Saturday, April 21, 2018

Questioning Our "Lay" and "Ordained" Divide

While most of us agree that healthy congregations need to use all of the varied and multiple gifts of its members, Mennonites have generally adopted the Protestant practice of elevating pastors to a special place set apart from other ordinary folks. It is a chosen few who are honored with ministerial ordination, given special titles, offered salaries and benefits, provided with office space and support staff, and given a major share of time and attention in the weekly service.

Meanwhile, most members do not receive financial support for their ministries in the church and are referred to as "lay" persons, a designation ordained persons no longer claim. In some denominations, in fact, clergy may not even be members of their own congregations, but hold their membership in some separate category with other clergy. 

But if the word "lay" come from the Greek "laos", meaning the people, do we really want those we appoint to offices of oversight, teaching and leadership to no longer be one of us?

Perhaps our baptismal "commissioning" should be thought of as an ordination to full time service for everyone, howbeit in many different settings and with the exercise of many different gifts. And among the baptized there will often be appointments to special tasks, accompanied by congregational prayers and the laying on of many hands, and as needed, adequate financial support as well. But to have only a small percent of our members blessed and commissioned in this way, to me, may create an unhealthy dichotomy that is foreign to New Testament faith and to Anabaptist practice.

In my own twenty years of serving as a partially salaried pastor in a medium size congregation, I came to realize that some of the greater honor that went with being the called, ordained and professional "minister" set me up for a problematic set of stresses and temptations. The very design of our church's "auditorium" enhanced this sense of elevation and potential isolation, with my having a  weekly audience seated in orderly rows all facing a central pulpit which, yes, was also used by other members, but mostly for secondary and introductory parts of a service that led up to the main feature, the pastor's sermon. And who was I to go to when I needed to acknowledge my own need of pastoral care?

I may be wrong, but some of this seems like a far cry from the church described in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, in which all are to bring their psalms, teachings, and other revelations, all are to be fellow members of the laos, the people, and all are commissioned to a lifetime of service. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Local Mennonite Pastor Gets Facelift Surgery

Last Friday I had an ectropion procedure done at Sentara RMH, not for cosmetic purposes but as a kind of "facelift" to correct a sagging lower eyelid, as recommended by my ophthalmologist, Dr. Kenlyn Miller. This turned out to be an amazing experience.

In the first place, a total of 12 different professionals, from the receptionist and intake person who welcomed me on the first floor, to the nurses and surgeon assistants on the second, were involved in the many steps of preparation and follow-up for what was a mere 20-minute procedure.

For the surgery itself I needed only a local anesthesia, which allowed me to remain fully awake and engage in some conversation with Dr. Miller. We discussed a church-sponsored seminar we had both attended the day before and I was able to ask questions about the various steps involved in the surgery.

This experience also greatly added to my appreciation for my good wife Alma Jean, who was by my side for everything but the surgery itself, and who provided the best post operative care imaginable. While my eye was a gruesome sight to behold for a couple of days, I've gotten along just fine with her help and with some of the Tylenol she insisted I take for the first couple of days.

I have never been more impressed by the quality of medical services available to most of us that we mostly take for granted. The wealthiest and most privileged people in all of the ages before us would have given anything to have this kind of healthcare.

God is good, in sickness and in health, and this has given me a greater urgency to do what I can to support good healthcare as a right for all human beings everywhere.

Monday, April 16, 2018

More Law Officers Urge Jens Soering's Release

I met Jens (Yens) some years ago (we've
since corresponded) and have read some of
the books he's written in prison.
One week ago, April 9, 2018, Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. "Chip" Harding held a press conference, featuring F.B.I. Special Agent Stanley J. Lapekas. Also in attendance were Detective Sergeant Richard Hudson and Senior Investigator Chuck Reid. Together, they issued a "Call of Pardon", addressed to Governor Ralph Northam.

Below is the "Call of Pardon", plus links to a video of their conference and other important media reports.


