Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"We Have A Dream"--Finalized Draft Of Faith in Action's Focus For 2018

Updated 2/5/18. The Issues Committee's final draft of its Action Plan (below) for this year was unanimously and enthusiastically adopted by the Delegate Assembly of the 25 local congregations that comprise Faith in Action:
We have a dream of having our local jail become a model "greenhouse" for the rehabilitation and treatment of individuals awaiting their trial or completing their sentences. We believe jail budgets and programs should reflect such priorities and that families of inmates not be burdened with costs associated with the care of their loved ones.

We have a dream of reducing incarceration in our community by utilizing evidence-based alternative sanctions for low-risk offenders. We believe costly extended jail stays actually increase recidivism and reduce public safety as inmates lose positive connections to jobs and family while being exposed to a criminal environment that encourages anti-social behavior.

We have a dream of seeing our criminal justice system trend toward restorative rather than punitive responses to offenders. We believe the needs of victims should be a first priority, and that those causing others harm should be directly involved in repairing those harms and making appropriate restitution.

Therefore, we are committed to work with relevant policy makers and stakeholders to achieve the following in 2018:

1. Eliminate the financial burden of the $1 per day fee currently paid by family members of inmates at our local jail and the $3 charged for local inmates transferred to Middle River Regional Jail (as permitted, but not mandated, by VA Code Section 53.1-131.3).This is one of numerous high priority concerns expressed by family members of inmates that needs to be addressed.

2. Engage in a careful and open selection process for the hiring of a well qualified Community Justice Planner. This person would evaluate all criminal justice programs and practices, make strategic recommendations for the best allocation of resources, and coordinate the legally mandated biennial update to the Community Criminal Justice Board’s Community Corrections Plan (as stated in VA Code Section 9.1-175).

3. Establish protocols for all juvenile justice cases to be screened for a restorative justice process (see VA Code Section 16.1-278-.8). We will support transparent and community based steps in implementing restorative justice alternatives for adults and juveniles alike.

Monday, January 29, 2018

"Do Not Pass Me By" A Virginia Lifer's Lament

"Why is it so hard to give deserving individuals like myself
a second chance?"
The following heartfelt piece was sent to me recently by Jonathan White, an outstanding inmate with whom I correspond at Augusta Correctional Center:

Virginia is rethinking its parole system after realizing that its "get tough on crime campaign" has depleted financial resources that could have been used to help rebuild the infrastructure of the Commonwealth and provide quality educational services to our schools. 

But the political money hogs have selfishly denied that abolishing parole in 1995 was a mistake. Now twenty-two years later there are still approximately 2500 "old law offenders" throughout the Virginia Department of Corrections who still remain parole eligible, having the possibility of parole attached to the terms and conditions of their sentences prior to parole being abolished. Most of them like myself have been before the Virginia Parole Board numerous times pleading our cases and hoping for to be granted a discretionary parole release only to be denied parole due to the "serious nature and circumstances of the offense(s)" and the use of other words and terms that the parole board uses to deny parole to deserving persons who have been incarcerated for decades.

By the standards set forth under the Virginia Code of Law Section 53.1-155 which states..."Virginia law requires the Parole Board to release those found suitable for parole and consider a broad range of circumstances in making this determination;" many of us are never given any "meaningful consideration" for what we have done in the long decades of time that we have had to wait between the time we were sentenced and our hopeful point of becoming eligible for parole. 

Parole eligibility doesn't just automatically come about once a person walks through the doors of a prison. It is calculated in accordance with a persons good conduct time credits earned due to his/hers good behavior. But the public is often misled to believe that a person is about to walk right out of the penal system as soon as they arrive. "How about 37 years of good conduct and a model prison record of rehabilitation later?"

My first parole eligibility came on December 27, 1998. With the multiple life sentence I received on September 24, 1982; I have been before the Virginia Parole Board a total of 14 times out of the 19 years that I have been eligible for parole. I also received three separate deferrals of my parole consideration during the course of those years of eligibility. In all, it took me 17 years with three years of earned "good conduct allowance" for good behavior to become eligible to receive the repeated denials that I have received from the Parole Board. 

Yes, the math adds up to 37 years of incarceration with a exemplary model record, positive behavioral adjustment, and a continuous progressive path of rehabilitation with the goal to return to society as a productive law abiding citizen. Does it matter that such a continued productive course of rehabilitative conduct deserves "a meaningful consideration"? From the looks of it the answer is...No! So the question to be answered is... "When is a person considered to be suitable for release?"

I have seen first hand the caliber of individuals the parole board has deemed suitable for release throughout these long years of incarceration, and it puzzles the mind of the best of us as to the method of their decision making. Individuals who have remained infraction free and who have stayed true to the course of the rehabilitative path are the least likely individuals to be granted parole. 

Rather than assessing the individual on the merits of his/her positive progression to reform their life, or amend for their past behavior, the parole board chooses individuals with long patterns of misconduct or behavioral adjustment problems for to be granted parole. Most parole decisions are based on the Boards' personal feelings and opinions pertaining to a type of criminal offense (crime) and not on the merits of the individual being considered for release. 

