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Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground

This Coffee Roastery Helps Employ Ex-Felons and
Others Who Want to Turn Their Lives Around

By Chris Hoke MFA ’13 | Photos by Luke Rutan

When Neaners was in prison, he and other inmates in the Mexican gang sector still managed to have coffee together in the morning. It didn’t matter that each young man sat alone in his own solitary confinement cell. Neaners would share his small stash by folding up one scoop of the precious grounds at a time into blue-lined notebook paper and sliding the squaredoff packets — “shots” — to each homie through the cracks beneath their locked cell doors. Sometimes they asked for four or five shots.

“Hey . . . hey, can you hear me?” Neaners’ muffled voice cracked through the overpriced collect phone calls I received from him, as if from the grave. I’d always have to press my ear into the phone, listen closely. “Tell the churches that they're reaching more homies than just me.”

NeanersNeaners, now on staff at Tierra Nueva in Burlington, WA

A former gang leader, he had undergone a spiritual transformation while in solitary confinement. Neaners now planned on joining our ministry at Tierra Nueva upon his release, reaching out to gang members on the streets while partnering with other churches at the same time. Connecting isolated worlds.

But while in the “hole,” he was already creating that kind of fellowship, between America's underground and a community that cared on the outside. Those little packets of coffee linked the young men to one another, and to the larger Body of Christ. So in the prison’s gang unit, as in many places of worship, coffee was their unrecognized communion.

“I’ll be roasting the real stuff with y’all soon enough,” he told me. “Just watch.”

By then, he knew all about the direct-trade coffee roasting enterprise a group of us jail chaplains and ex-felons were starting at Tierra Nueva: Underground Coffee.

For the past seven years, men and women leaving the underground of incarceration, addiction, and debt have been employed as small-batch artisan coffee roasters, a small job to support their transformation, their resurrection.

The green coffee they roast connects them to our agricultural growing partners in Honduras. And the fresh-roasted, aromatic coffee going out the door in matte black bags ties them to cafes, homes, churches and other businesses throughout the Northwest who brew and sip from the Underground now.

If you think about it — if you ask the millions of people who seek their morning cup — coffee has always been about resurrection and transformation.

This makes the roasted and broken bean a kind of sacrament for some of us: a small but literal taste of a larger mystery for which we hope.

Coffee beans
At origin: coffee "beans" are the seeds inside these cherries, ready for picking in Honduras; The harvest arrives in the Northwest in 152lb sacks; Ángel David Calix, director of Tierra Nueva Honduras--both servant among villagers and coffee farm manager

New Earth Origins

This is how it all began: Before Tierra Nueva founders Bob and Gracie Ekblad ’82 started Tierra Nueva ministry among migrant farmworkers and jail population here in the Northwest Washington’s Skagit Valley, they were two young Seattle Pacific University grads on a motorcycle, speeding along dirt roads connecting Central American villages. It was during the years of social unrest and death-squad violence.

Bob and Gracie were recruited by a radical agrarian in Honduras to help mobilize a soil conservation movement among peasant farmers high in the tropical mountains. The idea was that if villages noticed two bookish gringos in the area producing more volume and vibrancy on their little farm, entire regions of generational farmers might be open to learning natural farming techniques, like composting and hillside terrace-farming.

It worked.

As Bob and Gracie organized outdoor workshops under the shade of large mango trees, farmers started to see their crops, like corn and beans and bananas, nearly triple in height.

Most of these campesino families struggling to survive on the hillsides always figured that because God was in control of the universe, God must love the rich more, who always had abundant harvests and large homes. They could only assume, fatalistically, that God willed the poor to stay that way forever.

But as their corn soared, it cracked open the cosmos in which they lived. Maybe God was different than they thought. Small, liberatory Bible studies then sprung up within the farming workshops. The movement spread as the villages began to see a God who alters the way things are in our world, creating not just a new heaven, but also a new earth, tierra nueva, as the prophet Isaiah announced.

