Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My First Official Sermon--50 Years Ago

Zion Mennonite Church of fifty years ago
On September 12, 1965, I delivered my first sermon as a newly licensed minister at Zion Mennonite near Broadway, where I served for over twenty years. 

I'm not exactly comfortable with all of the messages I gave back in those days, but this one I would gladly repeat, on the theme “Every Believer is Called to Ministry”, based on Mark 10:35-45. In this text Jesus is reprimanding his disciples for arguing over who should be considered the greatest in the God-movement Jesus was establishing. Jesus' answer is that in his upside-down kingdom we become great only by becoming servants of all. 

I stressed that the God's "calling" is not just for a select few, but is essentially that all believers follow Jesus together and continue the work he began while here on earth. The location and manner in which we carry out that calling--that of bringing healing and blessing to a broken world--are unique to each of us, based on our gifts and opportunities, but the calling is the same, that of each person to becoming an active part of a community of faith that lives, loves and serves others together.

This means one does not cease being a part of the "laity" (from "laos", the people) when one is appointed a pastoral leader or a teaching elder in the congregation. Ideally, there should be no lay-clergy distinctions, no individuals with special titles or status in this community, but all are fellow-servants under one master, the servant Jesus.

But through the ordinance of ordination we have created an elevated and specialized system of leadership. And I became a part of that paradigm, in spite of my initial sermon. Even our church architecture promoted this kind of elevation, with pews arranged to focus everyone's attention on the pulpit set in the center of a platform above the level of ordinary lay people, rather than our gathering together in some form of circle

When I came to Zion, they were in the early stages of adopting a more professional model for pastoral ministry. To start with, I wasn’t called from within the congregation, but from the outside, at 27 years old. After two years at I became its first salaried (half-time) pastor and was then ordained in 1968 and served as its senior pastor until 1988. A year after my ordination we moved into Zion’s first brand new parsonage built for us and located across the road from the church building. 

For the past 27 years I have been a part of a small house church congregation with shared leadership. We meet in a circle in each others' living rooms each week for two hours of worship and Bible study followed by a fellowship meal. Our focus is not primarily on what happens when we are gathered, but on on our mission when we are scattered elsewhere throughout the week. see

Far from perfect, but an attempt to live by the first official sermon I ever preached.

Fifty years ago.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Photo Inspires Appeals For Parole Reform

This photo of some of the Commonwealth's aging inmate population has been widely circulated
When members of Governor McAuliffe's new Parole Review Commission reconvene this afternoon they will have written copies provided of concerns expressed by citizens from throughout Virginia, including the following eloquent statements:

from Douglas Hendren, M.D., M.B.A. Harrisonburg:

"It has come to my attention that Virginia has a large and increasing population of aging, low-risk offenders who would be eligible for parole in most of the United States, but not presently in Virginia.

"As a physician, I am well aware of the enormously escalating medical costs associated with advancing age. As a citizen, I have learned about the steep decline in recidivism in the aging inmate population when released on parole.

"I have recently learned that the Virginia Department of Corrections released only 3% of those eligible for parole in 2014. This is an appalling low figure, reflecting either an utterly ineffective system of corrections, or questionable judgment regarding parole.

"It makes little sense to burden the taxpayer with indefinite custody and escalating cost of an elderly, low-risk prison population. It shows little compassion, little fiscal sense and little common sense.
"The goal of correction should be ultimately to return the majority of offenders safely back into society. The system should be designed and implemented at every level with this goal in mind. Anything less is beneath us as a civilized society, and a foolish burden on Virginia taxpayers as well."

from retired prison chaplain William H. Dent, Jr., Harrisonburg:

"As a former chaplain at Powhatan and James River Correctional Centers, I can tell you I have witnessed the distress of many current and former prisoners who though eligible for parole have been denied and told essentially not to expect it.  It has been an implied promise issued at sentencing and routinely broken for some outstandingly good citizens without citizenship, prisoners in Virginia prisons.  It seems to me that the Board has become almost infinitely afraid of making a mistake by granting parole and almost totally comfortable with the probability that they might make many mistakes by denying it.

"Reinstating parole for all prisoners could be very good, but only if we really mean to do all we can to get the former offenders out of prison as soon as reasonably possible and with the kind of help that can enable them to become established as contributing members of society.  The Gemeinschaft Home in Harrisonburg is part of the answer and an example of one thing we are doing right for a fraction of the population that can be released and are being released, many without equivalent needed support.  We pay the price of doing things right or the higher price of picking up the pieces."

