Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Survey Says--Members 86 Inmate Families Weigh In On Local Jail Policies

Special thanks to Dr. Robert Robinson and student interns at Mary Baldwin University for analyzing the results of a survey distributed at the Rockingham County jail in early August to assess visitors’ attitudes towards 17 different policies and services at the jail.  
  • There were 86 respondents to the survey. 
  • They were able to indicate their relationship to the inmate they were visiting and make comments of their own on the form. 
  • Note: Some people responded with N/A for some questions and therefore no rating was given for that question, making the number of respondents vary for each question. 
In the survey, respondents were asked to assign items a level of importance from “0” to “3,” with “0” representing “not important, or I don’t know”, “1” representing “somewhat important”, “2” representing “very important”, and “3” representing “extremely important” to these seventeen different statements.  The statements below are arranged in order of priority based on responses from participants.  

1. “Commissary items being more affordable for inmates”
2. “Phone calls being more affordable (and longer) for inmates”
3. “Inmates having better access to a mental health counselor”
4. “Inmates having more opportunities to attend substance abuse recovery groups (AA, etc.) and other programs while in jail.”
5. “Inmates being able to attend job training and skills classes while in jail”
6. “Inmates having better access to affordable medical care/prescriptions”
7. “The $1 a day fee ($3 a day at MRRJ) reduced or eliminated”
8. “Having more frequent opportunities for family members to visit inmates”
9. “Non-violent inmates being allowed to visit family members without being in handcuffs”. 
10. “Inmates having more opportunities for physical exercise”
11. “Inmates having access to education-focused e-tablets, books and other study materials”. 
12. “A number to call for information about how to help an inmate”
13. “Complaint (grievance) procedure in place for family members’ concerns”.
14. “Inmates having fewer hours in lockdown (where applicable)”
15. “Non-violent inmates being allowed to wear street clothes and not being handcuffed when appearing in court”
16. “A manual with information for family members about local jail rules”
17. “Support groups for family members to meet with on a regular basis”
  • There was only one variable where “extremely important” was not the mode (e.g., the most often chosen) #17, "support groups for families to meet with on a regular basis"
  • There were several variables where “extremely important” was assigned by more than 70% of respondents
    • Examples: reducing the daily fee charged by the jail, having more frequent visitation of inmates, having more affordable commissary items, having phone calls be more affordable (and longer),  inmates having better access to medical health care/prescriptions, inmates having better access to mental health counselor, inmates having more opportunities for job and skills training while in jail, and inmates having more opportunities to attend substance abuse recovery groups (AA, etc.) and other programs while in jail.
Here are some of the written comments by family members:

- Daughter had a baby two months ago, has been allowed no physical contact.
- My brother was under the care of a psychiatric doctor at the time of his arrest, and was on two NECESSARY medications (Gabapentin)(Abilify), and as of today my little brother STILL hasn’t even seen a doctor, or been given any meds! This is cruel and unusual punishment, and I have spoken to and retained a lawyer for this and another legal matter. But I would love to avoid the messiness of a lawsuit, I just want my brother’s mental health needs met and stabilized ASAP.
- Machine and debit card costs extra money for use ($5 to deposit $20). We both (mother and grandmother) live over 25 miles one way drive. We would like to do more, but can’t do it. Too expensive! We’re both on social security income.
- Not fair that families have to pay so much for everything while inmates are in jail.
- Amounts of money having to be paid weekly is ridiculous.
- Inmates go outside ONCE monthly if that.
- Daughter has cyst on ovaries which ruptured, needs hysterectomy, pre-cancerous cells.
- Mental health & physical health need better resources
- Expenses for family ridiculous!

Re: Support groups for family members:
- We have it through church and friends, others might not. W/inmate

Re: Substance abuse programs:
- So few exist!
- The prison system fails to remember addiction is a sickness. They are quick to lock up but have way too little resources or extended waits for what resources they do have. Therefore the addict gets caught up in the revolving door. They definitely need better drug/substance abuse programs that continue once the offender is released, as well as job skills so the offender is not just continually thrown out of jail the same or worse than they were when they went in, with no money and no job.

Re: Medical care:
- Prescriptions are needed as well as visits with the doctor. Visits cost $10 each and some medications are refused to inmates.
- Make sure they get their medicine when family delivers it the day she came in and it been 5 days without her medicine. And I called and talked to a nurse at the jail. 

Re: Phone calls:
- The local calls are 21 cents a minute. That’s $3+ for a 15 minute call. Could be much cheaper and more affordable. (I have 4 children that want to speak with Daddy and he has to call more than once to speak with them)
- Calls are ridiculously expensive. Life continues for us out here. So we have to discuss lawyer, legal stuff, with our loved ones, which cannot always be done in 15 minutes. So then we end up paying $3.17+ for each 15 minute call till business is taken care of.

