Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Post-Thanksgiving Warning (c. 1250 BCE)

"When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  

"Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.  

"Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  

"He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.  

"You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth."

- Deuteronomy 8: 10-18 (New International Version) 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Should We Give Thanks For Columbus's "Discovery"?

According to Michael S. Martin's book, "Pilgrims and Politics", Spain's general treasurer Sanchez appealed to Queen Isabella to approve the Columbus voyage in order to "discover and acquire certain islands and mainlands of the ocean sea." She approved the voyage "in God's Name for the glory and wealth of His blessed nation, Spain".

This same divinely blessed nation had murdered thousands of Muslims in the centuries prior 1492, had persecuted and killed countless Jews and exiled over 100,000 of them, and had through the brutal Spanish Inquisition made Spain one of the purest Catholic countries in the world. They credited all of these accomplishments to God's special blessing and approval.

In a report of his voyage Columbus, not known for his modesty, wrote, "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John... and he showed me the spot where to find it... Thanks to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has granted us so great a victory and such prosperity. Let processions be made and sacred feasts be held, and the temples be adorned with festive boughs. Let Christ rejoice on earth, and he rejoices in heaven in the prospect of the salvation of the souls of so many nations hitherto lost."

At this special Thanksgiving season I am sometimes torn between feeling a need to get on my knees in deep gratitude to God for all the blessings I enjoy in the "new world" on the one hand and getting on my knees in repentance for the holocaust and horrific mistreatment inflicted on the native American population following that event.

This year our family is enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving meal today at our nearby son's home, followed by a feast of atonement with our house church family on Sunday in which we will have only rice and beans. This meal, one much like the daily fare of the majority of the world's people, is being prepared by a native of El Salvador who has just opened her "Raquel Restaurante" (568-1894) along Mt. Clinton Pike.

This is our feeble attempt to show some solidarity with the world's poor and to give a generous offering for Mennonite Central Committee to help ease a little of the world's suffering.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Local Unelected Board To Decide A $63 Million Question

Proposed site of a second jail, right next to the County Landfill
The twenty appointed members of our local Community Criminal Justice Board* have been called to a historic 4 pm meeting Monday, December 8, at the County Offices Building on East Gay Street.

In this one session, open to the public but not billed as a public hearing, the CCJB is set to make a $63 million decision about building a second jail in our community.

The CCJB, made up of five elected officials and fifteen other local civil servants are charged with the general oversight of our criminal justice system. According to their minutes, its last meeting was held over a year ago, on October 28, 2013.

This upcoming session will be their first and only opportunity to officially review and act on Moseley Architects' "Comprehensive Community Plan", a several hundred page document required by Virginia statute in order for communities to qualify for state building funds. Through a $120,000 contract with our local governing bodies, Moseley, a Richmond-based firm, has been conducting this mandatory community-based study since late summer and just issued its report last week.

To my knowledge no further official vote is required by either the City Council or the local Board of Supervisors for then taking the next step, requesting matching funds from the state for construction. This process will take some time, of course, and state funding is not a sure thing, but the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors and the City of Harrisonburg simply want to be in line to get funding from the State in its upcoming two-year state budget cycle to help cover up to half of the projected construction cost. Meanwhile we are assured that they are not necessarily fully endorsing the Moseley plan in its current form.

$63 million is a lot of money, and according to Moseley's own report, this second jail would require an additional $10 million a year for staffing and other operating costs, while we would of course need to continue to fund the operation of the present jail on Liberty Street. Some of these local expenses are also covered by State funding, but all through our hard earned tax dollars, whether through Richmond or our local jurisdiction.

Among the improvements in the new facility would be space for a much needed mental health unit, at an operating cost of over ten times the meager amount we are spending now for such services. This addition is in itself is a good thing, but investing in community-based services that offer more prevention (and less detention) may be a far better use of the millions we are about to invest in a second jail.

It is also argued that having more of our own bed space would save us the current $1 million annually we are paying to rent space for some 100 inmates we are housing at the nearby (overbuilt) Middle River Jail just 25-minutes away. But that could be considered a real bargain compared to cost of building and operating our own second facility.

