The Common Good
March 2004

Finding Refuge in God's New Earth

by Bob Ekblad | March 2004

How ministry with migrant workers led the author and his family back to the land.

MY WIFE, GRACIE, and I live with our three children on 35 acres of land near the mouth of the North Fork of the Skagit River, an hour north of Seattle. This is home to New Earth Refuge—a family-based hospitality and retreat center tied to an ecumenical ministry among Latino immigrants in a nearby town. Here we actively seek a sustainable life of solidarity with both people and nature under assault.

Our journey to this land and ministry has been long and perilous, but also rich and rewarding. In 1980-1981 we took a trip to Central America that was both an awakening to the beauty and dignity of the poor and a jarring introduction to the dark side of U.S. imperialism. While studying Spanish in Guatemala, Gracie and I learned from our Guatemalan teachers about the numerous violent U.S. interventions against democratic movements throughout Latin America. We witnessed the terror of a civil war that claimed thousands of lives among Guatemala's indigenous peoples. We felt called to somehow address the root causes of poverty, and found support from a Christian community in Oregon to work among peasants in Honduras.

We partnered with Jose Elias Sanchez, a Honduran development maverick, who insisted that if we wanted to combat poverty at its roots we had to teach farming. He recruited a sage Honduran campesino, Fernando Andrade, to help us establish an experimental farm and training center. Our goal was to teach sustainable farming and preventive health care to help rural people stay on their land and avoid the migration from country to city to North America. Courses happened under mango trees in what we called the Universidad del Campo (University of the Countryside). We founded Tierra Nueva (New Earth) with longtime activists Larry and Joni Geer-Sell and a cadre of campesino promoters, who continue to provide technical and pastoral support to small farmers.

The university's "coursework" consisted of practical alternatives to "slash and burn" that included composting, mulching, and planting green manure crops instead of burning; as well as digging contoured ditches, building soil-conserving barriers, and planting to the contour instead of farming steep land unprotected from tropical downpours. We organized women's groups, trained health workers, and launched campaigns to teach intensive vegetable gardening, hygiene, nutrition, and herbal medicine.

Together we witnessed God's creating "a new heaven and a new earth" (Isaiah 65) during a time when the United States was building military bases, pressuring countries to recruit the region's youth into the armed forces, conducting endless military maneuvers, and launching wars against the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua. We learned to read for the good news in the Bible with people who often felt at the receiving end of God's big stick. We learned to confront negative images of God by asking questions that helped people identify a liberating God at the heart of both the biblical stories and their broken lives. Eventually we came to feel that we could best serve people as pastoral agents, but we needed more training.

In 1989, we left Honduras and spent the next five years studying theology, raising our children, and making regular trips to Honduras. Our own conversion "from below" in Honduras convinced us that mainstream churches and theological academies need direct contact with marginalized people and nature for their spiritual health and survival. We were also convinced of the need for quality theological training to be offered to people at the margins. In 1994 we launched Tierra Nueva del Norte (New Earth of the North) in Burlington, Washington—an ecumenical ministry among migrant farm workers and other Latino immigrants.

BURLINGTON IS IN the heart of the Skagit Valley, a fertile agricultural valley that winds down from the North Cascades and is drained by the scenic Skagit River. Like many farming communities near cities, Skagit farmland is under assault. In Burlington, acres of prime farmland have been paved over to host nearly every major retailer imaginable. Cucumber, berry, and apple farmers struggle to compete with producers in Sri Lanka, Mexico, Chile, and China. Farmland is giving way to housing developments, as Seattle commuters look further north for affordable housing.

Thousands of farm workers from Mexico have been drawn to Skagit County, where they work in fields, fish processing plants, restaurants, and construction. Seasonal workers crowd into nine migrant labor camps from June through October. Most of Skagit County's immigrant workers are undocumented, placing them at constant risk of deportation. Skagit County Jail is used as a holding facility for immigrants arrested by local law enforcement and detained by the Department of Homeland Security for deportation.

When we first started Tierra Nueva del Norte, we moved into a downscale residential neighborhood a few blocks from the Latino center of Burlington. We visited immigrants in the strawberry and cucumber fields and migrant labor camps of the Skagit Valley. I was hired as part-time chaplain of Skagit County jail, where I lead Spanish Bible studies twice a week. The jail serves as the primary connection between Tierra Nueva and the most marginalized Latinos. Many men ask me to visit their families, assist them with immigration and other legal difficulties, or help them get into drug or alcohol treatment programs.

The Tierra Nueva ministry grew rapidly and became increasingly demanding. Migrants and ex-offenders came to our house day and night, and we soon needed trained volunteers and a way for cultivating future staff.

Our first seminars involved bringing farmers, farm workers, and community members together to oppose INS raids. We then began offering theological courses with titles like "Reading the Bible With the Damned" and "Walking With People on the Margins." We expanded our courses to include seminarians and community members. The People's Seminary-Seminario del Pueblo was formally launched in 2000 with help from a generous grant.

The People's Seminary is up and running as an ecumenical learning center where people from the mainstream and the edges meet for scripture study and theological reflection in preparation for service, ministry, and social transformation. Scholars and leaders from all over the world come to teach here—with farm workers, ex-offenders, and people who serve at the margins.

Tierra Nueva now includes eight full-time staff, 17 half-time Honduran workers, and many volunteers who operate the Skagit County jail ministry, a family support center, Camino de Emmaus-Road to Emmaus (a bilingual faith community), The People's Seminary, and the original community at Tierra Nueva in Honduras.

IN JULY 2002, Gracie and I, with our children, moved out of Burlington to the New Earth Refuge. Now a healthy 20 minutes away from Tierra Nueva and The People's Seminary (instead of three blocks), we are coexisting with raccoons, beaver, river otter, coyotes, deer, hawks, eagles, and numerous migratory bird species. In addition we are raising eight sheep, a llama, a dog, two rabbits, a rat, and a guinea pig.

Since this is our home, our first commitment is to learn to live out spiritual practices that sustain us for life and ministry as both individuals and a family. We are committed to watchfulness, which includes daily prayer and scripture reading—morning, noon, and night when possible—regular walks, and Sunday worship. We also intend to offer hospitality to friends, families, and people visiting Tierra Nueva or taking courses at The People's Seminary. Seeing the beauty requires cultivating watchfulness and prayer—precursors to contemplation. I am convinced that we all need sanctuaries so we cannot only survive but flourish in the struggle for life and liberation.

Snow geese are flying low over our land today—free over this acreage from the danger of hunters. Last night's Bible study in the jail was on Jesus as our "coyote"—who brings us into the Reign of God, into the Garden, the New Earth, against the law, free of charge. There is good news to be discovered and new life to be protected from the hunters, whether they are law-enforcers, addictions, or other forces that oppress. Living a sustainable life in these dark times demands constant watching, praying, and delight. Without times of retreat and fellowship, all people, including those seeking to serve in the mainstream or at the margins will become endangered species. Yet with or without a riverfront paradise, we affirm with the psalmist: "God is a refuge for us" (Psalm 62:8).

Bob Ekblad was a Presbyterian pastor and executive director of Tierra Nueva and The People's Seminary when this article appeared. For more information see www.peoplesseminary.org or call (360) 755-9182.

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