Please address your own comments and concerns to who will forward them to members of the Commission.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Description Of Early Christians

early Christian symbol
The following second century defense of Christianity is available from numerous sources, but here's a link to the entire document. Could any of this be said of us today?

"... Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.  

"They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh." They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. 

"They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life."

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Local Citizens Speak At Monday's CCJB Meeting

Some citizens attending Monday's meeting (photo courtesy DNR)
For the first time, our local Community Criminal Justice Board allowed time for public comment on an issue more and more people are concerned about, the human toll of overincarceration. Our jail numbers have increased by 500% in the past 20 years, while our population has grown only 25% during that time.

One of the respondents in the public comment time, Noel Levan, cited numbers from a recent study published by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Read the full report here. An excerpt follows:

Unnecessarily detaining defendants in jail before trial has a significant negative impact on the defendant, and often on public safety, including:

• Harsher Punishment: Research found that defendants detained for the entire period before trial were more than four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and more than three times more likely to be sentenced to prison compared to released defendants. Defendants jailed before trial also received jail sentences three times longer and prison sentences twice as long as those released.47 Those detained before trial are also more likely to plead guilty.

• Increased Likelihood of Recidivism: Even short periods of pretrial detention for low-risk defendants can compromise public safety. Low-risk defendants are defined as “individuals who can be released with little or no supervisory conditions with reasonable assurances that they will appear in court and will not threaten community safety.”

A 2013 study — which examined 153,000 defendants jailed in Kentucky between 2009 and 2010 — found that low-risk defendants held for two-three days were almost 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before trial compared to defendants released within 24 hours. When held for 8-14 days, defendants were 51 percent more likely to commit another crime compared to defendants released within 24 hours.

• Socio-economic Consequences: Studies have shown that jail detention between arrest and dismissal or conviction can lead to the loss of employment, housing, or even medical coverage.51 20 | Brennan Center for Justice Research confirms that racial disparities exist in the use of pretrial detention. For example:

• A 2012 study found thatAfricanAmerican and Hispanic defendants were more likely to be detained pending trial, less likely to be able to afford their bail (which was assessed at higher amounts), and less likely to be granted release in comparison to similarly situated white defendants.

• A 2013 study by the Vera Institute found race and ethnicity a predictive factor in determining whether defendants were detained or released at arraignment. These disparities were most extreme for misdemeanor offenses, where African Americans were 20 percent more likely than whites to be detained before trial.53 • A study for the Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that African American defendants were 66 percent more likely to be detained before trial and Hispanic defendants 91 percent more likely to be detained, in comparison to white defendants. Hispanics were also 39 percent more likely to be charged a bail amount in exchange for pretrial release — and were required to pay higher amounts.5

Monday, September 21, 2015

Some House Church Reflections On Greatness

Old Massanutten Lodge, one of our favorite meeting places
Our home church congregation, which met at members Guy and Margie Vlastis' Bed and Breakfast home yesterday, pondered the day's lectionary texts and what it means to be "great" in ways that truly matter.

What good things would we want to be remembered by when we are gone? What do we wish could be said of us at our memorial service or could be imprinted on our tombstone?

According to the last chapter of Proverbs, neither charm nor physical appearance are of lasting consequence. In this passage a truly good woman is valued not primarily for her beauty, but for her character, her generosity, her wisdom. She is not described as a shopper-savvy consumer, but as a skillful producer, a successful entrepreneur, as a godly influence to be reckoned with.

The Psalm 1 text describes the truly good man (or woman) as one who refuses to "walk in step with evildoers", but who dares to live by the divine drumbeat of timeless truths no matter the consequences. Such a person grows tall and produces great fruit, like a "tree planted by a stream of water."

The reading from James 3 and 4 beautifully defines the greatness that comes from Jesus' kind of wisdom, not one that seeks to impress or outsmart others, but one that sows peace and builds harmonious relationships.

Finally, in the Mark 9:30-37 text, Jesus counters his disciple's vying for positions of prominence by holding a child in his arms. It is the one who pays attention to the least noticed and least likely to contribute to our own rise to power, he says, who is truly the greatest. So in this case, it is not the child we are to emulate, but the one who welcomes and pays attention to the least among us, as though we were welcoming Jesus himself.

So what might be our best choice for an epitaph on our tombstone?

