March 31, 2022 | Kayliani Powlison

Professor Rienstra's profile image side-by-side with an image of her book

Calvin English professor Debra Rienstra is also a published author, writing for the Christian publishing sphere. Her latest book, Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth, increases her published work count to four, an impressive feat for a full-time professor.

Inspirations for Refugia Faith

After reading one of Kathleen Dean Moore’s books on moral philosophy and climate action, Rienstra knew which direction she wanted to take in her next book.

“Refugia in nature are habitats that components of biodiversity retreat to persist in and can potentially expand from under changing environmental conditions. They're basically places where life endures in a crisis,” explains Rienstra, taking inspiration from Moore’s book.

Then, in an epiphany, Rienstra saw the significance of refugia in faith. “[Refugia] is a generative metaphor for the church. That's what we should be—the people of refugia.”

After reaching this pinnacle moment, the brainstorming and writing began.

“I just kind of went merrily down that metaphorical path, explored the biology of it and then thought about how being 'people of refugia' is perhaps the most biblical response to a world in crisis.”

Writing Refugia Faith

Rienstra has gradually become more interested in nature writing and the sciences, including geography and ecology. Her knowledge and passion for writing about faith influenced her perspective and inspired a passion to research more about the Earth God has given us and how we can care for it.

“I came to this through the Festival of Faith and Writing as part of the planning team. I was the one who had to find, invite, and host nature writers,” explains Rienstra, who had very little experience in nature writing.

After getting to know writers like Kathleen Dean Moore and Bill McKibben, Rienstra’s concern for climate change grew. “I [knew] I’d need to get help on this, and that led me to start talking to my science colleagues at Calvin to find out what Calvin was up to as far as addressing the climate crisis.”

Her involvement in Beyond Stewardship revealed a side to her faith she hadn’t realized before: the ecological side of theology.

“So, I asked Deanna van Dijk if I could sit in on her geography 181 class—that's the course where they go out on the dunes—for a whole semester. And that was just a hoot because I was, as you know, new to all this, just as these first-year students were,” Rienstra recalls. “So, I’ve just become more connected with my science colleagues and with the great people on campus who are doing work around climate mitigation.”

This in-class experience together with her knowledge from reading ecological books inspired Rienstra to do some nature writing of her own.

A book for climate-concerned Christians

Throughout Refugia Faith, there are journals of Rienstra’s nature observations, written in delicate, descriptive prose. These recollections are supported by beautiful illustrations by Gabrielle Eisma, a fourth-year student at Calvin.

“I'm really concerned with young people, especially young people who have been raised in the faith or who are either all in with the faith or who are doubtful and disillusioned, wondering where their place is in the church, and are just kind of on the edge of that,” Rienstra explains. “I really think that connecting with work toward mitigating the climate crisis is a way back into Christian faith.”

Rienstra says her book is aimed at people of faith who are concerned about the climate crisis, but don’t know where to begin or what to do. “That’s where I was a couple years ago,” Rienstra confesses. “[That was] when I just got convicted about all of this and thought, ‘well, but where do I start?’”

She empathizes with students that are concerned but unsure of what to do. Rienstra wasn’t raised camping, hunting, kayaking, or exploring the outdoors, so there was much to learn. She discovered many resources at Calvin that helped her accomplish this aspiration to bring others closer to their faith through attending to our healing vocation.

Calvin supports research and discovery

“A lot of the work I did in the book was supported with grants from Calvin,” says Rienstra. “This really is the story of what the Festival of Faith and Writing can do, along with the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. The Beyond Stewardship project was supported by that as well.”

To test the waters and learn more about the climate issue before writing, Rienstra hosted a podcast inviting colleagues from theology, biology, and even politics to share their thoughts on restoration. “The first season of my podcast, the Refugia podcast, was supported by grant money and people at Calvin. So the whole thing is just a wonderful kind of testimony to collaborative scholarship at Calvin and what it means to have this university where we're all supporting the same mission,” expresses Rienstra. “We're just coming at it from different disciplinary backgrounds and really cool things happen when we work together, so I'm really grateful for my colleagues.”

Throughout Refugia Faith, Rienstra nods to the different experiences, books, people, and programs she’s interacted with. She’s carrying out refugia in her own backyard with help from the Plaster Creek Stewards, and has already seen beautiful natural plant growth in her quarter of an acre.

The climate crisis continues to worsen, and many are unaware of it or don’t know how to contribute to the healing process. Rienstra reassures us that, “the Christian faith has all the treasures we need to cope with this. But we have to unwrap them, and that's what I've been trying to do in this book. It’s been really beautiful to sort of unwrap the treasures that are already there in the tradition that we've been neglecting or ignoring or just haven't recognized.”

Rienstra admits that a sad realization came over her when she realized how wounded the Earth continues to become. However, she overcame this with faith and inspiration.

“We have what we need to face this crisis, but we have to do it now, and we have to do it together.”

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