Monday, April 30, 2018

LOVE: It's What Makes A Human Being A Human Being

Love is what gives us life, and what sustains our life.
A child's "failure to thrive" and even survive can be the result not only of genetic or medical conditions, but to a lack of nurturing relationships with loving caregivers. To be loved, held, touched, embraced, and interacted with from infancy is vital to a child's healthy development, and to his or her ability to grow up being able to love and care for others.

In understaffed orphanages in war-ravaged Europe in the last century, children who were kept in cribs, where they may have been routinely fed and diapered but provided little else, grew up being unable to talk, walk or care for themselves, demonstrating that it takes loving interactions with human beings to produce thriving human beings. And many of these children simply died.

As we grow into adulthood, we continue to need God-given love in a network of caring relationships in order to maintain good emotional and physical health. In an age of communicating through texts and experiencing fewer than ever close bonds with others, I'm concerned about increased incidents of depression, anxiety disorders and even suicide.

Our local RISE congregation has as one of its mantra's "Receive Love. Give Love. Repeat." That pretty much sums up what makes us healthy and happy children of God. Without it, we find ourselves seeking every substitute possible to fill up the hole in our soul, and then wonder why we are left with a sense of loneliness and despair.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Why Jail "Keep Fees" Should Be Eliminated

Extra costs to families of having a loved one in jail are already
high enough, without adding an additional fee.
As part of our local Reentry Council’s Family Support Committee I helped conduct a survey in August involving 86 members of inmate families visiting our local jail. Their two greatest concerns were costs—of pricey  phone calls, medical co-pays and commissary items—and care, including counseling care for addictions and other mental health problems. 

On the cost side, one of the 17 items that over 80% of the respondents considered ‘extremely important’ was the $1 a day keep fee that has to be paid before their son or daughter, husband or wife, can have access to phone services or can buy expensive commissary items, even things like deodorant, or packets of condiments like mayo and ketchup, or other items not provided by our local jail. 

I think most of us would agree that it is unjust to place such a levy on friends or family members who are not guilty of the crime for which their loved ones are awaiting trial, or for which they have been sentenced. Even if there were some merit in a keep fee, it is inmates who should be billed for that as a part of their sentence, along with any fines or court costs for which they alone are responsible to pay when they are released.

Meanwhile, the $70,000 plus raised each year through this arbitrary "rent" represents only 7/100th of 1% of the Jail’s budget of over $10 million, but it may represent 1.5% of the income of the average low wage family member, already missing a bread winner.

Some of us have already discussed this with the sheriff, who has the discretion of whether, or how much, is charged ($1-3 a day is permitted, but not mandated). Faith in Action, a coalition of 25 local congregations, is urging that this fee be eliminated, or become a matter of judicial decision, not something an individual sheriff decides, or as in the case Middle River, a regional board. There it’s $3 a day, or over $1000 a year, which would be 4% of a family’s earnings of $25,000 a year.

To me this is just wrong on so many levels.

Here's a link if you want to send a respectful email to the sheriff expressing your own concern about this:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

10 Things Jesus Never Told His Followers To Do

It's as important to note what Jesus didn't teach as to pay attention to what he did.
Here are some example of instructions Jesus never got around to giving:

1. Join and support the National Sword Association.

2. Make sure you stash plenty of cash for your retirement.

3. Design and build esthetically impressive temples and church buildings for your weekly worship (except when you're at your mountain cabin or ocean front home for frequent weekend breaks).

4. Enlist in an underground militia movement to take your country back.

5. Give a tithe (10%) of your income to charity and use the rest for whatever you wish.

6. Be careful about your reputation when it comes to who you hang out with.

7. Treat yourself to a luxury cruise every couple of years.

8. Build yourself a big dream home to enjoy during your retirement.

9. Regularly pledge allegiance to "the flag of the United Kingdoms of the Roman Empire and to the Republic for which it stands".

10. Avoid befriending a) Samaritans and others with heretical religious views, b) eunuchs and others with different gender identities, c) enemy-supporting tax collectors with differing national identities or allegiances, and d) all kinds of no-good, low-down sinners and criminals, all folks with whom you have nothing in common.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Questioning Our "Lay" and "Ordained" Divide

While most of us agree that healthy congregations need to use all of the varied and multiple gifts of its members, Mennonites have generally adopted the Protestant practice of elevating pastors to a special place set apart from other ordinary folks. It is a chosen few who are honored with ministerial ordination, given special titles, offered salaries and benefits, provided with office space and support staff, and given a major share of time and attention in the weekly service.

