Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hate and Slander are not Christian Values

“I hope someone will take President Obama out. I hate that man.”

“Vice-president Joe Biden arranged to have his first wife killed in a car crash so he could marry Jill.”

“Obama won the election because his party bribed Mexicans (presumably illegal ones) to vote for him.”

“Obama hates America and is bent on bringing it down in whatever way he can.”

“I’m convinced that Obama is the anti-Christ prophesied in the Bible.”

These are just a few of the examples of ill informed and hate-laced rhetoric my wife and I have heard since the November election. What is disturbing is that each of the above came from people in our area who are Bible-reading, church-going Christians.

As a member of the worldwide “Kingdom of God” Party, I'm neither a registered Democrat nor a Republican, and have no illusions about this or any other administration ever ushering in either a Grand Utopia or the Great Tribulation. But the above malicious statements about  a US president exceed anything I've witnessed in all of my 73 years.

Such toxic attitudes sometimes make me fear Obama may not live to finish his second term. When out of ignorance and/or malice large numbers of people become convinced the president is a militant Muslim, a Hitler-style Fascist, a dyed in the wool Socialist, and/or a rabid Communist who hates America, we have created a mindset in which some mentally disturbed psychopath will feel he or she is saving the country and acting as a true hero by taking him out.

I hope and pray I'm wrong, and that our Valley neighbors--and people of faith and goodwill everywhere--will take the time to get actual facts before they embrace every conspiracy theory they hear over the internet or via the grapevine. If first century Christians could love their enemies and pray for pagan and despotic rulers like Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus, surely believers today shouldn't fear living in a constitutional democracy led by a Republican Congress, a relatively conservative Supreme Court and a Democratic president.

Ironically, Obama, no matter how one judges the authenticity of his Christian faith, is at least a bona fide member of a mainline Christian denomination, something not true of his chief rival. Having said that, religion should have no bearing whatever on anyone’s suitability for office, since Article VI, paragraph 3, of the Constitution clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

The apostle Paul had the following to say to those living under Roman oppression and persecution:
"I exhort therefore, that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty."    -- I Timothy 2:1-2 Webster’s Bible translation

Note that “godliness, honesty and the giving of thanks” were to be the rule, even in times of terrible hardships. Compared to many of our spiritual ancestors, we should feel blessed beyond measure, and should be loving and praying for even our worst political “enemies” in these difficult times.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Love and Tears at Leburn, Kentucky

Irene and Alvin (1942-2012) Yoder
A seven-hour trip on Friday with my brother to eastern Kentucky’s coal country transported me into another world.

The occasion was my 70-year-old cousin Alvin Yoder’s funeral. Alvin, with his beloved wife Irene, their six children and 40 grandchildren, was a devoted part of his conservative Valley View Mennonite church located along Ball Fork Hollow, an active congregation with a regular attendance of some 140.  Their modest home in this region of all hills and hollows is just down the winding road from the church .

At Saturday's memorial service at Hindman’s Funeral Services the family was joined by some 500 friends from Alvin’s mountain community, his extended family, and from his family of faith, some from hours away. On the Thursday and Friday evenings before, hundreds of other people from the community and elsewhere had waited patiently in long lines to pay their respects and offer their love and support to Irene and the family, people whose lives Alvin had touched as a caring neighbor and through his heating and cooling business.

Sitting in the packed auditorium at the memorial service I found myself a part of a mass choir in which all of us were expressing praise and affirming faith in heartfelt four-part harmony. The majority of women present wore plain modest dresses and white prayer coverings, and their men dark suits with distinctive clerical-style collars, giving the appearance of a gathering of a monastic community. The disciplined practice of their faith, one that affects every part of their lives, does in fact resemble that of a religious Order. They are clearly a counter-cultural community of sturdy families making a statement about how God impacts every part of their lives every day, from morning to night, from life until death.