Let's face it, people change, and if you are a first term offender like myself and you have not taken a close examination of your life and made any sincere commitments toward changing yourself your poor past behavior, then why should you be granted the privilege of parole before those who have applied themselves to the path of rehabilitation? As an "Old Law Offender" and "First Term Offender" who deserves a meaningful consideration for parole; I simply ask to be treated fairly.

Fact: As of January 2017, Old Law eligible offenders" totaled 2,765. As of January 1, 2018, that total has increased by 260, plus all of the "Three Strikers" who will also be added to the parole eligible count. The number of releases for all of 2017 are approximately six percent of the January total. 

Why is it so hard to give deserving individuals like myself meaningful consideration for parole?

Jonathan D. White - parole eligible lifer #1161021 - #128952
Augusta Correctional Center

1821 Estaline Valley Rd.
Craigsville, Virginia 24430

Here's a link to a list of Mr. White's impressive accomplishments during his incarceration that I posted four years ago:

Friday, January 26, 2018

Blessed By My Remaining Siblings

I spent some precious time with my two surviving sisters today.
Alma Jean and I, along with my 85-year-old sister Fannie Mae from Augusta County, spent some blessed time at my 82-year-old sister Maggie and husband Alvin Schrock's home in Cumberland County today.

There are only four of us siblings left out of a total of nine, all older than I am except for my younger sister Mary Beth who perished in a tragic fire just over two years ago. My one surviving brother, at age 87, lives in Costa Rica with his wife Martha, loved and cared for by the children and grandchildren who live near them (some live in the states).

The rest of my siblings have all passed on, making me ever more aware of my own mortality, and ever more conscious of the need to enjoy as much time together with family and other loved ones that we can.

Today was made even more special by having all four of Maggie and Alvin's children who live nearby join us for the noon meal (prepared by Maggie and capped off with an ample slice of her baked-from-scratch walnut banana cake, topped with ice cream) and joining us in some family reminiscing and story telling.

As we joined hands around the table to sing and pray prior to our noon meal, I recalled how the three of us pictured above became an a cappella trio that did a lot of singing together (mostly for our own enjoyment) and also had many a great conversation as older siblings left home and we had more time with just each other. These are still some of my very most favorite people on earth.

Oh yes, Blest be the tie that binds. Precious memories, how they linger.

It's enough to make your heart hurt.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Do We Need More Research On Sexual Abuse Among Mennonites?

When it comes to the issue of sexual abuse in church families and by church leaders, we tend to be deeply divided. There are the minimizers, who insist that this kind of darkness could almost never be happening with good people like ourselves. On the other side are the maximizers, who insist that incest, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and other forms of sexual misconduct are just as prevalent among Anabaptist and other Christian groups than with the population at large, and likely even more so.

In spite of much agonizing over this issue by Mennonite sociologists, pastors, scholars and laypersons, what I find strikingly lacking is the hard and necessary work of getting us some good hard data, which has us relying on anecdotes and on our individual hunches. We need to first have facts in order to face facts, and should never shrink from the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And then to do whatever is necessary to address any and all darkness among us. Decisively. Purposefully. Period.

Some will say this can never work, that any such research will be fatally flawed because traumatized individuals won't have the courage to tell their truth, even on an anonymous questionnaire. Maybe, but that can be true of all research.

I want to believe that in light of the breath of fresh air and new light brought about by the MeToo movement and by more and more women coming forward with their abuse stories, participating in a survey could be seen as a welcome opportunity on the part of many to finally having their grievances taken seriously.

One serious attempt at getting at some facts was undertaken several decades ago. In 1993 some EMU faculty members (then EMC) distributed a widely used instrument developed by Dr. Mary Koss of Kent State University to a random sample of 136 male and 131 female first-year students at EMC, Goshen and Hesston Colleges, and with a 90% response rate.

I have in my files only the results of those who self-identified as Mennonites and who reported unwanted sexual experiences prior to age 14. In this study, 25 years ago of course, the results showed far fewer cases of childhood sexual abuse than the researchers expected when compared to national numbers. But at least one concerning result was cases of young teens being molested by older teen friends and acquaintances.

Here are the actual examples from the study who reported being victimized before age 14 by unwanted sexual contacts:

1. Female under 14 felt victimized by being fondled by an older teen step-brother twice over a period of a year.

2. Male, at 7, felt very victimized by attempted intercourse on the part of two different older teens.

3. Female, at 11 or 12, victimized by having an older teen age brother of her friend fondle her.

4. Male, at 13, experienced forced intercourse by a male friend in his thirties who were friends of his parents. This happened five or more times over a period of two weeks, resulting in his feeling traumatized and victimized.

5. Female, at 12, was fondled by a teen-age male friend of the family three times over a period of several months.

One other male reported having a variety of sexual experiences over a year's time with a cousin when both were 12, but did not report feeling victimized. Another male had five or six similar experiences with a male and also a female of the same age (13) over a period of six months to a year, but did not report feeling victimized.

My first response to these findings was one of shock. Knowing actual cases of child sexual abuse in families we have served at the agency where I work, some of whom we have had to personally report to Child Protective Services, I expected a different result.

But my aim is not to fault the people who did the research above, nor to fault the nationally recognized Koss instrument they were using. My concern is about getting some good research done today that would help bring more light and more clarity to the ongoing problem of sexual abuse among us, involving people of all ages.

