Neaners, his daughter Adelita, Chris Hoke and Hoke's wife, Rachel, celebrating Neaners' release from prison at a backyard barbecue. Hoke was mentored by Bob Ekblad, and then served as a mentor to Neaners. Neaners, in turn, plans to help others by founding a new ministry.
Photo by Gabriela Arp
Bob and Gracie Ekblad: Tierra Nueva founders
Bob and Gracie Ekblad grew up together in an upscale community outside Seattle, and they both attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian institution founded by Free Methodist pioneers.
Inspired by the words of Isaiah (65:17-25) praising God’s “new earth,” as well as by the humanitarian teachings of Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier, they became involved in teaching sustainable farming on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Their work began in the early 1980s, at a time of extreme political ferment in Central America.
“We knew nothing about farming, and we weren’t experts,” Bob Ekblad said. “We just wanted to serve the people. We wanted to come under them as learners and give them a voice.”
It was an ideal opportunity to help. The tiny country, positioned between two revolutionary governments and having been dominated by the military for the past decade, was plagued by erosion and poor water practices.
A member of the Honduras Department of Natural Resources introduced them to a man named Fernando Andrade, a 53-year-old campesino in Minas de Oro who had turned his land into a model farm and was willing to teach his methods.
“Don Fernando was a true ‘Wendell Berry’ kind of farmer,” Ekblad said. “He knew things like how to choose the perfect branch to make a yoke for the oxen to plow the fields. He was a master with a machete and other local tools.”
The American couple partnered with Andrade and another local person, Catalina Toc, to help the community revive and expand the use of traditional methods and tools that worked with local conditions instead of against them.
Their efforts literally bore fruit. Three years into their time on the project they called “Tierra Nueva” (New Earth), the number of sustainable farms around them had grown into the thousands. Crops and people were thriving. That is when the Ekblads were asked by the Honduran community to lead a Bible study group.
“We weren’t going to any church,” Ekblad said. “It was always in cornfields, in people’s homes. Faith had been important to us, big time, but we had not been [intentional] about sharing it.”
Much like the farming practices they helped introduce, the informal Bible study meetings took off, and the Ekblads found themselves invited by a group of liberation theology Jesuits to serve in nearby villages. “They welcomed us into their network of communities, and it was then that we realized we were really being called into pastoring people.”
The Ekblads felt they needed more training in order to follow their calling to ministry, but bad feelings about the United States’ involvement in the Central American crisis led them to seek schooling elsewhere. Ultimately, they were accepted into a Huguenot seminary in southern France, where they studied under Daniel Bourguet, a Protestant hermit who is now prior of the Order of Watchers community.
It was in France that both Bob and Gracie were ordained in the Presbyterian Church, to which they had family ties. Their return to the organized church was encouraged by the humility and faith they found in France.
“It was through these French pastors who were so humble,” Ekblad said, “that we felt, maybe we can be pastors as well.”
They maintained a connection with Tierra Nueva, leaving the ministry in the hands of 15 of the leaders they had raised up, and going back to Honduras for a monthlong visit each year. And in 1994, when Bob was offered a position as chaplain at the Skagit County Jail in Burlington, Washington -- a community with a significant Latino population -- they established Tierra Nueva del Norte, extending the ministry into the U.S.
“We felt a little stirring in our hearts, since the Skagit Valley was so much closer to our families,” Ekblad said. “Wondering about other needs we might serve, we investigated and found there were 25,000 immigrants in the area and not a single Spanish-speaking pastor.”
Today Bob and Gracie serve as the ministry's general directors, as well as traveling and teaching people around the world who seek to do ministry with the poor.
Chris Hoke: Tierra Nueva’s Gang Initiative founder
As a child of conservative evangelical Christians in Southern California, Chris Hoke always knew he wanted to follow Jesus. As he grew into a young man, however, he refused the path he was offered.
He saw hypocrisy, and rejected the notion of a God that responds to “badness” with punishment. For Hoke, the faith he had been taught was antithetical to the Jesus he wanted to give his life to.