Such communities offer food and comfort to each other as well as to their neighbors when someone dies, bringing with them empathy, love and lots of tears.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks For All That Really Matters

"Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb.
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand."

                    Ecclesiastes 5:15

My cousin Alvin Yoder, a much loved father, church planter and business man from Leburn, Kentucky, died early Monday morning after a difficult bout with cancer. While Alvin grew up in Kalona, Iowa, and I in the Stuarts Draft area, we were both born in Nowata County, Oklahoma, and lived near each other briefly when we were too young to remember.

We were related in numerous ways. Our fathers were cousins, our mothers sisters. And in 1972, my father married Alvin’s widowed mother after my mother died of cancer at 67, so we became step brothers as well. My older brother Eli and I plan to attend his funeral this Saturday.

Alvin being two years younger than I, his passing reminds me of how short our sojourn here can be, and of how grateful I need to be for every day I have here on earth. One good thing death does is help us focus on what really matters--like our faith in a loving God, our hope for a better world, and our love for our family and friends everywhere.

Brad, our singer-song writer son who lives in Pittsburgh (but is here this weekend!), recently wrote the following based on his reflections on Ecclesiastes:

how little that matters  --

all the prizes we once sought,
possessions that we sold & bought
are lost or broken, tossed or boxed away,
with the status we enjoyed,
the tools and power we employed
all join the list of things that never stay..
   now it’s clear, how little that matters,
   how little that means at the end of the day,
   while we’re here, let’s throw on our tatters,
   we’ll shake off our cares & waltz on our way,
      how little that matters..

in my hometown on tall brick walls
stand faded signs from stores that closed,
still selling stuff that’s long since disappeared,
while fliers taped to street lamp poles
sing muffled songs of long past shows,
I knew that band, they haven’t played in years..
   now it’s clear, how little that matters,
   how little that means at the end of the day,
   so my dear, we’ll throw on our tatters,
   shake off our cares & waltz on our way..
      open as a baby’s cry,
      waving as they all fly by,
      the few we mark, how many we let slide..

I know a man who I’d call wise,
he dedicated his whole life
to mastering the instrument he plays,
but he believes, for all his skill,
a single broken note is still
enough to shake our sleeping hearts awake,
   all our fears, how little they matter,
   how slight they appear in the light of the day,
   while we’re here, let’s throw on our tatters,
   we’ll shake off our cares & waltz on our way,
   how little that matters…

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Numbed By The Numbers: Some Reflections on Monday’s Forum

9,000,000   Current number of prisoners worldwide

39%           Number of those prisoners housed in the US

4.5%          US percentage of the world’s population

Some fifty interested local citizens met at the Massanutten Regional Library Monday to hear three panelists discuss ways GPS monitoring of non-violent offenders could provide alternatives to jail for some non-violent offenders. Read more in today’s DNR article on the event.

Judge Brian Shipwash of Davidson County, North Carolina, explained how his community was able reduce its jail population from 379 to 243 and avoid having to build a proposed new $50 million jail. With the money they saved, they were able to finance a new middle school instead. Much of this saving was the result of changes in bond requirements for, and better monitoring of, persons awaiting trial.

Local pastor Mike Donovan described how his non-profit Nexus Programs, which provides both monitoring and mentoring services for offenders, is saving money and saving lives in communities across Virginia and parts of North Carolina. In an area map projected on a screen, he showed how their GPS monitoring system tracked every move of local volunteer Earl Martin during the past week while he wore one of their bracelets.

William Wiesband a bondsman from Fredericksburg who is also passionate about finding more alternatives to incarceration, heads up a program called Private Pretrial Reports. Wiesband lamented the fact that in the United States there were 139 persons in the US incarcerated per 100,000 population, in 2008, that number exceeded 500 per 100,000.