Re: Commissary:
- Commissary is expensive and needed by inmates. Family members provide the money to the accounts.
- Salt/pepper/mayo/mustard/ketchup not provided except as commissary items.

Re: More frequent visits:
- The definition of family is very limiting for some inmates.
- 30 minute visits are once per week and short especially with multiple visitors (4 children).
- Mothers to be able to bring strollers for their infants when visiting.
- We should have at least two visitations a week.

Re: The daily fee:
- The fees for inmates per day should be eliminated—another burden for family. ex: To provide money for commissary the fee per day must be added because it will be deducted before the inmate can receive commissary (along with medical fees) so to give $30 for commissary $60 or more must be deposited and that doesn’t include the fee for depositing.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Harrisonburg Group Invites Author Dale Brumfield to Discuss His Latest Book

Dale Brumfield, currently with Virginians Against the Death Penalty, has just published a fascinating book on the history of Thomas Jefferson's brain child, the Virginia State Penitentiary. 

This notorious prison opened in 1800 and set the standard for the future of the American prison system for years to come. It was Virginia's only state prison until Mecklenberg Correctional Center was opened in 1976. Today there are 39 state prisons in Virginia, housing over 38,000 inmates, with a total of additional 30,000 or so in Virginia jails and federal prisons.

The Penitentiary's historic original building, since razed to make room for development in downtown Richmond, was designed by U.S. Capitol and White House architect Benjamin Latrobe, and was considered a sign of great improvement over the cruel and often public forms of punishment common in those days. But over time it became notorious for many of the wrong reasons.

From the book's cover:

"The prison endured severe overcrowding, three fires, an earthquake and numerous riots. More than 240 prisoners were executed there by electric chair. At one time, the ACLU called it the "most shameful prison in America." The institution was plagued by racial injustice, eugenics experiments and the presence of children imprisoned among adults." 

The Harrisonburg-based "Aging Persons In Prison Human Rights Campaign" group sponsored Brumfield's book-signing event.

September And October Parole Release Numbers Are The Lowest Ever

According to September and October parole release figures posted by the Parole Board consecutively just days ago, the Virginia Parole Board granted only 6 inmates parole releases in September, a grant rate of below 3%. In October, according to their report, they released no one. Not one. Zero. (They are also mandated, by the way, to post each month's results at the end of that month)

Some might reasonably ask whether these dismal numbers reflect one or both of the following:

1. The newly constituted Parole Board is unwilling to, or incapable of, carrying out its mission, which is to "grant parole to those offenders whose release is compatible with public safety." We all know there are scores of inmates who have made every effort for years to demonstrate they are worthy of release, who have worked hard to maintain an infraction-free record, have taken every rehabilitation and educational class possible, and who have earned solid recommendations both within and outside of prison.  In addition there are hundreds of inmates, at Deerfield Correctional Center and elsewhere, who are aging and ailing, are blind, in wheel chairs, and otherwise immobilized, and who are way beyond deserving of geriatric release.

2. The entire Virginia Department of Corrections system is utterly dysfunctional and void of any success in carrying out its mission, which is to "...enhance the quality of life in the Commonwealth by improving public safety... through reintegration of sentenced men and women in our custody and care by providing supervision and control, effective programs and re-entry services in safe environments which foster positive change and growth consistent with research-based evidence, fiscal responsibility, and constitutional standards."

Quotes From A Recent Article by David M. Reutter, "Parole Remains Elusive For Virginia Inmates"

"We have a different culture in this country than exists in Canada or Europe where people who have committed very bad crimes serve 20 years or so, and that is pretty significant punishment," said criminal defense attorney Steve Rosenfield. "Supporting that are our own studies in this country that show that once people reach their 30's and start aging into their 50's and 60's, the rate and incidence of crimes that are committed by them when they are released is exceedingly small."

"That applies especially to those serving time for the most violent crimes," says Reutter, "An often cited Stanford University study of 860 murderers released on parole in California found only five returned to prison for new crimes, none of which were for homicide."

A Veteran Reviews His Life On Veteran's Day

"God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, And wisdom to know the difference." 

I would like to add "And above all let us be kind"! This, to me, defines civility.

I served my country because I believe in what this country stands for...

Sometimes we do the wrong thing... When I did wrong, I confessed because it was the right thing to do. After being in the system for almost a decade now, I'm ashamed of this country's level of apathy and mistreatment of the poor (because a court appointed attorney is not a proper defense, I believe, due to a conflict of interest), of minorities (because there is still prejudice in this country even still after all that we've been through, how far we've come), the psychologically unhealthy (because there are no other institutions equipped to take care of them).

