Bookmonger: Jailhouse chaplain seeks grace in forsaken places

Chris Hoke
Chris Hoke Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald


Chris Hoke

Skagit Valley jail chaplain Chris Hoke’s brand new book has a title that is a searing play on words. “Wanted” is actually about society’s unwanted – the reviled, the rejected, the impoverished, the mentally ill, the illegal, and the criminal. “Wanted” is a book about people who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong side of the border – it is a compendium of stories about lives that, in society’s eyes, somehow matter less. But it is also a story about seeking faith and finding friendship in unlikely places.

My advice: skip the overdone introduction and go straight to Chapter 1, which begins with one of the most powerful opening sentences I have ever read: “Someone called the cops on Ricardo Mejia as soon as he was born.”

Granted, the chapter then retreats into an obligatory recap of Hoke’s “overchurched” upbringing in Southern California and soul-searching college years in Berkeley. But that first sentence is promise of the powerful stories yet to come, as Hoke gradually finds the way into his calling as a pastor to prisoners and gang members in “the rainy farmlands north of Seattle.”

As a young chaplain, Hoke finds that some of the black sheep he is trying to shepherd actually have the hard-won life perspectives to take the lead in those nighttime prayer circles in the jail. Even as a young man, Mejia is one of them – a charismatic, tough, but generous-hearted seeker who is accused of, and eventually convicted for, the murder of an 85-year-old woman. Mejia knows how to translate ancient parables into believable scenarios for his homies.

He is one of the many memorable real-life characters Hoke acquaints us with as he tells the story of his own spiritual growth alongside the men he is ministering to – in the Skagit Valley farmland, in the slums of Guatemala City, at a SeaTac Airport boarding gate – but mostly in the visiting rooms of jails and prisons, and in the letters and phone calls he gets from his flock of prisoners, ex-cons, immigrants and deportees.

As a white, well-educated man allowed access to the reality of their daily lives, Hoke increasingly realizes the scorching inequities that exist for them, and delineates these for his readers. He describes the living conditions of migrant workers and the profiling by law enforcement. He details the bleakness of incarceration facilities. He criticizes punitive jailhouse procedures and policies that go far beyond the mission of a penitentiary or reformatory and instead are fundamentally dehumanizing measures. He gives examples of the inadequate and often deleterious effects of immigration law.

Hoke makes a couple of forays into discussions of faith, mental illness, and ecstatic experience that some may find deeply provocative or disturbing, but most of this book should be compelling to the general reader, regardless of their particular spiritual or religious inclination.

In the end, this book bears the message about the overriding imperative that each of us has – to feel wanted.