Ministering at the margins: Tierra Nueva turns lost sheep into shepherds
Tierra Nueva's highest value is hosting God's presence. Its website states, "When we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength we experience peace, joy, and revelation and are empowered for ministry in places of great darkness and need."
Photos courtesy of Tierra Nueva
An ecumenical ministry in rural Washington state helps Latin American immigrants, migrant workers, gang members, addicts, jail inmates and people who have been incarcerated become leaders in their own community.
Tierra Nueva is headquartered in a 100-year-old former bank building in rural Burlington, Washington. The first floor, repurposed into a simple worship space and family support center, is a mishmash of sleeper couches, desks, bookshelves and cardboard boxes.
On one wall, a mural depicts Jesus as a brown-skinned man channeling healing waters, which swirl around a scene filled with people -- imprisoned behind bars, entangled in ropes and chains, toiling in green fields, embracing one another, kneeling in prayer.
The painting symbolizes the mission of this ecumenical ministry, which serves people on the margins of society -- Latin American immigrants, migrant workers, gang members, addicts, jail inmates and people who have been incarcerated, as well as people in the mainstream.
We seek to be a community where people are discerning their calling, clarifying their gifts, and joining a movement that announces and makes visible the Kingdom of God.
-- Tierra Nueva website
Originally focused on jail ministry and immigrant assistance, Tierra Nueva’s mission has grown to encompass gang ministry, drug and alcohol recovery, job creation and theological education as well. Farming and a coffee-roasting social enterprise provide meaningful work and income for people the ministry serves.
Founder Bob Ekblad’s hope is to see more people empowered as leaders to help liberate those in need within their very own communities.
“To me, that involves bringing together Scripture, Holy Spirit and social justice advocacy in a missional community model,” he said.
Creating a new earth
The community of Tierra Nueva, or “New Earth,” was established in 1982 in Honduras by Bob and Gracie Ekblad, who were then 22 and 24. The young couple, influenced by anti-war sentiments, Holocaust studies and Latin American liberation theology, knew they wanted to work with the poor. After a period of travel throughout Latin America, the Ekblads found themselves living in Honduras during a time of regional political upheaval.
They were recruited to learn and promote sustainable farming practices among the local people. As they became accepted in the community, they also began sharing informal Bible studies with them.
“We had been living an incarnational life,” Ekblad said, “washing the feet of the people.”
Through spreading the good news, they realized they were called to ministry.
In 1994, Bob, fluent in Spanish and by then an ordained Presbyterian pastor, was offered a position as chaplain for the inmates -- significantly Latino -- of the Skagit County Jail, located in a fertile farming valley about two hours north of Seattle, where both Bob and Gracie had grown up.
Many of the migrant workers who flock to the Skagit Valley starting in May of each year come north from Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states. Some are in the U.S. temporarily and illegally, while others are legal residents or American citizens.
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As in their work in Honduras, the Ekblads were not interested in establishing a church in their new community; they wished simply to create a ministry to bring the words of Christ to the poor, the underserved and the marginalized of the area. Out of this desire, Tierra Nueva del Norte was born.
Beyond the immigrant and migrant difficulties, the economically challenged Skagit Valley also had gang and crime problems. And the county jail was the place where these social issues converged.
“It was a primo way to meet the people we wanted to serve,” Ekblad said. “The jail had about 25 percent Mexicans, and a lot of them were super-vulnerable, because they were mostly undocumented migrant farm workers.”
For Ekblad, a rural community with a high crime rate, a large population of vulnerable immigrants and a county jail with Spanish-speaking gang members turned out to be the perfect setting to preach the good news.
“We initially earned the people’s trust through education,” Ekblad said. “We published a dual-language advocacy newspaper where we were exposing human rights abuses. We ran gang art and prisoner art, and had a column highlighting the stories of how particular immigrants got here.”
Reading the Bible behind bars
In contrast to prisons, which house individuals convicted of crimes, county jails are where people await trial or serve out short sentences -- turning-point kinds of places, where the trajectory of a life can be changed by the clang of a cell door or the swing of a gavel.
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Chris Hoke joined Tierra Nueva in 2005 and started visiting jail inmates alongside Bob Ekblad.
“Jail ministry is exciting,” said Hoke, 34, “because the people are from right here in your own community, and everyone you meet is in a very openhearted moment in their life. It’s an outstanding place to be if you want to work with people at the margins.”
Hoke, who grew up in a conservative evangelical family in California, felt called to gang ministry during a year working in urban ministry in Oakland. When he found his way to Tierra Nueva, he knew he had found his community.
“I was always tuned into Jesus, haunted by Jesus, so I was constantly visiting churches looking for a good one,” Hoke said. “I finally found the fellowship I was craving in the Skagit County Jail.”
From prison to promise
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of individuals in the community’s jail. Like many such facilities in the United States, the Skagit County Jail has a serious overcrowding problem. It opened its doors in 1984 with a capacity of 83 inmates. Today, the same facility handles more than twice that number, and a new jail, with an initial capacity of 400, is slated to open in spring 2017.
