Monday, July 30, 2018

Undocumented Marriages

Good, stable relationships are worth
registering and celebrating.

Meanwhile, Isaac, whose home was in the Negev, had returned from Beer-lahai-roi.  One evening as he was walking and meditating in the fields, he looked up and saw the camels coming. 
When Rebekah looked up and saw Isaac, she quickly dismounted from her camel. “Who is that man walking through the fields to meet us?” she asked the servant.
And he replied, “It is my master.” So Rebekah covered her face with her veil. Then the servant told Isaac everything he had done.
And Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent, and she became his wife. He loved her deeply, and she was a special comfort to him after the death of his mother.
Genesis 24:62-67 New Living Translation (NLT)

When I ask couples in my office how long they've been together, many distinguish between the years they have been legally married from the years they have simply lived together.

Most people see a significant difference between the two.  They assume that as long as a couple is not legally married that their partnership can be terminated without any major hassle.

While it is true that breakups of people just living together may seem less costly and less complicated than having to hire a attorneys and going through court hearings to work out their separation, the
"emotional divorce" people go through may be every bit as painful. And details regarding finances, property and, if there are children involved, custody and child support issues, may be equally complicated, or even more so.

The fact is, most couples living together are, for all practical purposes, about as "married" as two people can be. They just don't have their relationship registered and publicly celebrated.

There are legitimate reasons for a society to ask to have marriages documented, especially if there are children involved, but I also believe it is in the best interest of the couple. A public declaration of a decision to live together and share all things in common, along with gaining the public support of friends, family, and of ones congregational family, can add immeasurably to a couple's stability and to the durability of their relationship.

In any case, by pooling our finances and risking our future in the radical joint venture of moving in together, we are in fact actually "married", whether or not that is what we intend.

As an analogy, while it is a good thing for all drivers to have a driver's license, that is not what makes them drivers. They are in fact drivers because they get behind the wheel and share the same highway in the same way as the rest of us.

In scripture, the common elements involved in all male/female unions are found in Genesis 2:

For this reason they leave father and mother 
(establishing a separate and publicly recognizable relationship)
and become joined to one another 
(forming a faithful and exclusive relationship)
and the two of them become united as 'one flesh'.
(experiencing a physically and emotionally bonded relationship).

These three factors are what make people truly 'married'.

In times past, the legal part of marriage was worked out between the families of the couple, as to what kind of dowry was required, for example. That agreement was typically celebrated by some kind of wedding feast and ceremony, symbolizing the support of the joined families and the rest of the entire community, a proven and positive way to launch a new relationship.

So if you have delayed officially registered and celebrated your living together relationship, I strongly recommend that you do so. It's the right thing to do as far as the law is concerned, and solemnizing and publicly announcing your journey together can be a great help in your arriving at "happily ever after".

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Guest Post: Chaplain’s MDiv capstone project explores ‘healing and redemption’ in jail ministry

Local Jail Chaplain Jason Wagner, center, with Willie Scott and Nathan Comer
(photo by EMU Weekly Digest photographer Macson McGuigan) 

by Christopher Clymer Kurtz

When Eastern Mennonite Seminary Master of Divinity candidate Jason Wagner presented his capstone integration project this spring, he was introduced by Nathan Carr, a man he’d gotten to know on the job.

“God works through him in one of the worst places a person can be,” Carr said. “I and many others are thankful to have had and still have the jail chaplain in our lives.”

A licensed minister, Wagner serves through Virginia Mennonite Missions in the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail. He leads Christian services, offers pastoral care, coordinates visiting ministries, and advocates for active church involvement in jail ministry. In his months-long project, Wagner set out to explore “what it means to seek healing and redemption within the walls of a punitive system.”

Carr met Wagner while serving a jail sentence last year, after experiencing an “overwhelming” feeling of relief on a night he spent crying and praying. “God reached out and spoke to me and touched me and healed me,” Carr said – and the next morning, his pastor suggested he connect with Wagner.

The two would create a “friendship and brotherhood in Christ,” Carr said. “It was always exciting to hear what verse or helpful advice he had to offer.”