Please write a letter of support for Jens' pardon to

Other links:
Call for Pardon:
Letter from F.B.I. Agent Stan Lapekas:
Video of press conference:
local TV-reports:
radio WVTF:
press reports:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Some Serious Problems At Our Middle River Jail

I recently presented the following to our Community Criminal Justice Board, then submitted it as an op ed piece which appeared in today's Daily News-Record:

Three years have passed since our City and County negotiated a buy-in with Middle River Regional Jail due to a 600% increase in the number of people incarcerated in our local facility since it was built in 1885. Meanwhile our population had grown by only 25%.

At any rate, it would seem appropriate to now have a committee or commission be appointed to review how our arrangement with them could be improved. 

At the time, many of wished the long standing lease option we already had with MRRJ could have simply continued until we were able to implement many of the Mosley Architects’ recommendations and get our incarceration rates down to a more reasonable number or until we could build something like a proposed “Judge John Paul Honor Camp” as a rehabilitation, treatment and work release center for non-violent inmates. 

In the meantime, here are some of the concerns about Middle River many of us keep hearing and that we believe call for such a review:

1. When inmates from here are transferred to MRRJ, their families immediately have to pay three times as much for their “keep fee”, to the tune of over $1000 a year. This a burdensome and arbitrary charge that innocent family members from our area should not be required to pay just because, through no fault of their own, their loved ones are moved to another location.

2. When that transfer is made, whatever commissary or clothing items (food, hygiene products, socks, underwear, etc.) an inmate has acquired are not allowed to be transferred, so again it is family members who need to pay for new and high priced items to replace them, another hardship.

3. MRRJ has inmates on lockdown for 18 hours a day, not for disciplinary reasons but simply because that requires fewer staff members. This is inhumane and contrary to standard jail practice.

4. Complaints about medical care have long been a matter of concern. I understand we have never done an independent investigation into some of the inmate deaths documented in the NBC 29 documentary two years ago, or the quality and adequacy of medical care in general, issues over which we could face liability. Meanwhile, over the past decades MRRJ has consistently underspent its medical budgets by thousands of dollars.

5. All inmates complain about jail food, but there is a clear difference between the quality and quantity of food served at MRRJ (reports of moldy bread, stone bits in lentils. etc.), compared to the quality of meals served at our local jail. As long as we share ownership of MRRJ, we should be able to expect comparable levels of care and service.

Who in the combined authority of city and county could look into these issues on behalf of concerned citizens in our community?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Doing Without

Join others in making this photo a part of your Facebook profile
As a part of our SOS (Sharing Our Surplus) campaign last year, designed to raise cash contributions for refugee relief at the Fall Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, we came up with things individuals and families could do without for a period of time in order to be able to do more generous giving.

Some sample suggestions for doing without:

- Eating out (or no more than once a week)
- Half of our desserts and snack foods
- Sodas and other high sugar drinks
- All $5 bills in our wallets (empty every week)
- 10% of what we have in our savings accounts
- Current number of fill ups of fuel for our vehicles--walk and bike more
- Purchases of any new shoes or clothes for six months
- Expensive vacations
- etc.

Now let's compare those 'hardships' with those of most of the 62 million displaced persons in the world, and especially the over 26 million households confined to an average ten year stay in a refugee camp.

Some things refugees typically do without:

- eating out
- desserts and snack foods
- sodas and other drinks
- savings accounts
- vehicles
- new clothes or shoes
- indoor bathrooms
- closets
- vacuum cleaners
- refrigerators and freezers
- electricity
- running water
- hair dryers
- beds with mattresses
- living room furniture
- kitchen ranges
- dining room tables and chairs
- washers and dryers
- air conditioners
- central heat
- vegetable and flower gardes
- lawns
- shade trees
- flat screen TV
- Netflix
- family vacations
- exercise equipment
- patio and deck furniture
- water heaters
- etc., etc.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Lynching In Rockingham County--March 1878

This happened countless times in 
the post-Civil War South.
According to reports in local newspapers, Henry Sipe's barn in eastern Rockingham County burned to the ground February 28, 1878. A young African-American boy in the neighborhood, Jim Ergenbright, was first believed to have started the fire, but Charlotte Harris, also a person of color, was later accused of instigating the arson and was taken into custody March 6 at the Rockingham County Jail in the county seat of Harrisonburg.