I can now say I have witnessed these things personally because here in the Department of Corrections, I have been subjected to more apathy than I thought possible. Ironically, I have experienced better treatment from my fellow inmates than staff, probably because during my walk here in prison I have witnessed more men trying to get right with God then I ever did on the street. The hardest thing I've had to deal with while in prison is apathy from the staff, being looked down upon and being treated child-like or subhuman. When you treat men as subhuman, subhumans are what you're going to release to the public.

I pray almost every day that I can overcome this incarceration and that this country can do better, but what God says comes to pass, "The love of men will wax cold!" That may be true for worldly man but not spiritual men and it doesn't have to be true for this nation-under-God. Writing this letter is my only veteran's day celebration because I may be ashamed of some things I've done but I've done many good things also. I'll always be proud of the twenty plus years for which I was honorably discharged and no one can ever take that experience from me and likewise I'll come out of this incarceration a better man, glory be to God, because it won't be according to my will or the will of the Department of Corrections. I've turned my will over to God. And this country can do better if it turns back to God as well!

- Anonymous Virginia Inmate, 55, incarcerated since 2008

Deerfield's Blind Poet Dedicates A Poem To Singer Patsy Cline

Friends and Neighbors: I am Minor Junior Smith, The Poor Mountain Boy, a brother in Christ. 
Some of Country Music's greatest stars, either living or deceased, helped me as I composed this song. Besides commemorating the birth and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, it will also commemorate the late, and one of country music's greatest, Ms. Patsy Cline'. Her last airplane flight was on March 5th of 1963. She was on a goodwill mission when her plane crashed.

                           "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"
Mom would often talk of her children, her son's and her daughters so fair.
She said they were much like the wild wind, often neglectful to care.
I'm writing this down in a trench, Mom. Don't scold if It isn't so neat,
the way you did when I was a kid, and I'd come home with mud on my feet.

You know folks, This whole world is full of singers, and some were chosen to change our minds 
when they sing. Keep those big eight wheels a-rolling, make that lonesome whistle whine,
for she tells a world of stories as she whistles through the pines.

In the Death-Car, lies a convict with a number for a name,
and he's going home this morning on that old big river train.
And Ms. Loretta Lynn sang: "Last night I dreamt, I took a walk up on Calvary Hill,
and what I saw with mine own eyes could not have been more real."

Loretta said she dreamt she saw three men a hanging on crosses in agony.
She said that the two outsiders cried out in pain, but the one in the middle looked at her,
and friends, I sincerely believe 
that he was also looking at you and me.

"In the beginning was the Word,and the word was with God, and the word was God." (St John 1:1)
God blessed the souls from Memphis. "How great Thou Art" by Elvis.
Much too soon he left the world in tears.
And also in the sixties, young Johnny Cash's "Come Home son it's supper time" echoed through the years.

Does the heart of country music still beat from the late Hank Williams? 
Hank sang:" I saw the light."
He was called home before us, and let his precious love flow on through our days and nights.

"All things were made by him;and without him was not anything made that was made." (St John 1:3).
Whose gonna fill their shoes? Whose gonna have their say?
"The Great Speckled Bird" or "I Didn't Hear Nobody Pray"?
Whose gonna give of their heart and soul to get to me and you?
Lord, I wonder,whose gonna fill their shoes. Lord, I wonder,whose gonna fill their shoes.

What a beautiful thought I am thinking, concerning The Great Speckled Bird.
I heard the crash on the highway, but I didn't hear nobody pray. 

Friends, I cannot recall the rest of the late Roy Acuff's two songs of inspiration. But, if she is still living, then I believe that my former wife, whom I have not seen in over four decades, perhaps could, and also some of the songs by our late and great Patsy Cline.

- Minor Junior Smith

Friday, November 17, 2017

An Annual Back Yard Light And Color Show

Our white oak holds on to its faded brown coat all winter.
Only in May does  does it don its colorful spring outfit to replace the old.

For a very brief time in early April it is bare like
most normal deciduous  trees are in fall and winter.
Today was a pleasant Friday, one of my days off, to spend a couple of hours on our Snapper mower, bagger attached, sweeping up the last clippings of grass and remaining leaves that have fallen from the maple, walnut, river birch and fruit trees on our .4 acre yard. They are all added to a giant compost pile next to our garden, ready to become the blankets of mulch we put down between rows of corn, beans and other produce each spring.

Our young white oak, though, now some twenty-year-old, isn't ready to yield its faded leaves just yet, and will refuse to do so until its new 6-8 inch twigs, with brand new leaf buds, begin to emerge in early spring. The oak (above) grew up voluntarily right against the trunk of a large pine that was like its protective parent until a storm a decade years ago forced it to the ground, leaving the orphan tree to stand alone and fend for itself.

