In an unmarked house in the “Little Mexico” district of Seattle, an ex-convict and former drug dealer is roasting up hundreds of pounds of coffee in the basement. This roaster is part of the Underground Coffee Project, an experiment true to its name.

This moment has been years in the making. Bob and Gracie Ekbald were in Honduras over twenty-five years ago, hoping to help and train rural farmers about soil conservation and methods that would benefit both the people and the land. “Tierra Nueva” was born—a movement in which both “soul and soil” were addressed through farming techniques and outdoor Bible studies.

The Ekbalds moved to Seattle and continued to help train undocumented farm workers and also lead Bible studies in the local jail, and Chris Hoke joined their work in 2005. Many of the men they spent time with wanted a fresh start but were burdened by debts, a lack of job skills, and criminal records.

A flash of inspiration led to the concept for the Underground Coffee Project. They loved the idea of hiring men from their jail Bible studies as coffee roasters, and a generous grant led to the purchase of a five kilo roaster in 2008. Coffee beans were sourced from Honduras through the relationships Ekbalds had with the farmers there.

Zach was the first man from the jail who jumped on board with what Hoke and the Ekbalds were doing. Hoke says about Zach, “When Zach got out of jail, he came to Tierra Nueva and wanted to give his whole life to join what we were about. He was the perfect fit to begin the coffee project: As a former meth cook, he had best transferable skills to roasting premium coffee!”

Zach had become more than just a coffee roaster, though. “The coffee sales have supported Zach as a kind of emerging underground pastor,” Hoke says. “Leaders like him—men from dark pasts who want to go beyond their own needs to follow the call of Jesus in their communities—often have no way to support their ministry. But through the coffee project, Zach not only gets employment, but his pastoral work often happens right here, down in the roasting basement. Lots of guys won’t sit through church services or home groups. But they come downstairs to be around Zach, blasting loud music, filling orders, having fun, feeling useful, learning workplace skills, and eventually opening their lives to Zach and asking for counsel and prayer.”

The Underground Coffee Project hopes to be able to employ more men—and women—like Zach. Right now, under the umbrella of Tierra Nueva, several people work part-time for a community organic farm, “New Earth Farm,” and also for “New Earth Bread,” which is run through Tierra Nueva’s women’s drug and alcohol recovery ministry. Once ordered, the bread, vegetables, and coffee are dropped off at local churches, which have become the hubs for these purchases.

Through these three enterprises, Tierra Nueva has the goal of continuing to empower “unique grass-roots leaders like Zach,” says Hoke, along with connecting the “mainstream communities and churches with the margins of society.”

While the local vegetables and bread are sold solely within the local Seattle communities, the coffee can be shipped nationwide. To support what Tierra Nueva and the Underground Coffee project are doing, check out http://www.newearthworks.org/.

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