Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Best Justice Money And Influence Can Buy

When in legal trouble, it helps to be rich (and 
the chair of the House Judiciary Committee).
Back in April, our congressman Bob Goodlatte was charged with driving at the speed of 69 mph in a 35 mph school zone on U.S. 29 near Lovingston.

According to the Roanoke Times, Goodlatte's wife, Maryellen, a business and real estate attorney, persuaded the court to reduce her busy husband's charge to "driving with a defective speedometer". For this he paid over $300 in fine and court costs, but avoided having any points added to his driving record. 

Meanwhile, the Times reports that the alleged problem with the speedometer was never actually verified, and there is no record of it ever being repaired. But it turns out it isn't at all uncommon in some jurisdictions to give drivers with a good record that kind of break. 

On one condition. You have to be able to afford an attorney. Otherwise you're at the mercy of the judge, according to the Times.

Of course we know it's hard to get any kind of break in court if you can't afford competent counsel. Thus individuals are likely to be sentenced with fines and/or jail time far in excess of those with good representation.

It's true that the poor are often provided court appointed attorneys, typically less experienced and underpaid. But these will more often than not want to save themselves a lot of time and effort by urging their client to accept a plea deal, persuading them that it is in their best interest to plead guilty to a lesser charge and in some cases hope they will get by with the time served while waiting for their hearing. Without the threat of stiffer sentences which in effect force defendants to accept such deals, our courts would be hopelessly overwhelmed with cases.

Where an individual faces a serious felony charge, the stakes and the consequences can be truly grave.

Judge Jed S. Rakoff, in an article in The New York Review of Books titled "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty," states that, of the 2.2 million Americans now in prison well over two million are there as a result of plea bargains dictated by government prosecutors. Rakoff adds, "The Supreme Court’s suggestion that a plea bargain is a fair and voluntary contractual arrangement between two relatively equal parties is a total myth: it is much more like a “contract of adhesion” in which one party can effectively force its will on the other party."

This is surely a far cry from the original vision of the founders, who in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution sought to guarantee that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.

This should be true for rich and poor, powerless and powerful, alike.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mennonite Pastor Arrested And Tortured, Prominent Lay Leader Beheaded, Near Kalona

There are more Mennonites in the Congo than in the entire US
Oops, not Kalona, a large Mennonite community in the state of Iowa.

Make that Kalonda, in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to an even larger community of Mennonites, one of the fastest growing Mennonite communions in the world. Congolese Anabaptists now number some 240,000 in all, far exceeding the membership of the Mennonite Church in the US.

What a difference one letter, and 10,000 miles makes in what we are made aware of as headline news.

I ran across the tragic story of a Mennonite lay leader who was recently decapitated (near the village of Kalonda), along with an account of pastor in Lubami who was brutally beaten and whipped, in our last issue of the Mennonite, "a forum for Mennonite voices". Far from being a feature article, it was a five-paragraph account in the "News Briefs" section, submitted by Mennonite Mission Network and entitled "Mennonite Church in Congo Sustains Major Wounds".

I'm not faulting the Mennonite for its coverage, but simply noting how isolated we all are from our world neighbors, sisters and brothers who share our faith and who are a part of our global faith family.

Here's my question: What might have been the coverage if the recent events in the Republic of the Congo had occurred in, say, Germany, with some 47,000 Mennonites, or in Russia, with 3000 members, or even in Australia, with only 300 Mennonites?

In other words, what role might factors like race, ethnicity, social class or economic privilege play in what we consider headline Mennonite news?

On a positive note, the same July 2017 issue of the Mennonite carried a major three-page story highlighting the heroic life of Michael J. Sharp, an EMU grad who died in that same Kasai region of the Congo in his efforts to bring about peace among warring factions in the region.

But should we not give equal time and attention to the unnamed Congolese martyr in the "News Brief" section, referred to only as "the husband of the regional president of the Mennonite women's association"? And to the person who was tortured, referred to simply as "a Mennonite pastor in Lubami"?

