March 2022
Caretakers of God's Creation

Seeking Refugia: Hope for a World in Climate Crisis

Serious consideration of our current climate crisis is, in a word, frightening. Scientists warn of tipping points and an ecological event horizon. Some say we’ve already sealed our fate and are bound for imminent devastation. Others profess hope – but only if our mitigation efforts are drastically scaled up, which seems impossible in a world where even acknowledging the existence of a climate emergency is extremely politically charged.

In the midst of this, not quite four years ago, I became a father. I don’t know what the world will look like for my son as he grows into adulthood and perhaps considers becoming a parent himself. I don’t know what planetary legacy will be left to him. On an intellectual level, this is a bleak thought. And yet, when I see him consider the earth, dig in the sand, run in the rain, turn his face to the sun, wade into the ocean – I can’t help but feel hopeful.

Hope in small spaces, hidden shelters

Another thing that has stirred this whisper of hope is the recently released book Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth by Debra Rienstra. Perhaps it was meant for me, as it is dedicated to the author’s children “and all young people who long for refugia and worry about the future." The book takes its name from a biological concept: in an extreme event, like a wildfire or volcanic eruption, small spaces in the affected area are spared from the worst damage. Refugia are “tiny coverts where plants and creatures hide from destruction, hidden shelters where life persists and out of which new life emerges.”

Rienstra sees this scientific concept as a spiritual metaphor for our relationship with the earth and describes nurturing spaces of refuge in both the biological world and in our cultures and spirits. As she writes, “The refugia model calls us to look for the seed of life where we are, concentrate on protecting and nurturing a few good things, let what is good and beautiful grow and connect and spread. Trust God’s work.” This is not a textbook, though it is written by a professor. Nor is it an instruction manual. It is not didactic nor political. If anything it is a thoughtful, researched love letter to the beauty of the earth, the wonder of our interconnectedness, to particularity and specificity and incarnation.

Biology, theology, sociology and poetry weave an honest and hopeful vision

Refugia Faith carries readers through the movement and growth of weather and life in the Upper Midwest. From October to September, we journey through the seasons there. We travel the wilderness of Lent, consider the disorientation of COVID lockdowns, soak in the warmth of summer and face the icy bleakness of winter. The table of contents offers a map for this journey, which will carry us “From Despair to Preparation,” “From Alienation to Kinship,” “From Consuming to Healing,” “From Avoiding to Lamenting,” “From Resignation to Gratitude,” “From Passivity to Citizenship” and finally, “From Indifference to Attention.” Each chapter considers current work in ecology and refugia and how that intersects with faith, culture and community, as well as sections dealing very much with place and land that offer glimpses of relationship, connection, embodiment – of what it means to be human on the earth.

Rienstra grew up in Western Michigan and lives there now after some time away. While the ideas in this book are universal, it is decidedly anchored in place – in the dunes and grasses, the creeks and cottonwoods, the city streets and developments that are so like other locales, yet still unique.

This specificity of setting struck a particular chord for me, as I spent the first decade of my life in Southwest Michigan. While I would generally describe myself as “indoorsy,” the Michigan of my memory has those sparkling memories of childhood in nature. I marked seasons with my neighbor-cousin, imagining we were forest druids, searching for magical creatures in fresh puddles, sledding down huge drifts of lake-effect snow. There were camping trips and lake days, and the smell of rain and the hot sun on my head – the land of sense, possibility and delight that my son now inhabits.

Rienstra says she hopes the book will “spark imagination,” and it does that. It weaves threads of biology, theology, sociology and poetry into a consideration that is somehow both achingly honest and defiantly hopeful. Writer, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry describes the book as “joyful, though [it has] considered all the facts.”

A call to joy, hope and action

Refugia Faith winds up in a call to joy, to hope and to action – even when we can’t be certain of positive outcomes or what restoration will look like. And while I was deeply grateful for that hard-won hope at the end, the kind of Easter hope that grows out of suffering and death, what most stirred hope for me was spread throughout the text. It was the understanding that refugia need not be expansive, immediate and perfect. It happens on the small scale of individuals and communities. It can be “good enough,” and failures are just stepping stones and opportunities to learn. It is realized in small acts and patchwork construction.

This, I think, is what makes refugia seem possible and kindles hope for me. While global action and massive-scale change are necessary, the greatness of this need can leave me frozen. What difference is it ultimately going to make for me to sort recyclables or plant a tree when the giant machines of industry roar on without a care?

Refugia answers this question with the promise that small work, “microcountercultures,” pockets of restoration and renewal, can make a real difference. And when we realize we’re not doing this work alone, we see these pockets grow and flourish. Rienstra writes, “We begin small, where we are. We dig out and repair, we plant seeds, we nurture what we can. We seek joy and give thanks, give thanks and find joy. Everywhere I look, people – and creatures – are doing this resurrection work.”

I commend this book to anyone who, like me, could use a spark of hope – not the vague hope that someone will do something to fix this, but the near and concrete hope that we can make a difference now, begin living resurrection now. In a world that often feels bleak or lost, Refugia Faith feels like a true breath of gloriously fresh air.

Josh Anderson is Associate Program Director in ECF’s Endowment Management area. He works with congregations, dioceses and other Episcopal organizations on all issues of endowment management with a focus on endowment giving – developing and reinvigorating planned giving programs and connecting endowment giving to a comprehensive vision of stewardship. Before joining ECF in 2015, Josh worked in local non-profit organizations in Lafayette, Indiana, and New York City, operating out of school time programs for youth. Josh studied Elementary Education at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. He is based in the Tampa Bay area where his wife serves as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Southwest Florida.


This article is part of the March 2022 Vestry Papers issue on Caretakers of God's Creation