Over 25 years later, in 2007, some of Tierra Nueva’s founding farmers in Honduras were growing a quality of coffee ready for the premium international market. Looking for a way to sell their coffee to an American market, they called Bob and Gracie.

Team photo of Underground Coffee
Chris holds team photo of Underground Coffee's last day of production in Tierra Nueva's basementa's "Light in the Darkness" Blend

The Ekblads had continued Tierra Nueva’s mission of ministering among society’s most marginalized communities in Northwest Washington’s rainy Skagit Valley. Now Bob was leading similar Bible studies in the county jail, as well as walking with inmates and their families upon their release.

I had been going to the jail with Bob for several years already at this point. I was a church kid disillusioned with traditional church, looking for a place to follow Jesus among the outcasts, after my own dark years of loneliness and depression. I came alive again in that jail, alongside the men in red scrubs I prayed with. And so I spent most of my time at Tierra Nueva seeking out those same men when they were released from jail or home from longer stints in larger prisons.

I had been visiting other gang-intervention organizations along the West Coast and had been inspired by the model of creating small businesses—“industries” like screen printing, baking bread, running a café — where men and women trying to leave the criminal life got work experience.

The question came up: If we at Tierra Nueva started a small “industry” to work with those leaving the jail, what would it be?

That’s when Bob got the call from Honduras. They wanted help finding an American coffee importer and roaster for their harvest, which was now receiving cupping scores of 84: premium level. Selling the coffee could help fund the Tierra Nueva Honduras ongoing work among the most marginalized farmers in their region.

What if, we thought, we in Washington bought the coffee harvest ourselves?

Could artisan coffee roasting be our trade for those leaving the underground?

Zach Joy wanted in. Bob had met Zach in the jail — an intimidating six-foot-six guy with a shaved head and plenty of tattoos down his scalp, neck and arms — and around this time had been coming around Tierra Nueva looking for more of the love he’d felt in that jail group. He wanted more than church on Sunday with us. He wanted to join us. And Zach had experience not just with addiction to hard drugs for 17 years, but with manufacturing them as well. Roasting coffee, he shrugged, couldn’t be that much harder.

Within months — and with the help of a Presbyterian grant — we developed a vertically integrated business model. Bob, Zach, and I were walking through a Seattle coffee trade show, purchasing a shiny black-and-chrome roaster, a commercial grinder, and other supplies, learning about roasting and cupping from Capitol Hill’s renowned Caffé Vita, developing our brand and finally our production space in Tierra Nueva’s expansive basement — literally underground. The huge burlap sacks of Honduras’ harvest soon arrived. Zach tore them open and fired up the roaster. Churches heard the story and placed orders.

Underground Coffee had begun.

Underground Coffee
Billy's Cafe local Burlington restaurant, serves and retails Underground Coffee

Roasting and Divine Love

Over the years, as we stood at the roaster and watched batch after batch of beans come spilling, crackling, out, we became students of the bean’s transformation. And as we have seen lives descend into our basement, into our community, and slowly change with us, we’ve noticed that the process of our hearts’ transformations is somewhat like what the beans undergo.

When green beans first tumble into the hot drum, they are cold, small, and hard as rocks. The temperature in the roaster drops as these cold beans absorb all the heat deep into their cores.

Like our hearts, the beans do not transform in isolation, but rather as they tumble in the mix with others, in environments of intense heat. For us, that fire is God’s love.

Turning in the drum together, the green — then yellow, then light brown, coffee beans never touch the flame directly, which burns blue against the bottom of the drum. Coffee roasters call this even transfer of heat conduction: energy passing from bean to bean.

Likewise, we want to be part of environments so heated by divine love that it’s not clear from which direction, which person, the love is coming. Rather, it's passing through us.

Little visible change is detected in the beans during the first half of the roast. But tough starches inside are transforming into sugars. A new sweetness is developing.