Wagner recounted his experiences and thoughts from his research and jail chaplaincy in a presentation titled “Against the Grain,” which began with a description of a Sunday evening service in the jail:

Twenty to 30 men crowd into a small classroom to have a time of worship. The men are dressed in orange jumpsuits and come cuffed together in twos from their pods. The visiting ministers and I stand by the door, shaking hands and introducing ourselves to the inmates.

One of my practices when leading worship in the jail is to proclaim over the gathered inmates that they are the church. Furthermore, I name that the presence of God is within the jail and that we, together, are a people, brothers in Christ, called to love and serve one another. I also name that in our worship, we experience what we are made for – to commune with God.

‘Just show up’

Jason Wagner serves through Virginia Mennonite Missions in the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail. He leads Christian services, offers pastoral care, coordinates visiting ministries, and advocates for active church involvement in jail ministry.
For years, Wagner has interacted with people just out of the jail and facing difficulties, in part through his involvement at Harrisonburg’s Our Community Place.

Ministering inside a jail, in an “overwhelming” and traumatizing system that violates human dignity, is a calling that’s no more noble than any other, he said in an interview. Rather, “God places you where you’re at. You just show up and be a faithful presence, an expression of being with, in a robust way.”

That’s the Gospel, in his words: “We have a propensity to instrumentalize the Gospel, to make it a means to an end,” he said. “But it is the end. It’s the means and the end – a tangible community in and outside the system. A ministry of presence – that’s what I’m called to.”

In his chaplaincy, Wagner observed the traumagenic nature of incarceration that can result in the ongoing transmission of despair. “The intense conditions of being crammed into a place with other very stressed and hurting people creates the potential for an experience of even deeper pain and disorientation,” he said.

But worship, he said – quoting Angola Prison Seminary director John Robins – can be place for inmates to “reinterpret their personal history,” and allows space for incarcerated people to make positive choices as humans rather than as merely navigators of punitive dehumanization.

It’s “an act of subversion of the world,” he said, “because it projects a new world in which people can imagine life and wholeness in redemptive and new ways.”

Wagner speaks of such spiritual awakening with familiarity. At age 22 he had a “mystical experience” that resulted in conversion through an “encounter in relationship that made my life shift on its axis.” In subsequent years he became a founding member and elder of Early Church in Harrisonburg, and as a seminary student, he delved into the Bible through “academic, critical study of sacred text” even while asking, “How is this text living and active?”

The call

Carr’s eagerness to connect with Wagner is an example of “the deep cry and hunger for the redemptive love of Christ” that Wagner observed as part of “my own jailhouse conversion” during his first time leading music in the jail, he wrote in a 2017 Virginia Mennonite Conference article.

“The Lord Jesus calls us – the church – to be salt and light in a world that is bland and dark,” he wrote. “The jail is a significantly dark and bland corner in our community, housing deeply wounded exiles who are doomed to repeat their crimes if left isolated.”

Wagner’s capstone presentation ended with a message for the church, which he said is “compelled by the good news of Jesus to be on mission and boldly open up to those suffering in our community.”

Particularly “given that the majority of those who are housed in our local jail will soon re-enter our community,” he said, “it is the call of the church to draw near and open its doors and do the work of healing and discipleship that sets people free to do the right things for the right reasons.”

Link to EMU News Digest:

P.S. After his recent release from the local jail, Nathan Comer lived with Wilmer and Mary Louise Lehman for several weeks prior to Christmas, 2017, as a part of a support team provided by the local Mt. Clinton Mennonite Church.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Does Scripture Teach Salvation By Good Works?

Bronze sculpture by Alan Collins, at the Loma Linda University
and Medical Center
When an expert in religion asks Jesus about what one must do (emphasis mine) to inherit eternal life, he responds with a question, "What do the scriptures say?"

When the man responds with "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength," and adds the less familiar"Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus commends him with "Do this and you will live."

Jesus then tells the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, clarifying what kind of fellow humans are to be seen as our "neighbors", and then adds, "Go and do likewise."

So is Jesus saying we gain our right standing with God by doing? Where does God's amazing grace come in?

This question at first troubled me, but I now see the passage as being all about grace.

In the first place, the mortally wounded man left to die by the roadside is completely dependent on having unmerited grace extended to him, and through a most unlikely person, an avowed enemy. Without receiving first aid in the form of having his bleeding stopped and his wounds dressed, and without his being transported to an inn for ongoing care, he would have never survived. He couldn't have even been able to dial 911 for help.