There must be some metaphors about resurrection and new life in all of this, to be sure. Regardless, we get to enjoy the wonder of this ordinary half-acre portion of God's wonderful world we all get to delight in every day, year round.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Ten Commandments Test For Judge Moore

Alabama's Judge Roy Moore, widely known for having refused to remove the Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the rotunda of the state judicial building when he was chief justice, is now running for the US Senate from his state.

Here are some principles I believe are consistent with the Bible's "Ten Words" that I suggest all office seekers who claim to promote religious values review:

I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, neither Mars, Mammon, nor 'America First'.

II. Thou shalt not make, defend or show devotion to, any graven images or statues glorifying war or warriors, Confederate or otherwise.

III. Thou shalt not make vain use of the name of the Lord your God, especially for supporting political causes in the name of religion.

IV. Remember the Sabbath by promoting respite, respect and just wages for all workers, and thus allow everyone ample time for worship, rest and for promoting their general welfare.

V. Honor mothers and fathers by making sure they are supported in old age with adequate healthcare and other basic needs.

VI. Thou shalt not kill, neither condone, support or defend the destruction of any human life, whether in the womb, in warfare or through the promotion of policies that harm the planet or its inhabitants.

VII. Thou shalt not commit nor condone adultery, nor defend those who debase or harass women, minorities or youth.

VII. Thou shalt not steal resources from the poor or the less powerful for the sake of gaining more wealth for those who are already well-to-do.

IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against any individuals or groups, nor label as "fake news" evidence-based information with which you happen to disagree.

X. Thou shalt not covet or misuse the privileges, wealth and power that go with holding office, but hold everyone in equal regard and as being on the same level, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender.

(Then there's also the nine-point Beatitudes Test, but that's a subject for another post.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Rx For The Anxious--A Dedicated "Worry Hour"

All of us worry, sometimes imagining worst outcomes in ways that rob us of sleep, appetite and our general joy of living.

With tongue partly in cheek, I've suggested to some folks (and to myself), that we set aside a special time every day for the sole purpose of focusing on worries--whether about finances, family, our future, or whatever. Then at other times of the day (or night), that we postpone dealing with those thoughts and feelings, simply filing them until our designated "Worry Hour".

It sounds wacky, but some folks have actually found this helpful. Of course, if that designated time rolls around and we really can't seem to think of anything worth worrying about, fine. But if there are some things on our worry list that really deserve our attention, we can do some or all of the following:

1. Use a journal to record our worries--raw, unedited, the worst--then write the kinds of responses we might make if a friend or family member were to share these same fears with us. Or write a letter to God, followed by a letter we might imagine a caring God writing to us in response.

2. Share some of our fears with a trusted friend, mentor or family member, via a phone call, visit or email.

3. Pray and meditate, imagining best case outcomes s well as worst ones. And reflect on all of the back-up assets we have in place in case we do suffer a bad illness or accident, experience a financial loss, or lose a loved one.

In other words, if we are to worry at all, let's do it with some intentionality and in a way that can offer us more positive results. And not have worries preoccupy our minds 24/7.

Life is just too short for that.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Signing Of The Story Of The "Most Shameful Prison In America" Set For 11/20/17

I recently met author Dale Brumfield, and am currently reading his fascinating page turner on the history of Thomas Jefferson's brain child, the Virginia State Penitentiary. This notorious prison opened in 1800 and  was Virginia's only state  prison until Mecklenberg Correctional Center was opened in 1976. Today there are 39 such correctional facilities in Virginia, housing a total of over 38,000 inmates (Over 30,000 additional individuals are housed in local jails and in federal prisons in Virginia).

The historic original penitentiary, since razed to make room for development in downtown Richmond, was designed by U.S. Capitol and White House architect Benjamin Latrobe, and represented a new approach to the rehabilitation of offenders in Virginia that was to be a great improvement over the harsh and often humiliating public forms of punishment common in those days. But over time "The Pen" became notorious for many of the wrong reasons.

From the book's cover:

"The prison endured severe overcrowding, three fires, an earthquake and numerous riots. More than 240 prisoners were executed there by electric chair. At one time, the ACLU called it the "most shameful prison in America." The institution was plagued by racial injustice, eugenics experiments and the presence of children imprisoned among adults." 

Please join author Dale Brumfield at the monthly meeting of the local chapter of "Aging Persons in Prison Human Rights Campaign" at its regular meeting at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Harrisonburg at 7:30 pm Monday, November 20, to get a signed copy of the book, or bring your copy of the book to have it signed if you've already purchased one. They can be purchased on line at

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Gun Violence--Our Out-Of-Control Cancer

I'm weary of hearing nothing can be done about gun deaths.
What if an Amendment such as the following had become a part of our Constitution?

"A well regulated tobacco industry being necessary to the prosperity of a free State, the right of the people to grow and use nicotine products shall not be infringed."

At our house church meeting Sunday evening one of our members shared the tragic news of yet another mass shooting, this one at a little Baptist Church in the small rural town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. As of today 26 people are reported dead and an equal number are injured.