That truth will at least be a start toward setting us free.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Hard Time Virginia, Volume III, Number 1

September and October Parole Releases at an All-Time Low, November and December Numbers More Encouraging
As people age, the likelihood of their 
committing crimesgreatly decreases.

For some inexplicable reason, the Virginia Parole Board released only five persons in September and none in October, according to their official monthly posts on their website. However, the numbers for November were more encouraging. Of the several hundred cases reviewed, 36 resulted in a release, and of these, seven were geriatric inmates. December was even more promising, with 79 releases, ten being geriatric, but for some reason only one female was on the entire list.

With an increasing number of Virginia inmates in their 70's and older who are in declining health, one wonders why greater efforts are not made to provide compassionate release for those persons.

Study Indicates Annual Cost of Incarceration Exceeds $1 Trillion

The following is from a December, 2017, article by Audry Spade in PRISON LEGAL NEWS:

A new research study has estimated the total cost of incarceration in the United States has surged to a staggering $1 trillion per year - eleven times the $80 billion spent annually on corrections alone, and 6% of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP).

For many families across the United States, the high cost of incarceration is nothing new. But while prior research has made an effort to determine the total cost of crime, it wasn't until recently, in a study conducted by the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation at Washington University in St. Louis, that the various societal costs of incarceration were factored in - things like lost wages and increased criminology among the children of incarcerated parents, as well as other collateral expenses.

Indeed, it turns out the true cost of removing millions of people from their communities and confining them in detention facilities across the nation is costing more than anyone had estimated previously.

Perhaps even more alarming, researchers also found that more than half of those costs are being shouldered directly by prisoners, their families and their communities - leaving already poor households even more impoverished. Many affected families live beneath the federal poverty line as it is, and are the same families that struggle the most beneath the massive financial burdens of incarceration - everything from paying bail bonds and raising the children of incarcerated parents, to the costs of prison and jail phone calls and fees to place money on prisoners' institutional accounts.

How All Prisons Are "For Profit"

While Virginia has only one official "for profit" prison, the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, every local jail and Department of Corrections prison seems bent on extracting more and more money from inmates and from their families. 

Our local jail, for example, charges a $1 a day "rent" that families have to pay if their loved one is to be able to have funds in their account for over-priced commissary items, phone calls, and copays for health care and prescriptions. At the Middle River Regional Jail, where inmates from our jail are sent  due to overcrowding here, the charge is an outrageous $3 per day, a major hardship on family members who, after all, aren't the ones who have committed the crime. And family members using the required kiosk to deposit money in an inmate account are charged $4 per transaction.

Meanwhile, some 40% of local inmates are awaiting their hearings, and should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

The following examples of how the commonwealth of Virginia's Department of Corrections reap "profits" comes from a long time inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center:

1) A percentage of prisoners incoming money is taken by jails and prisons for processing fees.

2) When an inmate is transported to and from a destination, they are billed for the use of the automobile or other vehicle and the officers' time.

3) Inmates are charged copays for dental and health care.

4) Inmates are charged outrageously high prices for commissary items and phone service.

5) Any interest received from inmate accounts is pocketed by the institution..

6) Institutions are profiting from prisoner labor because they only pay between $0.27 and $0.80 cents per hour to complete strenuous jobs (minimum wage in Virginia is $7.25) and prisons profit while creating crafty schemes to cause prisoners to give all their money back to the institution. Prisoners also build furniture, refill ink cartridges, operate machinery, etc., that DOC receives regular pay for from state agencies.  DOC does not provide prisoners workers compensation if they are injured while on the job. They do not have a social security fund to help them when they are too old to work any longer. Inmates who work in are not provided prescription safety glasses or steel-toed work boots. DOC requires inmates to pay for them if they want them. They are not allowed thermal tops or bottoms unless they buy their own from a for-profit vendor. Inmates who work for VCE Enterprises are not provided prepaid prescription safety glasses.

7) The DOC profits from for-profit companies such as Global Tel Link (GTL), JPay, Inc., Keefe Commissary Network Sales, and the GEO Group.

8) Virginia also profits from offenders based on the Code of Virginia section 53.1-41(B) which now requires the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) to withhold funds from inmate pay to be applied toward any court imposed fines, costs, forfeitures, restitution, or penalties they may owe. This includes from program participation including work, treatment, and education.

9) Institutional employees are fed free meals from the prisoners food budget, and staff are served better meals than inmates.

10) VDOC profits when the kitchen manager does not adequately replace broken or damaged cups, hot boxes, trays, utensils and etc. as required.

11) VDOC profits whenever the kitchen manager does not ensure that inmates are provided their proper calorie and vitamin count in each meal by cutting portion sizes and/or not providing condiments.

12) VDOC profits when the kitchen manager does not ensure that the prisoners are fed at an appropriate time. Sometimes prisoners are fed at 3:30 pm and are not fed again until after 6:30 am. It is generally later which means over fifteen hours between meals, so kitchen staff can leave the institution at an earlier time.

13) VDOC profits when the kitchen manager requires that workers who miss a day from work have to visit the facility physician before returning to work in the kitchen. This seems like a scam because medical charges a $5.00 sick call copay for this.

14) VDOC profits from prisoner telephone use.

