Lesa Engelthaler: During shelter-in-place orders, the word ‘shelter’ has come alive for me in new ways.
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
A pastor friend told me that she was reading Psalm 91 every day during the COVID-19 crisis, and I decided to join her. Daily, as I read and prayed Psalm 91, I couldn’t help but notice the use of the same word from verse one in almost every headline or government warning I was seeing: shelter.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” —Psalm 91:1
In the Bible, “shelter” is usually a comforting word, often a physical picture of God. A few years ago, during a difficult time, I discovered what I now call the “tent verse”: “Let me dwell in your tent forever; Let me take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” —Psalm 61:4
For me, it is a picture of God, a sheltering refuge. As a person of faith, I find that the world’s choice of the word “shelter” is strangely prophetic.
During this time of pandemic, as we collectively fear, grieve, and love one another, I want to share a few stories in hope of taking you to the One who shelters me and offers the same to you. In my day-to-day world, I am a recruiter for nonprofit organizations. During this pandemic, these are the folks whom I am doing my best to care for even amidst sheltering-in-place. I pray that as you read these stories, you would feel your own sense of safe refuge so that you can better shelter your own world—whether a tiny rural house church, a nearly-empty urban food pantry, an overcrowded homeless shelter, a large suburban congregation or the fellow family members under your roof.
WHEN THE PANDEMIC BECOMES PERSONAL
Recruiting may be my day job but anyone who knows me knows that I take seriously my job as a grandmother. Recently, the pandemic became personal in my world. Mack Wesley was a much anticipated addition to our family. A healthy grandbaby boy due around Easter? What could be better? My husband and I live in the same town with our grown children, and therefore I have had the privilege of holding every grandchild on the day he or she was born. Before COVID-19, I took that privilege for granted. Our grandson Mack was born April 6th in a hospital 20 minutes from my house, but I was not allowed to be there. It was a piercingly strange feeling.
My longings to hold my grandson reminded me of Jesus’ words, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing” (Luke 13:34). A simple longing to touch his fingers, to shelter my grandson, was denied. I know it is a small loss compared to the recent stories of those prevented from holding a loved one when he or she passed away from the virus, or being denied rocking your son to sleep night after night because you are on the front line and quarantined in a hotel. Still, I know that my personal feelings of utter helplessness are not mine alone but a shared universal pain.
REFRAMING OF THE WORD “REFUGE”
While I waited to hold Mack, I continued to read Psalm 91. The repetition helped me to notice anew other strong, sheltering words for God. “Refuge” is one such word:
“I will say to the Lord, my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” —Psalm 91:2
I asked Gena Thomas, author of Separated by the Border and instructional design specialist at the Chalmers Center, what refuge meant to her. Thomas said:
“For refugees, internally displaced people, migrants and the economically poor, refuge has always been something much bigger than a temporary escape. Refuge is life itself.”
The pandemic has caused Thomas to reflect on her own privilege:
“Refuge is something I normally think of as a temporary escape: a good piece of fiction, an entertaining movie that helps my mind stop its regular norm of analyzing everything. But now I see refuge as something much larger than that.
“When we eat the same breakfast and lunch every day, we are reminded of the refuge-through-nourishment God provided the Israelites with manna. When God shows up as the One Who Nourishes, I often shoo him away, showing off the ways I’ve already nourished myself. But this pandemic has a way of shedding the chaff of life and reminding me that it is only God’s nourishment that actually provides the refuge I need.”
Last year, I had the privilege of volunteering for Buckner International, specifically working with their ministry on the Texas border. This October, I hope to return and so have tried to keep up my Spanish. I discovered that the Spanish word for refuge is very similar, refugio. A few weeks into the pandemic, I checked in with Dr. Albert Reyes, CEO of Buckner. I also told him that I was praying Psalm 91 for those whom Buckner cared for around the world, especially that they would feel God’s sheltering refuge for them.
Unbeknownst to me, Reyes shared with me that there’s a tiny town in south Texas named Refugio and that his mother was actually born there in 1933. His family migrated from Mexico to Refugio to seek a better life and my reference to the word had caused him to think of Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” The city of Refugio was a physical place of safety for Reyes’ family. He says, “Cities can be places of refuge used by the eternal God. Today, we shelter in our homes during COVID-19, and we shelter under his everlasting arms for protection, provision and the promise of hope.”
After this exchange with Reyes, my meditation on Psalm 91, especially the word refugio, which I had said in English umpteenth times before, took on a whole new meaning.
As the pandemic swept onward and Dallas began enforcing shelter-in-place, I reached out to a few local colleagues who lead housing or frontline nonprofit organizations. I couldn’t imagine the seismic challenge to keep their clients sheltered, safe and fed during the outbreak. I inquired about their needs and also whether their idea of the word shelter had shifted.
FROM AN OVERNIGHT TO A 24/7 SHELTER
Previously, Austin Street Center was an overnight emergency shelter for homeless adults, but because of the pandemic it is now a 24/7 shelter. I had seen pictures on social media of CEO Daniel Roby disinfecting beds, preparing for new arrivals. I knew he is a person of strong faith and reached out. Roby said, “For me, at its core, the word ‘shelter’ means a safe place. This verse comes to mind: ‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them’” (Ps. 12:5).