Meanwhile, most members do not receive financial support for their ministries in the church and are referred to as "lay" persons, a designation ordained persons no longer claim. In some denominations, in fact, clergy may not even be members of their own congregations, but hold their membership in some separate category with other clergy. 

But if the word "lay" come from the Greek "laos", meaning the people, do we really want those we appoint to offices of oversight, teaching and leadership to no longer be one of us?

Perhaps our baptismal "commissioning" should be thought of as an ordination to full time service for everyone, howbeit in many different settings and with the exercise of many different gifts. And among the baptized there will often be appointments to special tasks, accompanied by congregational prayers and the laying on of many hands, and as needed, adequate financial support as well. But to have only a small percent of our members blessed and commissioned in this way, to me, may create an unhealthy dichotomy that is foreign to New Testament faith and to Anabaptist practice.

In my own twenty years of serving as a partially salaried pastor in a medium size congregation, I came to realize that some of the greater honor that went with being the called, ordained and professional "minister" set me up for a problematic set of stresses and temptations. The very design of our church's "auditorium" enhanced this sense of elevation and potential isolation, with my having a  weekly audience seated in orderly rows all facing a central pulpit which, yes, was also used by other members, but mostly for secondary and introductory parts of a service that led up to the main feature, the pastor's sermon. And who was I to go to when I needed to acknowledge my own need of pastoral care?

I may be wrong, but some of this seems like a far cry from the church described in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, in which all are to bring their psalms, teachings, and other revelations, all are to be fellow members of the laos, the people, and all are commissioned to a lifetime of service. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Local Mennonite Pastor Gets Facelift Surgery

Last Friday I had an ectropion procedure done at Sentara RMH, not for cosmetic purposes but as a kind of "facelift" to correct a sagging lower eyelid, as recommended by my ophthalmologist, Dr. Kenlyn Miller. This turned out to be an amazing experience.

In the first place, a total of 12 different professionals, from the receptionist and intake person who welcomed me on the first floor, to the nurses and surgeon assistants on the second, were involved in the many steps of preparation and follow-up for what was a mere 20-minute procedure.

For the surgery itself I needed only a local anesthesia, which allowed me to remain fully awake and engage in some conversation with Dr. Miller. We discussed a church-sponsored seminar we had both attended the day before and I was able to ask questions about the various steps involved in the surgery.

This experience also greatly added to my appreciation for my good wife Alma Jean, who was by my side for everything but the surgery itself, and who provided the best post operative care imaginable. While my eye was a gruesome sight to behold for a couple of days, I've gotten along just fine with her help and with some of the Tylenol she insisted I take for the first couple of days.

I have never been more impressed by the quality of medical services available to most of us that we mostly take for granted. The wealthiest and most privileged people in all of the ages before us would have given anything to have this kind of healthcare.

God is good, in sickness and in health, and this has given me a greater urgency to do what I can to support good healthcare as a right for all human beings everywhere.

Monday, April 16, 2018

More Law Officers Urge Jens Soering's Release

I met Jens (Yens) some years ago (we've
since corresponded) and have read some of
the books he's written in prison.
One week ago, April 9, 2018, Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. "Chip" Harding held a press conference, featuring F.B.I. Special Agent Stanley J. Lapekas. Also in attendance were Detective Sergeant Richard Hudson and Senior Investigator Chuck Reid. Together, they issued a "Call of Pardon", addressed to Governor Ralph Northam.

Below is the "Call of Pardon", plus links to a video of their conference and other important media reports.


Please write a letter of support for Jens' pardon to

Other links:
Call for Pardon:
Letter from F.B.I. Agent Stan Lapekas:
Video of press conference:
local TV-reports:
radio WVTF:
press reports:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Some Serious Problems At Our Middle River Jail

I recently presented the following to our Community Criminal Justice Board, then submitted it as an op ed piece which appeared in today's Daily News-Record:

Three years have passed since our City and County negotiated a buy-in with Middle River Regional Jail due to a 600% increase in the number of people incarcerated in our local facility since it was built in 1885. Meanwhile our population had grown by only 25%.