That's how God's pure, unadulterated grace works. God rescues us at the point of our greatest helplessness and hopelessness, without our earning or deserving it.

But the Samaritan in the story is the recipient of the identical kind of unmerited favor. Among Jesus's peers, there were no "good" Samaritans (except for dead ones). This heretical and hated outsider would have been seen by Jesus' listeners as the least deserving of God's favor, as the least likely candidate to be the designated hero in the story--as the person who was truly "right with God".

So in working through this unlikely 'Shiite', God shows his unmerited grace to both the one helping and the one being helped. Whenever any of us allows ourselves to be channels of God's mercy, without any thought of reward or merit of our own, that's grace. That's "amore". That's God's unconditional and extravagant agape love.

In God's economy, grace is what it's all about. And it is awesome and amazing indeed.
And it's what saves us.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."
 - the apostle Paul, Ephesians 2:8-10 (NRSV)

Monday, July 23, 2018

From Utmost East To Utmost West--A Miracle Story

Alma Jean and I with the Zhou family, Bo Hu, daughter Emily
and Hongyan. Miracle daughter Eliana, age 8, took the photo.
We were greatly blessed having the Hongyan and Bo Hu Zhou family back for a visit with our house church group recently. They had moved to California from here nine years ago.

Hongyan came to EMU as a visiting scholar from the Chongqing University of Medical Sciences in China in 2004, and became a part of our house church congregation through staying with one of our members, Rachel Stoltzfus. (Rachel, who lived near campus, made a practice of opening her home to international students ever since she and her husband moved to the area decades ago, and she continued that ministry until her health no longer permitted and she went to live with her daughter in Maryland. Hers is a wonderful story in itself, told here.)

Hongyan had become a believer through the influence of a US teacher of English at his University, and he and his wife Bo Hu, who worked at a bank, became very active in one of a growing number of house churches in their city. After coming to the states, Hong Yan was granted religious asylum by the US State Department and immediately sought to bring his wife and their young daughter here as well.

Bo Hu and Emily were able to join him and were welcomed into Rachel's home in 2006, and she and Emily, then a fourth grader, soon became a beloved part of our community and our living-room-size church family. In 2009 the three moved to California to be closer to Bo Hu's parents, and where Hongyan got a job in nursing, having just completed his nursing degree.

Meanwhile, Bo Hu, then in her late thirties, had experienced several miscarriages, and her doctors in California discouraged her from pursuing another pregnancy, expressing fears about whether her offspring, at that stage in her life, would be normal and healthy. Their next major test of faith had to do with going through a time of uncertainty about whether she was again pregnant or had a tumor developing in her uterus. When an ultrasound revealed no sign of a heartbeat, their doctors recommended they have that removed, and offered to have the procedure done on that same day.

Seeing how heartsick they were over this, they were given the option of having one more test done at the Valley Medical Center at San Jose.

This time a tiny heartbeat was detected, much to everyone's great joy. But as the pregnancy progressed, later examinations showed possible signs of Downs Syndrome, and there was a bright spot on the heart that was troubling. So they were advised by their doctor and their geneticist to have an amniocentesis done to verify this and to have an abortion done if needed. They declined, putting their trust in God for whatever the outcome might be.

Months later, Eliana, a Hebrew name chosen by Emily which means "the Lord has heard my prayer", was born, a healthy and amazing blessing!

Eliana, Christmas, 2017

Eliana will be in the fourth grade this fall, and Bo, having just earned an RN degree, will be finding full time work. Emily is completing her last year of college at UC Berkley, where she had a full tuition scholarship she earned, amazingly, by winning an art contest in Virginia as a new elementary student in her first year in the states. She hopes to enroll in dental school in the fall of 2019 after completing her senior year this coming May.

Is this a wonderful story or what?

The phrase "From utmost east to utmost west" comes from a hymn "God is Working His Purpose Out" by Arthur Ainger. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Our Evangelical Hypocrisy On 'Social Action'

Mennonite Central Committee and other relief and service organizations are often criticized for being too focused on physically bettering people's lives and not enough on evangelizing them.

Some of the questions raised are, What good is it to educate people and to improve their health and their means of livelihood if we don't help them with their eternal spiritual needs? And while we should of course offer emergency relief to people who are hungry and homeless, shouldn't our primary mission be to change people's hearts and prepare them for the life to come?

