“Reading the Bible with the Damned,” with Bob Ekblad ’82
Amanda: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Bob Ekblad. He took a break from his studies at SPU to travel. Though he would return to graduate, his call to share with and gain insight from other cultures would steer the rest of his journey. Bob and his wife, Gracie, are founders and co-directors of Tierra Nueva in Burlington, Washington, and New Earth Refuge, a home-based retreat center in the Skagit Valley. These organizations work with a team of staff and volunteers to serve immigrants from Latin America, inmates, the homeless, and people struggling with addictions. Bob is also known internationally for his courses and workshops on reading the Bible, emphasizing discipleship, holistic healing, and liberation. Bob, thank you so much for joining us today.
Bob: Yeah, it’s great to be with you.
Amanda: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us about how you began traveling in Central America?
Bob: Yes. I came into Seattle Pacific in 1976, and I spent my first two years studying European history and had the plan to go on this one-year adventure after my sophomore year and just travel and hitchhike around Europe, taking trains and climbing in the Alps. I ended up going, and when I was in Europe during that year, a lot of things changed. I ended up experiencing a call to be really serious about my faith. I went to Israel and spent three months on a kibbutz learning Hebrew, and that’s where I met this Jewish man named Jaime, whose father had been one of Che Guevara’s comandantes, and he was super aware of Latin American realities and US intervention and the history of what the US had done negatively in supporting dictatorships. He sort of opened my eyes.
And then I came back to Europe and went to L’Abri Fellowship, and there there was a Marxist labor organizer who’d become a Christian who was teaching on Latin American liberation theology. When he taught, I felt like my heart was on fire. I just couldn’t believe what he was saying. He was challenging everybody about how we Western Christians, our theology has been developed in our own context, far from the realities of the poor and the oppressed, and if we would read the Bible from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed, that we would see the Bible freshly and differently. And that really inspired me.
“I came back to Europe and went to L’Abri Fellowship, and there there was a Marxist labor organizer who’d become a Christian who was teaching on Latin American liberation theology. When he taught, I felt like my heart was on fire. I just couldn’t believe what he was saying. He was challenging everybody about how we Western Christians, our theology has been developed in our own context, far from the realities of the poor and the oppressed, and if we would read the Bible from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed, that we would see the Bible freshly and differently.”
Anyway, I ended up coming back to SPU, changing my major to Latin American Studies, spent a year studying, and that’s when I got really connected with my girlfriend, who became my wife, Gracie. Then I spent that year preparing for another trip, which was going to be down to Latin America. Ended up two months into my trip when I was in Guatemala and there was a civil war happening, and I called my girlfriend, Gracie. Everything became clear to me, that I wanted to marry her. I asked her to marry me. She was 21, ending her sophomore year at SPU, and I was 23. I said, “Marry me, and let’s do this together.” I flew up, got married. Week after the wedding, we flew down and we traveled to Latin America and both felt a call to work with the poor in Honduras, and that’s how it all began.
We went back to SPU, finished our senior years of studies, and then a week after graduation moved to Honduras, where we spent six years teaching sustainable farming, preventative health, and then got into leading Bible studies, mostly with people outside the church, impoverished farmers, subsistence farmers.
Amanda: I have to back up and ask, what was the reaction of your families, yours and Gracie’s? “Here are our children going to school fairly locally at SPU, and now they’re going to spend their lives we don’t know where, but in fairly dangerous terrain.” How did they react to that?
Bob: I mean, my parents were really upset that I was being so critical of the United States, because they were pretty strong Republican people, Christians, I guess, who were supportive of the U.S. and didn’t have an awareness of sort of the dark side of what we were about as a nation. And so that was challenging for them, but they were excited that we were going to be missionaries. I think they did their best to really support us, and Gracie’s parents as well. So we went with their blessing.
Amanda: Did you know from the beginning that you would spend your life traveling and teaching? Did you feel like this was what you were going to do as a young person, or did you, from the beginning feel like this was the rest of your life?
Bob: I think I felt when I was in Europe after my sophomore year at SPU, I felt a call, actually, to France when I was there. And then, yeah, I mean, I think the travel has been part of my life since that time. But I could have never imagined how my life would have turned out in all these turns that it’s gone. It’s a lot more exciting than I could have ever imagined.
Amanda: You mentioned France, and I know the two of you speak Spanish and French. Tell me about when you were in France and how you started adopting some more new views of the world.