It was at the Skagit County Jail where Hoke met the gang leader known as Neaners, who came to his Bible study.
As Hoke shepherded Neaners, Neaners stepped up to do some shepherding of his own. While still in jail, he began pointing Hoke to his gang member “homies” in the community, gathering them to receive guidance and protection.
“He basically welcomed me into his world,” Hoke said.
Neaners was released for a year but then was re-incarcerated, this time in state prison. Still, Hoke kept up the relationship, supporting Neaners in myriad ways.
Today, Neaners works at Tierra Nueva and hopes that his radical turn from powerful thug to budding shepherd offers active gang members, whether in jail or still on the street, an authentic role model who can inspire them to embrace a new life.
Neaners’ model is Hoke: “He just loved us regardless of who we were.”
Raising up leaders
From its original focus on jail and immigrant advocacy, Tierra Nueva expanded into many initiatives aimed at supporting and empowering people at the margins.
One way in which Tierra Nueva is actively raising up leaders is by providing sustainable opportunities for positive and meaningful work through New Earth Works, its coffee-roasting and farm enterprises.
Underground Coffee -- the name signifying both the earth in which the coffee grows and the world from which Tierra Nueva’s clients hope to emerge -- was co-founded and for many years managed by Zach Joy, a heavily tattooed former inmate. He worked alongside former gang members and people in recovery -- those who might otherwise remain unemployed and disconnected. The coffee beans are grown at Tierra Nueva in Honduras.
Workers are also learning to grow and harvest fresh produce and to bake bread, all available for purchase by CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription.
Recovery, rebirth, renewal
Many of those who take part in New Earth Works have come through Tierra Nueva’s New Earth Recovery, an addiction-recovery ministry founded and directed by Alan Muia and his wife, Amy.
“Our hope in merging the farm with recovery ministry is that people will be really impacted and will benefit from developing a connection to the land and to growing things,” Muia said. “To be able to see something that is better at the end of the day because of you.”
The recovery ministry provides separate community residences for men and women, as well as faith-based support groups, advocacy and pastoral care. Residents can stay with New Earth Recovery for up to two years.
“We believe it takes that long to really get to the bottom of stuff,” Muia said, “and to develop new habits that will stick.”
The People’s Seminary is another arm of Tierra Nueva, which is focused on multiplying leaders who will bring ministry to the marginalized. It offers a certificate through an 18-month on-site and online program that trains individuals to become jail visitors and advocates for immigrants. The first cohort launched at Tierra Nueva in Washington in October 2014 with 32 participants, and Ekblad plans to offer the training across the globe.
Making it all happen
Despite the ministry’s broadening reach, Ekblad retains a startup attitude.
“As soon as you get big and start bringing in all this money, you are required to have a traditional setup,” he said. “At that point, you pretty much have to turn the reins over to an organization that does not directly represent the people you are serving.”
In the United States, Tierra Nueva currently has a full-time staff of 13 from mainstream backgrounds, plus four full-time and three part-time employees who have been hired from the people served by the ministry.
An annual budget of approximately $900,000 is cobbled together from various sources. The Stewardship Foundation (created by Dave Weyerhaeuser, grandson of Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the founder of the wood products company) covers approximately 5 percent of its budget. A major individual donor provides another 2.5 percent of the budget.
Most donations, however, are much smaller and come through monthly, annual, or one-time gifts.
At its inception in 1994, Tierra Nueva del Norte existed under the umbrella of the Presbytery of North Puget Sound of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Until 2005, the presbytery served as Tierra Nueva’s treasury service, receiving donations and managing the payroll.
In January 2006, however, the ministry was asked to separate from the presbytery amid concerns about its involvement with undocumented immigrants. Since that time, Tierra Nueva has functioned separately under its own 501(c)(3) as an interdenominational ministry.
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Staff members also raise their own support. “Like any organization, our largest budget line is staffing,” Muia said. “Anyone who comes on staff agrees to do some of their own fundraising.”
Staff members, including Ekblad, also often work side jobs related to their callings. In addition to his position as jail chaplain, Ekblad serves as sessional lecturer for Regent College of Vancouver, British Columbia, and associate professor of biblical studies at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, among other academic and organizational positions.
For others involved with Tierra Nueva, this kind self-propelled support is harder to come by, and they benefit from a special salary fund.
“We have some folks, whose numbers we want to keep growing, who come from the contexts we serve -- we meet them in jail or a recovery setting, or they start attending our church from a marginalized background,” Muia said. “They come from environments that may not be supportive of doing recovery and doing ministry. But we want them to rise up and become leaders in our organization.”
Fundraising, like coffee roasting, farming and other training, is all part of Tierra Nueva’s mission to engage all people -- even the most vulnerable and reviled -- to be part of God’s “new earth.”
“A shepherd is not the leader of a huge corral; that’s a rancher. Shepherds walk with the sheep, know their names,” Hoke said. “We want to create a good shepherding community. That is something a lot more people can be.”