Jesus' life and ministry is a demonstration of the fact that both are important.

According to his inaugural address Jesus' mission, and ours, is to "bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to announce release to captives, to bring sight to the blind, and to free those who are in prison." All of this is in fulfillment of our obligation to love God above every other love or allegiance, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Here's where our hypocrisy comes in. The fact is that few of us pay attention just to our spiritual needs. Rather, most of us spend an extraordinary amount of time and money on the kinds of "social action" that benefit ourselves and our families.

For example, we invest whatever energy and resources necessary to make sure we have the best housing in the best neighborhood possible, that our children have the best education available, that our every health needs are met to the fullest and finest extent, and that we have all of the recreational and entertainment opportunities we can afford.

In short, these are among the many ways we love ourselves and our own families. And up to a point, we should.

But that's where the "as yourself" question comes in. Shouldn't we be equally dedicated to the same kinds of needs in our neighbors around the world?

Of course we can't do everything needed for every one in need. But together, as communities of faith, we should never assume that we deserve better than others, just because we are North Americans, or assume that others' needs are primarily spiritual while ours are by right every bit as earth-based as heaven-based.

It's at the heart of our Bible: "Love your neighbor AND/AS yourself."

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How Much Tolerance Can Christians Tolerate?

Church discipline appears to be a thing of the past.

We place such a high value on being open minded and non-judgmental that we tend to look the other way when fellow members are involved in wrongdoing, either pretending its none of our business, that it isn't really a problem, or that it will just take care of itself.

Everyone's favorite proof text used to support this is the oft quoted "Judge not that you be not judged." Never mind the fact that Jesus certainly never meant this to mean we shouldn't discern between right and wrong, or that we should never confront another when he or she is guilty of a wrong. 

In fact, in its Sermon on the Mount context, Jesus goes on to say that we are to first remove the large log of wrongdoing in our own eye so we can then see clearly in order to help another remove the unwanted "speck" in theirs. He also insists we are to know others by their fruit (their behavior) and later gives instruction about how to confront a fellow member of our congregation when he or she has gone astray (see Matthew 18:12-20).

I do believe there are limits to what even the most tolerant among us consider tolerable. We each draw a line somewhere as to what we would never find acceptable in our community of faith, things like child abuse, bigamy, embezzlement or other criminal behaviors, or such actions as the following:

breaking and entering
lying and other forms of deception
physical, psychological, or other forms of torture and abuse
armed robbery
malicious wounding
organized acts of terrorism
using explosives to destroy people or property
destroying land or other natural resources
stabbing or strangling 
forcing people from their homes or communities
committing mass murder

Without question, most believers would speak out against members of their congregations engaging in such behaviors--and would disapprove of their supporting or belonging to any groups or organizations that do.

But with one huge, glaring exception. 

Most Christians raise no objections to members joining military forces routinely encouraging, training and/or commanding its enlisted members to do all of the above and more whenever commanded to do so.  Thus we are in danger of accepting, on a mass and organized scale, what we could not accept or allow on any other basis. 

Not only do many Christ-followers condone bombing and other forms of destruction in their nation's name, they often pray for the success of its mission, even if it involves actions that reflect anything but love for God and neighbor.

How have followers of Jesus come to tolerate, and even bless, such violations of the most basic ethical codes of our faith? Unlike legitimate police force, necessary in human societies to maintain order within national boundaries (and intended to preserve life and bring individuals to justice under laws designed to protect individual rights), military forces have a long history of plundering and destroying without benefit of such civilized restraints.

True, we pacifist Christians must repent of the many "beams" of self righteousness, materialism, and cowardly indifference that impair our own moral vision. But remove them we must, all of us, lest history write off the church as having been irrelevant and mute in one of the most pressing moral issues of all time.

The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.
- Menno Simons 16th century reformer

Friday, July 13, 2018

Opportunity To Sponsor A Deserving Inmate

Charles Zellers, a 50 year-old inmate friend of mine, is seeking good Christian friends from Virginia to sponsor his reentry into society. 

Charles was incarcerated in January, 1993, when he was only 24,  charged with felony murder and sodomy. He insists he is not guilty of either of these crimes as charged, but was advised by his attorney to accept an Alfred Plea with the assurance that with good behavior he would be released on parole in a matter of a few years.

