FROM PISTOLS TO PLOWSHARES: A GANGSTER'S JOURNEY
Sitting alone one day in his drab, gray, cinderblock prison cell, serving a 5-year term in solitary confinement, José Garcia had a vision. He stood on a mountain, overlooking a field of wheat. Agricultural imagery was commonplace in Garcia’s imagination, having grown up as a migrant worker, but this specific vision would change the course of his life.
Garcia, known more commonly by the street name “Neaners”, bestowed on him as a kid, was raised in a large Chicano migrant family, with a home life that was anything but stable. With his mother and four siblings, he drove annually between the Skagit Valley in Washington State, to California and Mexico, following work depending on crop yields and time of year. His abusive father was sometimes present, though his mother tried to elude him, not always successfully.
Neaners knew what would happen on those nights.
“My dad was going to beat my mom. We would have to go sleep in the car. I grew up getting dressed in the back of a Ford Grenada with the ceiling leaking. That’s how I went to school as a kid.”
Ever since he started picking and pruning crops as a child, Neaners found solace at work, a place many other Americans associate with stress.
“The only time I ever had peace from anything was when I was in the field working. Nobody bugged me, nobody was beating on my mom, nobody cussed at me, no drunks in my house, nobody trying to cut my dad’s fingers off for gold,” he said.
For Neaners, working the dirt, tending to crops and picking spinach provided an escape from the realities of abuse and violence in his life outside the fields.
But by his teenage years, those realities eventually swallowed him.
Neaners lived in a small four-block area surrounding Stanford Way in Mount Vernon, Washington. Residents of this neighborhood that sits just east of I-5 have dubbed it “The Heart of Mount Vernon”. Many of the buildings are public housing. Here violence was commonplace as gang politics travelled from California and Mexico among migrant worker communities. Rival gangs carried out drive-by shootings and assaults were the way by which members gained respect and reputation.
In his early teen years, Neaners became increasingly involved in crime, pledging allegiance to the Sureños gang after coming under the wing of some of their members.
After a few years in the game at 14, Neaners was labeled a "menace to society” by a judge and sentenced to juvenile life for multiple violent offenses related to gang shootings he had taken part in. He went to the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center in Chehalis, Washington. This sentence was supposed to last until Neaners was 21 but he escaped at age 17 while being transferred to a different facility.
Authorities caught Neaners and he went back to jail after being tried as an adult. This was where he met Chris Hoke.
Hoke, a former church worship leader from Southern California and UC Berkley graduate, chose “jail chaplain” as his career immediately following college. He originally wanted to continue his education at a theological institution, but afterhearing about Bob Ekblad, the founder of Tierra Nueva Ministries, and his work in the Skagit Valley, Hoke saw becoming a jail chaplain as a “way of going to seminary in a jail.”
He started work with Tierra Nueva, a Christian non-profit gang and jail ministry founded in the Skagit Valley in 1994. The organization provides legal advocacy, employment, and chaplaincy to marginalized communities throughout the area.
On one of Hoke’s first visits to the Skagit Valley Jail in 2005, he met Neaners.
The two became friends and spent extended periods of time together on the streets of Mount Vernon once Neaners was released in 2006. However, despite their relationship, Neaners was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison for further violent crimes less than a year after he left jail.
It was during this sentence that he spent five years in solitary confinement, shifting between every maximum-security prison in Washington State due to his status as a highly ranked gang member.
At what seemed to be the lowest point in his life, though, Neaners kept talking consistently with Hoke.
“Not one of my homeboys [would write me], not one of my family members, nobody but Chris Hoke,” said Neaners.
The two exchanged letters every week and with each one, Hoke would send $9.90 as a money order for Neaners to buy toothpaste, soap, and other essentials in prison; anything over $10 was garnished to pay for outstanding legal fees.
Over time, the two started to speak more about theology. Some topics of conversation included Jesus’ heart for the outcast, New Testament stories, and biblical agricultural imagery of tending land, cutting vines, and planting seeds.
“As years went on it became more and more about the Bible. I was never guiding him through, if anything it was the opposite,” said Hoke.
Hoke says he appreciated the candor and uncensored, profanity-riddled honesty with which Neaners would talk about the Bible.
Something about these topics and the way they interrelated clicked for Neaners when he had the vision of wheat during his time in solitary confinement, which he would write about to Chris.
His mental image, looking over a wheat field, would translate into something much more tangible once he wrote to Hoke and got Tierra Nueva on board as an organization.
Neaners wanted to start, as he told Hoke in a letter from prison, a “lil’ farm with pigs and animals ‘n shit” where “homies can kick back in their chanclas [sandals]” and “be in a lovin’ kinda place.”
This letter and others that Neaners sent from prison would lay the blueprints for a farm ministry Tierra Nueva currently runs.
Now out of prison for a year and a half, Neaners got married on June 14, 2015. He is also the father of a new baby girl. Although busy on the home front in his new life, he still feels an obligation to serve those in gangs and in prison, situations he is intimately familiar with.
Neaners now works full time for Tierra Nueva and is colleagues with Chris Hoke, ministering to gang members in the area he grew up in. He oversees the “New Earth Farm” as the real life revelation of what was only a vision while he was in prison.
The farm sits on a plot of land just outside Mount Vernon where convicts recently released from jail can come and work.
Larry Rogers, a quiet and contemplative gardener who moved to Mount Vernon during a motorcycle trip from North Carolina, carried out plans for the farm as its director while Neaners was still in prison.
During the summer, the farm employs two ex-convicts full time and is worked by six to eight other former inmates now in Tierra Nueva’s recovery house, which offers a place to stay while they re-assimilate with society.
Neaners says that this work helps those recently released from prison to acclimatize to things that are second nature for most, like waking up on time for work and sticking to a daily schedule.
These former inmates didn’t immediately latch onto the concept of “New Earth Farm” though. Some would leave to smoke in the middle of a shift or find ways to wander off.
All that changed when Neaners came back to help run the program, said Hoke.
As a former gang leader, Neaners’ motivational skills coupled with Rogers’ gardening know-how made for a productive farm where people bonded and worked hard.
This bonding manifest itself in interesting ways.
Hoke says that the farm pushes against the tribal nature of gang life, prompting unity and overcoming divides through shared work.
For Hoke, seeing a Swastika-tattooed ex-convict working alongside and laughing with a Mexican gangbanger, embodied what the farm was accomplishing.
Referring to his violent past and the refuge he found in the fields, Neaners said, “I’m one of all the others who have gone through that [violence] … [but the fields], that was where I had peace.” Others with a similar past seemed to be finding the same solace.
In a sense, Neaners’ former life as a migrant worker, gang leader and convict is both something he has left behind as well as a set of identities that facilitate the work he now does.
New Earth Farm is a manifestation of that very dynamic, as the present ministry is intrinsically wrapped in ideas of the land providing a refuge, as it did in Neaners’ past. The years he spent leading a gang in the Skagit Valley can also be credited for the effectiveness in leadership Neaners shows among workers who share his background.
“I know that a lot of the guys, they grow from this,” said Neaners.