15) VDOC profits by no longer issuing soap to prisoners who have received at least $5.00 during a given month. VDOC once provided everyone a bar of soap weekly to promote proper hygiene. Some now refuse to spend their money on soap.

16) VDOC profits from JPAY media sales and email use.

17) VDOC profits from inmates' incoming monies. Currently, VDOC does not allow money orders to be sent to inmates even though each facility should be operated by a trusted business office. Whoever is wanting to send their loved ones money must mail money orders via snail mail free or electronically via email it to the for-profit company JPay, Inc., for an expensive fee to be sent to the prisoner via snail mail or by email electronically to the prisoner.

DOC used to not be allowed to profit from inmates. Now it seems like everything they do is for profit.

"Birth of a Criminal"
by 71-year-old blind poet and inmate Minor Junior Smith
Deerfield Correctional Center

From an overcrowded prison behind blind eyes, my autobiography must unfold.
May actualities about my past have been doubted, many others untold.
Incarcerated in Virginia I am haunted by events from age three,
But first, I'll reveal bits of information about my parents ans who delivered me.

Since my parents enjoyed farming, in 1940 they bought and move on to a fond one,
For the sake of characterization, father's name will appear as Richard Johnson.
In 1943 his and mother's baby daughter perished in a traffic house fire up there.
Rena was born in a barn in 1944 while a new house was being built for the pair.

May 3rd, 1946, father's stepmother delivered me; I was mother's only real son,
Our small home in Montgomery County was beside the rocky top of Dark Run.
Those pictures of me when I was a baby proved that I was in excellent health,
And I was suffieciently provided for by my father, who possessed a normal wealth.

I never did know why my mother had chosen to separate from my father, to this day,
Yet future comments about it would make me thing I was the one who had to pay.
With $200 mother took my two sisters and me to West Virginia when I was three
Then in some way twelve-year-old Loretta parted from five-year-old Rena and me.

While we stayed there with mother's relatives I did not see a cow or a churn,
I stood too closely to a stove and each leg became inflicted by a serious burn.
The net thing I remember knowing was that ride in Uncle Henry Johnson's car,
Although he took mother, Rena and me back up Dark Hollow Road, we did not ride far.

A black man's house squatted between two roads which led to Poor Mountain,
His and Uncle Kelvin's family shared the same spring, their only water fountain.
We stopped ath the bladk man's abode after Uncle Henry had spoken to mother,
"You kids go to your granny's," she said, "Henry doesn't want to go further."

Rena and I passed three farms on the hollow's left road to start a new life,
Mother had said that daddy would take us to live with ole Elsa Pratt, his new wife.
For our little feet and legs, a trip to Granny Johnson's cabin was a long way,
Our sister had drawn spring water that morning, was one thing granny had to say.

Having eaten gravy and bread we rode in daddy's truck which was big and black,
He took us all home after he had picked up Loretta at his daddy's nearby shack.
Mother had taken half of the money daddy had saved in a post of their bedstead,
Maybe that's why I had to share a contemptuous and disturbed step-mama instead.

In the kitchen I quoted mama by calling her"Ole Elsa Pratt!" when we met,
Mama would label her former pediatrician a "horse doctor", a slang title for a vet.
I would be hearing complaints about an agonizing hysterectomy she'd gone through.
However, when began by setting forth good principles for us to follow that she knew.

In my belief the results of her surgery caused me and other people much harm,
Occasionally when we three Johnson children played it caused her great alarm.
Her usual irrational behavior was almost entirely influenced by spite,
This would cause my mind to be compelled by envy, fear, lust, strife!

Daddy earned $250 a week in the early 50's, but he was still meek and mild,
Two of his seven daughters had perished in infancy, and I was his youngest child.
He handed Rena and me each a pet after he returned home in his big truck,
Immediately step-mama drowned Rena's baby chick having first drowned my baby duck.

Loretta cared for me, leaned our house or chopped wood and probably a whistle,
I couldn't understand why she put hot water in Loretta's yellow bird whistle.
Mama didn't like Loretta's looks, so daddy returned her to grandaddy's shack,
Our sister visited Rena and me a few times, but afterwards she never came back.

She would be shifted from one welfare home to another throughout several years,
Even if she was at least she no longer had to cope with Elsa's abusive jeers.
Eventually in Fishersville Loretta became a practical nurse, 
As for Rena and me, our tormented lives around mama varied from better to worse.

Friday, January 19, 2018

My Favorite Post: "Why I'm Still Loving Jesus"

I used this interesting photo when I first posted this piece in 2011.
Jesus hung with hookers, hung with hustlers, not with cops
    and he made wine from water, so the party wouldn’t stop,
    and Jesus, he loved everyone, just like his Mom and Dad
    ‘cause Jesus knew the difference between broken and plain bad...

    Jesus on the hillside had a message for the crowd
    he said, “blessed are the brokenhearted, but woe unto the proud,”
    and when they all got hungry, he took a couple loaves of bread
    and he passed himself around till everybody had been fed...

    Jesus in the temple yard trashed every loan shark’s booth,
    but Jesus said to Judas, “let those little children through,
    ‘cause Jesus hung with losers and with posers and with narcs,
    and he got what was coming to him somewhere in the dark…
                    - from my son Brad Yoder’s WWJD? 1998 all rights reserved  

In case anyone wonders why I remain passionate about following Jesus, here are just a few of my reasons:

1. Jesus never hated people or committed acts of violence against them. Rather, he taught his followers to practice prayer and good deeds even toward enemies, not harm or kill them. 