In a later blog, I will post some of the actual recommendations in the Moseley report, which if followed, would drastically reduce our current jail population and could entirely eliminate the need for this $63 million investment. Stay tuned.

Here's a recent statement by Ken Cuchinelli, our former Virginia Attorney General:
“For far too long, the only answer to decreasing crime was to put more people in prison. We built prisons at rates we didn’t need and couldn’t afford, especially for non-violent offenders.  Now, we know there are alternatives that cost less and work better.  I am proud to sign on with the Right on Crime initiative to help fix this problem by making cost effective, data driven public safety decisions that reduce recidivism rates.” 

Click here for an online petition to the local Community Corrections Board
and here's a link to some other posts on the topic.

* Current appointed members of the CCJB: Chair of the County Board of Supervisors Pablo Cuevas, Harrisonburg Mayor Ted Byrd,  The Honorable T.J. Wilson, The Honorable Bruce D. Albertson, The Honorable Richard A. Claybrook, The Honorable H. David O'Donnel, Donald D. Driver, Jr., Chaz W. Evans-Haywood, Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, Dr. Carol Fenn, Dr. Scott R. Kizner, Marsha L. Garst, Police Chief Stephen Monticelli, Kurt Hodgen, Louis Nagy, Monica Martin, Joseph S. Paxton, Lee Shifflett, Ann Marie Freeman and Lacy Whitmore

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Becoming Friends With Lifelong Benefits

"Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame."

 Song of Songs 8:6 (NIV) 

In an October 20, 2014, column "Why Can't We Be Friends?" published in James Madison University's student newspaper, the Breeze, Amanda Anzalone makes the case that JMU's 'hookup culture' tends to get in the way of students forming healthy relationships.

Nevertheless she still goes on to say, "Casual sex alone isn't a problem, since college is often a time for experimentation and self-discovery (and if that's something you're into, more power to you). The problem stems from the negative attitudes and pressures perpetuating from it."

Her column concludes with a similar statement, "Casual sex and hookups, when done in a safe and healthy way, can be a great thing for the people involved, but it becomes a problem once it starts getting in the way of new friendships. Don't miss out on the opportunity to make friends who last long after you're out of the college 'hookup' culture."

So for Anzalone and many of her generation it's just another lifestyle choice--whether to engage in casual and multiple hook-ups or to save sex for a celebration of a committed lifelong partnership. Take your pick, since one approach is evidently as good as the other when it comes to "happily ever after".

Or is it? And just what is "casual sex"? How can engaging in anything as passionate and intense as skin-on-skin intercourse be considered "casual"? When did entering another's bare body in intimate, bonding embrace become just another form of weekend entertainment? And how can we be sure that this kind of promiscuous behavior won't become an addictive pattern that will persist after we finally settle down and get married?

Of course we could decide to reduce sex to being a purely soulless genital activity devoid of any human affection, accountability or commitment. Which appears to be increasingly the case.

In the last (issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Sabrina Rubin Erdely tells the horrific story of a gang rape of "Jackie" at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia, an all too common occurrence at all too many of our universities. Might this rape mentality be the ultimate result of a view of sex that has become stripped of any connection to lasting love and committed-for-life relationships?

Erdely writes of many young adults, "For much of their lives, they've looked forward to the hedonistic fun of college, bearing every expectation of booze and no-strings sex. A rape heralds the uncomfortable idea that all that harmless mayhem may not be so harmless after all."

Which has me sometimes question the wisdom of our social experiment of having 18-year-olds spend four or more of their young adult years in a peer-dominated environment largely removed from family and other adult oversight. And whether it was it an altogether bad thing to have young Madison college women in the sixties still having their boy friends sign in at Alumnae Hall before taking them out on dates.

Dates? What an outdated concept these days. Imagine actually taking time to get acquainted with someone before going to bed with them, to make a loving friendship a basis for a future lasting partnership.

"Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
    all the wealth of one’s house for love,
    it would be utterly scorned."

