I don’t know if I like Chris Hoke. I’m not a communal person. I’m not a community person. I look at myself and I don’t do empathy well. I don’t do understanding well. I’m self-centered. I see it in myself all the time. Hell, the last seven sentences started with “I”. And yes, I do definitely see the world through my eyes, filtered by my lenses. It’s been my failing for quite a long part of my life. To coin a phrase made famous by the Animals – “It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy, and Lord knows that I am one.” My own House of the Rising Son, an endless fascination with myself, with my indulgences. I eat too much. I definitely fall into the foodie continuum. I’m part of the selfie problem. I have Polaroid selfies taken with a timer gating back to the early 90s. Instant gratification of the self. It’s been overindulgence in self-satisfaction. What makes me feel good? What makes me feel satiated? And your appetites become voracious. All-consuming. You collect. You collect stuff. You collect memories. What you don’t collects is your fellow man. You don’t collect friends, intimate friends. You collect acquaintances. You compartmentalize. You hide. You are not open. You are not a communal person. You are not a community person.
In his book WANTED: A SPIRITUAL PURSUIT THROUGH JAIL, AMONG OUTLAWS, AND ACROSS BORDERS, and by extension, in his ministries to the jails in the State of Washington, Chris Hoke is the opposite of that. He is not hidden. He is out in the open. His words. His bruises. His triumphs. And yes, his failures. For me, his beginning is particularly interesting. Hoke talks about being a creature of the night, not the day. He would come alive as the sun went down, his mind freed to think, to write, to create. How this was a struggle for him, especially as a teenager, and even into his adulthood. How so much of life pushes us to the importance of the morning, of waking to the sun. “Early to be, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” as Benjamin Franklin tells us. “Breakfast, the most important meal of the day.” And not just in Hoke’s secular life, but his Christian walk as well, as the pastors he hopes to have mentor him decry his late-night Starbucks meetings for a breakfast cup instead. Now, I’m not as much the night person as Hoke presents himself to be, but I feel the call. I am not a morning person. My meager 5:30 wake up to commute brings dread on a Sunday night. I do definitely feel more creative the later the day draws on. These columns are not written on the train on the way to work, that’s for sure. And Hoke’s book was not written on morning time either. Sometimes, it takes that dark of the night to give clarity of vision.
WANTED follows Hoke’s journey into that darkness, both figuratively and literally, to find the light behind it. Indeed, this is a journey into the goodness, the love, that can be found in all mankind. When you treat them like humans. Not like chattel. Not like numbers. In Washington, Hoke finds that the jail chaplain ministry is allowed to come in after hours, the night shift, as it were. Where Bible studies are organized, and more importantly, where individual sessions with prisoners, are set up. Times where one on one communication can be built. Where it is built. Hoke makes the point repeatedly that when there is nothing but walls, sometimes there really are no walls at all. Men like the jailed Richard are free to express themselves because they have nothing left to lose. They are in jail. They are tattooed, by their choice, and by the jail cell needles that have punctured their skin. Perhaps they shall get out. Perhaps they shall not. Hoke’s litany is filled with both – hope and hopelessness, victory and loss. His is not a feel good soft soap Christian tone. And it’s not pull yourself up by the bootstraps sermon either. He derides both in this book.
What it is, instead, is a call to fellowship. A call to brotherhood. That thing I said I hated a scant few paragraphs ago. You speak. You connect. You touch. Hoke spends a good portion of the early sections describing the tactile side of knowing his fellow man. Of hugging the inmates as they start their Bible studies. Of prayer circles with their arms interlocked. Of sharing a hand me down jacket with an inmate, even if only for the hour of visitation time they have. The little things. Things we take for granted. So for granted that we perhaps hardly ever do. We hardly ever take the time. Hoke makes this starkly apparent as he describes the change in temperament which takes hold of the jail after a “no touching” policy is put into place. As Hoke and his partner Bob shy away from the proffered hugs, as a partition of glass and telephone which may or may not work separate the one on one time Hoke has with the inmates. As prayer circles are broken, no Carter Family moments here. As they are told the guards will kibosh the entire setup should they stray from the line. It’s all in the details. Hearts harden again. Voices become frayed. Connection is lost.
Hoke plays for keeps. The correctional system is portrayed as a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating monstrosity, where fights are complicitly started by guards putting opposing gang members together to move bodies to solitary confinement for fighting to make more room for the incoming in the general populous. Where a man can be repeatedly denied basic medical care, where even his record of allergies can be ignored. Where that denial and apathy can lead to ignominious death. Richard’s story that bookends Hoke’s chapters is a cry for change, even as it spirals away. Hoke presents it in hopefulness, in a man who refuses to let the system destroy his soul, even as it ultimately destroys his body. Hoke portrays this starkly. His indignation even in the acceptance of Richard of his fate is palpable. Again, it boils down to the humanity. To the ability to touch, to feel. Roland S. Jefferson’s THE SCHOOL ON 103RD STREET from the 1970s posits a world where schools and churches mask jails built under them for the purpose of detaining the African-American populace, those less than human in the oppressor’s eye. Hoke shows us a world where the African-American, the Latino, the lower class, have already been thrown into those jails, a systemic attempt made to dehumanize them. And he shows how in many ways they have succeeded. Men who devolve in jail. Men who don’t recover on the outside. Not just in the United States, but in his travels to Guatemala City as well. And Hoke does rage against the dying of the light.
But this rage is tempered by the humanity that he sees. In Richard and his constant letters of encouragement, even as he is in ferocious pain and dying. Writing almost until his very last breath. In the simple act of fly fishing with gang members in Washington. In eating lunch with gang members and bus drivers together in Guatemala. What Hoke says is true, the communion table, the true communion table, is where we make it. Where we stand with our fellow man. Where we give them hope. Not hopelessness. Where we break bread together. Where we stand together. Where we can say – this is not right.
WANTED is not a perfect book. It’s ragged. For those who mind those things, Hoke is unrepentantly Christian-centered in his outlook, and his love for his fellow man. It is who he is. And it makes him defy who he could be, what he might have been. He does not shy away from the man he might have been. It’s also unapologetically anti-system. It knocks over some tables. More than a few tables. With that, sometimes the exuberance outweighs the eloquence. But it’s palpable. It’s real. And that’s what we need from life sometimes. The real. WANTED was published in February 2015 by Harper. Check out Chris Hoke’s website at: http://chris-hoke.com/ .
I’m still not a community person. I still likely won’t give you a hug. But I’m getting there.