Here are some contacts you can make to express your concerns about criminal justice and jail related issues:

1. Actively promote recommendations of Governor McDonnell’s task force on alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders:

State Senator Mark Obenshain
Assembly Delegate Tony Wilt
Assembly Delegate Robb Bell
Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst
Editor, Daily News-Record

2.  Appeal to the Sheriff and to Community Services Board (the mental health providers at our local jail) to provide alternatives to the use of the restraint chair and the isolated padded cell for mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates:

Bryan Hutcheson
Lacy Whitmore

Friday, November 16, 2012

Distinguished Panel To Present At Monday's Forum

I'm excited about the panelists who will present at our noon to 1:30 community forum this Monday, November 19, at the Massanutten Regional Library on the use of GPS monitoring technology. The focus will be on ways of reducing jail overcrowding and providing pretrial and post trial monitoring for non-violent offenders who can thus continue to support their families, pay their court costs and fines, and function under appropriate supervision and pay their debt to society (see November 12  blog).

Invite your friends to join you to hear the following persons speak and answer questions. Local citizen Earl Martin may also give a brief report of his experience of volunteering to wear a monitoring bracelet over the past week.

The Honorable Brian L. Shipwash is a leading national expert on pretrial release policies, bail bonding, and related issues of jail overcrowding. Mr. Shipwash has worked on these issues in North Carolina, Virginia, and states across the country. Mr. Shipwash believes that jail overcrowding can be significantly reduced by streamlining the judicial process. He also aggressively supports the use of GPS technology coupled with secured conditions that can ensure that the defendant will appear for trial. Mr. Shipwash is the elected Clerk of Superior Court in Davidson County, North Carolina. The Superior Court is similar to Circuit Courts in Virginia. Mr. Shipwash also serves as a Judge of Probate in North Carolina.

Rev. Micheal Donovan is the founder of Nexus Programs, a religious based organization that provides pretrial diversion and GPS tracking services for defendants in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Nexus works to reduce jail overcrowding by providing resources to Courts, Prosecutors, and Judges to mitigate the risk of flight and danger to the public in releasing defendants on bond prior to trial. Nexus also works to provide diversion programming designed to reduce offender recidivism and stop the revolving door in our criminal justice system. Rev. Donovan served as Executive Director of Nexus Programs until August of 2012. He now is a full time law student and continues to serve on the board of Nexus Programs and works in an advisory role with the organization. Rev. Donovan is also associate pastor of the River Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

William Wiesband is a licensed bail agent and owner of Private Pretrial Reports in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Mr. Weisband provides GPS tracking to bail bond clients and assists in evaluating criminal defendants for the Courts prior to their trials. Mr. Weisband has worked as a bail bondsman for nearly ten years, and has years of experience as a licensed insurance agent. Mr. Weisband has been a vocal proponent of the commercial bail bond industry and of well regulated GPS tracking technology. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pens Mightier Than Swords

Malala Yousafzai
 “If this new generation is not given pens, they will be given guns by terrorists.”     - Malala Yousafzai

While a majority of teenage girls in the US seem preoccupied with boy friends, the latest fads and facebook, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan has been crusading to help girls in her country get an education.

Already at 11, she was an anonymous blogger for the BBC, writing about what it was like to live in her Taliban-ruled area. Just a month ago, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman because of her efforts, and is still recuperating in a hospital in the UK.

It makes me wonder how we could instill in our own children and grandchildren more of the kind of priorities stated by Malala before the tragedy that nearly took her life, “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is an education. I am afraid of no one.”

Hers is the kind of story we want to be telling our sons and daughters, along with those about the heroes and martyrs of our own faith, inspired by none other than Jesus himself.

Meanwhile, Bonnie Lloyd, a professor of sociology in Rochester, New York, has started a petition to nominate Malala for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: How GPS Tracking Technology Could Help Reform Offenders

This piece by Mike Donovan, founder and executive director of Nexus Programs, should appear as an op-ed in the Daily News-Record later this week. A community forum on this topic is set for noon Monday, November 19, at the Massanutten Regional Library. Please come!

