognizes that we are to live today in light of what we believe will be tomorrow, and give evidences of it, and struggle towards it, and continue nourishing that posture, that sense of belonging to and in this created order.
Debra Rienstra: Mm, a kind of anticipatory witness.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: An embodiment, yes. Yes.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So often we come back to eschatology on this podcast. And so often it comes down to: what is our vision of where we’re headed? What is our teleology? And how do we live now in witness to that hope? Anything else you would like to add that you feel is important in light of our conversation?
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Well, I just celebrate the fact that, this podcast, you, your book, your work, it is just so prophetic and so needed, and I’m just so grateful always to find kindred spirits that share this concern, not out of a political agenda, not because of some ideological conviction, but because of our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, to be God’s children, God’s people in the world. And so I just am extremely grateful for the work you’re doing.
Debra Rienstra: That’s very kind, and to be called prophetic by you is high praise indeed. I consider you a prophetic figure, and I’m really grateful for what you’re doing and for your role now at Western Theological Seminary, for your witness in Costa Rica with the community that you’ve worked with and for all your transformational work. So Dr. Ruth Padilla-DeBorst, thank you so much for being with me today.
Ruth Padilla DeBorst: Thank you. It’s been wonderful to be together.
Debra Rienstra: The Refugia Podcast is produced with support from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Our audio editors are Ian Gilbert and Kathryn Gardner. Our text editor is Michal Rubingh. If you enjoyed this episode, please help other listeners discover us. Write a review on your podcast platform or share this episode through social media.
You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @RefugiaPodcast. You can also visit our website at refugiapodcast.com where you can explore links and transcripts from this and all our episodes. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter at Debra K. Rienstra. That’s D E B R A K. R I E N S T R A. As always, thanks for listening.