"She opened her arms to the poor, and extended her hand to the needy... She spoke with wisdom, and faithful instruction was on her tongue."  - from Proverbs 31


"Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked... who is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season."    - from Psalm 1


"The wisdom from above is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit."   -from James 3

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all…. Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”         - from Mark 10

Friday, September 18, 2015

WHEREAS, the CCJB is open to public comment, THEREFORE, citizens should express their concerns this Monday at 4

For the first time, the local Community Criminal Justice Board will allow for questions and public comments at its upcoming 4 p.m. meeting in the Fire and Rescue room at the County Administration building this Monday, September 21. 

A version of the following important resolution written by local citizens will be introduced for adoption at this important meeting:


WHEREAS, the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Community Criminal Justice Board (CCJB) approved and adopted in 2014 a Community-Based Corrections Plan (CBCP); and,

WHEREAS, the CBCP had 15 recommendations in the areas of System Planning and Coordination, Jail Capacity, & System Enhancements and Strategies; and,

WHEREAS, Commonwealth of Virginia Code § 9.1-180 states Responsibilities of Community Criminal Justice Boards, one of which is to “Facilitate local involvement and flexibility in responding to the problem of crime in their communities”; and,

WHEREAS, CCJB stakeholders have begun implementing a number of programs and procedures related to CBCP recommendations, including issuing a Request for Proposals for a Day Reporting Program for the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Jail, making a pod available in the Rockingham Jail for mental health treatment, investigating new and improved data systems, allowing public comment at the September 21, 2015, CCJB meeting, and implementing a restorative justice program in the City of Harrisonburg; and,

WHEREAS, the first CBCP recommendation states, "Decision makers should initiate a long range planning strategy to investigate, develop, and implement a continuum of jail-based programs, and community-based sanctions and programs,"; and, 

WHEREAS, the successful implementation of recommendations requires not only CCJB members, but also faith-based, academic, non-governmental, and private resources; and,

WHEREAS, since adopting the CBCP, the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have become owners of Middle River Regional Jail; and,

WHEREAS, many people and organizations stand ready to participate in the development of a long-range plan in order that they may effectively collaborate to implement the recommendations in the CBCP;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, ON THIS DAY, THE 21st of September, 2015, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Criminal Justice Board requests it stakeholders to share in the appropriation of funding for and the implementation of a professionally-facilitated planning process (provider shall subscribe to the core values of the International Association for Public Participation); and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, this facilitated process shall produce a one- to five-year strategy to implement the recommendations of the 2014 CBCP, and include action items and accountability for the many stakeholders partnering to implement the action items.

Here's a link to more information on the Moseley report

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

When Our Health Care Systems Fail, Jails House Our 'Refuse'

RMH/Sentara website
"Give me your tiredyour poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, (your) wretched refuse..."

- Emma Lazarus

These words inscribed on the Stature of Liberty could well be on the entrances of our jails and prisons, but as a message of despair rather than of hope. It is sad that these facilities have become the human landfills of last resort for those not only who commit crimes and/or are waiting their trials, but also for the homeless, mentally ill and substance addicted for whom we have no alternative solution.

The following is a recent case in point:

Joe Smith (not his real name) was found by someone at Our Community Place in extreme physical and mental distress over a week ago due to an overdose of K-9, a synthetic form of marijuana. "Joe", in his mid-forties, is alcoholic and chronically homeless, and has been a frequent guest and volunteer at OCP.

Joe had already lost bowel control and was in and out of a comatose state when he was picked up off the street and brought to OCP for help. A staff member there called the Community Services Board, who agreed to see him for an assessment. 

After three hours at the CSB, Joe was told that he could become a part of their outpatient program and be put on a list to receive acupuncture and other substance abuse treatment, but since he had no insurance that would cover inpatient treatment--and the only such facility that would be available had a waiting list of over a year--that there was nothing they could do help him. So they recommended he be taken to the emergency room at RMH/Sentara. 

There Joe had to wait for three hours for the psych evaluation team, who after several more hours told him that unless he could be diagnosed as acutely mentally ill and/or suicidal, that they simply had no bed available for him. This in spite of his literally begging for medical and other help to detox and to save his life.

Since the OCP also has no beds for such people, Joe had to be put back out on the streets, where the next morning a police officer found him lying along the sidewalk in a stupor. So he was picked up and brought to jail, where he will remain until he has his court date in several weeks.

In jail. Locked in a steel cage for lack of a detox treatment center.

