Saturday, December 15, 2018

To Blog Or Not To Blog, That Is My Question

This has been an interesting journey.
After eight years and some 1300 blog posts later, I've been asking myself whether it's time to give Harvspot some rest.

For example, I've questioned whether this is a healthy outlet for recurring writing urges or a kind of compulsion that's taken too much time away from other things?

I've also needed to examine my motives. Has this form of self-publishing become too focused on the numbers of pageviews and whatever positive feedback I may get from readers?

Up to this point, I've justified the time and effort involved as follows:

1. As a committed believer and  pastor, I want to use whatever means I have available to:
    a. preach a Jesus-based repentance to the complacent and comfortable (starting with myself)
    b. proclaim a Jesus-graced healing to the bound and broken (also including myself)

2. As someone with a special concern for the health and unity and the church, this has been a way of getting some deep concerns off my chest and on the table for conversation and feedback.

3. As a citizen of the worldwide, heaven-headquartered reign of God, this has given me a forum for promoting criminal justice and other issues affecting the poor and powerless in God's world.

4. As someone who will probably never publish a memoir, I've seen this as one way I can exert some positive influence while also leaving some kind of record (for my offspring?) of what I've been occupied with during some my brief and unspectacular life.

5. I often use parts of blog posts as raw material for things like our house church newsletter and other articles, or as themes for the 90-second Centerpiece radio spots I do for the Family Life Resource Center (where I still work half-time).

For now, I've decided to just slow down a bit. Rather than feeling a need to produce any set number of posts, I'll simply write whenever, and about whatever, I find myself compelled to.

Your prayers for wisdom are always appreciated.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"The Whole World Stinks!"

Sometimes it's about what's wrong 
with us, not the world around us.
I once heard the story of a man who came home very drunk and passed out on his couch, a pattern all too common in his life.

One day his longsuffering wife decided to rub some strong smelling Limburger cheese on his mustache while he was in that state, thinking it might rouse him from his stupor. When it finally did, he immediately looked around him in disgust. "Something smells terrible in here," he said, and staggered around the house trying to figure out where the foul odor was coming from.

Having no success, he finally stepped outside, looked all around and yelled, "The whole world stinks!"

That's how it may seem when we see the world through the lens of our own misery, our own depression, our own negativity.

But the problem, and the solution, may be much closer home.

Like right under our nose.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

She Was A Giant Of A Woman

Polly Taylor, 1921-2018
Here are some remarks I made at Polly Taylor's memorial service at the Trinity Presbyterian Church yesterday. Scores of people attended, and many paid heartfelt tributes in her memory. Among them was a young Iraqi Christian who was welcomed by her and her son Mike when he emigrated to the states and who lived in her home until he could find a place of his own. That was just so typical of her.

"Living for Jesus" was her favorite song and the theme of her active, well-lived life.

I can say with confidence that if everyone lived like Polly Taylor, we could save the world. She cared for the earth and for every creature on it, and would never condone any act of violence toward anyone under any circumstances. So I feel truly blessed being able to claim Polly Taylor as one of my admired friends and colleagues in this community, a saint who went about doing good all of her life.

Our paths began to cross over 40 years ago when we were both charter members of a local peacemaker group first known as Choose Life, later to become a local chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. And that little group, a part of coordinating a demonstration and march in Harrisonburg in support of the anti-nuclear Ground Zero Week in the early 80’s, met in Polly Taylor’s home on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month for the better part of a decade, along with committed people like Helen and Murval Annon, Titus Bender, Ruth Bishop, Charles Churchman, Bill Fuller, Ray Gingerich, Gerry Glick, Pete Mahoney, Bill and Ramona Sanders and others. And she would always serve us breakfast at her little house on Valley Street, sharing good things from both her kitchen and from her deeply held convictions in ways I’ll never forget.

And she would have kept on hosting us (she was never weary of well doing) until we started meeting at Bill Springston’s on Franklin street because of his health preventing him from attending otherwise, and then at Alice Springston’s for years and years after that.

