Friday, September 30, 2011

So Long, Saigon Cafe

Today, after 15 years of serving a blend of great Vietnamese food and gracious hospitality, Ty and Bich Truong are closing the doors of their Saigon Cafe on East Market Street for good. Not that their unique restaurant hasn’t attracted enough customers. The past several days have seen nothing but long lines of loyal patrons waiting to enjoy just one more taste of the Truongs’ fare.

The couple just decided it was time to take a break from the 12-14-hour days they've been putting in every Monday to Saturday, 52 weeks a year, and to try something new. They also plan to put their house up for sale and move to California sometime soon to be closer to some of their grown children.

Our own ties with Ty and Bich go back to 1979, when the church I was serving as pastor, Zion Mennonite near Broadway, sponsored Ty and several of his siblings and cousins as refugees. They were among the many “boat people” who had made a perilous escape from Ho Chi Minh City after the fall of Saigon to escape the difficult conditions in that war torn country. With some 650 people in a vessel measuring 90 feet by 40 feet, they somehow made it to an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand.

There Ty met Bich and the two fell in love and were married. Since their marriage wasn’t recognized by the U.S., Ty had to come here without his new wife, who went to France to be with relatives until she was finally able to rejoin her husband in 1982--through the efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee’s refugee resettlement program. It was my privilege to perform an official American wedding ceremony for them at our church later that year.

I recently spoke with Ty about their experience of adjusting to a new world. “I get really upset when I hear people complain about their lot here,” he said, with deep feeling. “This is heaven compared to what we’ve been through. What do people want, something better than heaven?”

Thanks, Ty and Bich, for all the courage, hard work and contagious optimism you’ve demonstrated through all these years. We’ll miss you a lot, but your warm spirit and your tasty entrees will be memories we’ll savor forever.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Great Outdoor Wood Furnace Project

In my spare time (?) I've been getting the following word out to as many of my friends as possible:


At the September 21, 2011, meeting of the Board of Gemeinschaft Home, a recovery and re-entry program for 25-30 ex-offenders, I volunteered to find up to 20 persons in our community willing to make an interest-free three-year loan of $1000 or more each in order to have a top-of-the line, virtually pollution-free $18-20,000 wood furnace installed at the house. This would enable the Home to have a system in place by this winter that would provide all the heat and hot water needed for both of its buildings and save the program literally thousands of dollars each year.

Currently, there is a plentiful supply of good oak wood available to at nearby EMU's Park Woods, where a number of mature dead trees are in need of harvesting. The plan is to solicit volunteers from churches and elsewhere this fall to help residents cut, split and haul enough of this (free) wood on a designated Saturday to provide for the first winter's needs.. Board member Sam Miller already has estimates from local dealers for this kind of furnace, and there is a great location for it and for wood storage on a level area on the upper (east) side of the property.

Monthly natural gas bills in the winter are typically $1400 or more, so the savings will be significant and ongoing from the beginning. This project will also provide additional work for residents over time, and fueling the furnace 2-3 times daily during the colder months could be assigned as a routine chore shared by the men.

I already have positive responses from four members of our board and four other individuals, and my goal is to get enough commitments from other friends and supporters in the community by the end of this week to raise the remaining amount. Investors money will be returned through savings in energy costs--and of course through equity in our property in case Gemeinschaft were to close its doors.

But we are not closing! With the help of some exciting recent staff changes, the program is going forward with a new sense of urgency, energy and mission. Levels of morale and motivation on the part of our residents are at a new high.

Please contact me either by e-mail <> or in person, if you can help or if you have any questions.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Going on the "Amish Diet"

Amish Work

In light of studies showing that members of Old Order Amish communities have significantly fewer cases of obesity, diabetes and related health problems, some have suggested that an “Amish diet” might work even better than, say, an Atkins diet.

In short, it would mean eating hearty meals every day but being as physically active as are typical members of Amish farm families. Their meals routinely include lots of home grown meats, fruits and vegetables, but also some very tasty desserts. But all of that is accompanied by hours of good manual labor (and the use of far less fossil fuel) in the growing, preserving, preparing and transporting of food, in making many of their own clothes and otherwise taking good care of their households and farms.

In his book, "Great Possessions, An Amish Farmer's Journal," David Kline describes some of the simple everyday pleasures of living on their 120-acre Holmes County, Ohio, farm, where the entire family works together to grow and market food and take care of the land that is so vital to their way of life. Without the distractions of radio, television, computers, e-mail, or cell phones, something as ordinary as cleaning out their horse barn becomes an opportunity for Kline and his teenage son to experience rigorous exercise while engaging in an extended man-to-man conversation, something that happens all too seldom between most fathers and sons in our faster paced urban society.