                                   Song of Songs 8:7 (NIV)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Packing More Inmates Into Bathroom-Size Cages

Charles Zellers Sr.'s 7x12 single cell, now double-bunked as a part of a plan to house extra prisoners
Virginia's prison system is in crisis. With state budget shortfalls contributing to increased pressures to make cuts wherever possible, prisons, as always, are seen as the most politically safe places to reduce costs.

As one budget cutting measure, the aging Powhatan prison at State Farm, Virginia, built in 1926, has been the first to be shut down except for a small number of inmates left there to operate its print shop and milk plant. At least 120 from that facility were recently moved to Buckingham Correctional Center, built for 640, but now, with the latest influx of new prisoners, filled to nearly twice that number. I've heard from another inmate that 130 men have been moved to the Augusta Correctional Center, which is also at double its design capacity.

As prisons become more crowded and understaffed, I hear  reports of increased stress, more gang activity and a significant drop in morale. All of this is made worse by smaller food portions, inmates sometimes being given used clothes and towels, and being charged increased fees for medical and dental services that were once paid by the state. While there are now fewer jobs available (typically at 27¢ an hour), inmates are no longer even provided the usual weekly bar of prison manufactured soap, which they now must purchase at the commissary.

Mr. Zellers, who provided me with the above sketch of his 7' x 12' cell, had for the past 18 years earned a cell to himself for being a model prisoner, but he must now share his bathroom-size space with a cellmate. Originally all Buckingham cells were designed to house only one person, but as is the case in other Virginia prisons, that has not been possible for some time.

The American Correctional Association states that there must be 35 square foot of unencumbered space per single cell occupant, and when confinement exceeds more than ten hours a day, that number must be 80 square feet. And when there are two or more in the same cell, there are to be 25 square feet of space per inmate.

As can be seen from the above diagram, Zellers' cell offers only about 29 square feet of open space, or 14.5' per person.

The next time you go into your bathroom, visualize having to spend a major portion of your time in that kind of close confinement every day--and for years on end. Then try to imagine being denied parole year after year in spite of putting every effort possible to earn an early release, something you were assured you would get if you entered a plea agreement and demonstrated good behavior while incarcerated.

According to Zellers' most recent letter, "Parole turn downs have been pouring in for the past week. Haven't heard of anyone being granted parole yet. Discretionary parole release is a joke and so is geriatric release, both done by the same corrupt Parole Board."

Click here for more posts on our broken criminal justice system.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We Need Help In Discerning What Are "Disputable Matters"

Can any part of Paul's teaching in Romans apply?
Mennonite Church USA, like many denominations, is in a state of crisis over an issue I never thought would become a subject of dispute in my lifetime, the question of whether congregations can accept members in faithful same sex relationships.

As a pastor and counselor I've met with many members who have lived for years with the pain of being gay or lesbian in a church in which their gender orientation is seen as unacceptable and wrong. In the past this 3-4% of our members has largely suffered their isolation in silence and/or tried in vain to change their orientation. Most, unlike the majority of us, have remained celibate (or have quietly moved elsewhere).

Now as some members are asking to have same sex unions blessed by the church, an increasing number of their friends, parents and other loved ones are supporting them. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a major rift that threatens to tear the church apart at every level--denominational, area conferences and local congregations--along with individual families who are divided over the issue.

As an example, Chester Wenger, a 96-year-old Lancaster Conference pastor and missionary recently wrote an opinion for The Mennonite in which he affirmed how having a beloved son in a committed same sex relationship has led him and his wife to reconsider their position. Soon thereafter his daughter Jewel and their son-in-law Richard Showalter wrote a respectful counter statement for the Mennonite World Review. Both the Showalters and Wengers deeply love the church and are highly regarded as church leaders. Yet they are not of one mind on this issue.

Willard Swartley, another seasoned church leader and author of the book, Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment (Herald Press, 2003) which supports the church's traditional view of marriage, wrote a recent letter to the MWR appealing for unity in the face of this debate. Specifically, he urges that we "embrace Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17 and pray daily for 1) protection from the evil one; 2) sanctification by/in truth, and 3) unity--to be made completely one as Jesus is one with the Father for the purposes Jesus desires in verses 23-24."