ReliAlert XC
Jail overcrowding is a serious issue here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Our local jail is rated to hold 208 inmates, but the actual number of inmates reaches nearly double that number at times. In our quest to reduce crime, we have not properly balanced our community’s need to maintain public safety with that of developing ways to lower recidivism and reenter offenders effectively into our community. The result is more warehousing of offenders, with each of us taxpayers footing the bill.

There are many strategies that can be implemented to reduce jail overcrowding. One such strategy is to use technological advances to mitigate risks associated with releasing offenders back into the community. We’ve all seen the type of GPS technology worn by celebrity offenders like Lindsay Lohan on national news programs, but this technology is also available in our community. Instead of spending upwards of $70 a day to house each inmate in our local jail, we could force some of these offenders to pay their own costs of monitoring and become contributing members of society. Even a modest number of 100 fewer inmates in our jail would save taxpayers $7,000 A DAY! That is over $2.5 million a year. Do I have your attention yet?

It is sometimes necessary to incarcerate offenders in order to protect the public and hold offenders accountable. Punishment through incarceration is real, tangible, and dramatic, something we can point to in order to help crime victims feel a sense of justice, and it fosters a real and specific deterrent. There is little mystery as to why we utilize incarceration so much. As a Judge who handles criminal trials told me a few years ago, the system certainly isn’t perfect, but it is what we have.

But while our crime rates remain steady or are actually decreasing, our prisons are bursting at the seams, and we observe a depressingly high recidivism rate. At some point we must stop repeating the same policies of the past and honestly assess how well our current strategy is working. Might many of the offenders we are warehousing be simply learning to become better criminals? Left with nothing to do but play cards and watch television, inmates share their stories and learn from each others’ “mistakes,” thus turning our jails into schools of criminal behavior that graduate students at an ever increasing rate.

There are other options we might employ to more effectively manage our pre-trial and post sentencing offender populations. Organizations like the one I represent, Nexus Programs, are examples of such options. At Nexus, we use GPS satellite tracking technology to monitor criminal defendants both before their trials and after they are sentenced. Judges order whatever conditions they see fit, from total house arrest to general monitoring. We can even set geographic boundaries around specific areas that the offender is not allowed to visit. Defendants are tracked in real time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The best thing about monitoring through our program is that the services are completely offender funded. That’s right, no taxpayer funds go to monitoring these defendants. Remember that $7,000 a day, or $2.5 million a year? Can you think of better ways we might spend that money?

Our organization is taking part in an upcoming community forum on this issue sponsored by the local Fellowship of Reconciliation, the fourth in a series on criminal justice issues held there over the past two years. Invited panelists include myself, a representative from the bail bond industry that offers similar technology, and a Clerk of Court and national expert on these issues from our neighboring state of North Carolina. 

Please join us Monday, November 19, from 12-1:30 pm at the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg for a community conversation on how we can better manage the correctional issues our community faces and put some of that $7,000 a day, or $2.5 million a year, back in the pockets of taxpayers like you and me.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Better Mental Health Services For Local Inmates?

restraint chair
Daniel Robayo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, and I had a productive meeting with Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson and Lieutenant Steven Shortell on Monday to discuss the following:

1) How can our community support an increase in the number of hours and personnel available to provide much needed mental health services to jail inmates, including enlisting professional mental health volunteers if necessary?

2) How could an expanded staff help provide alternatives to the use of the restraint chair and the isolated padded cell when dealing with mentally ill and suicidally depressed persons?

3) How could the jail and/or the Community Services Board better respond to numerous concerns expressed by inmates who reporting problems accessing medications as prescribed?

Uses of Restraint Chair and Isolated Padded Cell (January 1 through June 30, 2012)

Unlike the above photo, our local jail does not strip inmates who are confined to their restraint chair, but when suicidally depressed or incorrigible inmates are placed in the isolated padded cell for similar safety or medical (suicidal) reasons they are stripped of their clothing and given only a paper gown to wear. While there they have no access to reading material, mattress, pillow, blanket, or eating utensils. A hole in the floor serves as a commode.

