By Dr. Erica
Dr. Erica Brown, following the Boston Marathon explosions and manhunt, reflects on “shelter in place.”
I don’t know about you, but before recently I had never heard the phrase
“shelter in place,” the order residents and businesses were given by law
enforcement during the manhunt in Boston for the suspects of the Boston
emergency-speak code for a “shelter in place” warning—is a term for the mandate
to seek immediate and short-term shelter, usually from fear of chemical or
terrorist attack. It’s a way not only to protect large groups from danger, but to
also provide the necessary space for emergency workers to handle the situation
with sufficient room and efficiency.
Shelter sounded way too comforting for what the authorities requested during
the search for the Boston Marathon explosions suspects; they basically wanted
people to remain secure while the threat of terrorism loomed close to home. The
anxiety of not knowing what was happening added to the mounting pressures of
Bostonians to manage a situation that, mentally, seemed to defy all reason. And
looking back at those events, we have now had a little more time to digest them
and think generally about the notion of shelter.
My first thought on hearing the expression “shelter in place” took me to a book
that Mary Pipher wrote years ago about family dynamics, The Shelter of Each Other. I always loved that title, capturing as
it does the sense of family as refuge and safe space, the place captured by
Robert Frost in his poem “Death of a Hired Man.” Frost writes, “Home is the
place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Hopefully it
is a place of shelter because you also want to be there. Home, we hope, is a
refuge, a haven, an island of sanity in a world that does not always make
The order to stay home was particularly poignant given the situation. At times
of nonsensical violence in a world gripped by pain, we want people to take
strength in the places that offer them love, tenderness, understanding and
compassion. Where better to go than home to have temporary relief from the
volatility of terrorism?
My second thought was the book of Psalms, where the notion of God as a refuge
or shelter is stamped all over the short bursts of religious meaning and
feeling we call Psalms. In the close of Psalm 25, for example, as stress
increases, the need for protection multiplies: “Protect me and save me; let me
not be disappointed, for I have sought shelter in you.” In a first-person plea
for attention, the petitioner suffers internally and externally, plagued by the
weight of his own sins and the punishing attitude of his enemies. He seeks
refuge in God and asks not to be disappointed. God as a last resort must
provide the comfort he cannot find elsewhere.
It is not only spaces that provide shelter. People provide emotional shelter,
and God provides spiritual shelter.