Can't our community do better than that?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Menno Simons (1496-1561) A Reformer Ahead Of His Time

source of an affordable copy
Menno Simons was a Roman Catholic priest who resigned from his office to join the much maligned Anabaptist movement in Friesland about a decade after its beginning in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. One major branch of that movement eventually became known as "Mennonite" because of his prominence as a leader.

Menno managed to live a relatively long life in spite of a 1542 edict by Charles V which placed a price of 100 gold guilders on his head and threatened severe punishment for anyone offering him shelter or reading any of his works. In spite of that threat, Menno devoted his life to preaching and writing what was considered rank heresy in those days, that one should have the right to be a member of a church of one's choice rather than having to be baptized into the official state church in the region of one's birth.

The following represents a selection of his words from various parts of "The Complete Writings of Menno Simons," a Herald Press book translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin and edited by John C. Wenger:

    My dear friends, I tell you the truth, I am no Enoch, I am no Elijah, I am not one who sees visions, I am no prophet who can teach or prophesy otherwise than what is written in the Word of God and understood in the Spirit...

    At one time I was wicked and carried the banner of unrighteousness for many years. I was a leader in all kinds of folly... the fear of God was not before my eyes. Yet everyone sought me and desired me. The world loved me and I it. Everyone revered me.

    But my conscience tormented me so that I could no longer endure it. The blood of innocent martyrs I knew of fell so hot on my heart I could not stand it. I thought to myself, I a miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and don’t live according to the truth I have, if I don’t put away the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life... If I don’t use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, how shall their blood rise up against me in the judgment?

    So I prayed to God, with sighs and tears, that he would give me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of his grace, create in me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the blood of Christ forgive my unclean walk and frivolous, easy life and give me wisdom, courage and a manly spirit so that I might preach his exalted name and holy word in purity.

    Let me repeat, I have formerly acted shamefully against God and my neighbors; and I still sometimes think, speak, and act recklessly, which I sincerely regret. But I desire and seek sincere teaching, true doctrine, true faith, true works and an unblamable life. For this I must pay dearly with so much oppression, trouble, labor, sleeplessness, fear and anxiety, shame, heat and cold, and at last with torture, yes, with my blood and death.

    So while others rest on easy beds and soft pillows we have to hide in out of the way corners. While they revel in the music of trumpet and lute at weddings and baptismal banquets, we have to be on guard whenever a dog barks for fear an officer has come to arrest us.

    We do not agree with those who teach a mere historical faith which knows no conversion, spirit and fruit. On the other hand, we do not agree that we can be saved by our own merits and works. 

    True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it returns good for evil, it seeks that which is lost, it binds up the wounded, it becomes all things to all people. 

    Some charge that we have our property in common. This charge is false. But we do teach that all truly believers are members of one body. Since they are one, it is Christian and reasonable that they love one another, that one member be concerned for the welfare of the other. The whole scripture speaks of mercifulness and love, which is the only sign whereby true Christians may be known.

    They say we will not obey the magistrates... We have obeyed them when not contrary to the word of God. We intend to do so all our lives. 

    (But) Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people.

    We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance... Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.

    The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.

    Therefore, my precious brothers and sisters in the Lord, take the crucified Christ as your example, and the apostles and prophets of God. Learn through them how they all came in at this very narrow gate and have left all things hanging at the entrance. They were so endowed and trained by God that they knew nothing, sought nothing, loved and desired nothing but the eternal treasure--God--and eternal life.

The following is a translation of words on a simple stone memorial more recently erected at Witmarsum, Menno's home village:

Witmarsum may with right its Menno Simons claim,
In Netherlands the first of church-reforming fame.
He took his stand there, from the priesthood broke,
And in a little house the word of freedom spoke.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Let's Build A Wall Of Prevention Around Our Warehouse Of Detention

Rockingham/Harrisonburg Jail, home to 3-400 inmates
I had the opportunity to speak to 40-50 people at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community today on criminal justice reform, using the handout below. We discussed the need for having congregations, schools, police and sheriff departments and health service providers form the kind of barrier that keeps more people out, and fewer people in, our jails and prisons.

Here's the handout, as promised, with links:

I Was In Prison

The US, while only 5% of the world’s people, holds 25% of its prisoners, more than any other country in the world. Virginia alone houses or supervises over 58,000 offenders, not including federal inmates. DOC's FY2014 operating budget was $1.1 billion. The per capita inmate expense is $27,462, which represents a 29% increase in the past nine years. Medical expenditures consume 13.6% of DOC's budget. 
Our local jail numbers have increased 500% since 1995, while our population has grown only 25%.