Instead, he has been incarcerated for over 25 years. Since then he has demonstrated that he has become a responsible and competent adult who should be eligible for parole release and not continue to be a financial burden to taxpayers of Virginia.

Charles says that he would love to be a trained tractor trailer operator, but would be fine with any job that would give him the opportunity of being a model taxpaying citizen. He is currently a lead man in the VCE metal and wood working shop where he works, and has taught himself computer programming for business and personal purposes. He has also had experience in cooking, home repairs and yard work. 

Charles has many plans to be a helpful citizen in whatever community he lives in, including volunteering to help elderly citizens and ex-offenders. He also has a variety of practical skills, and has no history of alcohol, drug, tobacco or other addictions. 

If you and/or members of your congregation are willing to accept Charles for who he is today and not for what he was accused of over 25 years ago, please contact him at:

Charles Zellers, Sr. 1036758
BKCC - N3-301-Top
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

- OR -
contact him through Email at
(list his name, state, DOC number)

P.S. Also contact Ms. Adrianne L. Bennett, Chair, Virginia Parole Board, 6900 Atmore Drive, Richmond, VA 23225 to notify her of your willingness to find Charles a place to live and help him gain employment.

Here's a link to more information about Mr. Zellers: 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Top Ten Ways To Relieve Depression

Depression is a condition over which we may have little control. The brain, like any organ of the body, is subject to disease, and some of us may be more genetically prone to clinical depression than others.

But no matter what triggers this plague of emotional darkness and despair, depression not only affects our feelings, but our functioning, i.e., our sleep, appetite, energy, and motivation. Fortunately, there are ways we can at least limit its impact, as follows:

10. Anti-depressant drugs can be helpful for some, in spite of their occasional negative side effects, and the fact that many have been proven to be only only slightly more effective than placebos in clinical trials. Some people also report feeling better from taking over the counter medications like St. Johns Wort and certain herbal products or natural food supplements. But sometimes the line between reputable fish oil and questionable snake oil is not as clear as we would like.

9. For persons with severe and prolonged clinical depression, older therapies like electroconvulsive treatment (ECT) or newer variations like Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are producing positive results for some.

8. In cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a move to a more sunny climate appears be helpful, or the use of light therapy.

7. A positive placebo effect can also be a part of any therapy for depression. Whatever increases a sense of hopefulness in any of us can result in increased dopamine, serotonin and endorphin production in our brains.

6. Some people find journaling helpful as a way of expressing their laments, naming and externalizing their distresses and writing down some of their own best wisdom for dealing with their condition. see

5. Avoiding being sedentary, getting plenty of good physical exercise is a proven way for the body to produce mood enhancing endorphins.

4. Avoiding being solitary by nurturing good relationships with others is extremely important to mental health. Depression often makes us want to withdraw from others, which inevitably makes the condition worse. Seeking help from friends and from members of our faith community as well as from professional counselors and medical professionals can make a major difference.

3. Changing our vocabulary, purging them from habitual words like 'terrible', 'horrible', 'awful', is also very important, along with avoiding too many generalizations like 'never', always', and forever'. And its always a good idea to replace the over-use of 'I can't' with something like 'It's really hard, and I haven't found a way yet'.

2. Observing regular mini-sabbaths from life stresses, but especially from the stress of worry, is vital. Or setting aside an hour a day for some serious worrying, then declaring the rest of the time as a sabbatical from worry and anxiety, is sure to help. see

1. Taking time to meditate, pray, sing, reflect on the goodness of God and of all creation, and on all the blessings we can possibly record on the assets side of our memory ledger needs to become a priority. And then to reach out to share those blessings with others as we are able.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Sword In Romans 13 Is For Protecting, Not For Plundering

Police are to protect and serve.
"Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear."
Paul, Romans 13:1-3a, the Message

In the apostle Paul's first century setting Roman soldiers were primarily in peacekeeping roles in the lands they occupied. Trained in pillaging and killing, they nevertheless often functioned as local police officers. In reality, they were guilty of a lot of police brutality, but the above text describes how God ordained police to function.

It is to these public officials the apostle Paul urged believers to show respect and compliance. This was not because he was advocating for unquestioned allegiance to Rome, but because he believed in a strategy of subversive submission toward enemy occupiers. 

