Sunday, June 30, 2019

Growing Old--Like A Tree Planted By The Water

All of Hallmark can't match the impact of this huge 18"x 24" card by the grandkids.
Or the beautiful one made by daughter Joanna, 
or this one by oldest son Brad
This has been a memorable week, with our children and grandchildren from Pittsburgh, Rochester and nearby Smithland Road together for my birthday today, surprising me with all kinds of decorations and cards at lunch.

This on top of our all having been able to be together for a reunion in Delaware with Alma Jean's family yesterday. 

Then there was the surprise lunch at the Taste of Thai with my colleagues at the Family Life Resource Center last  Thursday. And this morning a ten--year-old neighbor, Jayden, brought a plate of cookies and a card from her family with the words, "We will be praying for you every day."

Then today's house church service was a special time of prayer and encouragement. Our faith family provides far more pastoral care and support than we could ever offer them.

All of this has been precious beyond words, in addition to all of the many cards and other expressions of love and best wishes for my birthday and for my upcoming surgery on Friday. How fortunate can one person get?

Speaking of cards, on the inside of the one made by Brad are the words of a German song, "Alt Wie Ein Baum" ("Old Like a Tree") as follows:

Alt wie ein Baum (the Puhdys, an East German band from the 70's)

Alt wie ein Baum möchte ich werden
genau wie der Dichter es beschreibt,
alt wie ein Baum, mit einer Krone
die weit-weit-weit-weit
die weit über Felder zeigt.

Alt wie ein Baum möchte ich werden
mit Wurzeln die nie ein Sturm bezwingt
alt wie ein Baum, der all die Jahre
so weit-weit-weit-weit
kühlende Schatten bringt.

Alle meine Träume (yeh)
fang' ich damit ein (yeh)
Alle meine Träume (yeh) yeh yeh yeh
zwischen Himmel und Erde zu sein.

Here is a translation:

Old like a tree, I'd like to be
just like the poet once described,
Old like a tree with a crown that spreads
wide, wide, wide across the fields...

Old like a tree I'd like to be,
with roots that a storm will never shake,
Old like a tree that year after year
so broadly spreads its cooling shade...

All of my dreams, yeah, are contained in this 
I can realize all of my dreams, yeah,
in this space between heaven and earth!

All such blessings are far beyond words, and each a gift of sheer grace.

Numerous cards like these from friends behind bars are enough to make your heart hurt.

Friday, June 28, 2019

"Parolees Under Parish Sponsorship" (P.U.P.S.) Is Launched By And For Deserving Prisoners

Mission Statement: Assisting and Sponsoring Parole Parole Eligible Offenders for a Successful Transition into the Community 
Concerned about parole-deserving prisoners being turned down time after time by the Virginia Parole Board, a group of individuals at the Buckingham Correctional Center came up with a program to help.

They are asking congregations across the Commonwealth to advocate for, and sponsor, parole eligible individuals, helping them get a second chance and a new start. This would be similar to the way many faith communities have sponsored individual refugees or refugee families, offering hands-on help in obtaining housing, employment and other needs, along with providing mentoring and ongoing encouragement.

The PUPS group has already established a committee to screen applicants from BKCC who are seen as suitable for this kind of sponsorship, and has been getting positive responses from across the Commonwealth for their plan.

For example, members of one local congregation, the Church of the Incarnation, are already working with a transformed prisoner they hope to sponsor.

Here's the link to a Power Point presentation to share with interested members of your congregation:

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Virginia's "Second Chance Month" Falls Far Short Of Its Promise

Is the Parole Board fulfilling it's mission?
Earlier this year, our Governor Ralph Northam designated May as "Second Chance Month." This ignited hope among the nearly 2000 state prisoners still eligible for parole release under the "old law" (those who were incarcerated before parole was abolished in 1995) and who had worked hard to maintain infraction free records behind bars.
     Sadly, the Commonwealth's five-member Parole Board, in spite of its chair Adrianne Bennett taking part in numerous community meetings across the state last month with the Governor's encouragement, released significantly fewer deserving prisoners this May than they had in May of 2018.
     According to the official numbers posted on the Parole Board website, there were only 8 regular releases granted last month and only 5 geriatric releases, whereas in May of 2018 there were 27 regular releases and 6 geriatric releases.
Minor Junior Smith,
72, is legally blind.
     This is truly heartbreaking to the many individuals behind bars who have worked hard for decades to earn their second chance, only to be routinely denied on the basis of the "seriousness of the offense," something they are powerless to change.
     I am in correspondence with dozens of Virginia prisoners who have made the most of every opportunity to prove they are no longer a threat to public safety, each of whom could be a poster child example of the Department of Correction's success in actually "correcting" individuals in the system.
     Here are links to some prime examples:
Here's a link to the Parole Board:
And to the Governor's office:
Or leave a voice message for the Governor at 804-786-2211.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Moses Fails His Criminal Background Check

Anyone with a felony conviction, especially if charged with a violent or sex offense, is all too familiar with the dreaded criminal background check.