A. Some Factors affecting jail and prison overcrowding:

1. Too many people are in jail awaiting trial. Should people be behind bars who have not yet been found guilty in a court of law—unless they are a danger to others or are a flight risk?

2. Sentences are too long. Minimum mandatory sentencing laws limit judges’ discretion.

3. Prosecutors are often driven by a need to establish guilt in order to resolve a case, sometimes at the risk of a wrongful conviction.

4. Proven alternatives to jail (restorative justice, in home detention, etc.) are often limited by statute, by public opinion and/or by tough-on-crime politicians, prosecutors and judges.

5. Court appointed defense attorneys are underpaid, are usually less experienced and are often poorly motivated to represent indigent clients.

6. Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995 except for those who were already incarcerated at that time, and the Parole Board last year released less than 3% of the over 3500 inmates still eligible under the old law.
Virginia’s Geriatric Release provisions, for inmates who are 60 and over and who have served at least ten years of their sentence, are underutilized. Only 11 were released in 2014.

B. Some stressful effects of incarceration on inmates, their families and on all of us:

1. Stress that results from confining people in unnatural, crowded conditions (too many people in too close quarters) and/or in solitary confinement (virtually no human contact) contribute to psychotic symptoms and behaviors. An estimated 40% of inmates already have some kind of mental illness, often accompanied by a drug or alcohol addiction. Spending time in steel cages with other distressed inmates can only make them worse.

2. Our local jail sometimes places suicidally depressed inmates in a restraint chair for “medical reasons”  (24 times during the first six months of 2015) or in the isolated padded cell (8 times during this same time period).

3. Our local jail has inmates in handcuffs and orange or striped jump suits when meeting with their families (in the totally secure visitor area separated by glass and concrete) or when they are moved to and from approved classes or other groups, unlike most jails.

4. High costs of commissary items and phone calls add stress to inmate families, along with a $1 per day fee per inmate ($3 per day for those housed at Middle River Jail), which must be paid before commissary items can be purchased.

5. When breadwinners are incarcerated (and typically lose their jobs), additional costs for social services and welfare benefits escalate, along with the $26,000 per year cost to all of us to keep someone behind bars. Getting a job after having been in prison is doubly difficult.

C. Some much needed reforms:

1. Our Sheriff should implement policies to reduce the financial stresses incarceration creates for inmates’ families, and to make it easier, less costly, and less stressful to maintain meaningful connections. Maintaining such ties is strongly linked to reducing recidivism and creating a more successful re-entry.

2. Legislators need to engage in judicial reform based on proven practices that reduce crime, promote reform and help create healthier and safer communities.

3. Parole needs to be reinstated in ways that offer hope and encourage rehabilitation.

D. Some Action Steps 

Attend public meeting of the local Community Criminal Justice Board set for 4 pm Monday, September 21 (location to be announced).

Write letters or emails of concern to key policy makers, using email links and addresses on Harvspot or as listed below:

Governor’s new Parole Review Commission: see (see July 21,2015 post). Commission meetings are open to the public, and their nest hearing is at the Capitol building September 28. Comments or questions to the Commission should be sent to:
Virginia Parole Board see (September 1, 2014 post)

Governor McAuliffe

Members of local Community Criminal Justice Board: (December 1, 2015 post)

Harrisonburg City Council, Mayor Chris Jones

County Board of Supervisors, Chair Michael Breeden

Send emails and letters of concern to the following local candidates:

Bryan Hutcheson  (Sheriff)
April Moore  (State Senate)
Mark Obenshain  (State Senate)
Tony Wilt (House of Delegates)
Marsha Garst  (Commonwealths Attorney)
Michael Breeden  (Board of Supervisors)
Fred Eberly  (Board of Supervisors)
William Kyger, Jr.  (Board of Supervisors

If you vote in the November election but don’t support the positions of an unopposed candidate, leave that part of your ballot unmarked, or write in the name of an alternative.

Become a part of a local Court Watch group. Contact Ruth Stoltzfus-Jost for more information

Write letters and/or Christmas cards to inmates (I will post an updated list on my blog in December) (December 7, 2015 post)  (use a P. O. Box number if you’d rather not disclose your home address).