Believers were to see themselves as resident aliens in their society, an outpost of the heaven-headquartered, worldwide, eternal government of God who operate by the agape love code, as in verses 8-10 of Romans 13. 

Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.

Showing respect to civil servants operating by an earth-based law code is simply another demonstration of love for all, including enemies (Romans 12:19-21), but according to one early church manual, the Didaskalia, the church was not to receive gifts"from soldiers who behave unrighteously or from those who kill men, or from executioners or from any magistrates of the Roman Empire who are polluted in wars and have shed innocent blood without judgment."

Here are some of the clear differences between a God-sanctioned kind of police force, involving magistrates who maintain law and order in secular society, and a military force engaging in killing enemy combatants and trained in destroying other nations' population and property:

1) Police officers are to use force within the bounds of their local jurisdiction, not across national boundaries.

2) Police officers are trained to limit the use of force and to cause the least amount of harm to life and property as possible, whereas armies are often called on to inflict the greatest amount of damage possible in order to bring an enemy nation to its knees. 

3) Police forces aim to bring individual offenders to justice--to be tried in a court of law, offered legal counsel and have a jury of their peers determine guilt or innocence. Military forces obey whatever orders they are given, including attacking an entire city or neighborhood, and are not subject to the same kinds of laws and limitations.

4) Police do not normally use grenades, bombs or other explosive devices capable of mass destruction.

5) Police officers are not trained to demonize lawbreakers or label them as enemies.

Here are some words from 16th century reformer Menno Simons:

Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people...
    We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance... Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace...
    The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

José And María At The Southern Border

Graphic courtesy of button-maker Dakota Bawden.

Our singer-song writer son Brad, based in Pittsburgh, recently wrote the following lament. 
You can listen to it here (accompanied by a ukulele instead of his usual guitar) as you read the words below.

Joseph and María

When Joseph and María tried to slip across the border,
Immigration stopped them at the line,
‘cause Egypt’s president said “we don’t want no immigrants,
Trust me, they don’t send their best from Palestine…”

Joseph and María knew they had to flee their country
King Herod meant to do their baby harm,
But soldiers cut them off, and refused to let them cross,
Then they ripped young Jesus from María’s arms,

            Holy, holy, holy are the ones who run for safety,
            And holy, holy, holy are the poor,
            So if you see fit to tear the Holy Child from His Mother,
            Tell me, what exactly is a Christian for?

Joseph and María didn’t ask to be in danger,
And they did not ask to raise God’s blessed Son,
They fled as refugees from a tyrant’s death decrees,
Hey, does that remind you, friends, of anyone?

            Holy, holy, holy are the ones who cry for mercy,
            And holy is their knocking at your door,
            But if you're OK with separating children from their parents,
            Tell me what exactly is the scripture for?
            Yes, if you can justify taking Jesus from María,
            Tell me, what exactly is God’s mercy for?...

by Brad Yoder all rights reserved. Listen to it here:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Mandate To Provide Sanctuary For Refugees

Our neighbors from far and near are in dire need of our help.
Terrified refugees fleeing violence and desperate immigrants on the run due to famine and economic hardship are not a new phenomenon. In the seventh century BC the prophet Isaiah urged his nation to provide welcome to neighboring Moabite asylum seekers:

"Oh, how I grieve for Moab!
    Refugees stream to Zoar
    and then on to Eglath-shelishiyah.
Up the slopes of Luhith they weep;
    on the road to Horonaim they cry their loss.
The springs of Nimrim are dried up—
    grass brown, buds stunted, nothing grows.
They leave, carrying all their possessions
    on their backs, everything they own,
Making their way as best they can
    across Willow Creek to safety.
Poignant cries reverberate
    all through Moab..." *

Moabites, descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot, were neighbors to Israel, but the relationship between the two countries was anything but peaceful, marked by frequent conflict, even war. And yet Isaiah urges his people to provide refuge to the displaced men, women and children pillaged by raiding armies from the north.

The towns and people of Moab
    are at a loss,
New-hatched birds knocked from the nest,
    fluttering helplessly
At the banks of the Arnon River,
    unable to cross:
‘Tell us what to do,
    help us out!
Protect us,
    hide us!
Give the refugees from Moab
    sanctuary with you.
Be a safe place for those on the run
    from the killing fields.’” *

It's not hard to draw parallels today to refugees fleeing gang and other forms of violence in neighboring countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as families with children ("newly hatched birds") reach the banks of the Rio Grande ("the Arnon River") unable to cross.