Can none of us be safe anymore, anywhere?

I propose a kind of war on gun violence that would resemble the one we are waging on another killer--cancer.

Here are some parallels:

Cancer is a major cause of deaths among adults and children alike, as is gun violence. No one is safe from either threat, and no one knows all of its causes nor all the different forms these two killer problems can take. We recognize that no groups or individuals are immune from their harms or free of blame for contributing to them. There are no simple answers, no easy cures.

Since cancer is a complex disease which takes many forms, most reasonable people agree that ongoing research is needed over whatever time necessary in order to reduce cancer deaths and produce cancer cures. In the case of gun violence, Congress, under intense and ongoing pressure from the NRA, has actually withheld funds for such research.

In the case of deaths by cancer, we would consider it inadequate and inappropriate for legislators refusing to fund research or work at solutions to simply offer condolences to victims, as in, "You are in our thoughts and prayers."

Just because we can't pinpoint all of the reasons for deaths from cancer we don't throw up our hands and assume nothing can be done. As with any killer disease, we know some of what we need to know already, but recognize much more needs to be learned, and we are willing to join hands with people everywhere in search of a way to save as many lives as possible.

If one "shoe bomber" was given three life sentences and the rest of have had to take off our shoes at airports ever since, we can likewise commit to "regulating" the use of all explosive devices in the interest of saving lives, whether musket loaders (as allowed by the founders), hand grenades, shoes packed with gun powder, or other far more deadly weapons.

Tackling gun violence in these ways should never be seen as a left or right, liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican issue. This is about saving the lives of men, women and children everywhere. In the near term, we won't be able to save everyone, but pro-lifers everywhere must do everything possible to preserve as many human lives as possible.

Here are some links to other posts on the subject:

Saturday, November 4, 2017

MKC and EMU: Comparisons and Contrasts

Meserete Christos College, Ethiopia
Eastern Mennonite University, USA
Last evening Alma Jean and I attended a fund raising dinner at the Lindale Mennonite Church for the Meserete Christos College in Ethiopia, founded in 1994 and established at its present campus in 2007. It currently has nearly 200 men and women enrolled at its main campus, and over 200 at two satellite locations and in its distance education programs.

MKC was founded by Ethiopia's Meserete Kristos ("Christ the Foundation") Church, which has over 310,000 baptized members meeting at more than 2000 locations, and with a total attendance of well over 500,000. This means it now has well over five times the Sunday attendance of its mother church, Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), which has 19 district conferences and a current 70,000 members.  

As a reflection of the huge disparity in wealth among worldwide Mennonites, MCUSA has a total of five colleges and two seminaries, each with budgets far surpassing that of this one fledgling Anabaptist-related college in Ethiopia, with an annual operating budget of around $450,000.

Tuition and room and board at MKC are just over $2000 a year in US dollars, but that is far more than most of its students can afford, Ethiopia being one of the poorest nations of the world. Thus much of last night's appeal was for more money for its scholarship fund. 

A year at EMU costs over $46,000, although significant financial aid is available. As a result of such factors as rising costs, a shrinking Mennonite constituency, and increased competition from other liberal arts colleges and universities, EMU is struggling to keep its enrollment numbers up, in spite of aggressive year-round recruitment efforts. Fewer than a third of its current students are Mennonites.

MKC, by contrast, almost exclusively serves its rapidly expanding mother church, Meserete Christos, which is hard pressed to train enough pastors and church leaders to serve its growing needs. It has absolutely no problem recruiting students, and would be able to greatly increase its enrollment if only more funds were available.

There is something wrong with this disparity. If we really believe that God shows no favoritism, and that we are all a part of one worldwide body of believers, how can we justify this embarrassing gap in distribution of resources?

At the very least, I would like to see us begin appointing believers from the Global South to serve as decision-making board members of each of our church institutions (via skype?). And meanwhile, should we consider a moratorium on new construction or expansion of our existing institutions until our world neighbors have more of their needs met? And should MCUSA have its colleges and seminaries become one "multiversity" (on separate campuses) to avoid competing with each other for needed dollars and adequate student enrollment?

A fascinating story, well told
I'm currently reading Don Kraybill's fascinating history of EMU's first 100 years. Some of the struggles and sacrifices associated with the early chapters of its story remind me of those of MKC's founding. 

I hope Meserete Christos College can learn from EMU's story, and that EMU can learn from theirs.