At any rate, it would seem appropriate to now have a committee or commission be appointed to review how our arrangement with them could be improved. 

At the time, many of wished the long standing lease option we already had with MRRJ could have simply continued until we were able to implement many of the Mosley Architects’ recommendations and get our incarceration rates down to a more reasonable number or until we could build something like a proposed “Judge John Paul Honor Camp” as a rehabilitation, treatment and work release center for non-violent inmates. 

In the meantime, here are some of the concerns about Middle River many of us keep hearing and that we believe call for such a review:

1. When inmates from here are transferred to MRRJ, their families immediately have to pay three times as much for their “keep fee”, to the tune of over $1000 a year. This a burdensome and arbitrary charge that innocent family members from our area should not be required to pay just because, through no fault of their own, their loved ones are moved to another location.

2. When that transfer is made, whatever commissary or clothing items (food, hygiene products, socks, underwear, etc.) an inmate has acquired are not allowed to be transferred, so again it is family members who need to pay for new and high priced items to replace them, another hardship.

3. MRRJ has inmates on lockdown for 18 hours a day, not for disciplinary reasons but simply because that requires fewer staff members. This is inhumane and contrary to standard jail practice.

4. Complaints about medical care have long been a matter of concern. I understand we have never done an independent investigation into some of the inmate deaths documented in the NBC 29 documentary two years ago, or the quality and adequacy of medical care in general, issues over which we could face liability. Meanwhile, over the past decades MRRJ has consistently underspent its medical budgets by thousands of dollars.

5. All inmates complain about jail food, but there is a clear difference between the quality and quantity of food served at MRRJ (reports of moldy bread, stone bits in lentils. etc.), compared to the quality of meals served at our local jail. As long as we share ownership of MRRJ, we should be able to expect comparable levels of care and service.

Who in the combined authority of city and county could look into these issues on behalf of concerned citizens in our community?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Doing Without

Join others in making this photo a part of your Facebook profile
As a part of our SOS (Sharing Our Surplus) campaign last year, designed to raise cash contributions for refugee relief at the Fall Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, we came up with things individuals and families could do without for a period of time in order to be able to do more generous giving.

Some sample suggestions for doing without:

- Eating out (or no more than once a week)
- Half of our desserts and snack foods
- Sodas and other high sugar drinks
- All $5 bills in our wallets (empty every week)
- 10% of what we have in our savings accounts
- Current number of fill ups of fuel for our vehicles--walk and bike more
- Purchases of any new shoes or clothes for six months
- Expensive vacations
- etc.

Now let's compare those 'hardships' with those of most of the 62 million displaced persons in the world, and especially the over 26 million households confined to an average ten year stay in a refugee camp.

Some things refugees typically do without:

- eating out
- desserts and snack foods
- sodas and other drinks
- savings accounts
- vehicles
- new clothes or shoes
- indoor bathrooms
- closets
- vacuum cleaners
- refrigerators and freezers
- electricity
- running water
- hair dryers
- beds with mattresses
- living room furniture
- kitchen ranges
- dining room tables and chairs
- washers and dryers
- air conditioners
- central heat
- vegetable and flower gardes
- lawns
- shade trees
- flat screen TV
- Netflix
- family vacations
- exercise equipment
- patio and deck furniture
- water heaters
- etc., etc.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Lynching In Rockingham County--March 1878

This happened countless times in 
the post-Civil War South.
According to reports in local newspapers, Henry Sipe's barn in eastern Rockingham County burned to the ground February 28, 1878. A young African-American boy in the neighborhood, Jim Ergenbright, was first believed to have started the fire, but Charlotte Harris, also a person of color, was later accused of instigating the arson and was taken into custody March 6 at the Rockingham County Jail in the county seat of Harrisonburg.

Late that night a group of armed men disguised in black appeared at the jail and forced Ms. Harris to be handed over to them, then hanged her from a tree some 400 yards away.

Unlike many lynchings in the post-Civil War South, the Governor of Virginia actually offered a $100 reward for the capture of the men who lynched her, but a grand jury convened in the Rockingham Court House claimed they could not identify who was responsible for the crime, so no one was ever convicted in the case. Meanwhile the young boy first accused was acquitted of all charges.

