Bob Ekblad has been reading the Bible with people who live on the margins—Chicano gang members, prison inmates, and undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States, among others—for more than a quarter-century.
The director of Tierra Nueva and the People’s Seminary in Burlington, Washington, Ekblad focuses on serving and being in solidarity with people who live in poverty or who find themselves excluded from mainstream society. He uses his remarkable life experience and background as a Presbyterian minister to teach people that the Bible is God’s word of liberation for all.
Some of the stories Ekblad writes about in Reading the Bible with the Damned come from his weekly Bible studies with prisoners at Burlington’s Skagit County Jail. There, Ekblad asks prisoners questions for which they do not immediately have answers. At first they’re overwhelmed by the possibility that they—society’s worst—would have anything to say about something as holy and sacred as the Bible. But what Ekblad helps them see is that scripture is written for them, and that—oddly enough—people who live comfortably within the margins of society might never understand as much as they do about the essence of key biblical stories.
One Bible study discussion begins with the story of Jacob and Esau, in which Jacob tricks his father in order to gain Esau’s birthright. Ekblad asks the men how God responds to Jacob’s crime. “God doesn’t say anything,” one man replies. “It’s like it didn’t matter.” Ekblad follows with these questions: “Was Jacob a religious person? Was he a person who prayed, went to church, read his Bible?” Another man pipes up, “He wasn’t seeking God when God came to him. He was escaping his brother. He committed a crime and fled.”