FYI, the total funds raised last night by the 70 or so of us attending was just under $7000. If you live in the US and want to contribute, please send your generous check to MK College Link, Box 1701, Harrisonburg, VA 22803.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

You Can Help Gemeinschaft Home's "Raise The Roof" Campaign With A $1000 Loan

Here's a  low-cost and pain-free way to help a good cause.
Gemeinschaft Home just approved installing a much needed new metal roof  on the back of the house that should last for a lifetime. To raise the $33,000 needed for this project, which also includes some necessary work on the front porch, we are soliciting three-year, interest-free loans of $1000 or more, all to be repaid by the end of 2020. Of course, outright gifts are also welcomed and appreciated.

As a member of Gemeinschaft's Networking and Fundraising Committee, I have agreed to promote this financing effort, one I hope to have completed by the end of this month.

We did a similar "loan-raising" campaign in 2011 to fund an efficient furnace system to heat and provide hot water for the Home, which has resulted in significant cost savings to the program. At the end of the three year period everyone who loaned money was repaid in full from a fund that Gemeinschaft created and added to for this purpose each month (Some individuals chose at the end to turn their loan into a gift).

We would like to raise the necessary commitments in gifts or loans in the next several weeks if possible. You can write a check for $1000 or more with "roof project" in the memo line and mail it to Gemeinschaft Home 1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. You will then receive a promissory note for the full amount to be redeemed in December, 2020, if you wish.

Please check the Gemeinschaft website or call 434-1690 for more information.

Thanks in advance for your generous help!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Nuclear War Is A Greater Threat Than Ever

small box on the left represents all of WWII Allied bombing
1945: total allied bombs dropped in WW II    1985: world's nuclear weapons equals                                     (3 megatons )                                       6,667 WWII's  (20,000 megatons)

According to the 1985 Center for Defense Information graph above, the world reached a peak of some 20,000 megatons of nuclear weapons thirty years ago, most of them in the possession of the US and the USSR. Thanks to various diplomatic efforts since then, the world now has just over 6,500 megatons, but that still represents over 2000 times the destructive force of all of the bombs detonated in all of World War II. 

This is both utterly unimaginable and absolutely immoral, and represents a flagrant violation of God's first recorded command to our human ancestors, to "tend the earth and care for it".

Early this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced its doomsday clock to only 2.5 minutes to midnight, their highest alert since 1953.  According to a January 26, 2017, New York Times piece, two of the group’s officials said, “In 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change,” and went on to say:

“Making matters worse, the [U.S.] now has a president who has promised to impede progress on both of those fronts. . . . Mr. Trump’s statements and actions have been unsettling. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding and even deploying the American nuclear arsenal.”

North Korea's recent aggressive tone, and its development of missiles capable of reaching US targets has of course added to the danger, along with the President's repeated provocative and derogatory statements about its leader, Kim Jong Un. For example, in his address to the United Nations (lauded by evangelist Franklin Graham as "his best speech ever"), President Trump literally threatened to destroy North Korea:

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Our threatening to call off the Iran nuclear agreement is another of other factors that may inch us closer toward a nuclear Armageddon. Needless to say, there has never been a time when our efforts at urgent prayer and active persuasion have been more needed.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Six Decades Later, I Remember With Tears

Memories of Highland Retreat will forever be with me.
Four ducks on a pond, 
A grass-bank beyond, 
A blue sky of spring, 
White clouds on the wing; 
What a little thing 
To remember for years-
To remember with tears!
- William Allingham

At Highland Retreat Camp's annual dinner last night I was asked to share some memories of being a part of the leadership of the Camp's fledgling summer camp program in the early 1960's. Board member Rowland Shank and our good friend Gerald Good asked me to be an assistant director for the 1964 season, and asked my soon-to-be wife Alma Jean to help with the food.

I didn’t realize then how that summer would change our lives, leading us to continue working there for the next two years as camp directors, with my home economics major bride managing the kitchen. After that I was privileged to serve on the Highland board for many years, and helped raise money for Highland’s first swimming pool and other projects. Later our own children enjoyed summer camps there and served as counselors.

Preparing for my little talk got me in touch with a rich reservoir of emotional memories I will always cherish. I can still hear Gerry Good’s boisterous voice and hearty laugh, the quieting sound of Capon Run in the middle of the camp grounds, the enthusiastic singing around the campfire, which I loved. Some of those songs still sing themselves in my head: 

I love the mountains,
I love the rolling hills,
I love the flowers
I love the daffodils,
I love the fireside
When the lights are low..

Ah, the firesides. I can still see the weekly "log cabin" campfires blazing in the dark and finally collapsing in a dramatic burst of flames. And I can see the circle of campers all around the pond in a late night candle lighting ceremony, and the quiet candle-lit walk back to camp for the night. And then the  intense competition between tent groups in the last morning's fire building contest.

I can still smell the weekly tinfoil dinners, the pancake and eggs breakfasts around each group's campfire, the Friday evening chicken barbecue provided by Carl Harman, and the taste of lots of great food, enriched by the surplus USDA butter and cheese and peanut butter that were in plentiful supply in those days. 

