Bob Ekblad and his wife, Gracie, have devoted their lives to helping a population most of us pretend isn't there: the...

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Bob Ekblad and his wife, Gracie, have devoted their lives to helping a population most of us pretend isn’t there: the undocumented, illegal Latin American farm workers who harvest Washington state’s food. Ekblad, a Presbyterian minister who grew up on Mercer Island, provides services and counseling to the several thousand migrants of Skagit County, a furtive population amid the approximately 20,000 Hispanic-American citizens or legal workers who live in the agricultural valley.

The minister, 47, also serves as chaplain at the Skagit County Jail. His Burlington-based ministry, Tierra Nueva Del Norte, or New Land of the North, and his school, The People’s Seminary, invie participation at and Ekblad’s work takes him to the most troubled: the drug addicted, the jailed, those suffering spousal abuse, and those in trouble with immigration law.

Q: How did a Mercer Island kid wind up devoting his life to helping Hispanic farm workers, especially illegals?

A: During college at Seattle Pacific University, I took time off and ended up working on an Israeli kibbutz, and in 1978 met a Cuban guy there who told me about Latin America and liberation struggles. When I returned, I switched my major from European to Latin American studies. I was told that if I submerged myself in poverty I would read the Scriptures and hear the Gospel differently. It’s true.

Q: Did you go to Latin America?

A: I went to Guatemala in 1980 during the civil war, and my heart was ripped apart by what I saw there. I called up Gracie, my girlfriend, and said marry me and come on down. She said yes. I flew up, and we were married in a week. We traveled through Central America looking for a place to work and settled in Honduras to teach sustainable farming. It changed our life.

Q: You knew agriculture?

A: No. We started farming five acres and were taught by a 53-year-old peasant named Fernando Andrade. We joined an organization that eventually trained 2,000 families in 35 communities in sustainable organic farming. We read Scripture with the marginalized, the alcoholics or unmarried mothers. Eventually we were accused of being communists and they tried to burn our house down. We left after six years, and I got a master’s and doctorate in France.

Q: And you eventually found a part of Latin America back home?

A: I was aware of the Skagit migrant population. Starting in 1994, I founded a bilingual Bible ministry and worked as jail chaplain for the Hispanics. After five years we were buried by demand. We started Tierra Nueva in Burlington and The People’s Seminary, a bilingual school for adults, with the help of a $1.3 million grant. We also helped with an INS watchdog group and testified for people in court.

Q: President Bush has proposed an amnesty for undocumented workers, but many lawmakers are opposed. What do you think?

A: I think we should see them as enriching our culture and welcome them as workers. They’re necessary to farming and work immensely hard. Almost all their offenses are drug-related . . . Many of them see their calamities as punishments by God. The only way they can be convinced that’s not true is a flesh-and-blood way, through us. We’re trying to help people find healing, recovery and reconciliation so they can discover what their goals are.