We can understand the occasional need for such restraint or confinement for incorrigible inmates, but the primary purpose of Monday’s meeting was to discuss more humane ways to treat mentally ill and suicidal detainees.

We had recently asked for, and kindly received, documentation from Sheriff Hutcheson’s office about all uses of the jail’s restraint chair and padded isolation cell from January 1 to June 30, 2012.
 Their report showed there were 19 cases of mentally ill persons (usually suicidal) being confined to the restraint chair during that time, an average of three per month. In restraint, belts and cuffs have the prisoner's legs, arms, and torso immobilized.

In an additional 8 cases inmates were in restraint for things like “were intoxicated,” “wouldn’t listen,” “were bouncing off the walls,” or who were otherwise seen as possibly harming themselves. The average time spent in the chair for these 27 persons (for medical and these other reasons) was four hours, with the shortest time being two hours and the longest ten hours.      

In addition, there were 22 other reported cases of the chair being used for inmates demonstrating violent behavior and who were considered potentially harmful to others. Some of that number may also have been suicidal, but this was difficult to determine because many were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The average time spent in the chair in these cases was six hours, with two hours being the shortest time and 24 hours being the longest.

As to the isolated padded cell (the “rubber room”), there were 7 cases of it being used for medical reasons (inmates deemed suicidal) during this six-month period. In an additional 13 instances an ordinary segregated cell was used and a guard assigned to regularly check to make sure the prisoner did no harm to him or herself. Here the inmate does have access to a Bible, mattress, blanket and a commode.

Segregation cells are used routinely for disciplinary purposes in jails and prisons, and sometimes for the protection of an inmate who is in danger of being harmed by his or her cell mates. Such sentences to the “hole,” for either the prisoner’s protection or for in-jail violations, may be for weeks at a time.

In all fairness, extreme overcrowding at our local jail, along with challenges of limited budget and personnel have Sheriff Hutcheson and his staff stretched to their limit. Our jail, built for 208, is double bunked and typically houses from 325-375 inmates, some having to sleep on the floor. As a result, jail staff feels they have few choices at times but to resort to the use of the restraint chair, segregated cells, and even to the dreaded isolated padded cell. They do report, however, a definite trend toward fewer uses of such measures.

Current Medical and Mental Health Resources

Our local jail has a contract with Southern Health to provide one or more nurses on site around the clock to meet the medical needs of inmates. In addition, a retired MD from Staunton is available on a very part-time basis.

For mental health needs, the jail contracts with our local Community Services Board to provide a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner for 2 1/2 hours once a week and two professional mental health counselors for a part of two days per week and to be on call for emergencies.

Two very part time volunteer chaplains are also available for male inmates and one for female detainees.

Ongoing Challenges

Over the past year a number of concerned citizens in our community have been meeting to explore alternative sentencing options and other ways of reducing jail overcrowding, as well as brainstorming better ways of dealing with mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates. 

One idea is to assign such persons to regular segregated cells with trained volunteer mental health providers or interns taking turns being next to the cell and relating to that person until he or she is able to be returned to general population. Such volunteers, coordinated by the CSB, could also be useful in the booking area, where persons may be kept for as long as 24 hours (occasionally longer) until they are sober and can be appropriately assigned to regular population.

In this holding area, inmates are normally not allowed a mattress, pillow or blanket for fear they may attempt to harm themselves, and are typically denied their medications during that time, especially if they are intoxicated.

I believe a community like ours can work together to provide more effective and humane treatment of our incarcerated citizens. Monday’s meeting gave us new hope that together we might be able to make that happen, with Sheriff Hutcheson suggesting in his last email that “the CSB is a primary factor in this matter of discussion”. 