I can re-experience all this in a deeply visceral way, suggesting the power of this kind of weeklong experience in the company of God’s world and God’s people in a setting like Highland.

I remember one summer particularly, when outstanding counselors like Ron Moyer, Paul Beiler, John Fairfield and others regularly got up well before breakfast to go on bird a walk with whoever wanted to join them, just for the sheer love of nature, and how joining them was seen as really cool by a lot of the kids who looked up to them as role models. 

I recall parents saying things like, My son or daughter couldn’t stop talking about camp and their friends and their hikes and their adventures. And I remember hardworking but fun loving kitchen workers. Not above an occasional prank, one of them once put some ex lax in some chocolate chip cookies packed for a counselor's all day hike, as revenge for his habitually complaining about the food.

So many random things come to mind, mostly the blessings that came our way in spite of our youth and inexperience, and in spite of how primitive everything was those early years. For example, there was the famed “Wayne’s Motor Lodge”, a slightly renovated and very small chicken house which served as the first kitchen, our having to carry water from the bath house for cooking until the first real kitchen was built, the little camper we lived in the first summer we were directors, and of course the army surplus tents that housed the campers in those early years.

So with all camp supporters, I hope we can keep creating these kinds of memories, and always keep the program simple, close to God, close to nature, close to our hearts and always in our prayers.
Highland annual dinner

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Getting Past Our Black And White Thinking

Thankfully, God made us all "people of color".
Question: How many Americans are white, and how many are black? Answer: None. Zero. Unless artificially painted for some clown or minstrel act, no human being can be described as either “white” or “black”. Rather, each of us represents one of an infinite number of shades in God’s vast palette of skin colors. In other words, we are all “people of color,” neither ghostly white nor bituminous black, but some shade of pink, brown, peach, tan, coffee or dark olive.

So why think in terms of color-based categories at all?

I’m not suggesting we become color blind, but rather color-honoring, appreciating and celebrating the variety of shapes, sizes, hues and other unique features represented in the human family.

Having said that, we’re faced with an urgent need to address long-standing, racially-based inequities and injustices in our country. These have been with us ever since the original “white supremacists,” our European ancestors, claimed the right to arbitrarily occupy North American land and to conquer and destroy any who dared resist them. Both their beliefs in the “Right of Discovery” and the principle of “Manifest Destiny” represented a racial bias that remains all too common today, consciously or unconsciously held by members of a dominant culture that takes certain advantages and privileges for granted.

In the United States, race still stands out as a major factor associated with people having greater or lesser power, status and influence — power, here, defined here what helps people achieve their goals. Wealth plays a large role as well, along with other factors like ethnicity, education, national origin, and religious affiliation. Each of these can affect the chances of people getting a desired job, living in the neighborhood of their choice, being admitted to a quality school or receiving a just outcome in court.

Of course, enjoying the typical advantages associated with being part of the dominant culture, like growing up in a well-to-do family rather than a poor one, having access to a good education rather than an inferior one, being part of a mainline Christian denomination, rather than being a Muslim or a Hindu, or being of Western European ancestry rather than of Asian or African descent, do not guarantee anyone’s success. Nor does not enjoying any or many of these advantages doom one to failure. But these factors do tend to create strong headwinds or tailwinds that greatly affect the likelihood of success.

So those of us who are members of a social class formerly known as WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) must acknowledge that we remain “western European people of privilege” who tend to have a head start in the race for success. If we deny that, we should ask whether we would be willing to trade places with those among us who are of non-European descent.
So let’s work at creating a more level playing field for people of all shades of color and all kinds of ethnicities.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Raqqa, Syria: Liberation Through Obliteration

How is this kind of massive bombing not an act of terror and genocide?
To most western observers, finally freeing Raqqa from ISIS control is unmitigated good news, a victory worthy of great celebration.

But at what cost? And who pays?

According to an AP report in today's paper, 80% of this once prosperous city along the Euphrates (about the size of Richmond) is no longer habitable. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or maimed for life by massive bombing and drone strikes that have decimated the population and rendered those who survived homeless and with little hope for their future.

So what constitutes a military success? Have we completely lost our moral bearings and our credibility as a nation that supports human rights for all, including the inherent right to life itself? In the interest of achieving victory at any price, do we justify any and every means of achieving it? A nuclear strike? Chemical warfare?

It's just not possible, in my mind, to make any meaningful moral distinction between the terrible atrocities committed by ISIS and the equally unthinkable terror caused by massive bombing raids.

According to today's article, "Associated Press drone footage taken Thursday showed bombed-out shells of buildings and heaps of concrete slabs piled on streets littered with destroyed cars. Entire neighborhoods were turned to rubble, with no sign of civilian life--testimony to the thousands of bombs dropped on the city mainly by U.S. warplanes."