Bob: We were in Central America during those turbulent times of the ’80s, which were our 20s, and it was just very intense. There were civil wars happening all around us. We were reading theology that some friends were sending us, and a lot of these French writers like Jacques Ellul and then a Swiss Old Testament guy named Wilhelm Visser, and others we were reading and studying on our own. And we found out that some of these people were part of this graduate school, a Huguenot seminary called the Institut Protestant de Theologie in Montpelier, and so I contacted them. We were feeling a call to go deeper in theology and to study and to prepare ourselves, because we were doing all this pastoral work on the ground with people and getting into the hard realities of people’s lives and just big questions about Scripture and theology. So I wrote the seminary and they wrote us back and said, “You’re welcome to come. You need to learn French. We’ll give you a full scholarship for your first year. Welcome.”
“We were feeling a call to go deeper in theology and to study and to prepare ourselves, because we were doing all this pastoral work on the ground with people and getting into the hard realities of people’s lives and just big questions about Scripture and theology. So I wrote [the Institut Protestant de Theologie in Montpelier] and they wrote us back and said, ‘You’re welcome to come. You need to learn French. We’ll give you a full scholarship for your first year. Welcome.'”
So we moved there straight from Central America in 1988, I think, and did all of our studies there. It was very inspiring. There was a diversity of theological perspective. I think that was refreshing for us. There wasn’t one party line. People differed and opposed each other. We had serious Bible scholar teachers who were also contemplative, like deeply spiritual, and psychoanalytic approaches to reading the Bible. Through all that, I think we got a lot of healing, even, about our own family of origin issues.
Both of us felt called to move back to the United States and to become pastors while we were in France, so we moved back in 1991 or 1992 and then thought we were going to … I was working on a PhD in Old Testament and began looking for teaching positions. But there was this strong call still in us to work with marginalized people, and we were aware of a community here, one hour north of Seattle. I’d always kind of passed through the Skagit Valley as you go climbing in the North Cascades and saw that there was a huge farm worker population, and so we became really interested in that community and began visiting and then felt a call to launch Tierra Nueva, a North American version of it, among farm workers in Skagit County.
Amanda: I want to know all about that, the ministry that is going strong to this day. But I’m interested, you’ve mentioned liberation theology, and I don’t know that everyone knows what that means. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?
Bob: Yeah. I mean, liberation theology really came out of Latin America. It was after Vatican II when there was a movement in the Catholic Church to go back to Scripture and to really train ordinary lay people as pastoral workers. There was a crisis and there weren’t enough priests, and so there was a whole movement to empower lay people. Some of that happened also as a result of just Catholic priests and women religious, and also some mainline Protestant pastors really experiencing a call to work with some of the most oppressed and marginalized, excluded populations. When they paid attention to what those people were saying and their living conditions, they began to see that there were structures in place that were oppressive, that were holding people down. And so there was a whole theology of resistance to the powers of the state. It was rooted in a solidarity with marginalized poor people, and that’s where liberation theology was birthed. People began writing and it became famous. It kind of became known in North America as justifying violent revolution. There were parts of that movement that were more supportive of guerilla movements, but there were also a lot of people that were committed to nonviolence who were just tenderhearted pastoral workers that, I think, really embodied the best of that movement, which was coming alongside people that felt excluded from society and the church and showing them the love of Christ through word and deed both.
Amanda: This is a huge oversimplification, but what I hear you saying, the foundation of what I hear you saying, is come to Jesus as you are. You don’t have to fix everything on the outside before you’re available to Jesus and the church. Am I saying that correctly?
Bob: Well, I would say that would be what I would have heard more from the Reformation, like Lutheran theology of grace, like God loves us while we’re sinners. I wouldn’t say that was the core of the liberation theology, the heart of their theology. Their theology really focused on God’s preferential option for the poor and the oppressed, and how we need to be born from below through our engagement with the poor. And especially trained readers of Scripture, theologians, we need to humble ourselves and let ourselves be affected and brought into the struggle of the poor for their liberation. But I think with us, we were really combining a high view of God’s grace and the love God expressed through Jesus, who most fully reveals the Father. We were combining that with a theology of suffering and of also resistance to the oppression that people experience.
Amanda: Tell me about your church now.
Bob: We came up here and our plan was to just do chaplaincy ministry to immigrant workers in the fields, which we did. But then I got asked to be a chaplain to the Mexican population in our jail, Spanish speaking farm workers, people that were caught up in different crimes. There are about 20% of our community that are immigrant workers, and that was reflected in the jail and the chaplain there didn’t know Spanish. I began to offer Spanish Bible studies, working as the chaplain to the Spanish speakers in the jail. That was a life-transforming experience, just learning about the suffering of these people. Often they were children of immigrants who ended up getting caught up in gangs and drugs and troubles of different kinds. After, I think, the first three or four months of being chaplain, the main chaplain retired and I was asked to be chaplain to the whole jail. That meant I was in charge of Bible studies and pastoral care for anyone that was in there. We have a lot of tribal communities here, the Swinomish, the Upper Skagit and others. It’s so weird. I began to become, I guess, aware of just the breadth of all the different communities, white, Latino, Native American, very small Black community. That was something that just broke my heart, really, just hearing the stories of people. I grew up on Mercer Island, as did my wife, and so we were pretty far removed from the realities of the poor in the United States. Living in Central America, that was a completely different reality to life up here. Our work was all about leading Bible studies and caring for people pastorally who were caught up in addiction, incarceration, and who were affected by immigration, like immigrant workers. That’s what we’ve been doing the last 28 years.