No matter how much transformation a person has demonstrated, no matter how far they've come in overcoming (and making restitution for) past bad behaviors, no matter what their age or any mitigating circumstances at the time of their offense, no matter if they felt coerced into a plea deal to avoid the threat of an interminably lengthy prison sentence, it can still be nearly impossible for anyone charged with a crime to get a job, a place to live or other needed help to start a new life.

But here are a few of the notable characters in the Bible who have anything but an unblemished record.

Take the Lawgiver Moses, who was guilty of murdering an Egyptian he found beating a Hebrew slave, and who then buried his victim in a shallow grave and fled the country as a fugitive from justice for forty years. Yet he was called to be the liberator of God's oppressed people.

Or King David, guilty of being a voyeur and a rapist and who then plotted a murder as a way of obstructing justice. After finally repenting of his crimes and taking full responsibility for his evil doing, he was given a second chance and is remembered as Israel's most beloved king.

Or take Christianity's most famous first century missionary, the apostle Paul. His background included collusion with the brutal lynching of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and multiple terrorist attacks on members of the early church. But in spite of his criminal record, he became one of the most revered and widely read of all of the authors of the New Testament.

In Jesus' upside down kingdom, wrongdoers are invited to become transformed and accountable members of God's community of grace, the fellowship of the restored.

No matter what's in their blemished past.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

No, This Certainly Was Not On My Bucket List

University of Virginia Medical Center
What an difference the events of just one week can make.

Friday, June 7: I have a stress test done due to my having some shortness of breath on my daily walks. This was followed by a call just hours later from someone at Sentara RMH Medical Center to arrange for a heart catheterization due to some abnormalities.

Monday, June 10: After a heart catheterization at RMH, I am told by Dr. Pollack I should have open heart surgery at UVA Medical Center for a bypass of a main heart artery, which he told me was 100% blocked and couldn't be repaired with a stent.

Wednesday, June 12: An echocardiogram at RMH shows that my heart muscles and valves are remarkably healthy, but confirms the total blockage in a main artery, and 70% and 30% in two others.

Friday, June 14: I spend the day having a series of tests and consults at UVA Medical Center, including a meeting with Dr. Kern, senior heart surgeon, with whom I am set up for double bypass surgery for July 5.

Needless to say, all of these unanticipated events so close together have given my life a new focus, including adding to my sense of gratitude for all of my friends, family and church family who have been so supportive through all of these sudden developments.

I have also had to ask myself how many healthcare dollars should be spent for such an expensive procedure at my age, even though I anticipate continuing doing the counseling and other work I love, at least part time, for the foreseeable future, along with celebrating more time with Alma Jean and our children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile I can never fully express how grateful I am for the gift of the good life I have enjoyed so far, and the access I have to such great medical and other care that so many other people around the world lack.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Thirty-One Years Of Church With No Real Estate

We have a re-covenanting service at Pentecost each year.
(photos by Margie Vlasits, at their home this Sunday)
The house church of which Alma Jean and I have been a part since 1988 may never set any records for large numbers, but it has been a vital part of our spiritual journey for over three decades.

Family of Hope is a close knit group currently consisting of twelve covenant members and several associate members. This little group has provided a spiritual home to  many who have sought an alternative to conventional forms of church life.

Together, in each others' living rooms, we experience church stripped to its basic elements--Bible teaching, worship and fellowship, prayer, mutual aid, and the breaking of bread. We have no paid staff (everyone's gifts are needed and used), no organized committee structure (group decisions are made by consensus) and have no real estate to rent, own or maintain.

As a result, 100% of the giving we did through our church treasury last year could go to the various church wide and local ministries and charities we help support rather than for local expenses. We do provide financial help to members with large medical or other needs.

Weekly services consist of an hour of worship and sharing, an hour of Bible study (based on that Sunday's lectionary texts), and a third hour (or more) of fellowship, always with a meal together.

No one way of doing church is perfect, to be sure, but we think there's room for more home-based churches in our community and elsewhere. Meanwhile, we see our mission as not so much about having more people come to our services but to prepare and send people into the world as servants and emissaries of Jesus.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

How The SOS Campaign For Refugee Relief May Have Saved My Life (Well Sort Of. Maybe.)