While not many of us urbanites will be able to live like the Amish, a healthier, lower-tech lifestyle might involve the following:

1) less mowing and more hoeing--and gardening
2) less shopping at crowded malls and more sharing of home produced goods and resources with our neighbors
3) less dependence on far-off corporate farms and factories and more reliance on home and locally grown products
4) less dependence on passive forms of media entertainment and more involvement in physically active and socially interactive work and play
5) less riding and more walking and biking

We could call it the latest, state-of-the-art "Amish Diet and Workout Plan."

P. S.  I grew up in an Amish family and community but have been a member of the Virginia Conference Mennonite church most of my adult life.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Human Trafficking: A Growing Form of Modern Slavery

Oh, freedom,
Oh, freedom,
Oh, freedom over me, over me,
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

                                            - Negro spiritual

Does “modern slavery” sound like an impossibility?

Not to a newly formed local group called the “The Shenandoah Valley Justice Initiative,” a faith-based group of modern day abolitionists committed to combating this evil, commonly referred to as human trafficking. 

In the book “In our Backyard: A Christian Perspective on Human Trafficking in the United States,” author Nita Belles cites a report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that more than 100,000 children are victims of this modern form of the slave trade in the US alone, and that almost all trafficked children are eventually forced into hard labor and prostitution.

Around the world, as many as 12 million children are trafficked every year, according to her research. In Mexico alone, more than 16,000 children are working in the sex trade, most of them at tourist destinations. And in Southeast Asia, at least 30 percent of sex trade workers are between the ages of 12 and 17.

Child trafficking typically begins with a stranger visiting a village and offering housing and a good-paying job in the city. In an effort to support his or her family, the child leaves and promises to send money home, only to become the victim of horrendous mistreatment and abuse.

According to Lynne Hybels, cofounder of the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, in an article in the June 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine, a club owner in Chicago can pick up a phone and “mail order” three beautiful girls from Eastern Europe. Two weeks later a fresh shipment of three Slavic girls will be at his club. She also cites Rachel Durchslag, director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, as saying that the average age of entry into prostitution is 14.  And all of this doesn’t even begin to address the thousands of other workers around the world who earn only enough to keep them alive for one more day of work under dehumanizing conditions.

The SVJI is sponsoring the showing of the documentary “Nefarious, Merchants of Souls,” Tuesday, October 4, at 7:00 p.m. at the Potter’s House Worship Center at 1911 West Market Street in Harrisonburg (just west of Thomas Harrison Middle School).

I urge all concerned people to attend. And to invite your friends to join you.

Check out their new web site at, or contact them at (540-801-0519).

Monday, September 19, 2011

I’m Just Fine For The Shape I’m In

This ole house is a-getting shaky
This ole house is a-getting old
This ole house lets in the rain
This ole house lets in the cold

Lately I’ve begun reflecting more on this lament from an old song by Stuart Hamblen.

The thought of getting old and shaky is new for me, since most of my 72 years I’ve enjoyed exceptional health, been physically active and have never suffered a single broken bone or gone through any major surgery. In fact it wasn’t until August of 2009 that I had my very first overnight hospital stay. I wasn’t even born in one. And that overnight at “Hotel RMH” followed a simple procedure my doctor first led me to believe would allow me to return home the same day, but he changed his mind for the sake of being able to check me over early the next morning.

Now I’m learning from experience that good health isn’t to be taken for granted. Things can change without notice and without my being ready.

Not to bore you with details, but early this year my blood work showed an excess of “antinuclear antibodies” (I joked to my friends that my being an “antinuclear” advocate for so long has finally gotten into my blood). Anyway, I was told that my 1:312 count of said antibodies (should be 1:40 or less),  may be associated with having a recent diagnosis of Ménière's disease, a condition that isn't life threatening but can have unpleasant symptoms like increased hearing loss and nauseous spells of vertigo, both of which I've been experiencing too much of lately. I'm on some Triamterene/hydrochlorothiazid (!) now that may helping, but my good doctor isn’t promising a "cure" as such.

So this ole house does feel a tad shaky. For someone who listens to people for a living, to have to strain to hear well is no fun. And to feel tired much of the time, and not to be able to enjoy singing and other activities as I once did, was hard to adjust to.

Today I’m finishing a two-week regimen of Prednazone. I can bear testimony that this is a miracle drug, though one I can’t stay on due to its undesirable long term effects. But for the moment I feel younger and more energized than I have for months, and the inside of my head and my sense of hearing feel about 90% normal.