Late that night a group of armed men disguised in black appeared at the jail and forced Ms. Harris to be handed over to them, then hanged her from a tree some 400 yards away.

Unlike many lynchings in the post-Civil War South, the Governor of Virginia actually offered a $100 reward for the capture of the men who lynched her, but a grand jury convened in the Rockingham Court House claimed they could not identify who was responsible for the crime, so no one was ever convicted in the case. Meanwhile the young boy first accused was acquitted of all charges.

According to my source, Dr. Gianluca De Fazio, Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at JMU, there was only one other known case of a lynching in Rockingham County, though there are hundreds of documented cases of mob lynchings in other areas of the Commonwealth with larger larger populations of former slaves. This second case involved a white woman who was allegedly hanged east of Cowen's Depot near the Massanutten range, supposedly because she socialized with Negroes. This hanging was later officially denied as ever having happened, even though it was reported by numerous area newspapers.

Dr. De Fazio has done extensive work to research and document the history of lynchings in Virginia. There are several upcoming events where he will be sharing his work, including a presentation at the Lucy Simms Community Center at 2 pm Friday, April 20. Learn more at:

Saturday, April 7, 2018

On His 50th, Inmate Yearns For Outside Friends

A tireless advocate for
prison and parole reform
Charles E. Zellers, Sr., is a friend at Buckingham Correctional Center with whom I've been communicating through letters, emails and phone calls since February 2014. He turns 50 April 10, and I'd love to see him get some cards on his special day (Or you can send him birthday greetings via my email address and I will forward them to him).

Charles was incarcerated in January, 1993, in his early 20's after entering an Alford Plea, at which time his public defender assured him he should be released on parole in a matter of a few years with continual good behavior. Charles has far, far exceeded that goal by successfully completing the prescribed DOC treatment plan and taking every available class possible to better himself. Since  2006 he has been employed  by Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) - Buckingham's Sheet Metal Shop where he is a respected lead man in the metal furniture assembly process.

In spite of having been eligible for discretionary parole since 2005, he has been denied 9 times, and was most recently given a three-year deferral, which means his case will not be reviewed again until 2021. His goals upon release continue to be to get a full-time job, to become a part of a caring church, to help get his aging mother's affairs in order, and to volunteer to help others.

Charles has sent me numerous proposals that he recommended for DOC and ones that he would like to help implement and participate in upon his release from prison. Some have to do with providing computers to deserving people in exchange for turning in ammunition and firearms.

In his own words, Charles is reaching out for the following:

> compassionate unconditional friendships from individuals who will accept him for who he is today and not for the crime for which he was incarcerated for over 25 years ago;
> a church with members who will accept him with love and provide him with a chance to prove himself trustworthy;
> organizations which would accept him as a volunteer who wishes to help better the community and the state.
> advocates who would help to find employment
> advocates who would search for employers from around the Commonwealth who agree to hire parole candidates;
> provide information on employers who are open to hiring parolees to <> so he can post them on the APP-HRC database;
> information on pro-parole activists who would agree to help prepare post-release plans.
> friends who are knowledgeable in computer programming using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).
> advocates who could urge Virginia Parole Board members to grant parole release to deserving old-law parole-eligible inmates before they reach their senior years. 
Charles E. Zellers, Sr.
DOC # 1036758
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Anyone willing to write Charles directly through email would need to contact and have their name and email address added to his account. JPay stamps are as follows:

5 - JPay Stamps $1.95
20 - JPay Stamps $6.95
40 - JPay Stamps $9.95