How Creating a Refuge Fosters a Sense of Belonging

Out of Place – Brooke’s Story

“My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:2 (ESV)


It’s a word seen throughout the Bible. It’s often used in terms to describe God. He is a shelter from danger. He is a shelter from falsehood. He is a place to put our hope. He is someone we can trust.  If God is our refuge, does that make us refugees? In a broad sense, refugees are people fleeing danger and seeking safety. They need a trusted place to land. They need a place where they can hope again. 

Stepping into the world of refugees

Several years ago I found myself uprooted from a job I loved. A teaching job that taught me more than I taught any high schooler. I left my very first teaching job after nine years of devotion to that beautifully designed school. Nine years of connecting to thousands of students I loved deep in my bones. It was time to move on. 

I was not a refugee in the sense of being forced out of my home, or this job. It was a choice to move. I knew deep down it was the right choice. However, my overworked, tired, overburdened teaching spirit needed safety. I needed a place where I could hope, dream, and breathe deeper. Little did I know what was waiting for me; I took a job at a new school in a new department where I was not the only person seeking refuge. 

I signed up to teach English Language Learners, something I was familiar with in my previous job but it looked a little different. Previously, I worked with ELL students that lived in the USA since they were little. Most grew up speaking Spanish at home but learned English at school. I had the privilege to help them fill in language gaps and build vocabulary. At my new job, the ELL students came from 14 different countries. As they shared their stories, I began to realize many of them were refugees seeking asylum in the USA. They escaped from some sort of danger back in their home country.  

Creating a space to belong

As the year progressed, my classroom transformed into a refuge for many of them. It became the spot for lunch with their friends. It became the place for taking risks. They used academic words from our word wall, impressing any native English speaker. Words like, analyze, describe, evaluate, or summarize. Their confidence elevated with a simple hair flip and stroke of the pen to page. 

August to December fostered a sense of belonging for all of us. I felt most at home with these students. These English Language Learners were simply trying to figure out where they belong in this world, in this American high school, in this Midwest city. I still cried every morning I arrived at work. The transition to adapt and feel at home in my new job took much longer than anticipated. Then January hit. Everything changed. 

The students I bonded with in the first semester returned second semester. Their faces were bright, shining and familiar. A few new faces popped up in class. January started with fewer morning tears in the parking lot for me. My soul began to rest in the rhythm of this new job. A slower pace, less pressure than I normally carried. 

“Miss, when is your birthday?” students asked me throughout the beginning of January. 

“January 30th. Why?” I gave a sly side glance and a smile to each of them. 

“Oh nothing. Just curious,” Each student smiled and walked off. 

January 30th arrived. I showed up to work like I do every year. A layer of bold red lipstick for the occasion but nothing overly fancy or over the top. I simply showed up as me. I walked into my classroom that morning and was quickly shuffled out by students. I returned to a surprise birthday party: balloons, tres leches cake, brownies, birthday presents, music from each of their home countries, and one young man danced me around the classroom to show off his quinceanera dancing skills. 

This moment. This day. This is when I knew I belonged in a new way. 

“No other teacher has gotten a surprise birthday party in all the years I’ve been here. You must be doing something right,” a fellow coworker said to me as I took her a piece of cake.

I simply smiled, “I think I just need them and they need me.” I knew I had not gone out of my way to teach them in grand ways. I knew I had merely chosen to show up each day. 

That year I wiped my tears in the parking lot each morning. I invited them to join me in learning new things each day. We took risks together. We found safe places to learn together. My classroom transformed into a refuge I didn’t know I needed. By the grace of God my classroom transformed into the refuge we all needed. 

Now, years later, I still cling to the memory of how much I trusted God in that transition. I still thank Him for the way he showed me what a refuge feels like. I still thank him for the season I felt like a refugee in my own way and how much he taught me from these young refugees in a very real way. 

Belonging now goes beyond borders for me. I am convinced we can foster a sense of belonging by showing up. Trusting His presence in the moment. Seeking safety in the spaces he gives us, and constantly looking to him for our protection.

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this series is for you! Every Monday, we’ll hear from someone who has also struggled to belong. Be sure to subscribe below to get The Scoop so you never miss a post! As a thank you, you’ll receive access to belonging-themed scripture cards and adult coloring pages in the free for you library!

Thanks! I can't wait to connect with you!

Meet Brooke Noelle

Brooke Noelle is an educator, author, and advocate for healthy living: mentally, physically, and spiritually. She educates students in an urban high school in Wichita, KS. She advocates for cleaner lifestyle choices for all. She writes authentically as she learns to navigate her own mental health. Brooke also loves Jesus, handstands, and laughter. Connect with Brooke on her website, or follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

*Feature Photo by Dilan Bandara on Unsplash

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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