Promote and attend the October 20 visit of Former Attorney General Mark Earley, past CEO of Chuck Colsen’s Prison Fellowship, who will speak at EMU’s Martin Chapel at 7 pm on “Why America is incarcerating so many people, and what we can do about it”.

Become a mentor to inmates returning to the community following imprisonment.

You can keep up with some criminal justice issues on this blog. Type in an issue of interest in the small search box in the upper left hand of the Home page.                                    

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

War's Unimaginable Toll

Jerusalem Post photo
God is our refuge and strength...
God brings an end to war everywhere. 

God breaks bows into pieces, 
   snaps spears in two; 
   burns chariots in fire.

God cries, "Halt! Drop your weapons!
Acknowledge me as sovereign over all nations."
- paraphrase of Psalm 46 

photo by The Independent

We're accustomed to reading the words "Be still and know that I am God" in the Psalm 46 text as a call to quiet reflection. But it's clear from the context that it's really a command to pay attention, listen up, and stop the bloody wars we're engaging in.

The Hebrew word still (rapa) means to "let down" or "cease", to stop whatever we're doing.

In today's troubled world, nothing could be more urgent than having all nations lay down their arms rather than investing in ever more deadly ways to cause death and destruction.

Escalating conflicts set off by shock and awe invasions and iron-fisted dictatorships are exacting a terrible toll all over the Middle East, and it is the innocent who suffer most. In Syria alone there are 6.5 million internally displaced refugees, and over 4 million have fled to other countries.

The world simply can't afford war anymore. We must declare it over, no matter what that costs us.

Because continuing on our present course, fighting evil with evil, will cost us even more, and result in unimaginable disaster.

God says, "Be still! Stop!"

We need to listen.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Good Meeting With Congressman Goodlatte

Congressman Bob Goodlatte
"God gives the homeless a family.
    He sets prisoners free, and they go out singing."
- paraphrase of Psalm 68:6a 

After trying for several weeks to arrange for a public forum here in Harrisonburg with Congressman Bob Goodlatte, he agreed to meet with six of us last Thursday to discuss his plans for initiating criminal justice reforms this fall. His Washington-based Public Affairs Liaison, Bryan Alphin, was also present, along with Matt Homer at the local office here on Mason Street, and Debbie Garret, the aide who works at his Staunton office.

Goodlatte, who is the chair of the Judiciary Committee, informed us there will be no one congressional bill introduced in the House on criminal justice reform but numerous ones, most likely dealing with the following issues:

1. Preventing innocent people from being incarcerated.
2. Providing more accountability for the actions of police officers.
3. Taking into account criminal intent on the part of citizens found to be in violation of the law.
4. Mandatory minimum sentencing reform, though not likely eliminating it altogether.
5. Making prisons more humane, less crowded and more rehabilitative.
6. Reforming policies having to do with the seizure of civil assets in drug and other criminal cases.

In response to our concerns, he expressed interested in getting more information on restorative justice and parole reform.

We showed him the folder of over 1000 petitions we had gathered urging local alternatives to incarceration and assured him of constituent support in making bold moves in the area of criminal justice reforms.

Terry Beitzel, professor of justice studies at JMU
Wynona Hogan, youth activist (got over 250 signatures in our local petition drive)
Rev. Stan Maclin, Harriet Tubman Center
Suzanne Prail, Fairfield Center's restorative justice program
Harvey Yoder, Family Life Resource Center
Howard Zehr, retired professor, pioneer of the restorative justice movement

Here's a link to contact Congressman Goodlatte

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Sad Exodus From Zapote Kum

Beautiful rural Nicaragua (photo by Jacinto Yoder)
The following dramatic account of a forced migration was written by my grandnephew Jacinto Yoder, who with his father (my nephew Pablo) and others moved from eastern Costa Rica to Waslala, Nicaragua in 1995 to establish churches there. Jacinto was then ordained to provide leadership for a new outreach in Zapote Kum, some distance from Waslala, six years ago. 

Shaking the Mud from our Feet
by Jacinto Yoder:

The home Jacinto and his family left behind (photo supplied)
A few years ago an armed group started up in Chilamate Kum and asked the locals for support, also sending several notes asking members of our church for money. Some of the folks from Chilamate town (we lived on the line between the Zapote Kum and the Chilamate Kum districts) were involved, and it seemed like an extreme-right guerrilla group was in the making, wanting to fight against our leftist president, who has been in office for three terms and wants another. 