Hospitals are sometimes dreaded but also life saving places,
Background: As someone who strongly supports the Virginia Relief Sale's SOS (Sharing Our Surplus) Campaign to raise cash, check and credit card donations for Mennonite Central Committee (and especially its work with refugees), I recently came up with an idea. Why not do an eight-mile Prayer Walk for Refugee Relief that would take me from my house on Hamlet Drive to the Fairgrounds (where the Fall Mennonite Relief Sale takes place) on my 80th birthday June 30?

I hesitated airing this at first, fearing people would see it as focusing attention on myself and my brainchild SOS project rather than about simply raising consciousness about the unprecedented refugee crisis around the world. But after some discernment with  friends and family I decided life was too short not to go for it, subject to my doctor giving this his blessing.

But soon after I had made the decision I began to feel some shortness of breath on my minimum mile-long walks. So while I was at our local hospital with Alma Jean for one of her appointments recently I made one for myself with my cardiologist, which led to my having a 2 1/2 hour stress test Friday.

Within hours afterwards, my wife got a call saying that based on the results of the test I needed to schedule a heart catheterization, a procedure we have now set up for 7 am Monday. Meanwhile, no exertion of any kind, including walking any distance, I was told, which of course puts my hoped for birthday venture on hold until I get the results from the catheterization, which will clarify whether I need a stent in my heart, or not, or even bypass surgery, which is less likely.

All of which led me to reflect on what might have happened if I hadn't started intentionally walking more. Since I never even thought of myself as being a candidate for heart trouble, my higher than desired cholesterol level might have just gradually put me at ever greater risk until I could have at some point overexerted myself and had a full blown heart attack, something that happened to my oldest brother a number of years ago.

Who knows?

One thing I do know is that though not all things are good, that in all things God works for our good.

And for that I am deeply grateful.

Postscript: The walk wasn't to be a fund raiser as such, but a way of reminding others to prepare to give generously at the SOS table at the October 4-5 event, as one way to help multitudes who often have to walk much, much further than this as they flee famine, war or other forms of violence, and who aren't blessed with the kind of healthcare I have come to take for granted. And some of my children and grandchildren were interested in walking with me, without my planning to ask others to accompany me.

Here's a link to more information about the SOS project, which has raised over $75,000 over the last two years.

Or you can give now via this link:

Monday, June 3, 2019

HARD TIME VIRGINIA Vol. 4, No. 4 (an occasional newsletter by and for incarcerated Virginians)

Its mission is to "grant parole to those whose
release is compatible with public safety."
Will The Governor's 'Second Chance Month' Boost Parole Release Rates?

During the month of May, the Governor said members of his administration would "facilitate conversations and participate in events focused on criminal justice reform and reentry programming."
    A number of such events featuring Secretary of Public Safety Moran and Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett have been held in various places throughout the Commonwealth, but it remains to be seen whether this will actually affect parole release numbers.
    Only 17 prisoners were granted parole in April. Four of these were geriatric releases.
    Let's hope Governor Northam is able to effect the kind of change consistent with his statement that "Redemption is a fundamental American value, and I believe that returning citizens who have repaid their debt to society deserve a second chance."
Highly Deserving Blind Inmate Is Denied Parole--Again
By now I should be used to hearing news of deserving prisoners being turned down for parole, but the standard rejection letter blind poet and author Minor Junior Smith sent me recently was especially heartbreaking. At 72, and incarcerated for 47 years, Mr. Smith, far from being a threat to society, could be a tax-paying asset to any community, in spite of his age.
    The letter, identical to all of the dozens I've seen before, states in part, 
"The Board, in determining whether you should be released on parole, considered a number of factors, including, but not limited to, whether your release would be compatible with public safety and the mutual interests of society and you; whether your character, conduct, vocational training and other developmental activities during your incarceration reflect the probability that you will lead a law-abiding life in the community and live up to all conditions of parole, if released...
    "...In accordance with Virginia Code Section 53:1-155 and in consideration of the factors listed above and the information available to us, The Virginia Parole Board's decision to not grant parole on February 13, 2019, is based primarily on the following reasons:
• Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime
• Crimes committed
• Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s)
• History of violence
    While this may not be the answer you hoped for, please continue your hard work...etc., etc."
    As aways, there is no recognition given to the fact that Mr. Smith, in this case, is blind, 1) has already served 47 years of hard time, 2) is legally eligible for both geriatric release and release on the basis of an exemplary record of behavior while in prison, 3) has been an exceptionally hard worker during that entire time, 4) was recommended by his counselor and other prison personnel for release, and 5) has gone out of his way to help others, especially other visually impaired inmates.