Someday history will judge us for condoning this form of holocaust. 

May God have mercy on us all. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

For Which Pledge Should We Be 'Kneeling'?

Can Christans pledge unqualified allegiance to the Bible, the Christian flag AND the American flag?
There's been a lot of controversy over certain NFL players kneeling during the singing of the national anthem at football games, with large numbers of patriotic Christians recently vowing to boycott NFL games until something is done to punish them for not standing during this familiar ritual.

My first thought is that such an NFL boycott might be way overdue, given the fact that American sports have become a Mammon-driven, nationalistic religion that demands huge investments of money, time and devotion of its followers and tends to take precedence over faith, family and almost every other loyalty.

But the question of whether Christians should stand with their right hand over their heart and pledge allegiance to a nation's flag remains an important one, assuming we take such forms of oaths seriously. Some Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and other believers, including Jehovah's Witnesses, choose not to do this, based on their belief that they are fundamentally and first of all members of an alternative worldwide kingdom ruled by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They argue that we wouldn't expect people who are citizens of some other nation pledge allegiance to our flag, would we?

Other Christians choose to stand out of respect for the government of whatever nation in which they reside, but use the time to pray silently for those in positions of governmental responsibility, as commanded in the New Testament.

The original pledge, written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, well over a hundred years after the nation's founding, simply said, "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The phrases "of the United States of America' and "under God" were added later, the latter in 1954 at the height of the nation's fervent resistance to a godless communism.

In addition to the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed, here's a pledge I would gladly join with others to kneel for:

I pledge unconditional allegiance to the cross-bearing life of Jesus Christ,
and to the worldwide community of beleivers
whom he has called and redeemed,
one people of faith and obedience
offering life, liberty and love for all.

Having said that, I would never insist that others recite this with me. Freedom of speech, conscience and religious expression are among the things that clearly make America great.

Monday, October 16, 2017

How Mammon-Driven Technologies Are Programming Our Kids' Brains

This is more subtle, and more dangerous, than we realize.
According to former Google product manager Tristen Harris, millions of us, and notably our children and teens, are being brainwashed by forms of media that are highly addictive and potentially destructive. "We as individuals can try to use our devices more responsibly," he says, "but it's our willpower against hundreds of engineers who are paid to keep us glued to the screen." 

Here are some of the examples he gives of this kind of highly sophisticated and personalized programming:

YouTube autoplays more videos to keep us from leaving.
Instagram shows new 'likes' one at a time, to keep us checking for more.
Facebook show whatever is known to keep us scrolling, based on our history of use.
Snapchat turns conversations into streaks we don't want to lose.
Our news media turns events into breaking news to keep as many of our eyeballs on the screen as possible.

The primary goal of the entire newer media industry is not to inform, or even to entertain, but to seduce us into buying products and services we and our children are generally far better off without.

It is here that our Old Order Amish and Mennonite friends who shun such technology may be far wiser than they realize. They know intuitively that not everything modern is in their best interest, and that simpler and more direct forms of communication may be best for all of us of all ages. 

Harris's answer, however, is not to abandon technology but to "change the  technology industry to put our best interests first".

Which sounds good, but who gets to determine what those 'best interests' are?

Meanwhile, it had better be each of us, along with others in our communities of faith.

Check this link for a CBS 60-Minutes interview with Harris:

Tristen Harris, CBS 60-minutes photo

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Adopted By A Family Of Former Strangers

Ruth Ann and Al Shirk, Alma Jean and I, Gladys and Jesse Yoder,
Orpha and Lloyd Gingrich, Freda Zehr, Lloyd and Beverly Wert
Siblings in the front row are in order of their age, except for
Lloyd, on the right, who should be between Ruth Ann and Alma 
Jean, and Freda, who should be between Alma Jean and Gladys.

Last Saturday Alma Jean and I attended a reunion of the remaining six members of her family (and many of their descendants) at Landis Homes near Lititz, Pennsylvania. Already deceased are her oldest brother Harold (and Mary) Wert, older sister Alene (and Mark) Yoder, and brother-in-law Vernon Zehr.

The Michael and Alma Wert family grew up in rural Juniata County, Pennsvania, at the foot of scenic Shade Mountain, and I met and married beautiful Alma Jean at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) in the early sixties.

All of this has blessed me in indescribable ways. The Wert family couldn't have been more welcoming, and I have bonds with them that are comparable to those of my own blood ties (By the way, I'm not related to the Delaware based Yoder brothers who married two of Alma Jean's sisters, but they also adopted me like the rest).

It's wonderful how this works. We leave our own family of origin and become united to an unrelated clan that immediately gives us new siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and a host of nieces and nephews. These chosen bonds add to the wealth of family that adds to our feeling of identity, security and great joy.

Its an amazing grace, and I can never thank God enough for it.