She will live on in those of us who loved her as a model of strong faith and good courage. 

And when the roll is called up yonder, I can picture her inviting us in to sit around her table and serving us some good breakfast.

Friday, December 7, 2018

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Volume IV, Number 1 (occasional news by and for Virginia inmates)

With Prayers for Hope and Healing for this Holiday Season and Throughout the New Year

Moran, Bennett Meet With Citizens Concerned About Low Parole Numbers 

     Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Virginia Parole Chair Adrianne Bennett met with over 20 invited citizens and local officials--including Delegate Tony Wilt--for a 2:30- 4:00 pm forum at James Madison University Tuesday, December 4, on the status of parole in Virginia. Two recent parolees accompanied Ms. Bennett and shared their personal journey of rehabilitation and reentry. An excellent report on the meeting appeared the following day on the front page of Harrisonburg's Daily News-Record.
     At a public meeting at 4:30-6:00 pm local citizens and members of inmate families from as far away as Chesapeake came to hear Moran and Bennett speak and to make their passionate case for parole consideration for deserving loved ones, including geriatric inmates. 
     Two recently released parolees, Mr. Paul Taylor and Mr. Weldon Bun, each of whom had spent over 20 years behind bars for murder convictions offered hope to family members, many of whom were in tears, as were most of the rest of us. They also stressed the need for reaching out to members of victim families. Some of their comments:
     “If you can't be a citizen outside, be a citizen inside.”  
     "Seek out those in the prison system who are invested in rehabilitation. Not all corrections officers have that focus."
     “Don’t lose hope. Keep believing that your loved one will one day be free.”
     “Personalize yourself with your parole board.” 
     "Send thank you letters even when turned down, send photos of family members visiting, and speak with them individually when the opportunity arises."     
     “Be accountable but don’t condemn yourself.”

Increase in Parole Releases In October

For August, 2018, there were four geriatric and 20 regular releases, with only two of them being women. In September there were 12, with only one being a geriatric release, and only one woman.
     In October, however, there were a total of 35, including one female and three geriatric releases.

Sexual Abuse Still Happening In Virginia Prisons

In Virginia there are still community showers in many of the lower security prisons, and some prisons that do have them fail to provide shower curtains to protect inmates from be exposed to inmates and staff.
     In September 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Although PREA passed over fifteen years ago, prison rape is still a problem for adults and youth in facilities across the country.
     Sexual abuse in detention is a crime, whether committed by staff or by another inmate. It is also recognized under international law as a form of torture. Sexual abuse in detention can take many forms, such as:
     Sexual harassment, as in unwanted sexual advances, name-calling, or threats
     Rape or attempted rape
     Any unwanted sexual touching
     Forced prostitution
     Any sexual activity that you feel pressured into doing
     When a staff person has any sexual contact with an inmate, it is always sexual abuse.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, from 1980 to 2015, the number of female inmates in Virginia prisons rose from 303 to 3,123, a 930 percent increase. During the same 35-year period, the male population grew 308 percent, from 8,617 to 35,167.

A Relative's Funeral
by Minor Junior Smith, legally blind and age 73, at Deerfield Correctional Center
With dad and my step-mother, I had rarely attended a relatives funeral in youth.
I was writing about childhood abuse, for I believed that somebody wanted truth.
A little bird perched on the window sill of my Mecklenburg Correction Center cell.
It was too early for Corporal Lee to say that my counselor had saddening news to tell.
The bird reminded me of mama feeding them to Sprite our starving pet cat.
For the sake of characterization, her maiden name is published as Elsa Pratt.

Briefly, I pondered on those difficult times she and I had shared in "Dark Run Holler".
That was one place my dad had taught me how to earn the honest dollar.
 Over my counselor's phone, Loretta told me that our stepmother had passed away.
Then, Corporal Lee telephoned a bank for me to pay two officers' salaries for a day.
My hair was all gapped-up, well, the next day was not for looking cute.
An officer and a Sergeant fitted me in tan shoes under my borrowed, odd-colored suit.