Canadian writer and pastor Glen Brubaker recently co-wrote a piece with David Augsburger, a lifelong pastor and seminary teacher, which they entitled "'Welcome' in Romans 14-15:7" suggesting another possible response on the part of the church based on Paul's teachings about how the church deals with "disputable matters". In Paul's time some major differences the church experienced had to do with issues like the observance of Jewish holidays, eating food that had been offered in pagan idol worship, and observing certain traditionally Jewish dietary restrictions. The even more divisive issue of whether the sacred sign of circumcision would be required for all male believers had already been settled earlier.

As a pastor, Paul admonishes the "strong", those with more robust consciences and fewer scruples in disputable matters, to respect and to never look down on the "weak", those with more sensitive consciences that allowed them less freedom in such areas. And he repeatedly urges the latter not to pass judgment on fellow believers with whom they differ, but fully accept them as their sisters and brothers.

But then as now, the church has had difficulty deciding just what kinds of issues belong in that "disputable" or "gray" area. Are they only the things actually listed in Romans 13, 14 and in I Corinthians 8 and 10, most of which no longer are of great concern us? Or do they include any issues that are frequently disputed at any given time in the church's life by those who have pledged allegiance to Jesus as Lord and want to be faithful to scripture (such as the matter debated by the Wengers and Showalters)?

The Mennonite church does experience consensus on a great many things. Some issues that are seldom considered "disputable"are that we all seek to base our life and practices on the Bible, and generally adhere to Palmer Becker's three Anabaptist principles, "Jesus is the center of our faith", "Community is the center of our life" and "Reconciliation is the center of our work".

We have also, for better or worse, experienced broad consensus on certain differences that we've come to believe should not separate us, such as whether divorced persons can remarry, or whether Mennonites can ever be any part of the military. We also have major agreements regarding behaviors we all clearly rule out as unacceptable, like being sexually promiscuous or being married to more than one partner.

But what are we to do with disputable matters? Can we assume that anything can belong in this category simply by virtue of the fact that many are indeed disputing them?

I welcome your reflections.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Veterans Of A Battle For Humane Mental Health Treatment

2009 NPR report
During World War II hundreds of conscientious objectors, in lieu of serving in the armed forces, were assigned to work in settings like overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed US mental hospitals.

Conditions in most of these institutions were horrific. And by 1940, there were some one million patients locked up in prison-like places like the Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, with an inmate population that peaked at 16,000. Like most such institutions, it has since been drastically downsized, but remains the largest psychiatric hospital in the world.

During the forties and fifties, a record number of mentally ill patients were consigned to such hellish places. Many of them were left there for life, and their numbers were growing exponentially.

For most of the Quakers, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and other pacifists who did their alternative Civilian Public Service assignments in such settings, it was a new and unforgettable experience.

Local CPS'er Harold Lehman recalls his first impressions upon arriving for his assigned work at the Greystone Park Mental Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, during the war. The institution, surrounded by a stone wall a mile in circumference, most resembled a prison, one which at that time incarcerated some 5000 patients.

Harold checked in a day earlier than he was to report for work, but the head of the medical surgical unit ordered him to report for his first 12-hour, six-day-a-week shift immediately due to their severe staff shortage, and without providing any orientation whatever.

According to a 2009 NPR report, the presence of caring attendants like Lehman made a noticeable difference not only in the lives of abused and neglected patients but also for the men who served them. So much so that after the war a disproportionate number of people from my denomination went into mental health professions, and there are now six Mennonite-affiliated treatment centers in the country, as follows:

Kingview Mental Health System (1948) Reedley, California
Brook Lane Psychiatric Center (1949) Hagerstown, Maryland
Meadowlark Homestead Inc. (1951) Newton, Kansas
Philhaven (1952) Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania
Prairie View (1954) Newton, Kansas
Oaklawn (1962) Goshen, Indiana

In addition there are several Mennonite-related outpatient mental health counseling centers, including the Family Life Resource Center, where I work. Nationally, we have reached the consensus that most mentally ill people can best be treated in their communities rather than being locked away for years  on end.