They, like Michael Sharp, are our brothers.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

In My Old Age I'm Hearing Voices

This kind of urgent appeal is coming from all over the world.
No, I'm not having delusions, or suffering from dementia or Alzheimers. At least not yet.
     Nor do I claim to be hearing any kind of audible messages from the Almighty.
     But some of the urgent voices I'm hearing in my old age are clearer than audible.
• I'm hearing the desperate cries of more and more dying children in far off places like famine-stricken Sudan, Somalia and Sierra Leone.
• I'm hearing anguished laments of a record 65.5 million refugees and displaced persons, many languishing in tent cities in desert heat and with little hope for return to their homes.
• I'm hearing the unimaginable sounds of suffering coming from victims of torture and other forms of religious and political persecution around the world.
• I'm hearing the despair of millions of underpaid and overworked men, women and children who are forced to put in long exhausting hours without respite and often in unsafe and inhumane conditions--poultry workers and meat packers, farm hands and field harvesters, garment workers and toy makers, miners and mineral extractors, sex slaves and exploited domestic workers--all to produce cheap goods and services to satisfy our consumer appetites.
• I'm hearing the voices of millions of men and women suffering from heat and lack of decent care in our nation's overcrowded prisons and jails, along with their fellow prisoners in steel and concrete cages and dungeons around the world.
• And above all else I'm hearing the words of Jesus and the prophets, louder and clearer than ever, "Whatever you do for the most forgotten of these, my own brothers and sisters, you have done for me."
"If your religion does not transform your consciousness into compassion, it is more a part of the problem than a solution.”  - Richard Rohr

Friday, June 23, 2017

HARD TIME VIRGINIA Vol. II, No. 3 (news by, about and for inmates in the Commonwealth)

Minor Junior Smith, 70,
legally blind and incarcerated
for 45 years. One of his
poems appears below.
Number of Aging US Inmates Rising Rapidly 
According to Human Rights Watch, sentenced state and federal prisoners age 65 and older represent the fastest growing group inmates in US prisons. Because of higher rates of illness and impairments, the cost of caring for them is three to nine times higher than for younger inmates, although the likelihood of their reoffending greatly diminishes with age.
     In spite of that, the Virginia Parole Board is slow to release aging persons who are no longer a likely threat to their communities. For the month of March I could find no record of any geriatric releases, period, on the Board's website. Likewise in April there were no geriatric releases among the 23 parole grants, and in May only one of the 13 inmates released was in that category.
     A meeting to form a Rockingham County chapter of RAPP (Release Aging Persons in Prison) is being held in Harrisonburg July 22.

Electric Fans Become A Real Hot Item
Since most of the concrete and steel facilities operated by the Department of Corrections facilities have no air conditioning, their oven-like summer temperatures feel almost impossible to endure in the summer.
     Solution? Sell overpriced $30 fans to the inmates, who pay for them with money earned by hard work in the heat (at .50 to $1 an hour) or who can persuade their loved ones at home to provide them with the money they need.
     DOC has a pretty good business model here--create an intense need to cool off, then provide the solution at a hefty profit through a monopoly-owned commissary. Likewise with food. Provide inmates with only the minimum required daily calories, then charge them $2.52 for a pint of ice cream.

New And Degrading Visitation Policies
From a Virginia DOC inmate: "The newly mandated visitation jumpsuits are the most humiliating attire anyone could design. And there is a crazy bathroom procedure that requires an inmate to be strip searched and escorted to the Medical Department just to take a water break. Then to return to their visit they must be strip searched all over again. Having an offender endure all this is to make them want to stop getting a visit."

Conditions At Local Jails Create Daily Hardships
This is a quote from an inmate at one of the larger regional jails in Virginia: “As far as this facility goes, even the minimum security inmates are locked down 18 hours a day in a two-bunk cell about 11 feet by 6 feet. If the jail is short-staffed, we are locked down longer. One day I was sent to Medical Segregation due to food poisoning from the outdated milk they served us. These cells are unsanitary and way worse than general population cells, and you are locked down 23-24 hours a day."
     It's sad when animals at our local SPCA are often given better care than people in our jails and prisons.
"Rambling Fever"
by Minor Junior Smith, now 70, recalling his prodigal youth
I had rambling fever, although I had not been paying a lot of attention to Merle.
About a block from the apartment, a feminine voice yelled out: "Don't leave that girl!"
I couldn't foresee what I would possibly gain by visiting poor Susan Cleaver.
To witness her family's desolate lives again would merely make me a miserable griever.
My head spun as I passed Krogers and Sears and I turned right onto Route 460.
Discouraged beforehand, I was neither going to Chattanooga nor down through Dixie.