The sergeant drove, while the officer and I rode in the back of the car.
From Mecklenburg's prison to Montgomery Country's Elliston, the distance wasn't so far.
I remained docile and quiet with shackled ankles and handcuffs securing my arms.
I took a few memory trips, knowing that part of our road had split one of dad's farms.
Near Dixie Caverns, we turned off U.S. 81 onto old route 11's right-hand lane.
Blindfolded, I could have run the rest of the way without a cane .

At age eight, there was the site, where I had stood to board the bus for school.
Trying to buy some neighborhood boys’ friendship, I had first broken the golden rule.
As we bypassed dad's former Riverside farm, a hum began invading my ears.
What lay ahead for me was freedom to speak to people, whom I had not seen in years.
For a refill in Elliston, the sergeant pulled into a state highway shed.
I wondered how many of my buddies had served in Vietnam and ended up dead.

Outside the car the officers relaxed my feet and hands, some voices were not new.
I stood steadfast and ready when dad and a niece ran their embraces through.
Mama's four sisters and two brothers saw my Step-mother ready for burial in a copper vault.
I accepted the fact that my downfalls in life had been my own fault.
Like some things in life, it happened with little thought and no goal.
Our threesome stood before Bryant Funeral Home, as if we were playing a role.

Perhaps some of dad's people were extending warm greetings because I was his son.
Throughout the entire ceremony, I would not hear a word about prison.
However, I became leery as I watched my half-brother, Gordon, look his son up and down.
Eventually, eyeball to eyeball, my smile met Gordon's ugly frown.
Some other ones looked upon me with utter disdain for how I had disgraced them.
A Brother-in-law ran down a hill, as though he expected me to follow him.

Some of the people in the congregation knew me before I had turned seven.
The minister said that our bodies were houses, made to prepare our souls for heaven.
By the success of dad's first offspring, I considered all four of my real sister's horrible luck.
To shed tears, dad, Ralph Pratt and I sat like we had in dad's old Dodge lumber truck.
In 1985, I telephoned dad from Staunton Correctional Center. and finally got an answer.
Softly he told me that my step-brother, Ralph had died from hereditary cancer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Moran: "We'll Never 'Throw Away The Key' "

Recent parolee Paul Taylor, Virginia Parole Board Chair
Adrianne Bennett, and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran
Photo courtesy Daniel Lin, Daily News-Record
If you don't have access to the Daily News-Record, here's an excellent piece on yesterday's meeting on parole reform.

To become a subscriber, or to renew your subscription to the DN-R (now under new management) contact 574-6200.