“Here is this marginalized person who did not get along with religious authorities, who spent all his time with people on the margins of Galilee, hanging out with prostitutes and bad guys, and who was homeless,” Hoke said. And it troubled him that “leading that [lifestyle] doesn’t work well with the system that is teaching you about that very Jesus.”
Before becoming a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Hoke did a stint with an urban ministry organization called Mission Year. Stationed in a rough part of Oakland, Hoke found the experience catalyzing.
“I spent all my time there with gang members and kids from violent families, and I loved it so much because my life wasn’t about upward mobility; it was about loving my neighbors.”
When Hoke later heard about a “radical theologian” in Washington state who was ministering to lost souls caught up in an overcrowded county penal system, something clicked. He was intrigued by this man and his wife, Bob and Gracie Ekblad, who had dedicated themselves to serving the poor and disenfranchised in Honduras and then brought that social justice ministry to jail inmates and migrant workers in a corner of the Pacific Northwest.
His urban experience with Mission Year had led Hoke to realize that he, too, felt drawn to the people in the shadows, the ones that his childhood role models had told him to avoid at all costs. He wanted to follow Bob Ekblad into those shadows and help in casting the light.
In his recent book, “Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders,” Hoke describes his search for God’s presence in seemingly unlikely places as “a mix of true crime and spiritual adventure.”
In 2005, Hoke joined Ekblad at Tierra Nueva. Entering the jail with his newly adopted teacher and reading the Bible shoulder to shoulder with inmates brought him closer to spiritual fraternity than he had ever been.
Hoke went on to found Tierra Nueva’s Gang Initiative and co-found its Underground Coffee business.
Like Hoke, they were dissatisfied young men desperate for connection and understanding -- be it a handshake, a hug or a blessing bestowed. “In our jail Bible studies,” Hoke’s website notes, “it was always the skinny, tattooed gangsters who had the most energizing insights into the mission and work of Jesus.”
Neaners: Gang outreach assistant
Youths that are drawn to gangs do not have strong family ties; they are like lost sheep seeking a place to belong. Hoke was new to Tierra Nueva and still a bit of a lost sheep himself when he met the man called Neaners, a heavily tattooed Mexican gang leader with a shaved head who had started attending the jail Bible studies. Born José Israel Garcia, he got his nickname when he joined a gang at age 10, as a “niño”; over time, that label became playfully or mockingly stretched to become the only name he now uses.
Only two months apart in age, the young men formed an unexpected bond.
Neaners did his time in county jail and was released, but was eventually arrested again and convicted of tampering with a witness, unlawful possession of a firearm and assault.
He spent seven years in prisons around Washington state, including five years in solitary confinement.
Hoke supported Neaners throughout his incarceration, including keeping up regular correspondence, reconnecting him with his estranged daughter and providing him with some money while in prison.
“He walked with me through a lot of things, like losing my brother,” Neaners said. When Neaners began changing and moving away from gang culture, “[Chris] told me, ‘This is God’s work.’ He had seen a bigger picture than I did.”
In July 2014, Neaners was released from prison into Hoke’s custody. During his time in prison, the former gang leader had grown in faith and became clear about working with Hoke and Tierra Nueva when he got out.
A year later, Neaners is newly married, in the process of tattoo removal and now employed as the gang ministry’s outreach assistant.
He regularly corresponds with more than 40 men who are currently in prison and is very active in engaging local youths who are at high risk of gang violence.
“We take them out on Thursdays, to give them a glimpse of the world outside their 4-block radius and expand their minds more,” Neaners said. “For example, we took them to the kangaroo farm here in Arlington. Next we are thinking of taking them to a trampoline park. It’s amazing!”
Neaners is also working toward a project of his own he calls “Hope for Homies,” a vision of a gang ministry and farm he developed during those many hours of solitary confinement.
“I want to give other guys a reason to move forward instead of being trapped in the same boat we get stuck in all our lives,” he said.