After a few months, we found out that the leader of the guerrilla group needed money to fix up a farm in the back country, behind the large Bosawas Reserve and close to the Honduras border. But support for the band ended when they found out where the money was going, and our church members, of course, had chosen not to give money anyway.

Since then, we were getting hit by robbers off and on. They hit Marcelo and I the first time about three years ago. About a year later, they focused on Marcelo and, and were asking him for 30,000 córdobas (a little over a thousand dollars). He chose to go to Managua to visit my Dad, Pablo Yoder, who was in the hospital with GBS over the time of the ransom date.

Over time, we found out who the leaders of the band were,  and this was complicated by the fact that it happened to be that some of Marcelo’s wife’s family members were involved. Some of them confronted Marcelo in the daytime, asking for money, and at first he’d just give them what they asked for, trying to "do good to them that revile you". Over time, this grew, and they just wanted more and more. He finally pulled back and quit loaning them money. This created a general discontent within the neighboring town of Chilamate. Marcelo is a bold, outspoken person, and he often spoke the truth to the village. But through it all, anger toward him was growing.

When Marcelo was hit again six months ago, we figured it was the same band. But the band members were always changing, so we knew there were some new men involved. It happened that some really mean men from Wastarí started coming over the mountain to do their stealing. They worked together with the local band, and things kept going downhill. The Chilamate district, as well as the surrounding districts, have been wracked by robberies ever since. They formed an ever-growing network. Some attacked people on the road. Others held them up at their houses. A separate group was rustling cattle and horses. Eventually we heard that it seemed as if all merged into one big monster.

When Dad hugged the main robber a few months ago in a confrontation at Marcelo’s house, one of the guests took some pictures out the upstairs window. Those pictures confirmed what we thought we already knew. The head man was “Elder.”[1] One of the men who had come across the mountains from Wastarí. Four others of this band had been put in prison.)

Since our church members have family and friends all around, we have found out much of what was happening and who was doing it. It came to the point of being uncomfortable to know as much as we did. At first we were afraid of being questioned by the police, for fear of having to disclose information that would put us in danger. The band is quick to punish anyone that shows any kind of friendliness to the police.

Time went on, and we found out the small, local police force knew as much we did, but refrained from doing anything. They claimed there weren’t enough of them to confront the robbers. Three police against seven robbers didn’t seem to work very well. Especially if the robbers were at home in the woods and knew all the trails and ambush spots.

The police also complained that no one would press charges. However, recently a man did press charges against a smaller arm of the robber band, and the first thing the police asked of him was for some physical proof. We all know that was impossible in these situations. The robbers sent the man some death threats, and he had to quickly move out of the area.

Recently we’d been finding out more and more people were involved in this robber network. Apparently some of the cattle were being crossed into Honduras illegally, and lots of our neighbors had been involved in buying and selling what they know are stolen animals. This gave the robbers a good market. The contraband network has come to the point where even the large farmers of the area were pulled into the game. Once you’d sold one cow illegally, you could get in trouble. And once you were pulled into the game, they’d threaten the ones who wanted to back out. It was the “If you rat on me, I’ll rat on you” game. These cattle robbers also robbed from each other to settle former financial disputes.

As a church we’d had to take a strong stand against anything to do with stolen animals. Everyone knew our members wouldn’t touch one. But they were constantly seeing things happen all around them, and sometimes they even had to speak out the truth about something they’d seen. This caused the robbers to get angry, of course.

Since Marcelo left the area, we came to the conclusion that the cattle rustling network and the assault network were communicating and working together closely. And there were some weird things happening. Some suspects would report missing cattle and make a huge fuss about it, running after the rustlers and demanding their cattle back. But they never caught the robbers, or they conveniently got away just in time. We began to wonder if it wasn't all a plan. The robbers know that if they themselves were not being hit by robbers once in a while, everyone would start saying they were a part of the band.

When the robbers came to our place twice in two weeks, the last guy said something startling. The more I thought about it, the more significance it held. When I told him that we’re non-resistant and don’t use violence on the robbers, he told me they wouldn’t hurt us either. “After all,” he grinned through his mask, “it’s not good to kill the chicken that lays the golden egg.”

So me and “my” church would apparently be expected to lay a golden egg around every two weeks. There were many men living in the woods, and they needed support. We, of course, as non-resistant Christians would provide it.