Amanda: Wow. That is a long time to work with populations that are, I would imagine, constantly changing. Any time you work with people, the work is messy. But you can also work with communities that are not quite as messy on a day-to-day basis. How do you and Gracie and the rest of the team, how do you do the work that’s never the same?
Bob: We need to be open and flexible and ready to, I guess, to respond. It’s really hard to have a super structured approach because we’re working with people whose lives are in turmoil, and so of course we have to have boundaries for ourselves. Otherwise we’d be caught up in the turmoil. We have Bible studies on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays and we have outreach on the streets, and we have things that normally would be Thursday and Sundays in the jails. We’ve been blocked from that since COVID started, but we do visitation through the visitor booths. So I guess we have structures in place, but the rest of our time we’re trying to be more flexible. We spend a lot of time just preparing ourselves spiritually, through reading the Bible, through studying, preparing our messages in our Bible studies and podcasts, whatever we’re doing. Then we do a lot of just outreach and going out to visit people, prayer appointments with people. And yeah, it often feels haphazard and just kind of random. We see people coming and then they stop showing up, and their phone numbers don’t work anymore, and then we find out they’re in jail or they’re just back dealing drugs. Then we are just there, and a lot of these people resurface. We’re finding that now we have many, many people coming who are through with that life, but now they’re in their late thirties or forties and they’re just coming out of prison. Our church is full of people like that who have done a lot of time in prison, who’ve been through a lot of suffering. Their kids have been taken by CPS and some of them have been permanently adopted out to others, and they carry just a lot of pain. We feel that pain and minister to people who are really wanting to rebuild their lives and trying to do that.
Amanda: Wow. In that preparation that you’re talking about, not only do you serve this population well on a day-to-day basis, but you continue to travel the world teaching ways to really do this work. Can you tell us about the three modules that you and Gracie teach around the world?
Bob: Yes. I’ve taught in different graduate programs the last, I don’t know, long time, since the 1990s, and I’ve developed a lot of courses. Then I’ve taken some of those courses and I’ve turned it into a program called the Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins. That’s three four-day trainings that we do over a year to 18 months. They’re for front-line ministry workers in different settings. We’ve done maybe 40 of these where we go …. We’ve done them all over Africa, in Russia, in Siberia, in South Korea, in France, Sweden, numerous ones in England and Scotland and New Zealand. I’m going today to Zambia and we’re going to offer Module One there and then going to Cape Town and offering Module One there, and then the Isle of Mauritius where I’m doing Module Three in French.
The modules are, the first one is on, really, God’s holistic mission, like scriptural foundations for that. There’s 15 hour-and-a-half sessions that we do over four days. That’s what I’m going to do now. The second one is on holistic liberation, the interface between inner healing, deliverance, physical healing, and psychotherapeutic approaches and trauma-informed pastoral care. We offer that. That’s Module Two. Module Three is called The Word on the Street. It’s on how to prepare and lead dialogical Bible studies, and also drawing from Scripture to address social justice issues and problems in our word, the community.
That’s a program that we’re trying to train trainers, people that have graduated. We have several thousand people that have graduated now from that training, or that CTMM, we call it. We’re training trainers. There’s a Swedish guy and a woman from South Africa and a man from Zimbabwe. They’re meeting me in Ndola in Zambia, and we’re going to be a team training 200 pastors beginning Wednesday. Then we go and we do the same thing in Cape Town. That’s our goal now, is training trainers to be able to offer this all over the world.
And then we have a second program, which is called Certificate in Reading the Bible for Liberation that involves going through my five books, Guerilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit; and then Guerilla Bible Studies, four volumes of discipleship Bible studies. We’ve launched that in the prison system, where inmates can go through, they have to go through 52 Bible studies personally and then lead at least one other person in that same study. We launched that just this last month with 15 inmates, but we expect that to grow. Those are our two programs that we’re focusing a lot of our attention on to get them going.
Amanda: Do you find it’s, in some ways, easier to work with non-Western, American audiences and groups?