Aside from urging his fellow Israelites to offer help to their needy neighbors, Isaiah dreams of a day when a new government of shalom will bring an end to the violence that results in people being driven from their homes.

“When this is all over,” Judah answers,
    “the tyrant toppled,
The killing at an end,
    all signs of these cruelties long gone,
A new government of love will be established
    in the venerable David tradition.
A Ruler you can depend upon
    will head this government,
A Ruler passionate for justice,
    a Ruler quick to set things right.” *

Meanwhile, may our response to those in desperate need be guided by Isaiah's vision of the future rather than by inhumane policies of the past.

* Above quotes from Isaiah 15 and 16 are from Eugene Peterson's The Message, published by NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2002.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Vol. III, No. 2 (an occasional newsletter by and for inmates)

"The Board's mission is to grant parole
to those offenders whose release is
compatible with public safety."
2018 Parole Rates Remain Low

Here are the release numbers so far this year:
January: 19 (of these, none were women, four were geriatric)
February: 13 (no women, one geriatric)
March: 34 (two women, five geriatric)
April: 39 (two women, nine geriatric)
May: 36 (no women, six geriatric)
With a growing percentage of inmates eligible for geriatric release and a long list of persons in prison with excellent behavior and work records, one hopes these numbers will increase.
The following explanations are offered to for not granting parole:
More Time to Serve
The Board may determine an offender should satisfy a greater portion of the sentence imposed based on the crimes) committed.
Conviction of a New Crime while Incarcerated
An offender whose criminal behavior continues while incarcerated demonstrates a lack of respect for laws and a risk to the community.
Crimes Committed
The Board considers the nature and number of crimes committed by the offender.
Extensive Criminal Record
If an offender has multiple convictions, this signals a lengthy pattern of criminal behavior and inability to abide by the laws of the Commonwealth.
History of Substance Abuse
A history of drug or alcohol abuse bears upon an offender’s ability to make rational and law-abiding decisions.
History of Violence
Multiple and historical violent crimes against citizens suggests the probability that an offender will re-offend with similar violent crimes if released on  parole. A violent act associated with the current incarceration may be considered a part of the offender’s history.
Further Participation in Institutional Work and/or Educational Programs
This refers to offenders who are beginning to demonstrate positive changes, but the Board is still reluctant to release them. The Board is acknowledging the change and encouraging continued improvement but is looking for further participation and completion of programs.
Poor Institutional Adjustment
This applies to offenders who are not demonstrating an attitude or motivation toward a positive adjustment. The offender continues to receive unfavorable reports and may not be involved in programs, etc.
Prior Failure under Community Supervision
This refers to an offender’s proven inability to function in the community and to abide by the rules of supervision. It may include new criminal convictions or technical violations.
Record of major institutional infractions - not ready to conform to society
This refers to an offender’s inability to follow prison rules.
Risk to the Community
Considering the nature of the crime(s), prior failures on supervision, and institutional adjustment, releasing an offender on parole is not in the best interest of the community.
Serious disregard for property rights of others
This refers to criminal behavior that impacts the property of others.
Serious Nature and Circumstances of the Crime
This reflects the harm committed or caused to others, the magnitude of the crime, and its impact on the victim and community.
Longer Period of Stable Adjustment
The Board is recognizing an offender is beginning to demonstrate positive changes but would like to see the offender continue this adjustment over a longer period.

An Inmate's Appeal Letter 

After having been turned down for the fourth time for geriatric release and numerous times for a well-deserved parole based on his behavior record, a Virginia inmate wrote the following appeal to the Parole Board:

Dear Ms. Bennett, chair,
In accordance with 53.i-40.01 of the Code of Virginia my petition for Geriatric Conditional Release was denied because the Parole Bioard stated that "After a careful study and evaluation of all available information pertaining to my case..." 
With all due respect I must question the statement. Assuming that the Department of Corrections exists primarily for the purpose of correcting, not warehousing, offendersI would consider myself as a sign of success rather one one of DOC's failures to accomplish its mission to correct. 
In the past 21 years I've proven that I am a changed man who is full of remorsefulness, as your records should show, and that furthermore the three reasons given now and in past denials have had to do with my past actions of 40-plus years ago and not my present institutional record. If my current status does not meet the criteria of DOC's rehabilitation programs then I find myself questioning whether the system is either flawed, broken or entirely dysfunctional".