I can live with that. And I know there will be many more adjustments to make as I grow older. That’s just the way life is, I tell myself. Meanwhile, I want to enjoy each day as if it were my last, and make the most of every opportunity to  live life to the full, and to learn to “number my days and so apply my heart to wisdom.”

On the plus side, this has been a wake-up call about taking better care of myself. By simply eating oatmeal or an oat cereal with fruit and skim milk for breakfast, and by enjoying more salads and home grown vegetable stews for lunch and dinner (while cutting back on breads, sweets, salt and desserts) I’ve been able to shed 16 pounds since March without going on any "diet.” Or maybe it’s just the Ménière's . Who knows.

I do know that God is good. All the time. And yes, Stuart Hamblen, “I’m getting ready to meet the saints.”

I just hope that won’t be right away. I want to see a little more of our grandchildren growing older first.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Goodby, Lucy (1929-2003)

I wrote this as my quarterly column for VALLEY LIVING soon after my sister Lucy's death, and post it today in her memory:

While we were watching around her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn’t see...
She saw Old Death,
Coming like a falling star...

And Death took her up like a baby...
On to the Great White Throne,
And there he laid sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

I thought of these lines from James Weldon Johnson’s “Go Down, Death” as we gathered around my dying sister Lucy’s bed September 15, 2003, just eight years ago. At 74, she was in what seemed like a deep sleep, each breath becoming slower and more labored.

Hers had been a 19-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease, and it was ending with her at home, surrounded by those dearest to her, her husband Alvin, her four daughters and two sons, all present to the last. There could be no more wonderful way to go, I thought.

I was only nine when Lucy, whose name means “bringer of light,” married the love of her life, Alvin Schrock, one of the most stable and gentle men I have ever known. Their children, blessed with good genes and great parents, turned out remarkably well, and were supportive and caring beyond the call of duty during their mother’s long illness.

One of my regrets is that Lucy’s marriage had her leaving home well before I was finished growing up. She was the third in our family and I was number eight, next to the youngest. As a child, Lucy didn’t thrive, health-wise, like the rest, but managed to grow up to become a hard worker and a great Mom. She always seemed a little less argumentative, less aggressive than her three brothers and five sisters, a quality I associated with her saintliness and self-control.

Life isn’t always fair, one of the ministers at Lucy’s funeral reminded us, and yet, he added, it often offers us more blessings than we deserve. For those of us left behind, Lucy was clearly one of them.

At the close of her memorial service the congregation sang together while we went to a private meeting room at the church for a last family viewing. Only Lucy’s husband and her children and ten grandchildren stood around the open casket at the end. Alvin, though an ordained minister, was now less the patriarch and pastor than the grieving husband of nearly 55 seasons. After a time of silence, he shared halting and heart-felt words of memory with his family flock, then personally arranged the cloth casket lining around Lucy’s body--as if tucking her in for the last time--and solemnly closed it for good. Our tears came freely as we heard the congregation nearby, in beautiful four-part harmony, sing “O come, angel band, come and around me stand. O bear me away on your snowy wings to my eternal home.”

At the burial site, with signs of Hurricane Isabel approaching, the pallbearers, three nephews and three grandsons, lowered her casket into the grave and lovingly covered it with Augusta County soil. Other friends, family members, grandsons and granddaughters likewise took turns shoveling blankets of earth over the grave. No professional funeral directors were present, only Lucy's loved ones surrounding the family gathered under the white canopy, singing from memory hymns of faith to strengthen the soul and comfort the heart.

A bittersweet goodbye to our Lucy.

Heart-broken husband--weep no more;
Grief-stricken son--weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter--weep no more;
She’s only just gone home.   
           (James Weldon Johnson)   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Little Salt, a Dash of Pepper

On this 9/11 afternoon several dozen peace minded members of our community, including some our Muslim neighbors, attended a PowerPoint lecture at the Court Square Theater on "Sharia: the Threat to America," one that turned out to be a numbing two-hour demonization of all things Islam. The spirit of the meeting was almost the opposite of the hour-long vigil many of us had attended on the south side of  the Court House nearby the night before, a time of expressing lament but also of affirming hope and goodwill, of singing and praying together around the theme of "Turning Toward Peace." It was hopeful rather than hateful.

I encouraged like-minded friends to attend today's event to be a prayerful and respectful presence, to add a scattering of God-flavored "salt," we hoped, among the total of perhaps 150-200 people present. Or, as it turned out, maybe a dash of pepper, with a number of insightful questions being raised by some of our friends in the Q & A time--queries and concerns that were met mostly with sarcastic dismissals or further lecturing by the speaker. To be fair, not everyone who differed with him was always as respectful as I had wished, either.