Parole Discussion Draws Policymakers, Advocates

By MEGAN WILLIAMS Daily News-Record  Dec 4, 2018

HARRISONBURG — A group of more than 20 stakeholders in the discussion of parole and parole reform met at James Madison University’s Festival and Conference Center on Tuesday, including Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett.
     Among those in attendance were professors, attorneys, concerned citizens, nonprofit advocates, local politicians, lawmakers and people recently paroled from prison.
     The event was hosted by JMU Mahatma Gandhi Center’s Terry Beitzel and Harvey Yoder of the Valley Justice Coalition.
     Paul Taylor, a former Newport News resident, and convicted killer, served 23 years in prison before being paroled 15 months ago. During his time in prison, he worked to facilitate programs to help other inmates transition back into society to lead productive lives.
     “I couldn’t be a citizen on the outside so I decided to be a citizen on the inside,” Taylor told the group assembled at JMU.
     Taylor said he saw men who needed hope and it was Bennett who told him that she was looking for people who could be her neighbor if paroled without feeling scared, and she counted Taylor among them.
     “He’s been doing some great things, inside and out,” Bennett said.
     Virginia abolished parole for felonies committed in 1995 or after. Now sentences handed down without years suspended must be served, with some discretion for good behavior.
     According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, inmates convicted of a felony prior to 1996 are eligible for parole only under few conditions.
     The Virginia Parole Board, at its discretion, may grant parole before the offender completes his or her sentence if it determines that an offender is suitable to be paroled and that his or her release is in the best interest of the public. Otherwise, mandatory parole requires offenders to be released six months before completion of his or her sentence.
     A condition of Taylor’s parole included five months of intensive programming to help him get back into the community and manage his life, Bennett said.
     In Virginia, only 22.4 percent of all prisoners who are released from prison are reincarcerated within three years. That’s the lowest in the nation, Moran said.
     However, when it comes to recidivism for paroled felons, that number drops to 5 percent in Virginia. And when just looking at discretionary parolees, it’s only 1 percent, Bennett said.
     In Virginia, there are 2,100 inmates convicted before parole was abolished in 1996 who are eligible for parole, Bennett said. In 2017, more than 300 inmates received discretionary parole, and, of those, two-thirds were younger than 60, she added.
     “If we can safely release people before 60 they have a chance to have a life and be a part of society,” she said.
     One issue that came up at Tuesday’s event included what are referred to as “Fishback cases,” referencing a 1999 case Fishback v. Commonwealth.
     Local resident Latonya Cooper’s husband was given a decadeslong prison term after parole was abolished, but before a 2001 ruling that said juries had to be told that the sentences handed down were given without the possibility of parole. Until then, that information was not required to be shared with jury members.
     Cooper said she believes her husband’s sentence would not have been so severe if the jury had known that he would not have the chance for parole.
     “How do we know what was in the mind’s of that jury?” Moran asked of juries involved in “Fishback cases.”
     At the end of the day, Moran said that he feels the goal of the Department of Corrections is corrections, and granting second chances.
     Adding to that, Bennett said: “I do not believe the abolishing of parole has made our community any safer. It just creates a lack of hope of getting out.”

Contact Megan Williams at 574-6272, @DNR_Learn or

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Fanny Crosby: Mennonite Theologian By Default?

Fanny Crosby, 3/24/1820--2/12/1915
Many of us grew up enjoying hymns and gospel songs written by Fannie Crosby. Blind from soon after her birth, she nevertheless authored some 8000 texts and composed several of her own tunes as well.

Crosby was an amazing woman, widely acclaimed for her warm spirit and her rescue mission work. She was product of the revival movements of her day and her songs made a profound contribution to that movement in America and elsewhere.

Mennonites, like many other Protestant related groups, chose many of her works for their hymnals. Life Songs 2, published in 1938, included 14 of hers. The 1969 Mennonite Hymnal used 12, and the 1993 Hymnal, A Worship Book, eight.

I grew up on a steady diet of these and other gospel songs, never questioning whether they were entirely congruent with our church's Anabaptist teaching, or whether they were about only one half of the gospel, the part having to do with one's individual experience of salvation.

Crosby's songs are full of personal pronouns and depict the Christian life as being primarily about one's personal relationship with Jesus rather than about our being a part of nurturing communities of disciples of Jesus. These testimony songs certainly have their place, as in "Safe in the arms of Jesus," and "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine," but fail to recognize the shared life of faith and discipleship that is integral to the story of God's people.

Some of the Crosby hymns included in our current Hymnal, a Worship Book, however, do use "we" language, and are primarily about God, rather than on our subjective experience of God:

36   God of our strength
100 Praise him, praise him
102 To God be the glory
115 Jesus, thou mighty Lord

Meanwhile, a little known fact about Crosby is that she also wrote many militant, patriotic songs in support of such conflicts as the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
Here's a sample of some of her lyrics on that theme:

On! ye Patriots, to the battle Hear Fort Moultrie's cannon rattle: 
Then away, then away, then away to the fight! 
Go, meet those Southern traitors, with iron will, 
And should your courage falter, Boys, Remember Bunker Hill.

So how did this prolific song writer come to exert such influence on peace-promoting Anabaptist-Mennonites?