According to my source, Dr. Gianluca De Fazio, Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at JMU, there was only one other known case of a lynching in Rockingham County, though there are hundreds of documented cases of mob lynchings in other areas of the Commonwealth with larger larger populations of former slaves. This second case involved a white woman who was allegedly hanged east of Cowen's Depot near the Massanutten range, supposedly because she socialized with Negroes. This hanging was later officially denied as ever having happened, even though it was reported by numerous area newspapers.

Dr. De Fazio has done extensive work to research and document the history of lynchings in Virginia. There are several upcoming events where he will be sharing his work, including a presentation at the Lucy Simms Community Center at 2 pm Friday, April 20. Learn more at:

Saturday, April 7, 2018

On His 50th, Inmate Yearns For Outside Friends

A tireless advocate for
prison and parole reform
Charles E. Zellers, Sr., is a friend at Buckingham Correctional Center with whom I've been communicating through letters, emails and phone calls since February 2014. He turns 50 April 10, and I'd love to see him get some cards on his special day (Or you can send him birthday greetings via my email address and I will forward them to him).

Charles was incarcerated in January, 1993, in his early 20's after entering an Alford Plea, at which time his public defender assured him he should be released on parole in a matter of a few years with continual good behavior. Charles has far, far exceeded that goal by successfully completing the prescribed DOC treatment plan and taking every available class possible to better himself. Since  2006 he has been employed  by Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) - Buckingham's Sheet Metal Shop where he is a respected lead man in the metal furniture assembly process.

In spite of having been eligible for discretionary parole since 2005, he has been denied 9 times, and was most recently given a three-year deferral, which means his case will not be reviewed again until 2021. His goals upon release continue to be to get a full-time job, to become a part of a caring church, to help get his aging mother's affairs in order, and to volunteer to help others.

Charles has sent me numerous proposals that he recommended for DOC and ones that he would like to help implement and participate in upon his release from prison. Some have to do with providing computers to deserving people in exchange for turning in ammunition and firearms.

In his own words, Charles is reaching out for the following:

> compassionate unconditional friendships from individuals who will accept him for who he is today and not for the crime for which he was incarcerated for over 25 years ago;
> a church with members who will accept him with love and provide him with a chance to prove himself trustworthy;
> organizations which would accept him as a volunteer who wishes to help better the community and the state.
> advocates who would help to find employment
> advocates who would search for employers from around the Commonwealth who agree to hire parole candidates;
> provide information on employers who are open to hiring parolees to <> so he can post them on the APP-HRC database;
> information on pro-parole activists who would agree to help prepare post-release plans.
> friends who are knowledgeable in computer programming using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).
> advocates who could urge Virginia Parole Board members to grant parole release to deserving old-law parole-eligible inmates before they reach their senior years. 
Charles E. Zellers, Sr.
DOC # 1036758
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Anyone willing to write Charles directly through email would need to contact and have their name and email address added to his account. JPay stamps are as follows:

5 - JPay Stamps $1.95
20 - JPay Stamps $6.95
40 - JPay Stamps $9.95

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Your Invitation To The Finest Fundraiser Ever!

Storyteller Dale M. Brumfield, activist and author of Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorius History (Arcadia Publishing, 2017) will be the keynote speaker at the Gemeinschaft Home's annual dinner at Parkview Mennonite at 6 pm. Friday, April 20.

    The penitentiary, opened in 1800 with reformist intentions, came to be called “the most shameful prison in North America,” and was demolished in 1992. Brumfield brings a compelling and fascinating glimpse into the origins of our criminal justice system in Virginia.

    But that's not all. JMU music professor David Stringham and colleagues from the social work department will give a presentation on a grant-funded music program they have been involved in with Gemeinschaft residents and may share a sample of the results, which have been amazing. 
    Gemeinschaft Home is an innovative nonprofit organization serving the community through residential and nonresidential programs. Since 1985, G.H. has helped former offenders rebuild their lives and return to their communities productively.

    Recently, Gemeinschaft (a Germanic name for “community”) has added a day reporting program as an alternative to incarceration, providing intensive, nonresidential supervision for persons awaiting trial or following trial.

    There is no charge for this annual banquet, but your generous donations, based on your ability to give, are much  needed and appreciated. Raffle tickets will also be available for $5 each or five for $20 (with prizes to be announced). 

Please RSVP by April 18 to 434-1690 or 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

If I Don't Stop To Help, What Will Happen To ME?