As someone with a strong interest in prison reform, I can't help but wonder whether we may someday look back at today's trend toward over-incarceration of offenders as a similar travesty.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Keeping Our Retirement Funds Busy

MEDA photo
Imagine having the money you've set aside for retirement working around the clock accomplishing things that really matter to you, like helping farmers in South America grow and market their own coffee, providing capital for women in Africa developing small businesses, and funding alternative energy projects at home and abroad.

Instead of investing in Wall Street traded corporations, Alma Jean and I have been blessed by having the bulk of our retirement funds in microlending programs that benefit the poor and help the environment.

Our local financial adviser Glen Kauffman, with Everence Association Inc., a fraternal benefit society, has helped us do this through Calvert, MEDA, Oikocredit and similar organizations.

For us this represents the best of both worlds, having our money meet the kinds of needs we typically associate with charitable giving, yet also having it available for later use as needed for our retirement.

For example, Everence offering an Advantage Select High Impact Annuity for individuals wanting to save for retirement while their money is invested helping others. It offers an annual interest rate guarantee of 1.7% for two years or 2.05% for four years.

That may not seem like much, but it helps provide loans for causes that are priceless:
  • Emerging and socially engaged congregations growing their ministries and community services.
  • Green lending for nonprofit organizations making environmentally friendly improvements.
  • Community development needs in underserved areas in the U.S. and around the world.
“We are excited to offer our members a way to help others while also saving for their own future,” says Michael Horn, Everence Director of Charitable Products and Church Loans. “The Everence Advantage Select High Impact Annuity gives people an opportunity to live out their faith and values through their financial decisions. It’s another way we are doing better, together.”

As a disclaimer, I am not a part of any organized effort to promote Everence or any of its products. But as one of its customers, I definitely approve this message.

Check this link for previous blogs on this subject.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How Local Church Of The Brethren Opposed Virginia's Massive Resistance To Integration

Past Governor and US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.
I owe special thanks to EMU classmate Kenneth Eshleman  for permission to use the following remarkable and untold story, excerpted and condensed from an unpublished 1964 research paper of his I recently found in my files, one he wrote for a Senior History Seminar course. Dr. Eshleman recently retired from teaching history and political science at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennyslvania.

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional, Virginia's Senator and ex-governor Harry F. Byrd, Sr., his son Harry F. Byrd, Jr., and other prominent politicians in the Commonwealth created a policy known as "massive resistance" in opposition to any form of racial integration in the commonwealth's public schools.

Under then Governor Thomas B. Stanley, a 32-member member commission came up with the "Gray Amendment" to the Virginia Constitution, one that would change the section that prohibited the use of public funds for private education and that would allow school boards to fund alternative segregated schools. A referendum was passed by both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates that had to then be approved by Virginia citizens. Meanwhile, even stronger legislation was passed that would actually cut off funds to local public schools that chose to integrate.

Some key members of the Church of the Brethren in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, led by Paul Bowman (president emeritus of Bridgewater College) and Pastor Robert L. Sherfy (then president of Harrisonburg's Ministerial Association) wrote letters to the editor and ran ads in the newspaper actively opposed the measure and urged County and City residents to vote against the ratification of the referendum. They were joined in this effort by the local Committee for Free Public Schools, led by two Madison College professors, one of whom, Rev. Ward McCabe, was also an Episcopal rector.

On the opposite side were such community leaders as Madison College president G. Tyler Miller, superintendent of Rockingham County Schools Wilbur S. Pence, State Senator George Aldhizer II, and the two local state delegates, Lawrence Hoover and Charles Wampler, who happened to be members of the Church of the Brethren (as was Wilbur Pence) but who went along with the amendment.