2. Jesus demonstrated a life of simplicity and generosity. He never advocated amassing wealth or becoming financially well to do. He not only stressed compassion for the poor, but chose to become one of them.

3. Jesus consistently preached and practiced care for the marginalized and disenfranchised. Even in a strictly patriarchal society he had women as close followers, and regularly enjoyed meals with people regarded as outcasts and misfits. He makes a hated and heretical Samaritan the hero in one of his best known parables, a story he uses as part of his answer to the question, “How does one gain eternal life?”

4. Jesus avoided dogmatic sermonizing and theologizing in favor of telling simple stories and teaching easy-to-understand (but hard to practice) truths like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Do not hoard/store up treasures on earth,” and “Let your ‘yes’ be a simple ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ a ‘no.’

5. Jesus rejected expressions of worship that require elaborate temples, complex liturgies, and professional clergy. Private prayer is encouraged, and “two or three” are sufficient when it comes to communal prayer and worship.

6. Jesus demonstrates that God loves everyone, and that his “Father,” far from condemning the world, is heaven-bent on saving it.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

                                                                                          - Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Royal Case Of Corruption, Scandal, Lies And Cover-ups

Prophet Nathan to David: "You are the guilty one."

Voyeurism. Perversion. Chauvinism. Adultery. Conspiracy. Murder.

These are all a part of the sordid affair of the biblical King David, who sought to cover up his sin with Bathsheba by having her husband killed in battle.

The story reminds me of some of the growing darkness we see in high places today, accompanied by similar attempts to deny, minimize, excuse and cover-up.

A primary difference between many of today's transgressors and of David, however, is how he comes to a place of thorough repentance for his misdeeds. Psalm 51, written in the form of an anguished lament, is an example of his willingness to maximize, rather than to minimize, his wrongdoing.

That's the missing piece in many of today's tales of sexual transgressions. And to make matters worse, the church may add to the problem by wanting to keep things as quiet as possible in order to protect its reputation.

We should be all about repair and redemption, but never as in "let's just forgive, forget and pretend this never happened." Rather than applying bandaids and quick fixes, the church's work of restoration needs to involve all of the following:

1. Full acknowledgment and remorse. "Have pity on me and take away the awful stain of my transgressions... I admit my shameful haunts me day and night."

2. Restitution in whatever ways possible"Make me willing to obey you. Then will I teach your ways to others..."

3. Ongoing transparency and accountability. "You deserve honesty from the heart; yes, utter sincerity and truthfulness." 

The church, like its founder, is about holding a high standard of both truth and grace, of toughness and tenderness, of uncompromising standards of right and gracious offers of healing. If we are not about restoring and repairing people guilty of all manner of sin we are not truly followers of Jesus, who never saw anyone as beyond the reach of God's redemption--unless maybe those who self-righteously deny their own need for it.

Meanwhile, let's make sure we get this redemption thing right.

(above quotations from Psalm 51 are from the Living Bible)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mr. Swedish, Can You Spare My Sister A Dime?

My sister meeting with her grown
adopted daughter Nina, now 
in adult foster care.
"Woe to you who are rich, for you have had your fill of happiness."
- Jesus (Luke 6:24)

My 85-year-old sister Fannie Mae in Augusta County was recently notified that all of her health providers who are a part of the Augusta Health system are no longer accepting Anthem insurance, which administers Medicare and Medicaid funds. This means she will need to find other providers or find other insurance coverage. Neither option is realistic or available. Fortunately, her family and church family are able and willing to help as needed.

Augusta Health's position is that they should be reimbursed at the same level Anthem is paying for the same procedures at nearby University of Virginia and elsewhere. Anthem is refusing to do so, and so far the two sides haven't been able to come to an agreement, which leaves people like my sister in a quandary, and the rest of us in a state of confusion.

Fannie Mae, a retired registered nurse and certified midwife, has worked hard all of her adult life providing quality health care for others, both in the states and in two terms of service abroad, first
Fannie Mae as a nurse
(1972 family photo)
in Belize and then in Paraguay. She is single and the mother of a special needs individual 
she adopted years ago from a home for unwanted children in Asuncion.

Meanwhile, my sister needs ongoing and sometimes expensive treatment for her heart condition and for her macular degeneration.

What makes this situation maddening is that Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield earned $2.5 billion in net income in 2016, resulting in Chairman and CEO Joseph Swedish being awarded a 21 percent pay hike, upping the value of his compensation package to an annual $16.5 million.

You and I both know no one needs that kind of income. No one.

I hope we also agree that people like my sister deserve the same kind of affordable health care available to other aging adults in our society.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Your SOS Contributions Put Relief Sale Proceeds Over The Top

Knowing that millions have to live like this should break our
hearts--and open our wallets.
Special thanks to all of you who helped contribute a total of $40,989.04 to the first cash giving campaign at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale this year.

Sharing our Surplus was an effort to encourage more of the 10,000 who attend the sale, but who don't take part in the annual auction, to make a donation to Mennonite Central Committee for relief needs via cash, check or credit card.