A call to "dangerous unselfishness."
Fifty years today, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his last speech at a large gathering at Memphis where he had come to support the sanitation workers who were working for fair pay and better working conditions (see 3/2 post).

On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

In his final address he contrasted the response of the compassionate Samaritan with those of the Levite and the priest who "passed by on the other side." The religious leaders asked the wrong question, he noted, their being concerned about what would happen to them if they stopped to offer aid. In other words, they risked becoming ritually unclean, by being contaminated with someone's blood, or worse, if the man didn't survive, the body of a dead person.

When I first ran across these lines in the speech, I thought Dr. King was reflecting on what happens to us when we fail to offer aid to the homeless and helpless, as in, What happens to our level of compassion? What happens to our capacity for caring? What happens to our own humanity, our own relationship with the God who deeply cares for all creation?

What follows is that portion of King's address:

"Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base.... Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side.

"They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.

"Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem -- or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association."

"That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

"But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles -- or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass."

"And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

What will happen to us if we ignore the needs of millions in today's "concentration camps"?

Monday, April 2, 2018

A Local March To Deliver Petitions To Cargill

This event will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, by continuing his work of solidarity with exploited and marginalized workers. Dr. King was in Memphis to support the struggle of African American sanitation workers to win recognition of their union when he was assassinated. We will be in Dayton to support poultry workers who were fired because they dared to try and form a union.

Join us as we deliver a community petition and march in support of them. We will gather on Wednesday April 4 from 1:00 PM to 1:30 PM in the parking lot behind the Thomas House in downtown Dayton (222 Main Street) and then at 1:30 we will march to the Cargill plant to deliver the petitions for Nellie, Graciela and Ernestina and tell Cargill to give them their jobs back NOW!
Read the stories of Nelly, Graciela and Ernestina: Their stories are stories of the courage to stand for their rights. Such courage and stubborn hope inspires other workers and it should inspire us to stand with them in their struggle for justice.

Nelly worked at Cargill Dayton for 11 years. She was a strong union leader and actively talked to her coworkers about organizing and many of her coworkers signed union cards with her. In 2017, Nelly suffered a workplace injury, tearing multiple tendons. When she returned to work after surgery, the nurses harassed her and told her that now that she was injured, she was useless and she should leave and find a new job. In January, Nelly was called to the Human Resources office, where a manger fired her, and a supervisor escorted her from the premises. Nelly believes that she has been fired in retaliation for organizing to win a union for workers at Cargill.

Graciela worked at Cargill for 12 years. She is a strong union supporter and proudly wore her union shirt to work on Fridays with her coworkers. Following an injury and surgery, Graciela needed to work with restrictions, and after she had been back to work for a few months, her supervisor at Cargill told her that she couldn't work anymore until she brought in a doctor's note. However, despite multiple attempts to deliver a note, Cargill has refused to accept the note and allow her to return to work. Graciela believes that she has been targeted and retaliated against for her support of the union for Cargill workers.

Ernestina worked at Cargill Dayton for 14 years. She was a strong union supporter and wore her union shirt on Fridays. Ernestina was put to work on a new line in the plant, and she injured her shoulder.When she went to the infirmary, she was told that her bones ached because she was old, not because of the work, and that she would not be allowed to return to work until she brought in a doctor's note - and that she would be responsible for paying the medical bills. Ernestina has been out of work since October, and she believes that she has been targeted and retaliated against for her support of the union.

Help us break new ground. Come and make history!  

Please Like and Share widely.  Invite Your Friends On and Off Facebook.
We will sing and there will be speeches by the women workers and their community allies. Bring your own signs honoring Dr. King, supporting our demand that Nellie, Graciela and Ernestina be immediately reinstated and that Cargill stop all retaliation against and intimidation of workers.  Signs will also be available.
The petition was initiated by Community Solidarity with the Poultry Workers in close cooperation with the Workers Center. The petition has been endorsed by Faith in Action and Virginia Organizing, Harrisonburg/Rockingham County Chapter. Hundreds of area residents have signed the petition.
For more Information: See accompanying  petition (attached file below) which includes details of the stories of the three poultry workers that were suspended and the exact wording of the petition. Go to this WMRA report “Poultry Workers Charge Abuse at Cargil, February 14, 2018 at <> or contact Michael Snell-Feikema for Community Solidarity with the Poultry Workers.