Remarkably, the efforts of Bowman, Sherfy and others prevailed as far as the outcome in this area was concerned. Rockingham turned out to be one of the few Virginia Counties that voted against the policy of massive resistance, along with Arlington, Fairfax, Charles City, Montgomery, Highland and Pulaski Counties. The City of Harrisonburg was joined by only three other cities in opposition, Radford, Waynesboro and Bristol.

A January 6, 1955, issue of the Daily News-Record quotes Dr. Paul Bowman as saying:

"There are those who say that this is not a moral issue... Let the church, they say, preach the gospel, baptize sinners, bury the dead and keep its hands out of business, politics and public education... (But) the church of Christ is concerned with every movement which affects human life and touches human character... Whatever contributes to the enrichment or impoverishment of the human mind is the business of the church... It is not enough for the church to preach the gospel of love and goodwill and do nothing about those instruments of society which breed ill will, mistrust and injustice."

In spite of these efforts here locally, Virginia nevertheless held out against fully integrating its schools for another ten years. But the voices of members of the Church of the Brethren and others, in hindsight, were clearly on the right side.

What lessons can we take today from their courage and persistence?

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Respectful Appeal To Local Supervisors

photo from Old South High blog
I welcome your feedback on the following draft of a three-minute speech I hope to present at our local Board of Supervisors' meeting this Wednesday at 3 pm:

Thank you, Chairman Ceuvas and other members of the Board, for this opportunity to address my concerns about how our community can better serve the increasing numbers of mentally ill men and women in our local jail.

I know you are in the early stages of determining how to respond to the final version of the Moseley Architects' proposal due this month, and I understand it may include a space for people needing mental health treatment. As a therapist, I find that heartening, but I also have some serious concerns.

As you see from the copy of Thursday's op ed piece on this issue you have in front of you, we currently have the most meager budget for mental health services of any regional jail in our area, one that pays for only 10% of the personnel time as does the new RWS Regional Jail, for example, with a total of 375 beds, and  only 5% of the mental health personnel time as the Winchester Regional Jail, with 600 inmates.

So when someone is considered at risk for suicide at our Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail, for example, the staff there often feel they have no choice but to put such inmates in restraint chairs or to strip them and place them in the isolated padded cell, sometimes for hours on end. There are simply no counselors of any kind available.

I applaud any improvement in this area we could provide in a new facility. But just creating physical space doesn't provide clinicians for a viable mental health program. To staff such a program would require an additional budget of at least $100,000 a year, even for only two mental health clinicians. Compare that to the clearly inadequate $18,000 ($9000 from the County) the Jail pays the Community Services Board for the services of one very part time nurse practitioner to meet the psychotropic med needs of a population of 400 plus people at a mere three hours a week.

With the additional financial burden of funding a new multimillion dollar facility, to say nothing of the additional cost of staffing and maintaining it, how can we expect to have even more money to invest in an adequate mental health staff, given the fact that we currently feel we can afford only $9000 a year for such services?

A lot of people I talk with in our community wonder whether it wouldn't be wiser to continue to rent available jail space at Middle River for the time being, at what may be a bargain compared to new construction and personnel costs we're looking at now, regardless of what we decide to build. And then to invest more dollars in our CSB, for example, to enable it to provide more adequate mental health and drug treatment programs that could help keep as many people as possible from having to become incarcerated in the first place.

Gemeinschaft Home, an already existing local treatment and reentry program, could be a model for the kind of structured environment many drug offenders could be assigned to as an alternative to incarceration--before they get into the criminal justice system rather than after they have served a sentence. The Fairfield Center is also prepared to handle cases through their Restorative Justice program that could divert many offenders from our courts and our jails (see the article on the McDonnells in front of you).

All of these kinds of programs have been proven to be more cost-effective, and just far more effective, period, than incarceration in many cases. We will still always need to have a facility such as the one on Liberty Street to house violent offenders and for those who may represent a flight risk, as well as for those fail to take advantage of the kinds of alternative work-based programs our community could provide for low risk offenders. But if we were able to get by with 70 jail beds prior to 1995, we shouldn't need over six times that number in just two decades, when our population has increased a mere 25% during that period, if my numbers are right.

