Bio: Jail chaplain and gang pastor with Tierra Nueva in Skagit Valley, Washington;
Underground Coffee Project co-founder. Website: undergroundcoffeeproject.com
1. What delights you in your daily work? As a chaplain in a county jail, I get to meet and commune with some of the most interesting people in my community. When a few of them become my roommates, musical collaborators, groomsmen, business partners, or co-authors, it is pure delight.
I’ve found the greatest joy of the gospel to be what we at Tierra Nueva call “bridging divergent worlds”: fly-fishing for salmon with young Chicano gang members. Doing theology in a jail with uncensored classmates already living a modern monastic life, well aware of their sin. Holding a collect call from prison on speakerphone above rows of organic kale, so the farmer can talk composting with a man in solitary confinement who is starting to design a gang recovery farm for when he’s released next year. It’s hearing from suburban church ladies, like my mother, that the letters read through our ministry from a gang leader in prison made them cry—then hearing that they now write each other directly!
2. What frustrations do you face? Banging on the doors of some churches and businesses and courtrooms that are used to the familiar way of doing things. It’s also a frustrating process to let go of my incorrect assumption that men and women in those realms would be more reliable in their commitments than the folks we’re working with in addiction recovery.
3. Tell us about the Underground Coffee Project. One of my favorite experiences has been helping start a direct-trade coffee roasting business here, north of Seattle, with my friend Zach Joy, employing some of the millions of men and women in the “underground” economy who cannot get jobs after being released from prison. The tattooed former meth cook, Zach, is at the heart of the business—the artisan coffee roaster.
Zach’s story is a portrait of beauty. So is the work of sustainable agriculture and faith community development in the mountains of Honduras, where Tierra Nueva began in the 1980s with Bob and Gracie Ekblad. When the “fruit” of that work arrives in 152-pound burlap sacks of organic green coffee, and Zach’s heavily-inked arms scoop the beans into the humming roaster, and he stands praying over each batch as it spills into the cooling tray ... the reconciliation of separate worlds has never smelled so good!
4. What gives you hope? I guess seeing, in the complications of this new business, other forms of redemption and sacrament. I never thought I’d work in selling and marketing. Honestly, from my educational background, capitalism is seen as almost criminal. So I have to smile, because as a jail chaplain, I believe the hearts of criminals can change!
I wasn’t raised with much sacrament in church. But I kind of get it now: Few people literally “break bread” daily with one another, but more often people in our culture experience fellowship over coffee. I start seeing the parallels between the Body and the bread ... and then the Body and the international bean, broken and ground daily.
—Interview by Elizabeth Palmberg