Most of us wore something black as a sign of our mourning both the horrendous loss of life at 9/11/01 and the hatred, suspicion and violence that have followed.

Sponsored by members of the Valley Family Forum, ACT For America, and members of the local Tea Party Patriots, today's event was led by one of the co-authors of the Sharia report, who spent much of his time generalizing, stereotyping and attacking any and all who disagree with him and his worldview, including bashing former President Bush, most of the members of Congress and pretty much the entire Washington establishment.

Not surprisingly, the title of his newest book is to be "Too Stupid to Live," a categorization sure to include most of us.

After a day like this, when we are all reliving the awful events of 9/11, I find it hard to know how to respond. Just more information, someone has said, is the solution only to the extent that ignorance is the problem. And ignorance remains a serious problem for all of us, to be sure, but it's pretty clear that America's problems are much deeper than that, involving the kinds of fear, hatred, and prejudice as old as the human race.

So today I'll simply post something I wrote for our house church newsletter nearly ten years ago, soon after the 9/11/01 disaster:

Ridding the World of Terrorism

Terrorism. We must rid the world of it, we’re told, using every means necessary.

The only problem is, even the deadliest military force in the world isn’t strong enough to root it out. In fact, the more violence we use to destroy our enemies in retaliation, the more of the world’s moderate majority are likely to rally to join fringe elements dedicated to destroying us.  When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the millions needed to join us in this effort, even nuclear weapons are far too weak and ineffectual, and their use would cause us to be seen as worse than those we seek to punish.

What force, then, is strong enough? Like the terrorists we accuse of ignoring their own Islamic teachings about respect for human life, far too many Christians have disregarded their own scriptures which say, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” We have overlooked passages that tell us to “Be still (means, literally, ‘Stop fighting!’) and know that I am God,” and that “God will make wars cease to the ends of the earth,” and will “break the bow and shatter  the spear; burn the shields with fire.” For too long followers of Jesus have set aside their Master’s commands to love their enemies and to feed them if they are hungry, give them water to drink if they are thirsty. Relying instead of on weapons of massive destruction, we have helped escalate the cycle of violence and genocide that threatens us all.

If we were to actually take the teachings of our faith seriously, we would blanket impoverished countries like Iraq and Afghanistan with prayer, bread, medical supplies and other forms of aid instead of responding with sanctions and with deadly weapons. This kind of incredibly surprising response, coupled with working with other peaceful nations to bring about actual perpetrators to justice, may be the only way to gain the necessary support of the world’s moderate millions in attacking and rooting out terrorism. It would result in far less loss of life and would cost a fraction of what it takes to engage in another war.

Will any other response rid the world of evil doers? 

I don’t think so.
                                                                                                           October 2001

P. S. You may also want to read my August 27 blog on Sharia Mania. And as always, your comments are welcome.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The World in Miniature

I recently ran across some interesting numbers on the makeup of the world’s population, as follows:

If the total number of people on the globe were reduced to a 1000, over half of them,  564, would be Asians, 210 Europeans, only 86 North Americans, and 60 South Americans. Of these same 1000 people, 300 could be identified as Christians, 176 as Muslims, 128 as Hindus, 55 as Buddhists, and 47 as Animists.

This means we are all a part of a minority faith and culture of some kind. Unless we were successful in converting huge numbers into becoming just like ourselves, we will have to learn to get along with people of all kinds who differ from us. And increasingly, this diversity of people is right around us, with our local public high school students now representing some 40 different languages of origin, students for whom English is not their family’s native tongue.

Tuesday I had lunch with a community leader who wanted to discuss my op-ed piece on Sharia law in the Labor Day edition of the local paper. He expressed grave concern that the kind of diversity we’ve allowed is a threat to our American values, culture and way of life.

For him, the solution was simple and urgent. Bring our troops home from far flung wars and military bases around the world and have them tightly seal our borders. Period. All immigration should immediately come to a halt, as the only way to keep us from being overrun by foreign elements and from our losing our identity as a genuinely "American" society.

Real Americans, presumably, should speak only English and be largely Caucasian and predominantly Christian. Nations elsewhere would maintain their own distinct languages, races and religions, of course, but for us to be a strong and stable society we should pull up our welcome mat, have Lady Liberty lay down her torch and rebuild the way of life we enjoyed before all of the Asians, Africans, South and Central Americans and members of every European nationality on the map poured across our borders--thanks to lax Homeland Security and Border Control by the native American population!

By contrast, the welcoming vision of the future described in the Apocalypse, in the last book of Christian Bible is as follows:

"After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." Revelation 7:9

(The "Lamb" is the name used in the Revelation for the non-violent and redeeming presence of God in the world)