The result this year was a largest ever net sale income of $350,606.04, compared to last year's near record of $322,505.57.

Let's pray that next year, in light of desperate and growing world relief needs, we can double that amount. Or maybe reach a $1 million.

Meanwhile, we can each contribute directly to Mennonite Central Committee online or send a much needed check today to MCC, 21 South 12th Street, P.O. Box 500, Akron, PA 17501-0500.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Many Antichrists Have Already Appeared"

What kind of lifestyle would Jesus approve?
"You were told that Antichrist was to come, and now many antichrists have appeared, which proves to us that this is indeed the last hour."
- I John 2:18 (NEB )

In these troubling times, as always, the test of whether someone is faithful to God is not whether or how often they say "Lord, Lord", but whether they truly follow Jesus in their daily life.

So let's apply Jesus's Beatitudes test, starting with ourselves. Are we living in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount or by such "Me-attitudes" as the following anti-Christian beliefs?

Blessed are the haughty and the wealthy, for theirs is the promise of heaven on earth.

Blessed are those who maintain an "I'm-always-right", arrogant spirit, for they will enjoy universal acclaim.

Blessed are the proud and powerful, for they shall be lauded as the greatest winners on earth.

Blessed are the greedy, the grabbers, the graspers, for they shall be acclaimed by those who seek to emulate them.

Blessed are the merciless and the militarily mighty, for they shall be feared and revered as the greatest.

Blessed are men who are pleasure-seeking and sexually aggressive, for they shall be admired as Alpha males. 

Blessed are the warmongers, for they shall be seen as maintaining law and order through military might.

Blessed are those who are admired and praised by the masses, for theirs is the power to rule over them.

Blessed are you when millions revere you, show deference to you, and who flatter you, falsely or otherwise. Rejoice and be very glad! Great are your rewards!

"No one can know Christ truly unless they follow him daily in life." - Hans Denck

Monday, January 8, 2018

Somebody Touched Me: An Epiphany Message

Monreale Cathedral mosaic of Jesus
healing a leper.
This is a meditation I gave at the Strite Auditorium at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community yesterday, Epiphany Sunday:

Two of the three gifts the Maji brought to Jesus, frankincense and myrrh, are widely known for their healing qualities. One can’t read the gospels without noting how much of Jesus’ ministry is about healing the sick, and about offering hope to the sick of heart, and how often Jesus, as the Divine Healer and Great Physician, touches people as he heals them. 

In some of those miracle accounts Jesus touches those who were considered untouchable. For example, Jesus touched an unclean leper in healing him, and touched the shroud of a widow’s son whom he raised to life, which would have made him ceremonially unclean. He likewise took a woman’s hand who was sick with fever and raised her from her bed, not something a Jewish male would typically do. 

And Jesus took children in his arms and blessed them, little ones who were at the bottom of the social ladder, often overlooked and neglected. And he took on the role of servant/slave and washed his disciples’ feet, one by one, and dried them with a towel. 

Jesus also allowed himself to be touched by others, by a woman who was considered unclean both because she was bleeding and because she was a Syrophoenician, a Gentile outsider. And Jesus allowed a woman, in more than one instance, to anoint his feet with perfumed oil, perhaps frankincense or myrrh, and/or with her tears, and to wipe his feet with her hair. Jesus understood the power of touching and being touched in restoring people to wholeness.

Touch is one of the first of the senses that an infant is aware of, and the last to leave when a person is dying. God gave us only two eyes for seeing, two ears for hearing, two nostrils for smelling, one tongue for tasting (with multiple taste buds), but hundreds of receptors all over our body for experiencing touch. It's vital to what make us feel alive to the world around us. 

When it came to showing affection, we weren’t a very demonstrative family growing up. It felt awkward to hug, until later in life some of us started giving our parents a warm embrace whenever we met. It wasn't long before they looked forward to it, and hugged us back.
I remember once holding my mother’s hand when she was in bed and suffering from cancer, and when I got up to leave, I spontaneously leaned over and gave her a kiss on her forehead. It was a special moment for both of us, and later she exclaimed to one of my siblings, “Harvey gave me a kiss!” as though that were something very rare and special. It shouldn't have been, but for us it was. It still is.
Years ago I was at Wellspring Retreat Center just outside of Washington, for a week, and Gordon Cosby, a pastor of the Church of the Savior and a writer I always admired, came and spoke to us. And then he had to leave while we were to continue on in our session. And as he was leaving he came by the aisle where I was sitting, and he turned around to add to something he wanted to say to us, and he happened to be right where I was sitting and he put his hands on my shoulder as he spoke a few more words. He hadn’t picked me out and I don’t think he had any idea how powerful that felt, to have this man of God touch me, as if to bless me, even though he wasn’t really conscious of doing that. 

We all need that kind of blessing, of people touching us, giving us benediction, laying hands on us and praying for us, or giving us an affectionate greeting. 

Have you ever thought of how many of our Christian practices have to do with touch? In the Mennonite church we used to speak of seven ordinances, somewhat like the Catholic Seven Sacraments. One was about greeting one another warmly, with a holy kiss, a kind of holy embrace, a command given repeatedly in the NT.  And then there is a laying on of hands at ordination, or at a commissioning, or in praying for someone in special need. Washing one another’s feet and drying them with a towel has been commonly practiced in many of our churches, a beautiful form of tender touch, especially important in Jesus’ time when people walked for miles every day on dusty roads.     