Parolees Under Parish Sponsorship ( P.U.P.S.) Project Launched
Some inmates at Buckingham Correctional Center have designed a great initiative for having congregations advocate for, and sponsor, parole-deserving individuals. Congregations would “adopt” a person and help them find housing, employment and other services.
Interested persons and faith communities can contact or for more information.
Virginia Correctional Enterprise (VCE) Shops At Two Locations Permanently Close
The pay for prison labor is dismally low in VCE shops, but it is still slightly better than other jobs in a DOC institution, and there is no shortage of people eager to apply for them. But now prisoners  at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women (VCCW) (Goochland) and at the Coffeewood Correctional Center will no longer have that option.
    Meanwhile, the pay for these and the DOC jobs has not been increased since the early 90's, and many workers endure stifling non-air conditioned environments in the summer. They also do not earn certifications for any of the skills gained at such jobs.
The 13th Amendment Legalizes Slave Labor For 1.5 Million Americans
Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified to end slavery, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 
    In a nation that promises "liberty and justice for all", this exception clause needs to be reexamined.
    I'm certainly not saying that having prisoners engage in some kind of meaningful work is a bad thing. But if incarceration is to prepare people to re-enter society and as productive citizens, we need to have what happens inside our jails and prisons represent something of the way the real world works. And in the real world people are given reasonable compensation for their labor.
    A typical Virginia inmate employed in food services may work long hours in a hot kitchen and be paid .27 to .45 cents an hour. The same pay rate applies to janitorial, laundry and other in house employment.
    Inmates working in Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) programs are paid slightly more, from .55 to .80 per hour, making things like license plates, furniture, prison garb and other goods or services for state and other governmental entities.
    A smaller number of prisoners get to work in programs known as "correctional industries", working for private manufacturing or service enterprises that use prison labor. They are paid minimum or prevailing wages, but since their wages are garnished to pay court costs, restitution, child support, and a portion of prison housing costs, their actual take home pay may be under 20% of what they are actually earning.
    Most inmates are willing to work even for a pittance, however, as a relief from the boredom of being confined and to earn money they can use for overpriced canteen items, anything from snacks (to augment much complained about prison food) to underwear and personal hygiene items. And while commissary prices keep escalating, prison wages have not been raised for years.
    What if we could agree on the following?
1. It is in everyone's best interest to provide meaningful and well supervised work opportunities for as many detained people as possible. 
2. Wages should be in line with local standards, with a reasonable amount withheld for room and board and other costs, and with some money kept in reserve for the worker's use upon release and/or used to help support his or her family. 
3. While the jail or prison should be able to recover some of the administrative and other costs of a work program, none should profit from cheap inmate labor.
4. All earnings should be subject to social security withholding, so that upon release, inmates and their families will not be without benefits.
5. For every day in which an inmate demonstrates respectful and responsible behavior he or she should be offered some reduced time behind bars.

If our criminal justice system is to help people establish responsible work habits and be productive citizens, meaningful and reasonably compensated work needs to be a significant part of the equation.
(from October 2016 Harvspot blog)

Saturday, June 1, 2019

To Remember For Years, Remember With Tears

Brent, me, Ian and Keaton, standing between the
spring and the barn and house of my childhood.
When you finally go back to your old home you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood. 
Sam Ewing

Today, with son Brent and grandsons Ian and Keaton, I went back in time--way back-- to the farm that was our family home from the time I was age six to sixteen.

We first revisited the site of the little Norfolk and Western train station at Stuarts Draft where our family arrived early one morning in early March of 1946 after a long trip from Kansas. My brave mother, with me and my seven older siblings, could hardly wait to be reunited with my father, who had arrived earlier in a freight car loaded with our furniture, our two horses and some farm machinery. Today I relived some of that excitement, along with the heartache of my father having to break the sad news that our family dog had disappeared at their first stop at the massive rail yard in St. Louis and couldn't be found anywhere in spite of my father's desperate efforts.

I again recalled moving on to our newly purchased 120 acre farm, and into a large house which at first was without electricity or running water, still a new thing in that part of rural Virginia. I remembered the days when, with help from our new Amish neighbors, we constructed a 20-stanchion dairy barn and a 4000 capacity broiler house and when a long ditch was dug by hand to pipe the needed water from the spring house at the bottom of the hill to supply our family and for the dairy and poultry operation that was to provide our living.

I remember getting up in an unheated bedroom at 5:30 at a very young age to help with the chores, with the milking and with feeding our livestock and broilers, before going off to school. And the countless hours of play along the little spring fed stream running through our pasture and along our weeping willow trees until it passed under the dirt road and on to our neighbor's farm and beyond.

Ah, memories.

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass bank beyond.
A blue sky of spring,
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years-
To remember with tears!