A New Understanding of ‘Shelter’

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