Bob: Well, I think when people are really in touch with their own need and that their lives aren’t working, they’re definitely more receptive. That can be anywhere, though. Our community here, people are very open, very receptive. People in our jails are super hungry, open. Homeless as well. Mainstream, white churches, I don’t know. I don’t have much experience with those communities anymore. Most of our invitations are from outside of the United States or just with more marginalized communities here. But maybe that’ll change. I think there’s a huge need in mainstream America for spiritual renewal, and I just long to see that happen.
Amanda: I don’t think you’re going to get any arguments on that point. You have this thriving, challenging, wonderful, messy community here. You’re traveling the world teaching teachers. Do you have another dream? Do you have a next step or are we waiting on God for whatever comes next?
Bob: I mean, I’d say that what we’re trying to do is recruit and empower and train up workers who are about the Kingdom of God, who are free from the clutter of their other identities. I mean, one of the greatest threats to movement of the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God in the world right now is Christian nationalism, and that’s a threat that I see just creating huge amount of turmoil and destruction. One of our callings is to invite people to really be deeper followers and more faithful, loyal followers who pledge their allegiance to Jesus and are about His kingdom, and so however we can do that, through teaching, through all the ways that that needs to be done, through training people. I mean, that’s SPU’s mission as well, is to train up people. We need a movement that’s pure and clean, because people are hungry for that, and free of partisan divisions and racism and just discriminatory mindsets. There’s people that are hungry out there. Jesus says the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few, so beg the Lord of the Harvest to cast out workers into the harvest. We see that as our dream, is to just be about helping in any way we can, being in alignment with the Holy Spirit to cast out workers into the harvest. I feel like we’re just poised. We’re wanting this next season of our life to be about that to the max, however we can.
“One of our callings is to invite people to really be deeper followers and more faithful, loyal followers who pledge their allegiance to Jesus and are about His kingdom, and so however we can do that, through teaching, through all the ways that that needs to be done, through training people. I mean, that’s SPU’s mission as well, is to train up people. We need a movement that’s pure and clean, because people are hungry for that, and free of partisan divisions and racism and just discriminatory mindsets. “
Bob: And then training people that can multiply. Multiplication of workers who are about … You know, what we call it is “Word, Spirit, Street,” the need to bring these worlds together of careful reading of the Bible and contemplative, thoughtful, spiritual reading, that takes the Scripture seriously but with Jesus as our rabbi. Jesus reveals the Father and he’s the Christ, and so we read the Old Testament with Him as our rabbi. So, “Word.” “Spirit,” the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. We need the fullness of what the apostles had after Pentecost. And so the division between careful reading of the Bible and the charismatic dimension, that shouldn’t exist. We need those to be informing one another. And then “Street,” justice, social justice. As we are in solidarity with impoverished, excluded, oppressed people, that will help us see what the real social justice issues are that need to be addressed. If we’re rightly informed by Scripture, we’re going to know how to address those issues in a Jesus-like way. Our dream is to help stir up and support a movement that brings together Word, Spirit, Street. Sanctuary, for that matter, and a contemplative dimension. The Body of Christ needs to be a whole body that embraces all the parts.
Amanda: So if any of our listeners are inspired to help directly in the work that you do, how do they get ahold of you and your ministry?
Bob: You can go to our website, www.tierra-nueva.org or www.peoplesseminary.org. You can also tune in to my podcast, which is called “Disciple: Word, Spirit, Justice, Witness” on Spotify or Apple. And you can come up and visit us. We meet on Sundays at 4:30 in Burlington, Washington, where we have our faith community. And so yeah, reach out and contact us. Find out about the trainings that are available on The People’s Seminary. We have a lot of self-paced trainings. We’re going to start another online Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins in the fall. We do that. It’s a weekly Zoom meeting. We have one going now with 35 people from lots of different countries, and it’s every Tuesday. That’s something that you can sign up for if you’d like. And you could find any of my books on Amazon. So yeah, feel free to reach out.
Amanda: Wonderful. All right. Well, Bob, this has been so inspirational for me and I’m sure for so many of our listeners as well. Let’s go to our famous last question that we like to ask all of our guests. If you could have everyone in Seattle wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that’s going to make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Bob: Come into a deeper awareness of your true identity as a daughter or son of the Father, of Jesus, knowing that you’re beloved just the way you are, and take a deep breath and receive that love and then step into your new identity through following Jesus.
Amanda: Fantastic. Well, Bob, thank you so much. The world is definitely already a better place because of people like you and Gracie willing to serve, like you said, those on the margins, those that are not being seen, heard, or loved by those around them. We thank you so much for the work that you d,o and I hope that after your trip to Africa, you’ll come back and see us again.
Bob: All right. Well, God bless you all. Thanks.