Check out the following links for more background information:

P. S. SAVE THIS DATE: A community forum is being planned for the Massanutten Regional Library from 12-1:30 pm Monday, November 19, to discuss the expanded use of GPS bracelet monitoring technology for pre-trial and post-trial non-violent offenders. The program features a panel of speakers that includes the founder of Nexus Programs (a non-profit agency that provides such monitoring), a representative from the bail bond industry that offers similar technology, and a Clerk of Court and national expert on these issues from North Carolina. Their input will be followed by a Q & A time with participants. The event is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post Election Reflection

On the morning afterward, I wish everyone in the country could just live together in the spirit of two families who live nearby who posted the above signs on their front yards.

Let’s face it, the world is neither going to end nor will the nation be ushered into paradise as a result of this bitterly fought and often ugly race. Voting isn’t some great patriotic duty that assures ideal outcomes. The greater task for all of us, I believe, is to invest in the kind of prayer and persuasion all year round that influences our friends, families, neighbors and nations in good and godly directions.

A part of me agrees with my oldest son, who told me last night that for him voting most often seems like choosing between having a bad case of flu or contracting some unknown form of cancer. In other words, every nation, every world empire, is permeated and controlled by all kinds of evil forces that continue to be at work regardless of which party is in power.

As “resident aliens” we can only influence wherever we can, speak out whenever we must, and keep being a voice for God's lasting “peace on earth and goodwill towards all.”

Meanwhile, can we realize we can all benefit and learn from each other, and find creative ways of becoming "Knit Together by Differences"?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Voting For God

Blessings on a beautiful Sunday morning. I was profoundly moved yesterday in reflecting on the following psalm, which I see as the best kind of "voter guide" imaginable, a clear description of how God would have the world governed (especially note the lines in bold to learn more about the "God Party" platform!):


Praise the LORD, my soul;
I will praise the LORD all my life,
sing praise to my God while I live.
Put no trust in princes,
in children of Adam powerless to save.
Who breathing their last, return to the earth;
that day all their planning comes to nothing.
Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD, his God,
The maker of heaven and earth,
the seas and all that is in them,
Who keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
who gives bread to the hungry.

The LORD sets prisoners free;
the LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD protects the resident alien,
comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow,
but thwarts the way of the wicked.

The LORD shall reign forever,
your God, Zion, through all generations!


Friday, November 2, 2012

White Lies and Huge Whoppers

“(F)or we have made lies our refuge
    and falsehoods our hiding place.”
                       (Isaiah 28:15)

Truth, we’re told, is the first casualty of war.

And I would add, of political campaigns.

We’re being inundated these days with political ads and speeches laced with lies, distortions and misrepresentations. Both parties do their share of this, and we’ve come to just accept it as politics as usual.

Maybe it's because we’ve always been so exposed wall to wall commercials of all kinds that we’re beyond being shocked when politicians employ the same kinds of propaganda tactics. Running for office has become a matter of successful marketing, which relies on spin rather than just presenting useful information.    

What is most distressing is that even faith-based organizations are prone to mislead.

Take the familiar “voter guide”. Candidate A is listed as "opposing religious liberty," while candidate B supports it. A is for "government control (or takeover!) of health care," B is against it. A will "cut $716 billion from Medicare," while B will not. Nothing is nuanced, explained or put in context.

By definition, this becomes little more than propaganda, since not everything can be reduced to simplistic, good versus evil categories.

For example, someone may not at all be in favor of abortion but be labeled anti-life because he or she does not favor indicting everyone who has one as a murderer, just as one can be strongly against divorce but still not in favor of criminalizing it, or be adamantly anti-alcohol but not for re-instituting Prohibition.

In summary, before we go on any more crusades to get the Ten Commandments back in our schools, maybe we should work harder at applying them to every part of our lives.

As in, "Thou shalt not bear false witness."

Here's a link to examples of 2012 campaign mistruths .