For instance, while Zach got even more tattoos as he worked with us over the years, his immense emotional sensitivity emerged at the same time. A hidden gentleness revealed itself, a capacity for empathy that was locked deep within his tough exterior all those years on the streets. When Zach graduated from his roasting position at Underground, this tenderness led him to work not with recovering addicts, as some expected, but with children and troubled teens.

Eventually the beans hit a critical moment called “first crack”: the hard inner structure breaks down and they nearly double in size. Roasters listen for this, leaning close to the drum. You can hear it, a subtle chorus of fresh snaps. I think of the word contrition, which literally means the breaking of the heart.

The entire roast is oriented around the first crack. This is when the expanding beans start to shed their old protective layers, chaff, and finally reveal their own inherent character and complexity. Character and complexity are not imposed, but only discovered in each unique bean, from different origins.

Kelly Boyle
Kelly Boyle (left), newest Underground employee, at new production facility; Fidalgo Coffee (right) helps carry the load of the business' future and growth.

Listening for Change

Three years after those prison letters and phone calls, Neaners came home to join the Tierra Nueva staff, reaching out to other men and women affected by gangs. Though his hard gang exterior had cracked, his character and complexity was further developing — his gift for creatively reaching alienated young men in dark places. To support his new life of ministry, Neaners secured a part-time role at Underground Coffee. And sure enough, he eventually became the next head roaster.

On a rainy Friday morning last fall, down in the basement, Neaners scooped not a mere spoonful into lined paper, but, rather, his heavily tattooed arm reached deep with a chrome scoop into a huge burlap sack with TIERRA NUEVA HONDURAS stenciled on the side, full of silvery-green coffee beans.

Unlike in the solitary confinement units, here he could see the new network of homies to whom he now passed much fresher coffee.

There was Alex, a teenager, our newest production assistant, standing on a chair to reach the grinder with a 5 pound bag of fresh dark roast, a regular bulk order for Billy's Cafe down the street. Alex started working with us last year when he was in and out of juvie with gang-related incidents. Neaners took him under his wing, away from the streets.

Joking and working alongside with Alex on the production line was David, with his signature gold-front-tooth smile. David was a young, white Army veteran I’d met in jail, who had recently tried to end his own life in the bottom of a dumpster. Now, while working with us, he was starting at the community college and about to become house manager at his men’s recovery house.

David and Alex didn’t always get along. But as we worked together, though, and our hearts expanded, those old protective layers started to slide off like chaff.

The business itself was now expanding, leaving the underground. The heart of a local Christian businessman, David Evans, co-owner of Fidalgo Bay Coffee Roasters, also in Burlington, was undergoing a transformation, as well. He wanted his large roasting company to be about more than the growth of profits, he said, and part of the Kingdom’s transforming work in the world.

Chris Hoke
left to right, Neaners, Chris Hoke, and Zach Joy of the Tierra Nueva team; A dark roast just out of the drum, still in second crack.

So starting in 2016, Underground Coffee — both beans from Honduras and human beings from our underground ministry — have been transplanted out of our basement and continue to grow within Fidalgo Bay’s larger, more professional facility. Our coffee is now distributed in grocery stores from Seattle to Bellingham.

Underground’s next star employee would be Kelly, a woman with pink hair and lip piercings and a don’t-mess-with-me glance that now more easily cracks into the warmest smile in the room. In the months ahead, Kelly would sustain her new life of recovery and leadership role at a women’s home with this first Underground job at Fidalgo Bay. And she has begun to transform the larger purpose and culture of coffee business both there and beyond.

On that last morning in the Underground basement with the guys, before we could take our keepsake team photo, I remember the moment when we had to finish up the last roast.

The familiar 370-degree alarm was beeping on the roaster: the beans were about to enter first crack. Neaners turned down the 2Pac rap on the stereo.

And as with all new things about to emerge from darkness, we leaned in around the roaster and waited, together.

We listened closely. We could hear it.

Book coverChris Hoke earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University in 2013 and is the author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne, 2015), a book that tells more stories of his work with Tierra Nueva.

Learn more about the Underground Coffee Project.