While hitchhiking alongside that highway, I thought that I should have worn red.
Finally, I rode through Montgomery County and had failed to stop for step-mom's cornbread.
Entertained by Rock music, the salesman and I went directly to a Bluefield jewelry store.
Inside, I bought the smallest and most expensive transistor radio I'd ever seen before.
Out on that West Virginia highway, I grew tired of walking and was just a thumbing.
Then, from a house, a little boy ran up to me and said, "Hey, Mister, ain't nobody a coming."

His daddy was all ready to take him to a Cub Scout meeting to be with other little boys.
At once, a Greyhound bus stopped; I paid my fare then and cruised all the way to Chicago, Illinois.
Like a normal American citizen, I wandered around inside the terminal and got lost.
Eventually, some other travelers and I took a bus to Kalamazoo, having shared the cost.
Way into the night, that city's YMCA wanted my transistor but didn't have enough room for me.
Therefore, I checked in at the Police Station, where I was booked for vagrancy.

After a stay in jail and breakfast the next morning, though, I wasn't holding a grudge.
Later on, however, I lacked self-confidence when an officer escorted me before a judge.
His Honor desired to know where I was from and what type of work I had done there.
In my explanation, I also informed him that I had spent most of my money on a bus fare.
The Clerk of the Court jotted down the address to a laundry, then sent me on my way.
That address, nevertheless, led me to a vacant lot during the early part of that day.

Sadly, I realized that the business must have burnt down on arriving at the place.
Or, that the Clerk of Court had sent me all of that distance on a wild-goose chase.
I left that bare site flustered and about ready to rejoin the Deluxe Laundry crowd.
Soon, a motorist gave me a lift towards Louisiana, having laughed out loud.
Actually, as I dozed, he took me near his college campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
When I missed my radio afterwards, a realization struck me that he hadn't been my Santa.
An uncontrollable vim compelled me, as though I were trying to see the entire nation.
Broke as a convict, way past midnight, I rambled into the Ohio Police Station.
A detective allowed me to take a nap on a bench in the back until the crack of dawn.
He had awakened me, handed me a dollar bill, and said, "Young man, you'd better move on."
Outside of Cincinnati, I drifted across the Ohio River Bridge under the new morning sun.
There were a few different available routes at an intersection, so I selected one.

Perhaps the primary reason I hadn't found a job was because I had not applied for any.
Well, periodically, I did consider the idea during my desertion, while I was turning twenty.
Near sundown, a big fellow took me to a friendly tavern outside of Ashland, Kentucky.
Through a couple of beers, I jabbered on to him about how my life had been so unlucky.
Recuperating at his motel, I bathed, shaved; then I turned in and thought about Jennifer.
I contemplated on our problems, pleasures, and the places I had been with her.
Come morning, I thanked my friend for his hospitality, and he must have taken me to be a troublesome kid.
Knowing that I needed employment, he said that I could not do the kind of work that be did.
I rode through Charleston, West Virginia with a man, who bore the characteristics of a priest.
He gave me a dollar, too, besides that, his black and white apparel was neatly creased.
Next, a sportsman stopped his Jaguar; then we sped off to Atlanta, Georgia's out skirts.
Throughout that night, I pondered over my life and recalled how badly doing without hurts.
Aw, but, to survive in life, sometimes you do what you have to do, if you do anything at all.
Consequently, I decided to return to my job in Roanoke, Virginia, even if I had to crawl.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Honoring People In Positions Of Power

The president is simplythe people's CEO
"Honor (timate) all people, 
Love (agape) the family of believers, 
Reverence (phobeisthe) God, 
Honor (timate) the emperor."
- The apostle Peter, c. 64 A.D.

I was intrigued by the comments addressed to the President at the beginning of his cabinet meeting last week, raising the question of how we should show proper respect toward those in authority without becoming too deferential or reverential toward them. Meanwhile, many of us may show too little respect, but the following seems a little over the top.

What do you think?

Vice-President Pence: "It's the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice-president to a president who's keeping his word to the American people."

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus: "On behalf of all of us I thank you for the opportunity and blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions: "It's an honor to be able to serve you."

HHS Secretary Tom Price: "What an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership. I can't thank you enough for the privileges you've given me and the leadership that you've shown."

