Article

D. L. Mayfield


"I Felt Like I Was Falling in Love"

A prison chaplain's journey.

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While most Christian readers are comfortable with redemption narratives, even from surprising places, perhaps we don't want to look too closely at the unbelievably messy trajectory of resurrection—how it moves and works in fits and starts. Perhaps, as Shane Claiborne says, it is because "when people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity."

Hoke's personal journey takes him from being the son of a loving Christian family to the wilds of depression and listlessness in college to finding himself under the tutelage of Bob Ekblad, a longtime prison chaplain and author of Reading the Bible with the Damned. Bob and his wife, Gracie, moved to the Skagit valley in Eastern Washington after years of working with people in Honduras; there, they started a ministry working with the migrants scattered throughout the lush Washington valley. Chris starts visiting the prisons with Bob, learning, as he says, "how to open my heart both to the intimidating and angry men and to ancient supernatural phenomena." Where Ekblad offers in his own book a more scholarly, step-by-step approach to the mechanics of what it means to minister among those whom the world has locked up, Hoke takes the same themes with the eye and ear of an artist. Both are eager to share with their mostly Western-educated readership the joys of reading the Scriptures with those whom they were primarily written by and for—the oppressed of the world. They are also quick to point out the failings of our moralistic interpretations, and how they weigh the heaviest on those at the bottom of the totem pole.

As Hoke meets and prays and studies with the men, both in and out of jail, he scribbles their insights and answers in a notebook. The men notice, and ask him if he is planning on writing a book. A bit sheepish, he admits he has toyed with the idea. They get excited about the idea, chastening him "not to make them sound too white" and scoff at the idea of changing names. They know what the world thinks of them—throwaways, criminals, out of sight, out of mind—and they are beginning to understand what it means when God is on your side, when he thinks the absolute world of you. They recognize in Hoke a desire for true beauty, a world ordered the way it should be, with the last being first, and they are exuberant for these stories to be shared—failures, tragedy, and all. It is this, the radical vulnerability and honesty that is a hallmark of so many people at the margins of society, which is Wanted's greatest gift to the reader. We are invited into the same space that Hoke was—into a space of relationship. A table, as it were, far outside the camps where we've always believed that God resided.

We think of the world of MFAs—"the literary scene"—as completely distinct from the world this book takes us into, with "theology" yet another world of its own. But Chris Hoke shows us that it isn't necessarily so. A voracious reader, a student of words that are pleasing to the tongue and convey moving images in the mind's eye, he draws on Wendell Berry to describe patterns in gang relations and sees similarities between how David James Duncan writes about endangered salmon and his own work with marginalized young men. (Not to be missed: at one point in the book Chris and two of his friends from prison enroll in Duncan's famous fly-fishing class, and the results are both moving and unexpected). I hope many pastors, chaplains, missionaries, and practitioners of all sorts will follow Hoke's example.

D. L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest, where she currently is a part of a Christian order among the poor. Mayfield's writing has appeared in McSweeney's, Image, Christianity Today, and The Other Journal, among others. She has a book of essays forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016.

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