Monthly Book Review: “Wanted” by Chris Hoke

Chris Hoke is a jail chaplain and pastor to gangs and violent offenders in the State of Washington. Through his work with the organization Tierra Nueva, he co-founded a coffee-roasting business, Underground Coffee, which employs men coming out of prison and addiction, and connects them to agricultural partners in Honduras. Hoke received his B.A. from U.C. Berkley and his M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from Seattle Pacific University. Wanted is his literary debut.

Wanted follows Hoke through his restless years in the sunny suburbs to the darker side of society in the rainy Northwest, where he finds the direct spiritual experience he’s been seeking while volunteering as a night-shift chaplain at a men’s correctional facility. The kind of genuine spirituality he did not find during what he called his “over-churched” youth. The jail becomes his portal to a mysterious world where gang members soon dub him their “pastor.”

One of the most moving parts of his story, for me, was when he spent the evening singing and playing his guitar with someone who attempted suicide in the jail’s isolation cell. Hoke writes in the introduction to the book, “With these stories of wanted men, my relationships with criminals in various states of transformation, I am really trying to capture a greater subject – a divine presence that has yet to be held very long in any official custody.”

Wanted is full of unsavory criminals, profanity, violence, death, and drugs. I have discussed the book with several pastors I know. Two of them cannot understand the need for tales laced with violence and profanity, offering me the opinion that the same could be told without all those expletives. I don’t agree. Nothing can capture the passion and the fear of living on the streets like the uncensored telling of arrests, of being slave to the needle, about misery, betrayal, hatred, bigotry and violence. To edit the commentary of these lost and angry men would be to take the raw honesty out of the story.

Hoke walked up to a defendant in a courtroom and was stopped by the public defender, who asked, “Excuse me, you are?” The young defendant said, “Um, this is my pastor.” Hoke winced at the word. At first, he thought he was being mocked. Certainly, a pastor was the leader of a church. But Hoke was told, “Naw, you’re our pastor, dawg! We’ve never had a pastor. Now we got you.” He was told this was a good thing. “When we wanna connect with God, when we’re in a bad spot late at night, where we gonna go? We call you.” Hoke came to understand himself as a shepherd to the black sheep.

Hoke writes, “Most of the crimes I hear about from the men I meet in the jail don’t alarm me. Even murders. To threaten, steal, destroy, cheat, evade, rage, attack, smother, and self-medicate are all impulses I recognize in myself. Most men who come to our Bible studies I can welcome as tragic extensions of my own hypothetical selves. And these men in rubber slippers are frankly more honest about their sins than I am about the distortion hidden within me. So to embrace these men is to see and embrace my own darkness. I’ve often considered the jail a kind of warped existential mirror.”

“I want to paint God,” Hoke tells us in the forward, describing his own struggles to know an intangible God. Hoke “paints” God’s likeness by writing with graceful intensity; his prose drenched with descriptive details and surprising metaphor (he compares trumpeter swans to migrant workers, wild salmon to gang youth), his musings nuanced and complex (he suggests that people with schizophrenia tune into God more easily than the mentally stable). There are no broad brushstrokes, only fine paint-blots a million times over. Like an impressionist painter, he uses some light, some dark, but all work together to give the reader a picture of who God is and how God uses the outcasts of society to reflect His priorities. His kingdom.

I highly recommend this book to pastors, youth workers, corrections workers, and addictions counselors.

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