All this time, we kept wondering what happened to the guerrilla group they constantly talked about, but was never seen in our area. They were supposedly killing robbers to the north, and the area there was reportedly free of robbers. We had concluded they all ran south to Chilamate. What was strange was, that these had a penchant for arms. Everyone who had arms in the area had to really watch their step, since this group was especially targeting their weapons, taking dozens of pistols and shotguns from the locals. We wondered where these arms were actually going, thinking it could be they were ending up with the guerrilla group. Strangely, they didn’t seem to feel it was their duty to stop the stealing in this specific area.

To complicate matters, there was an area of “no man’s land” that had been formed since the guerrillas were north of us. The police wouldn’t enter it after dark, and they’d let everyone know when they were entering and wouldn’t pick a fight with anyone. They knew they were greatly outnumbered. I still don’t know why the police from our district never asked for help from their superiors, but it seemed they are somehow benefiting from, or at least were scared of, this robber network.

The network was definitely involved in the marijuana trade also. The stolen horses and saddles travel north with the robbers’ loot. Once in Wina or Amakón they trade their stolen horses for others, load the marijuana, and travel south along this no-man’s-land corridor, supplying towns along the way. Everyone knows there are horse loads of marijuana moving south through Chilamate at night. And the final destination is through the back door into Waslala. And then from there who knows to where.

Our church members’ land was precisely at the edge of this no-man’s-land. The people from outside said we sympathized with the robbers. We opened our doors when they knocked, allowed them to take our things, and didn’t press charges. The robbers said we sympathized with the police. But for some reason, the robbers liked to camp out on the Mennonites’ tract of land.  

This whole situation had been going downhill fast during the last six months. We’d kept praying, thinking any moment the tide would turn, the government with step in, or something else would happen to make life easier. But the government wasn’t interested in picking a fight with guerrillas north of us. They were purposely ignoring them, since the ruling party in Nicaragua is not well represented in our area, and they don’t seem to care much. Elections are coming next year, and if any kind of war breaks out, it would hurt their image. Everyone expects this to get hotter next year if our president is again reelected.

But what really made us think last week was when the guerrillas made their appearance in Chilamate, a day after the robbers hit Reynaldo Lagos’ place.

The robbers had four shotguns. The guerrillas had four shot guns and a few AK-47s.

There were five robbers that hit Reynaldo’s house. One night later twelve guerrillas hit his house, looting everything and “looking for guns”. In Chilamate, they ransacked some houses and helped themselves to whatever they wanted.

The robbers were mean. The guerrillas were mean.

The robbers asked for 300,000 córdobas as a ransom. The guerrillas knew all about it less than 24 hours later, and blamed none other but Reynaldo himself for not getting the police involved!

Things just looked strangely alike. And though perhaps not the same men, it was looking like they were all working together. And though the guerrillas claimed they were after robbers, to clean up the area, they only managed to find one robber in the whole village! Then they turned him loose easily when a few folks showed up and spoke for him. Something was really strange. And the massive network will probably only grow, at least till next year’s elections.

So on Sunday we decided it was time to just move out, clearly stating we were not with either side. 

We’ve preached many a messages, with words and without. We’ve visited many souls in the valley. Most rejected the Gospel, as did the robbers that came to our door. And as I walked out of Zapote, I literally did what Jesus recommended: “shake off the [mud] of your feet.”

As we came up the main hill out of the valley that morning, Missael, his wife Esmilse, Kendra and I had lagged behind the long train of horses, talking about the sudden turn of events. Our minds were in a whirl, trying to grasp the fact that we were leaving our houses and land and wondering what God was doing.

Missael’s voice was sad now. “Jacinto, do you remember a few months ago when we were able to preach the Word [through two church services] right in the darkest pit on the outskirts of Chilamate [the saloon that is center stage for the robbers]?”

 “Of course I do!” I answered with tears in my eyes. “They rejected us. I mean, they rejected Jesus.”

“Almost everybody in this valley has rejected God,” Missael injected adamantly. “Maybe there are a few Christians that are trying to serve the Lord, but they are not many at all.”

“Right,” I echoed sadly. “Way too many are participating in this network of robbers. Think of it, Missael, how many honest people live in this valley? There are only a few.”

At that moment I felt an urge. I reined in my mule, turned in my saddle, stretched out my arm, looked out over that gorgeous green valley, and cried: “Oh Zapote! Zapote! How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”

Then we turned again and continued our trek along the muddy trail toward Waslala and a new life.

[1] We nicknamed him this before we knew his real name.

Recently built church at Kapote Kum, now abandoned (photo supplied)