Certainly her songs and hymns were highly singable and memorable, and may have subtly influenced and shaped our theology in far more ways that we may ever fully realize.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Guest Post: Parole Failures Show That Our Culture Has Lost Sight of Grace

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

The author of the piece below, which I post with his permission, is Ian Huyett, a Staunton resident and a former student attorney at the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse Clinic, where he represented three parole candidates. His paper “‘As I Had Mercy on You’: Karla Faye Tucker, Immanuel Kant, and the Impossibility of Christian Retributivism” was published in the Summer 2018 issue of Religio et Lex.

Paul (real name withheld) looked at the unopened letter from the Virginia Parole Board with terror and hope. He had reason to be skeptical. The Board rarely grants parole. On the other hand, a lot had happened during the 35 years that Paul had been incarcerated.

Locked up for fatally shooting a man during a trailer-park robbery at 24, Paul was now 59. The wild-eyed, long-haired drug-user who had been arrested was gone, replaced by a kindly, balding patriarch—known to other inmates as a positive role model and mentor.

The Board had received dozens of references on Paul's behalf—describing how he had excelled in his education, taught inmates to read, saved a man's life, inspired young prisoners, designed and taught classes, and become an ordained minister. Another state's parole board had repeatedly recommended that Paul be paroled. A ministry had even offered him housing and a job upon release.

Yet, as Paul opened and scanned the letter, his eyes leapt instantly to one familiar phrase: "nature and circumstances of the crime." It was another denial letter. Paul's accomplishments could not tilt the scales against his long-dead, 24-year-old self. For some on the Board, redemption was simply not relevant. Paul feared he would be forever defined by the sins of his youth.

Paul's denial is a failure, not just of policy, but of philosophy. In criminal justice, the idea that decision-makers should ignore a criminal's changed character is often called "retributivism." Retributivists hold that the sole purpose of punishment is to rectify a past crime by inflicting suffering on the guilty party. On this view, whether that party has changed over time is a non-issue.

Retributivism can be traced to the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. And, while Kant may seem like ancient history today, retributivism is, in fact, a relatively new idea. For over a thousand years—dating from at least the rise of Christianity—great thinkers took it as a given that criminal justice should encourage personal transformation.

Jesus, after all, advocated pardoning criminals who were in fact guilty. In the Gospel of Matthew, he rebuked a hypothetical creditor for having his debtor thrown in jail. After Jesus' death, Roman critics of Christianity objected that many Christians were former violent criminals. As one exasperated Roman exclaimed, “What other cult actually invites robbers to become members!”. The early Christian leader Tertullian boasted of these complaints, saying "Thus the name [of Christ] is credited with their reform."

During the Middle Ages, critics of the church's military orders complained that they were made up of the scum of Europe: former rogues, thieves, and murderers. But to Bernard of Clairvaux, the leading European thinker of his age, this was "both happy and fitting." Jesus, said Bernard, "recruits his soldiers among his foes." Thomas Aquinas, too, wrote that tribunals should employ "mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer."

To these thinkers, justice was rooted in God's love for human beings. But in the Enlightenment worldview of Immanuel Kant, all moral duties became a series of abstract demands—reducing criminal justice to the impersonal satisfaction of blood guilt. As the Enlightenment displaced Christianity, then, the West lost its relational understanding of justice. Because Kant's duties do not yearn for us to be saved, they will not care if we are.

That there are prisoners like Paul exposes both the prevalence and the weakness of retributivism. Paul's story shows that redemption is not only possible, but that it is transcendent. His transformation, in the midst of the shadow of violence, points to a light beyond the shadow.

If we draw on a source of experience deeper than Kant's, we will discover that criminal justice—like the rest of the human story—should be more complex than our Parole Board's one-dimensional denials. In order to change policy, though, we must first challenge ourselves and our culture. We should ask ourselves whether we, too, have unconsciously drifted—like American moral and legal thought—away from what matters most.

At 4:30 pm Tuesday, December 4 there will be a public conversation on parole in Conference Room 8 at JMU's Festival Center with Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett. Park in Lots D1 or D3. All are invited.