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, in thanking the President for visiting her department the prior week, noted that "hundreds and hundreds of people were just so thrilled."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue: "A lot of us just got back from Mississippi. They love you there."

I welcome your feedback.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Children's Book Highlights Life Of Refugee Families

This book helps bring the plight of
refugee families closer home
Since one of my current passions is multiplying our giving for war and famine refugee relief through the Fall Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale and directly to Mennonite Central Committee, I was interested in how this latest book, Messages From Maryam, might help promote more generous giving at the September 29-30 event. 

Conversations over the past week have resulted in author Lauren Pichon and illustrator Kendra Yoder offering to make autographed copies available at the Relief Sale for $15 each, with all profits going to MCC. They will also be involved in some children's activities in which Lauren will read parts of her book and Kendra may supervise some watercolor painting.

Pichon, who teaches children of recent immigrants in the Harrisonburg school system, has based much of her narrative on the actual stories of the students she works with. 

Here is Lauren's synopsis:

"Meet Aila and Maryam, two best friends from Mosul, Iraq.  When Aila’s father decides it is time for their family to immigrate to the United States, Maryam is left behind to face the hardships in Mosul alone.  In Messages From Maryam,  the two friends exchange letters, detailing Aila’s stay in a refugee camp, Maryam’s fear of living in Iraq, and, ultimately, their joyous, yet unexpected reunion!"  

If you look under the Videos tab of the author's Facebook page ( you can find a video that Kendra's husband made of her explaining her illustration process.  

I feel blessed to have discovered this local talent, and to sense the compassion these young women have for families of the millions of refugees around the world. Let's give them and their cause our generous support.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Matthew's Mountain--A Place of Authoritative Teaching And Sending

The Mount of Beatitudes near Capernaum
Is the location where Jesus gave his disciples their first instructions and where he gave them their final instructions the same?

I think it might well be.

No one knows exactly where in Galilee Jesus delivered the teachings recorded in Matthew 5-7, but the prominent Sinai-like peak that has become known as the Mount of Beatitudes near Capernaum could well be the place.

There, in the manner of rabbis instructing their apprentices, Jesus first "sat down and taught" what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. A large crowd listened in, all marveling at the authority (exousia) with which he spoke.

At the end of Matthew's gospel Jesus instructed his disciples to again meet with him at a specified mountain in Galilee to charge them with what we know as the "Great Commission".

"I have been given all authority (exousia)," Jesus says, "therefore wherever you go, make disciples of all peoples, initiating them into God's worldwide rule and instructing them to obey all I have commanded you."

In recent centuries, there has been much emphasis on Jesus' mandate to "go into all the world" to evangelize and to baptize, but there have been few examples of missionaries actually teaching people such commands as "do not return evil for evil" and "do not lay up treasures here on earth", as found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Early Christians were convinced that Jesus first and his final instructions were seamlessly linked. Thus the church in the first centuries was known for teaching their members (with authority) to shun all forms of violence and to sacrificially share their possession with those in need.

We need to follow their example.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Announcing Harvspot Contest Winners And Honorable Mentions

The world is facing an unprecedented refugee crisis.
Here are the winners of the recent Harvspot Contest aimed at multiplying gifts for Mennonite Central Committee.

The purpose of this effort was to come up with creative ways for people attending the Virginia Relief Sale (but who do not choose to take part in the auction) to make generous SOS (Sharing Our Surplus) donations of money (checks, credit cards, or cash) for war and famine refugee relief at this year's September 29-30 event. This would be in addition to income generated by auction, food and other sales.

The prize entries, as judged by members of our SOS Committee are as follows:

First Prize: $250 contributed in the winner's name to Mennonite Central Committee for war and refugee relief needs:
Jessie Litterell and Darlene Keller each submitted the following:
Sell What You Have: Have a fundraiser yard sale or sell things online, stating where the proceeds will go. People are more likely to buy knowing their money is going to a good cause.

Second Prize: $150 to MCC in winner's name
Ruth Stoltzfus Jost
Ten For Life: Contribute a thank you gift of $10 for each year of life you have been given, to give a better chance at life for desperate people MCC is working valiantly to serve.

