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A Feature Review of
Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders
Hardback: HarperOne, 2015
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Reviewed by Stina Kielsmeier-Cook
There comes a point in nearly every Christian’s journey when the glitz and fizz of new life in Christ begins to fade and God feels elusive. I’ve been in that grey landscape for a couple of years now, though I always keep my eyes open for glimmers of God’s presence. And, when I chance a sighting – through a surprising answer to prayer perhaps, or in the stories of God’s redemptive work in others – I am bolstered to keep trudging forward in this life of faith.
Chris Hoke’s literary debut, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders, is one such glimmer; in fact, it positively gleams with God’s presence as it goes to one of the darkest corners of modern American society: jail. In a series of essays about the gang members he meets as a prison chaplain, Hoke takes us where God said He would be: with the incarcerated, the poor, the criminals.
After growing up over-churched in the suburbs, Hoke struggles with depression as a young adult and finds himself aching for a sign that God is real. He yearns for the God who moves and acts in ways described by beloved-gone-stale Bible stories: Mary, wiping her hair on Jesus’ feet; Paul, writing to his fledgling church plants from prison; Jesus, telling a story about a wedding feast where street people are honored guests. The God of respectable people, the one of his childhood, is tamed and muted. But when he begins meeting with young men in jail, the Gospel springs alive for him in ways he never knew before.
Set in the Skagit Valley of northwestern Washington, Hoke starts visiting gang members with a prison chaplain named Bob Ekblad. It is upon entering the jail, in tiny holding cells and multipurpose rooms for Bible study with Bob, that Hoke makes a life-giving discovery: God is there. In electric one-on-one meetings, men who have murdered and stolen ask for prayer; some seek help to repair relationships with those on the outside; others find freedom in forgiving real-life enemies from rival gangs. Hoke starts scribbling down what the homies say during Bible studies, bolstered by their enthusiasm that someone is interested in their story.
Isn’t this the way of God, to take a minister and infuse him with energy when it’s clear he is close to his calling. Hoke is clearly hooked. He is a night owl in his early 20s; he loves to stay up late and is in a season of his life – single, young – where he can take messages from prisoners to their friends and family on the outside, even at 2 AM. Soon, the homies dub him their pastor despite his lack of ministry credentials.
“I want to paint God,” Hoke tells us in the forward to Wanted, 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 the God is and how this God uses the outcasts of society to reflect His priorities, His kingdom.