Report Questions Fairness And Purpose Of Prison Commissaries

In its first-of-its-kind data analysis, the Prison Policy Initiative explores the economics of prison commissaries in three states, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington.

The ongoing - and growing - exploitation of incarcerated people and their families has been a central theme in our work at the Prison Policy Initiative. In our new report, attorney Stephen Raher explores another overlooked but central part of prison life: the commissary. The fairness of prison commissaries is an essential bread-and-butter issue for incarcerated people, who have only the store's limited options to choose from when the prison fails to provide them with what they need.
In his report, The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries, Raher analyzes commissary sales data to address questions like:
What do people spend the most money on in prison commissaries?
How "fair" are prices, compared to "free-world" prices and relative to prison wages?
How does the emerging digital market compare to traditional commissary sales, like food and toiletries?
The three states sampled - Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington - were the few from which we could easily obtain detailed statewide commissary sales data. Fortunately, this sample includes examples of both state-run and privately operated commissary systems, as well as a range of prison population sizes. While we would warn against generalizing broadly based on this small sample, the report highlights a number of issues that merit further study and serious consideration by policymakers.
The purpose and fairness of prison commissary systems come into question in light of the report's findings:

Incarcerated people spent an average of $947 per person annually through commissaries - well over the typical amount they can earn at a prison job. In these three states, an incarcerated worker holding a job supporting the prison, such as food service or custodial work, would usually earn $180 to $660 per year.
Incarcerated people buy most items to meet basic needs, like food, hygiene, and over-the-counter medicines, rather than "luxuries." 75% of the average person's annual commissary spending in the three sampled states was used to purchase food and beverages, indicating a widespread need to supplement the food provided by the prisons.

The findings also point to the incentives of the prison retail market for private commissary vendors:
While private vendors generally charge prices comparable to those found in outside prisons, monopoly contracts and the ability to transfer goods straight from the warehouse to the customer mean vendors' operating costs are often lower than in the "free world."
The most obvious price-gouging is found in new digital services marketed to prisons, such as email and music streaming. Prison and jail telecommunications providers are aggressively pushing these new products and services, where they can charge prices far higher than similar businesses do outside of the prison setting.
Even in state-run commissary systems, private companies are poised to profit. In Illinois, the Keefe Group (one of the largest commissary companies) was not contracted to run the commissary, but still made up the dominant share (30%) of the state's purchases for commissary goods.
Commissaries present yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families. Meanwhile, telecommunications contractors with prison contracts are maximizing their revenues by offering more digital services at exorbitant rates. Instead of leveraging incarcerated people to subsidize the prison system by monetizing their every need, the report concludes, states could more effectively cut costs by drastically reducing prison populations.

June 17, 2018, Washington Post Letter to the Editor

Gay Gardner of the Coalition Against Solitary Confinement submitted the following letter to the Post in response the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety's piece "Virginia's Corrections System is a Model for Other States":
Although Virginia’s prisons are far from the worst in the nation and improvements have been made, they fall far short of Brian Moran’s “wholesale culture change.”
Moran should visit prisoners I know who have suffered abuse, including prolonged solitary confinement. They include—

• men studying the Bible at Nottoway Correctional Center who were thought to be discussing filing grievances about mail restrictions, for which they were charged with “inciting a riot,” sent to Red Onion, and placed in solitary confinement;  
• a man who has endured 16 years in isolation and was required to repeat the “step-down” program five times for reasons that were never discussed with him;
men with credible allegations of retaliation for filing complaints, ranging from withholding food to assault;
• men with documented mental illness who long for treatment but have received, at most, psychotropic drugs; and men placed in undocumented solitary confinement lasting weeks or months following disciplinary charges who were not allowed to speak, call witnesses, or have surveillance video reviewed at their disciplinary “hearings.”

These men would be surprised to know that “restrictive housing” is not used as punishment, that they received a fair hearing, and that all prisoners’ mental health care needs are being met.