Third Prize: $100 to MCC
Jennifer Davis Sensenig and Jessie Litterell each submitted the following:
Five Dollar Friday: Every Friday between now and the Relief Sale add $5 to a jar, bank, or box. Then at the Sale you can add to this cash gift. 

Ten Other Honorable Mentions (the last two are not contest entries but deserve the most attention of all:
1. Give a tithe of what you have in your savings account.
2. Match what you and your household spend annually on eating out.
3. Save the equivalent of a month's rent or mortgage payment to help provide refugee housing.
4. Grow a "giving garden". Sell the produce at a farmer's market or online. All proceeds to be donated.
5. Buy a bag of coffee beans from an MCC fair trade shop, then brew your own morning coffee instead of buying a coffee every work-day morning.  (The daily savings add up quickly!)
6. Eat more homemade meals, spending family time cooking, eating and cleaning up together.  Give the price of a family meal out to MCC each month.  
7. Sell something you have in your garage or attic that you really don't use any longer.  Give that money to MCC.
8. Involve your children. For example, encourage them to give money earned through mowing lawns, planting and harvesting garden and farm crops, doing car washes, etc.

9. Simply sell what you have and give it to the poor. Rewards? Truly out of this world.               
-submitted by Jesus (from the Gospels)
10. Since right now you have plenty, share generously with those who are in dire need. Rewards? At some other time they can share with you when you need it.      
- submitted by Paul (II Corinthians 9)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Let's Encourage SVEC To Install Solar Panels On Its New Headquarters

Location of new SVEC facility
The Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, the utility that provides power to many of us, is building a new headquarters on the corner of Oakwood Drive and Rt. 11 near Mt. Crawford.

I was encouraged to hear its new president and CEO, Mr. Michael Hastings, report at the June 8 annual meeting that three different options are being considered for installing solar panels for this new facility.

What a great idea, I thought, and a great way to set an example for all the members of the Cooperative.

You can voice your support for this project by contacting them at:

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Our "I Come To The Garden Alone" Theology

This is a primary theme of many of our gospel songs.
The past century has seen a rise in popular gospel songs like "In the Garden", sometimes known by its first line "I Come to the Garden Alone". 

Written in 1912 by C. Austin Miles, it reflects a widely accepted view of God as one who is like on a date with us. God is all about making us happy, all about having a very special one on one relationship with each of us and responding to our every need.

"... He walks with me and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own,
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever known."

I am not saying there is not some truth in these words. But are we in danger of fostering a view of faith that makes it all about me

For example, another gospel song declares, "On the Jericho Road, there is room for just two, no more and no less, just Jesus and you," then goes on to promise, "Each burden he'll bear, each sorrow he'll share. There's never a care when Jesus is there."

Really? "Just Jesus and you"? And "never a care"?

How would that sound to a Syrian refugee or a famine victim in North Africa? Are those suffering multitudes not more likely to be the focus of God's primary attention, and therefore deserving of a lot more our own?

So what if we turned things around, seeing everyone on the planet as created to give God their wholehearted attention rather than ourselves as being created to constantly receive attention from God?

Yet many of today's best selling devotional books seem to be about Jesus speaking daily words of personal encouragement to each of his billions of followers. Contrast that with this sample of a classic daily devotional by John Baillie in 1949 called "A Diary of Private Prayer":

"O God in heaven, who fashioned my limbs to serve you and to follow hard after you, with sorrow and contrition of heart I acknowledge before you my faults and failures of the day that is now past...

My failure to be true to my own accepted standards,
My self-deception in the face of temptation,
My choosing of the worse when I know the better,
O Lord, forgive.

My failure to apply to myself the standards of conduct I demand of others,
My blindness to the suffering of others and my slowness to be taught by my own,
My complacency toward wrongs that do not touch my own case and my over-sensitiveness to those that do.
My slowness to see the good in my fellows and to see the evil in myself...
O Lord, forgive."

Or better yet, note how our Lord's Prayer is one in which we join with all other believers in seeking God's will and God's way for our lives:

Our Father in heaven, 
Holy be your name.
May your rule begin, your will be done,
right here on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our portion of the world's bread,
and forgive us the debts we owe as a result of our wrongdoing,
as we forgive those who are indebted to us.

And lead us not into tests beyond our endurance,
but deliver everyone the world over from harm and evil.