I close with a recent statement by Ken Cuchinelli, our former Virginia Attorney General:
“For far too long, the only answer to decreasing crime was to put more people in prison. We built prisons at rates we didn’t need and couldn’t afford, especially for non-violent offenders.  Now, we know there are alternatives that cost less and work better.  I am proud to sign on with the Right on Crime initiative to help fix this problem by making cost effective, data driven public safety decisions that reduce recidivism rates.”  


NOTE: Here's an online petition to the local Community Corrections Board, which is to have a meeting that's open to the public to consider the Moseley Architects proposal on December 8, and to members of the Harrisonburg City Council and to Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, who are to approve it by December 31. Even f you have already signed a hard copy of the petition, please circulate and share this link as widely as possible.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Sin We Seldom Talk About

      "Gossip needn't be false to be evil - there's a lot of truth that shouldn't be passed around."

In our catalog of sins, gossip is seldom one we rank as especially serious. Everybody does it.

Yet it's hard to think of anything that can do more harm to what we prize most--our good reputations. Nor does engaging in it get close to respecting this version of the Golden Rule, "Speak of others only as you would have them speak of you."

Whenever we're about to pass on some unflattering information about another, we should consider the words of the late Jewish poet and theologian Jonathan Laveter, “Never tell evil of a man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you do know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, ‘Why should I tell it at all?'”

If anything we should practice spreading positive "rumors" about others' good deeds instead of talking about their faults.  

Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, in his book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, suggests that the most likely reason we gossip is to "raise our status through lowering the status of others", which he says is why we are less likely to speak ill of those we perceive as being of lower rank than ourselves.

Another motivation, he believes, is to be perceived as being "in the know". Here he quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson of two centuries ago as saying, "The vanity of being trusted with a secret is generally the chief motive for disclosing it."

Of course I have no problem keeping secrets myself. The problem lies with all the other folks I tell them to ;-).

Friday, November 7, 2014

Christian Aid Ministries: An Amazing Amish and Conservative Mennonite Relief Organization

CAM worker on the cover of Christianity Today
Christian Aid Ministries is a growing Amish-Mennonite based organization established in Berlin, Ohio, in 1981. While supported largely by Amish, conservative Mennonite and other "plain" Anabaptist groups in the US, it has since gained contributors from many other denominations as well. For clarification, the Amish involved are mostly not Old Order but are from the more progressive branches of the group.

Like its older sister organization, Mennonite Central Committee, based in Akron, Pennsylvania, it reaches out to needy people all around the globe. Last year CAM distributed approximately 15 million pounds of food, clothing, medicines, seeds, Bibles, Bible story books, and other Christian literature, according to their website. Their annual budget has reached nearly $100 million.

Countless volunteers donate their time to the work of the organization year round, and their fundraising and administrative costs represent only 2.4% of their total outlays. Their CEO's salary is very modest by most standards, paid in part by CAM's for-profit publishing side of its operation.

This is an amazing organization, led by a dedicated group of people administering aid projects in nearly every major hotspot in the world.

This Thanksgiving season should be a special time to make a generous gift for people in unimaginable need, like the ones pictured in the above refugee camp for Yesidi refugees in Iraq.

Here are some links where you can make a donation right now:

Christian Aid Ministries

Mennonite Central Committee

 Oxfam International



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bold Statement By Fairfield Center On Jail Expansion Issue

165 South Main Street • Suite A • Harrisonburg, Virginia 22801 Phone (540) 434-0059

WHEREAS Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have contracted with Richmond-based Moseley Architects to conduct a community-based corrections study and facility planning study that must examine current trends and future projections relative to jail population, as well as consider possible alternative programs and overall facility needs; and

WHEREAS the Fairfield Center and other area organizations and community groups currently plan for the expansion of existing and the establishment of new programs designed to divert misdemeanant and felon defendants and offenders detained in jail awaiting trial or actively serving sentences; and

WHEREAS the Community-Based Corrections Plan must, at a minimum, include: ... a description of the proposed services, staff and other resources necessary to implement expanded or new [alternative] programs; and