And at baptism, of course, we touch the head of the person on whom we pour the baptismal water. Or if we baptize by immersion we assist the person in their symbolic burial and resurrection to new life. We then take them by the hand and warmly welcome them into the family of faith.

When we anoint with oil for healing, we touch the forehead of the person being prayed for, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the marriage ceremony, the officiants lay their hand on the joined hands of the couple as they declare them husband and wife, until death do them part. At the Lord’s Supper, we touch as we break bread and share with each other with the words of Jesus, "This is my body." "This is my life-giving blood," the bread and the cup of communion. 

Years ago I was at another retreat where a woman there, in her 50’s, poured out her heart over all of the pain she was going through because her husband had left her for a younger woman after their children were grown. She described her pain as being like being “cut in two with a saw”. And what made it harder was it seemed the people in her church didn’t know how to respond. “My phone didn’t ring as much anymore. People didn’t know what to say. And hardly anyone touched me anymore. I began to feel my body wasn’t OK, that I had become untouchable, at a time when I especially needed the assurance that I was still an OK lovable person."

But in a time that there is so much publicity being given to inappropriate touching, how do show the right kind of Christ-like love in ways that are absolutely safe and healthy? 

Here’s where we need to think of touching in the family of faith in the same way as we do in a healthy biological family. We instinctively know the difference between incestuous touch and appropriate touch. In the context of a healthy family, we show our affection in ways that are always in public, never secretive or in private, and in ways we all agree are appropriate for sisters and brothers and parents and children, uncles and aunts. We never favor certain people over others on the basis of any physical attraction or their gender or their youthfulness, but regard everyone in our family and in the family of faith, as beautiful and special and wonderful—not as sexual objects, but as loved and respected fellow siblings in the family of God, where there is total transparency and accountability, where we always ask, “Who, when and how, would Jesus touch? 

And then to follow his good example.

Here's the benediction used every Sunday in the church in which I grew up:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, shalom. Maintain good order. Listen to my appeal, encourage one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another affectionately. All the believers greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen
- II Corinthians 13:11-4, paraphrased

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Two Nuclear Buttons--A Modern Day Parable

This 1945 blast should have resulted in an end to
nuclear warmongering.
The John and Jane Doe family and the Ilsa and Ivan Doesky family lived at opposite ends of a fine apartment building in Solarville. Being quite well to do, they were the envy of many of their neighbors in the same complex, many of whom were sick, hungry and living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Unfortunately, over time the Doe's and the Doesky's developed a strong mistrust of each other. "The Doe's act like they want to control and run everything," complained the Doesky's. The Doe's feared their estranged neighbors had the same intentions.

As the feud between them worsened, each household tried to get as many families on their side as possible. They also began keeping firearms and ammunition on hand just in case there was any trouble--handguns at first, then automatic rifles, then whole rooms full of powerful weapons.

Finally, to gain even greater advantage, the Doe's began to develop and test the ultimate weapon, napalm. It wasn't long, of course, before the Doesky's produced large stockpiles of their own.

The Does were appalled. "Now we need even more WMD's" they insisted, "in order to protect our freedoms and to maintain peace and security in the apartment."

It wasn't long before the Doe's and Doesky's had enough death-dealing napalm to completely annihilate each other. But since they still didn't feel safe, they kept producing even more, enough to destroy their enemy twice, then three times, and then multiple more times. A sophisticated wiring device made it possible for either family to blast and burn each other to oblivion in an instant, all at the touch of a button. Costs mounted, creating terrible strains on each of their family budgets.

All along some residents in the building questioned the sanity of all this. "Is this really a show of strength or is it a sign of fear and stupidity? How can this possibly make us safer?"

"What''s more," some worried, "what about the apartment's Builder and Owner? After all, we're only renters here. Surely the Landlord will evict us if we can't find a way to get along as neighbors and fellow-tenants."

Friday, January 5, 2018

On The Twelfth Day Of Christmas: Traveling Light

Growing up, our needs were simple, our possessions few.
The modest two-story country home my parents bought when they moved to Virginia with their eight children was the most spacious we had ever lived in. But like most farm homes built in the early 1900's there were no built-in closets in our bedrooms and only two small storage closets in the entire house. There were hooks on the bedroom walls for some of our clothes, with the rest of our garments having to be folded and stored in dresser drawers. We later did get a few small upright closets to add to our wardrobe space.

Our one toy box was about the size of a bushel basket, and we had fewer than a dozen book shelves in the entire house. The cellar did have ample space to store potatoes and lots of canned fruits and vegetables to help us through the winter.

Fast forwarding to 2018, Alma Jean and I are keenly aware of some of the encumbrances the Bible admonishes us to lay aside in light of the looming finish line. How did we manage to accumulate so much stuff, we ask ourselves, as we plan yet another trek to the landfill or another donation to Gift and Thrift?

And what about our children, and our grandchildren, who like many of today's families, have enough books, clothes and play equipment to stock a small nursery school?

Somehow as we all grew older and became less stressed financially, stuff just kept accumulating. So for us every day becomes a time to consider subtracting from our assets and adding to what we share with those who have less.