For yours is the kingdom, the power and all the glory
forever and ever. Amen

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Reflections On The Two-Year Anniversary Of The Middle River Jail Buy-In

Middle River Jail
A slightly abbreviated version of this piece by Reta Finger, member of the local Valley Justice Coalition, appeared as an op ed in today's Daily News-Record

What follows is her original version as submitted: 

“As far as this facility goes,” writes an inmate at Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ), “even the minimum security inmates are locked down 18 hours a day in a two-bunk cell about 11 feet by 6 feet. If the jail is short-staffed, we are locked down longer. One day I was sent to Medical Segregation due to food poisoning from the outdated milk they served us. These cells are unsanitary and way worse than general population cells, and you are locked down 23-24 hours a day.”

In 2014, many residents of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County protested the need for another jail costing $63M, believing that a new facility—paid for with our taxes—would only encourage more convictions and longer sentences. Since 1995, when our current jail was built, incarcerations had climbed 500%, while population increased only 25%. Many individuals, like local criminal justice expert Dr. Nancy Insco, were hoping for a reduction in the need for jail-beds by using alternatives proven to successfully rehabilitate offenders.

The solution, signed July 1, 2015, was a 250-bed buy-in at the MRRJ. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County each shared half the cost of $21,543,588, to be paid over ten years at 2.17% interest—besides $25 per occupied bed per day for services.

At this two-year anniversary, it’s time to take stock of this decision. Was it wise to commit our tax money to this? Has it lowered incarceration rates and provided alternatives that help inmates become contributing members of society? This issue concerns all of us, since over 90% of prisoners will eventually be released.

The local Valley Justice Coalition looks for ways to encourage our civic leaders to lower incarceration rates by every humane, evidence-based, and safe ways possible. Following are a few observations and evaluations about the MRRJ buy-in:·   
Middle River Regional Jail was originally overbuilt, resulting in heavy debt. Years later, Augusta County officials persuaded Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to buy 250 beds at MRRJ.

We now pay for these beds whether or not they are filled. In addition, inmates or their families are charged a burdensome $3 per day. 

Although carefully-arranged tours have shown well-cared-for prisoners, actual conditions are often less than humane. Besides lock-downs and spoiled food, visitors to MRRJ from our area have long commutes, and a lack of quality medical treatment resulted in several deaths in 2016.

On the positive side, MMRJ does provide a work-release program, which our local facility does not. Also, unlike our local jail, it does not require inmates to be in handcuffs when going to the visitor area.

But have we gotten the best possible return for our 2015 buy-in? After decades of experience, Dr. Insco states, "Jail populations will continue to grow unless the demand for beds diminishes. No jurisdiction will ever build their way of the problem."  

Concerned citizens are always welcome at the Monday noon meetings of Valley Justice Coalition at 110 Old South High Street in Harrisonburg.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Jesus Didn't Establish a Temple-Based Religion

I recommend this book by Wills.
I had a conversation recently with someone who said he gave up church years ago, and now regularly goes out for Sunday breakfast at a popular local cafe with his friends and family. He left church, he said, because he didn't feel it was really about what Jesus was about, helping people and healing brokenness.

My challenge to him was to consider covenanting with some likeminded people to form the "First Church of the Little Grill" (his chosen Sunday meeting place).

I know owning or renting some kind of real estate is assumed to be a requirement for today's congregations, and I am not opposed to such meeting spaces, but I do value conversations about New Testament-based alternatives. And as a member a house church congregation over the past three decades, I was intrigued by what Garry Wills, a Catholic writer, has to say about this.

Here are excerpts from his book, WHAT JESUS MEANT, (Viking Press 2006):

"When Jesus drives the merchants from the Temple, onlookers challenge him, “What authorization can you produce for doing this?” He responds: Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it again.” The Jews scoff at the mere idea of rebuilding the Temple in three days: “Construction of the Temple has taken forty-six years.” But the gospel adds: “The Temple he referred to was his body” John 2:21 

"The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and it never rose again. But Jesus had already loosened it from its moorings...

"Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with other buildings, whether huts or cathedrals, but to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father. At first one might think Jesus would not recognize most of what calls itself religion today. But, on second thought, it would probably look all too familiar, perpetuating the very things he criticized in the cleanliness code, the Sabbath rules, the sacrifices, and the Temple. It was natural, therefore, for religion to kill him, since he was its foe.

