Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders is non-fiction, but I read it like it was one of the latest blockbuster novels, this time with gorgeous writing. I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t want the journey to end, following Chris Hoke through jails and streams and farms of Washington’s Skagit Valley as he grew from a young man interested in faith outside the walls of the church to a pastor to the “homies” of the area, as they called themselves—men whose criminal past or undocumented status have caused them to be among the most marginalized in our society. This book is imbued with dignity, prayer, and an understanding that relationships require forgiveness, on both sides. Wanted is a beautiful reflection on what the life of faith looks like in action.
Hoke grew up in southern California but was drawn to the dimmer corners of the Christian faith. He made his way to northwest Washington state to work with Tierra Nueva, a ministry that “seeks to share the good news of God’s freedom in Jesus Christ with people on the margins (immigrant, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless).” We recently chatted about his work with Tierra Nueva, the value of a good metaphor, and how reading the Scriptures in prison can make them new.
Laura Turner: How have you learned to read Scripture differently? It seems like after a while, and maybe this is just me, the stories get repetitive. But Wanted recasts them so beautifully.
Chris Hoke: I resonated when I first read Don Quioxte (by the way, I didn’t finish it). At the beginning he reads so many stories of knights-errant that he goes mad, and goes out and all he can see is those stories superimposed on the normal world around him. … Two of the best ways that Scripture came alive for me have to do with where do we read Scripture and with whom we read Scripture.
I heard Tony Campolo speak when I went to a Youth Specialties conference in high school. He told us about this urban missions program called Mission Year, where kids live in one of America’s four worst inner cities for a year to love their neighbors. He was halfway through his sentence before, in my mind, I was deferring my acceptances to Wheaton and Westmont and Seattle Pacific. Being in East Oakland for a year was a really nice move for me because I [began to] understand — I saw the word “poor,” and I saw economics all throughout the Bible, and I wouldn’t have understood that if I had stayed in my suburban church.
And the second move, after I got hooked on trying to follow Jesus in the streets after college, I was still itching for it and came up [to the Skagit Valley in northern Washington State] to work with Bob Ekblad at Tierra Nueva. Bob was writing a book called Reading a Bible with the Damned. Inside a jail, reading the text together, with people that society wants to throw away. So Oakland taught me where do we read it and Bob taught me, with whom do we read it.
You draw a lot of parallels between the life of faith and life in prison — the monastic lifestyle, how much of the NT was written from incarceration. There’s a connection between the “system” that these guys run up against and “the world” of the Bible. What is that?
Doing a word study of “the world” in the New Testament, almost every single time except John 3:16, it’s used in a really negative sense — it’s that which we are being freed from, that which we need to try not to be conformed by. But it’s not just social systems; it’s a certain spirituality that is something within us — looking down at people, using people, seeing people as other than the image of God — is the world. John 3:16 has power emotionally for us as readers — God still loves this lost anti-God realm. [God has] committed [God’s self] to it and entered it. If the prison is a microcosm of the world, God so loves that he enters into the cosmological prison that we’re in, and takes our punishment. And once we can build that bridge between the contexts that people who are closer to the parallel — closer to existentially being the tax collector or the prostitute — can take us closer into the heart of what Jesus means in those stories [of Scripture].
One thing that struck me reading the book is the role that women play. They are often in the background as support — and that’s not a critique, because it’s true to your story, but I wonder what you’ve observed about these women who are often waiting for their boyfriends to come out of jail, or writing them letters, or having their children?
On the streets I’ve tried to maintain some boundaries. So many allies in supporting an inmate are with the baby’s mama, the girlfriend, the ex-girlfriend, the mom. Some of these women are even more marginalized than the men I work with because they don’t really have much of a community among themselves. These gang guys are marginalized and yet the gangs kind of bond together and find a refuge from loneliness together. All these women kind of live in the shadows of their boyfriends, either because of insecurity or intimidation and control.
Some of these women are so valiant and courageous and faithful to these guys, more than they should be, and yet so unsupported. We just this year finally have a woman’s advocate with the gang ministry, someone who will go after the gang girlfriends.
You use metaphor throughout the book in a way that reminds me of the parables in the gospels — stories we need to hear but may not have ears to hear, so they have to be recast. But then there are some moments, like when you’re out with the guys fly fishing, that can’t stand up to metaphor because they’re so profound on their own. When do you know that you need to use metaphor, and when do you decide to tell the story in a straightforward way?
I’ve been made fun of by all my friends for being addicted to metaphor. It’s how I talk, it’s how I think; I’ll use five metaphors before breakfast and mix them and annoy whoever I’m hanging out with. The gift of metaphor is to try to make the unfamiliar or the unseen familiar or seen. And if you’re writing about jail for a reader who has never been there, you try to make these visual bridges.
You write about forgiveness as a way to “defy the world.” How does that work in the context of your relationships with these guys even now?
The idea of forgiveness for people [you read about in] the newspaper is the easiest for me, to see a sinner in the limelight and for us to want blessing and rehabilitation instead of a life sentence for somebody, for me that seems easy, like it’s a storybook, it’s so removed.
It gets harder when it moves into your life. It’s really hard for me to remember these big messages about forgiveness I preach with these guys when they frustrate me or hurt my feelings. And I realize how hard it is as well when I’ve wronged them or I’ve broken their confidence or I’ve let them down or I’m doing something that’s kind of like “the world” to them; I’m holding my whiteness or my education over their opinion of something, and they don’t know how to articulate that or say, “Chris, this is what you’re doing.” So they’ll just withdraw. I can come back and ask forgiveness. It’s so hard.
If you’ve ever experienced a pull to connect your internal experience of God with the world around you, Wanted is one of the best books I can recommend. If you’ve ever wondered what life is like in prison, or how the prophets are similar to schizophrenics, or how God speaks even now, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You can find Wanted on Amazon or at your local bookstore.
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She writes regularly for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics website and Religion News Service.