WHEREAS advantages of such alternatives have been proven to be more effective and require less tax dollars than detention; and

WHEREAS through a number of independent efforts, many community members and leaders have met to discuss advantages and options of alternative measures; and

WHEREAS the Department of Criminal Justice Services offers assistance concerning the development of alternative programs; and

WHEREAS the Fairfield Center, based on its mission, advocates for broad stakeholder involvement in important community decisions;

NOW, THEREFORE, the natural progression of these developments leads Fairfield to the next step of inviting you to a formal conversation on November 6, 2014, at Community Mennonite Church, 70 South High Street, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., about what expanded and new programs, as alternatives to incarceration, should be included in any community-based corrections plan.

Goals for the Meeting:  

Participants in this facilitated meeting will...
  • Become more informed and engaged in current criminal justice matters locally;
  • Review 6VAC15-80-110 for clarity on what a comprehensive Community-Based Corrections Plan must include;
  • Identify alternatives to incarceration – pretrial detention and post-disposition punishment:
    • Develop an up-to-date list of existing community resources;
    • Begin to identify the need for and resources necessary to expand existing and establish new pretrial detention and post-disposition punishment alternatives, and for additional resources necessary to improve criminal justice caseload and jail population management;
  • Suggest the necessary components (stakeholders, process-structures, and timelines) for appropriate criminal justice decisions in Harrisonburg-Rockingham County; and,
  • Provide a written summary to the Community Criminal Justice Board in advance of their meeting.
  • Here's a link to an online petition you can sign appealing for extending the time and expanding the stakeholders involved in coming up with the state-mandated Community-based Correction Plan required for applying for state funds (It is not the same as the one I circulated earlier asking for an additional year of time). Do not sign this one if you have already done so on a hard copy, but please urge others to sign on.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Prayer For All Souls Day 2014

November 1 is observed as All Saints Day in many churches, a day to reflect on the witness of Christian saints and martyrs of the past. Today, November 2, is designated as All Souls Day, a time to remember the rest of our deceased loved ones.

In my Anabaptist tradition, we tend not to make a distinction between "saints" and other ordinary followers of Jesus, believing that no one can be a "saint" alone (the word is always in the plural in the Bible), but that we are all, by the grace of God, a part of one global and eternal "communion of saints" spanning all space and time.

But we haven't been especially known for honoring our deceased saints.

I personally like the tradition of families in some Appalachian communities gathering each year at their family cemetery for a day to honor their departed loved ones. They celebrate the day as a kind of reunion, with good food and fellowship and often with singing and the sharing of memories of loved ancestors.

In the church I grew up in we always placed the obligatory gravestone with the name and birth and death dates of our buried deceased, but never brought flowers to their graves and seldom made return visits to the cemetery to honor their memories. Were we missing something?

One thing for sure, our lives don't begin and end with our own life stories. We have all been profoundly shaped by the experiences of countless others from near and far, and from both our present and our past, by all those who have gone on ahead of us. We owe them our gratitude.

This surely includes all of the 3237 individuals named in the Bible. Even though some were scoundrels, we can nevertheless learn something from each person's life, and of course from the multitudes of those who were flawed but worthy examples well worth following.

Since the Bible is largely a book of life stories, we wouldn’t have a Bible as we know it--and likely wouldn’t have a faith, period--without these very human people from our past. And while they are all dead now, as far as an earthly existence is concerned, they are still very much a part of our everyday lives, our experiences of worship, and the instructions and teachings we live by. There is only a "thin space" separating us.

I used to think of all of the people in the past as being behind us, and we the living as being on the front lines of history. But I no longer think of the deceased as bringing up the rear, but rather that we are actually behind them. They are the pioneers of our faith journey, and we are following in their train.

Here's an ancient Lithuanian Prayer for All Souls Day:

Dear souls of the dead,
you are still remembered by my family;
you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
also our relatives, children,
and everyone whom death
took away from our home.
I invite you to this annual feast.
We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
just like the memory of you is to us. Amen.