Safe housing is paramount during the virus outbreak, and yet Roby believes that shelter is more than a roof and a bed:
“One thing God does is shelter our hearts. He understands that we are all ‘lost,’ all ‘homeless,’ all ‘sheep without a Shepherd.’ Only with him do we have a home. He restores our dignity. It is being safe, so that we can begin to see clearly again. It is indeed the only place.”
I also reached out to Kim Robinson, CEO of New Friends New Life, that works with formerly trafficked girls and sexually exploited women and children. For Robinson, the word shelter makes her thinks of the hundreds of women and girls who walk through their doors every day to find safety, healing and strength. In this crisis, Robinson said, “We are ‘sheltering’ survivors by enabling them to make peace with their past and chart a new course for their future.”
SHELTERING EXPOSES PRIVILEGE
During the start of the school closings, I was in my front yard with my granddaughters, watching them draw a sidewalk chalk maze for the neighborhood kids. A car that I didn’t recognize parked across the street. A young man stepped out of the car, then brought out a baby and a diaper bag. He went inside the house and came back out then drove off without the baby. My initial thought was, That is not social distancing! Why are you bringing a new person into my neighbor’s house?
Later that day, I read a tweet proposing that the terms “shelter-in-place” and “social distancing” are for the privileged. It implies that you can afford to stay home. It infers the luxury to live in a house with only your family. The revelation hit me hard: I was blind to my own privilege. Many people, perhaps like my neighbor’s friend—whose daycare probably closed, and yet he had to go to work—are stuck with the dilemma. My neighbor chose to be a safe refuge for this dad.
I also discovered that for some leaders of housing organizations, the word “shelter” is not a comfort. Instead, it stirs up questions about and frustrations toward the church.
John Sibert, president of CitySquare, a faith-based nonprofit with a large homeless program said, “The honest tragic truth of what the word ‘shelter’ conjures up in me revolves around a question we are trying to solve right now. Where do those with no shelter shelter-in-place during this pandemic?”
While Sibert appreciates the spirit of local churches rallying around one another during this crisis, it makes him wince every time a pastor says “the church is not a building” from within an expensive building on valuable land.
“If God is our shelter and the church is not a building, maybe it is time for people of faith to sell their houses of worship and end homelessness once and for all.”
LEANING INTO SHELTERING
Right now, my world brims with unfulfilled needs and longings denied, as does yours and those of the whole world. As I continued to read Psalm 91, toward the end of the chapter there’s a beautiful verse for us today.
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name” (Ps. 91:14) [Italics mine]. So what does this mean for us and how we can lean into physical and spiritual sheltering during this time?
PURSUE PERSONAL SHELTERING
During this time, what are you doing to shelter-in-place with God? Choose a favorite image from the Bible as your shelter or refuge (or there are other aligned words such as shield, defense, hiding place and shade) and write what it means to you. Or, read Psalm 91 every morning using the Lectio Divina method to find a word or phrase that guides your day.
Perhaps like me, you’ll find new ideas that give you words of comfort to offer from your virtual pulpit, in the Monday morning Zoom staff meeting, or your kitchen table turned homeschool classroom.
I started a gratitude notebook which now has everything from stick figure drawings by my grandkids to one-liners of simple thanks that I write in before I go to sleep.
INVITE CHILDREN INTO THE PROCESS
If you are privileged to have children around you whether in your actual home or virtually under your ministry care, ask them to draw a picture of the word shelter.
To be more concrete, here are two ideas: read to them the Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote “Friendship is a sheltering tree” and ask them to draw a huge tree with themselves and all of their friends safely under the tree’s huge sheltering branches. Or read aloud the “tent verse” (Ps. 61:4) and have the children draw a tent. Then ask them to draw inside the tent all the classmates, cousins, friends or other important people that they miss and wish they could be with right now.
OFFER NEIGHBORS SHELTERING CARE
What God-like sheltering care can you offer when you encounter your neighbors from a distance? Thanks to my earlier Twitter experience, I am hopefully slower to judge now. From a safe distance, I will ask questions such as, “How are you all holding up? How’s your job? What are you doing with the kids while you work?” The answers I’ve received have ranged from, “I don’t think we’ve introduced ourselves formally,” to “Well, I’m drinking more.” And from that point I can respond with expressions of concern and empathy.
ENCOURAGING THOSE YOU SERVE TO PONDER SHELTER
For those of you who shelter others—and as followers of Christ that means all of us—what can you offer your parish or ministry now? Here are two questions to try: What comes to mind when you hear the word shelter? I have found that responses to this question are especially intriguing from people who lived through a World War or the Great Depression. Secondly: What does it mean to you personally that God desires for you to find shelter in him? Both questions have led to interesting conversations every time.
AFTER THE PANDEMIC …
My hope is that once the pandemic is over, the time we have taken to lean into an understanding of sheltering ourselves in God now will result in changes to how we live and move in the world. As we learn to hold fast to him in love during hard times, may we become more of a refugio for the next generation of leaders—our children, and our children’s children. May we the church become a safer place for our neighbors, ministries, and perhaps, most importantly, those who are the most vulnerable and without shelter. If that is an outgrowth of these challenging days, then despite the losses and the grief, perhaps we will be able to look back with thanksgiving on this difficult time.
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