"His followers would be killed for the same reason. Stephan, the first martyr, is stoned for predicting the destruction of the Temple Acts 6:14). Stephan tells his executioners what Jesus told the Samaritan woman: “The Most High does not live in houses constructed by human hand. Rather, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool’ ” (Acts 7:48-49).

"What is the kind of religion Jesus opposed? Any religion that is proud of its virtue, like the boastful Pharisee. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them. Any that exalts its own officers, proud of its trappings, building expensive monuments to itself. Any that neglects the poor and cultivates the rich, any that scorns outcasts and flatters the rulers of this world. If that sounds like just about every form of religion that we know, then we can see how far off from religion Jesus stood."

What do you think?

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Blind Poet, At 70, Still Yearns For Release

Incarcerated for 45 years
At 5'9" and 141 pounds, Minor Junior Smith, legally blind since age five, is a 70-year-old inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center, a men's prison located in Dillwyn, a small town an hour and a half west of Richmond.

Minor is a quiet, mild-mannered man affectionately known by many of his friends as "Smitty". He has been working in food services nine hours a day, six days a week, since 2004. During BKCC's quarterly lockdown he works at least sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. 

Smith was incarcerated May 11, 1972, and first worked in the furniture repair shop and as a chapel janitor at the old Richmond Penitentiary, then in book binding at Powhatan Correctional Center, in food services from 1982 to 1990 at Staunton Correctional Center, in 1990 to 2002 as a teachers aide for LIP students at Augusta Correctional Center, and from 2002 to 2004 as Pod Librarian at Sussex II State Prison, all before being transferred to Buckingham Correctional Center. He also volunteered as a Braille Transcriber at the old Richmond Penitentiary and at Mecklenburg Correctional Center from 1979 to 1982. 

On February 7, 1977, he was certified by The Library of Congress as a Braille Transcriber and he currently receives books on cassettes from The Library and Resource Center in Richmond. On May 2, 1983 Smith received a GED Certificate. Shortly afterwards Smitty published a book, ABUSED, about his hard life as a child, which was copyrighted in 1983. He is also a prolific poet and writes about his life experiences and travels throughout the US.

Like most parole eligible inmates Minor is careful not to break any rules at his overcrowded prison, which currently houses roughly 1,152 prisoners in a facility designed for 608. Smith's prison case file shows that he has come a long way from the reckless twenty-five-year-old young man who was arrested for murder in August, 1971. 

At the time Minor was led to believe he would some day be released on parole given his progress and accomplishments while behind bars. He was first eligible for parole release January 31, 1986, and has currently received thirty annual "not grant" decisions from the Virginia Parole Board. 

Forty-five years after that eligibility date, and many unsuccessful parole hearings later, Smith is still locked up, and with little hope of gaining freedom anytime soon. As of June 30, 2014, he was one of roughly 4,656 prisoners in Virginia currently serving a sentence with the possibility of parole. Known as "Old Law Prisoners," these prisoners represent only about 12% of the entire DOC population in the state, many of them lifers such as Smitty serving time for first or second degree murder. 

Some of these have committed heinous acts of violence. Others were caught up in gang and drug related crimes that resulted in a homicide they did not directly commit. Still others were convicted under the state's three-strikes law, which for some offenders mandates life sentences after three felony convictions. As of June 30, 2014, Virginia DOC housed 303 prisoners under this law. These parole-eligible prisoners. like Smitty, have served their minimum sentences and are eligible to be released on parole. But they remain confined to prison, trapped in a system that critics say is unnecessarily cruel.

Under state law, a parole board, made up of Board members appointed by the governor, decides whether an individual is "suitable" for release. The law requires the parole board to release eligible prisoners when they are no longer a danger to society. Members are also supposed to remain unbiased and must not deny parole to a prisoner only because of the severity of the original crime(s).

But interviews with currently incarcerated parole eligible prisoners, their family members and criminal defense attorneys, along with an extensive review of parole data, paint a picture of harsh and arbitrary decisions that force people to stay locked up for many years after they have been rehabilitated.

From a policy and economic standpoint, experts have increasingly scrutinized this sector of the state prison system, one that plays a major role in overcrowding and is incredibly costly to taxpayers. And from a personal and emotional standpoint, the cruel legal twists of the parole process can excessively punish reformed men and women while also inflicting immense pain on the lives of loved ones on the outside. 