Meanwhile, our capacity for joy deepens as we experience more contentment with fewer things that just add more clutter in our lives.

Much love, many prayers.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

On the Eleventh Day Of Christmas: Celebrating Church

Zion Mennonite was just across the road
from our parsonage home from1969-88.
For most of the years I served as a pastor and part-time teacher our family lived in a parsonage across Zion Church Road from our congregation's meeting house. As parents we were always concerned about whether this would draw our three children closer to the church as a community of warmth and nurture or make them less receptive to being a part of a family of faith.

We always tried to stress that church isn't just about a special location, building, denomination or Sunday service, but an extended family of people united around a special purpose, a movement of Christ followers who care for each other and who continue to engage in the work Jesus came to earth to accomplish.

As Anabaptists, we knew their becoming a committed part of that kind of movement had to be a voluntary choice on their part, but hoped and prayed that they would feel called to sign on to that mission.

Meanwhile, we often asked ourselves the question of which should comes first, this kind of family of people heaven-bent on a common cause? Or should our nuclear family claim the greater amount of time and commitment?

Over time I have become convinced that the two should be seen as inseparable, that the nuclear family unit is most healthy and strong when it is a vital part of a larger beloved and loving community. In our case, we deeply appreciated the loving influence of people like the Millers, Algers, Brennemans, Blys, Kuykendalls, Lantz's, Showalters and others who were an important part of the "village" that helped raise our family. We couldn't have done this well without their reinforcing the faith and values we tried to pass on.

Much love, many blessings.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

On The Tenth Day Of Christmas: Practicing Hospitality

Sieger Koder's "Breaking of the Bread"
I always looked forward to guests coming to our house when I was young, whether nearby relatives and church friends for Sunday dinner or friends and family from a distance. There were very few Sundays that we weren't blessed with guests around our table or were invited to the homes of other members of our congregation. 

I was especially intrigued by having visitors from outside our rural community, including occasionally having some relatives and other students from exotic places like EMU (then EMC). Blessed by boredom as I was, I found myself entertained by adult conversations which not only included family and other stories, but were often about church issues and other matters of faith.

It's hard to overestimate how impactful these windows to the outside world were on my life, I'm thinking they played a huge role in shaping my values and envisioning my future. I often wish we could could have done more of that with our own children, for everyone's benefit, including offering more of the kind of hospitality Jesus encourages in welcoming the stranger and inviting the hungry and homeless into our home (as in "When you prepare a feast, don't just invite your friends and others who will likely return the favor, but invite the poor, the hungry, the lonely"). 

Our six grandchildren, blessed by being among the top few percent of the world's most privileged, will learn empathy and generosity not only from our words, but by our example, and by exposing them to a rich variety of good people in the real world outside our homes.

It's life changing.

Much love, may prayers.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On The Ninth Day Of Christmas: Offering Allowances

How do we help kids learn wise
money management?
As stated earlier, I'm not a proponent of paying children to do the kinds of chores every member of a household should take turns doing, but only for special projects one might hire someone else's son or daughter to do.

But some kind of fixed "salary" (allowance) for younger members of the household (kindergarten age and up), as a means of learning good lessons in money management, can be a very good thing, and needn't cost the household a dime.

How is that, you ask? By basing the allowance on the amount of money we are already doling out for a defined set of miscellaneous items (recreational and optional in nature) that they will now be personally responsible to pay. The defined items might start with candy bars and ice cream cones for the young to eventually having them purchase their own clothes, shoes, etc., as teens. In other words, they become responsible to manage that part of the family's finances, and learn through buyers' remorse to make wise purchases as well as to learn to live within their prescribed budget. 

Thus no more begging for things on their list for which they should have ample funds to pay for. Whether, or what, they buy will be totally up to them, as long as the purchases are legal, not harmful, and within budget, all in an effort to help them learn how life in the real world works.

Loans can be requested from a "First Family Bank of Savings and Loans", but they should carry a hefty weekly interest, deducted from the next allowance payment. The rate of interest will be the same as the First Family Bank will pay per month if the child chooses to save some of their allowance. And to encourage generosity, parents might also agree to match each child's giving to the church or to the charity of their choice.

Another component of this plan can be to have a well defined Family Legal System (a set of family rules everyone is expected to abide by), then to have a well-understood fine system that results in a modest monetary amount deducted for each infraction. Giving a fine should, by the way, never be accompanied by a lecture or lengthy sermon, but delivered in the way a professional police officer would write a traffic ticket, or a supervisor at work write up an employee for violating company policy. Thus children learn from reasonable consequences, respectfully and consistently carried out,  again based on the way the real world works. Examples of fines could be a deduction for household chores not done, or for taxi service if a child doesn't get him or herself out of bed, dressed and on the bus in time. Or for hitting or yelling. The amount of a fine, predetermined so there are no surprises, is reasonable and based on the amount of income.

This doesn't mean there aren't other consequences for other infractions, based on some kind of "restorative justice" (acknowledging a harm done and making it right). But in all of the above ways children learn from their own choices, and learn that it is wiser to live by the rules. These rules remain firmly in place until or unless modified by parents or brought about by agreements made in occasional family council meetings.

Much love, many blessings.