People who committed crimes decades ago when they were young and immature are regularly denied second chances even when it seems they've done everything right in prison. Mr. Smith is an example of such a person.

The above is an edited version of a piece written by Mr. Smith's current cellmate, Charles Zellers, Sr. Here's a link where you can find a sample of his poetry: 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Choosing The 'Our Father' Diet

According to the feature article in the the June 5, 2017, issue of TIME magazine, maintaining a desired body weight isn't affected as much by our calories, fats, sugar or exercise as by our overall mindset about our food and our health.

Not that a balanced diet and good exercise aren't vitally important, but when it comes to weight, the chief factor appears to be how our thinking affects the kinds and the quantities of food we eat. To me that confirms there is a spiritual and not just a biological or physical component to our eating. And since I definitely need help in the weight and health department, I'm proposing what I'm calling the "Our Father" diet.

As indicated in an earlier post, I've come to believe the "daily bread" reference in the Lord's Prayer is an allusion to the daily portion of manna spoken of in the Exodus story. All of God's people were treated with the same gift of ample food each day, and each was to collect and use only their fair daily share.

In a similar way, what if we were to think of each mealtime as one we are sharing with all of our friends and neighbors in God's worldwide family? What if each day we were joined in prayer with the "Our Father" who, like all good parents presiding over their family table, wants to make sure the entire family gets all of the nourishment they need?

For most of us, including myself, that would mean being more mindful of both the kinds and the quantity of foods I eat. The benefits of that mindfulness--that each meal is a eucharistic celebration of gratitude for God's provision and God's presence--is that others will have more of what they need to maintain a healthy weight, and the rest of us will enjoy the kinds of daily portions that will greatly improve our health and wellbeing.

Here's a link to a concern about some of today's most vulnerable people on earth in need of their daily bread:

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Not All Problems In A Marriage Are Marriage Problems

Check out the summer edition of LIVING
In case you don't have access to this paper, the following is the latest "Family Forum" column I wrote for Valley Living. You can pick up a free copy at numerous locations in and around Harrisonburg.

When ‘John’ and ‘Sara’ got into some serious verbal fights over John’s mistrust of some of Sara’s new friends, the couple wisely decided to get some marriage counseling. 

Sara was convinced that her husband of three years was being overly jealous, and that her occasionally going out to eat with some of her coworkers was completely justified. John was equally sure that some of Sara’s new friends, a couple of them recently divorced, were a bad influence, and he resented the time it took away from their relationship. 

But who has the problem that needs fixing here, John or Sara? Or is this just a communication problem for which joint counseling is the solution?

Most likely it’s all of the above. But to the extent that John is too insecure and controlling, or Sara is too insensitive or irresponsible, those personal issues are not what couples’ counseling is designed for. Personal problems have to be acknowledged and overcome by the person who owns them, sometimes with the help of a trusted mentor or with some individual counseling.

In other words, not all problems in a marriage are marriage problems, although personal problems can greatly distress a marriage. This means each partner should first take responsibility for their own contribution to the stress in ther relationship, and not simply fix blame on the other person. After all, we have virtually zero ability, and therefore  responsibility, to fix another person.

Bottom line, only after we acknowledge and deal with our own personal issues are we ready to work together on a win-win solutions to the marriage problems. 

For John and Sara, this could mean calmly and respectfully doing the following:

A. First Discuss

1. Each states, by turn, why they are concerned. Thus each starts with their interests (what makes this important to them) rather than starting with their positions (what each sees as the right solution). Usually couples find that many or most of their interests are similar if not the same.

2. Based on their overlapping interests, they then do some brainstorming of  “what if” solutions they each put on the table. In this way they create options C, D, E, or F rather than just focusing on options A or B (John’s or Sara’s).

B. Then Decide

1. The couple then agrees on a plan they are willing to give a good try, one that provides quality together time while also allowing each reasonable time to be with friends, and under what circumstances.

2. They also agree on a period of time in which their win-win plan will be tin effect before it is reviewed and renewed—or modified if needed. Agreements need not be set in stone for all time, but are always to be strictly kept until they are changed.

None of this may seem easy, but isn’t it better than continuing arguing and fighting?