Monday, September 30, 2019

Six Friends, Seven Miles, 69 Million Refugees

After three hours, we reached our destination,
the Rockingham County Fairgrounds.
(selfie by Amanda Basinger)
Earlier this year I had planned to walk eight miles from our house to the Rockingham Fairgrounds on my 80th birthday (June 30 of this year) to help raise awareness of the needs of refugees worldwide. That plan was circumvented when I learned I needed double bypass surgery, a procedure I had done on July 5 at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Thanks to a remarkable recovery, a couple of weeks ago my friend Mark Keller (second from left in the photo) and I agreed to try to get some folks together to do a Prayer Walk For World Relief that would start at the Virginia Mennonite Conference Center near EMU and go to the site of the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale taking place this Friday and Saturday, October 4-5. We were particularly interested in promoting the goal of raising $50,000 at the SOS (Sharing Our Surplus) Giving Table for MCC for world refugees, in addition to other funds raised at the event through food, auction and other sales.

Joining us for the Walk were Aldine Brenneman and Miriam Troyer Basinger of Harrisonburg (far left and far right in the photo), our son Brad,  who came all the way from Pittsburgh to support his Dad's effort, and Amanda Basinger from Stuarts Draft, Miriam's daughter-in-law.

The fall weather was warm for such a walk but spirits were high, and a stop for reflection and prayer every mile or so made the trek quite do-able. Mark had prepared a prayer guide that focused on refugees in each of seven different regions of the world, Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan 2.3 million), Myanmar (1.1 million),  Somalia (900,000), Sudan (725,000) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (720,300).

All of us came away sober and tired but none the worse for the wear, each realizing that our walk was nothing compared to the plight of millions who have had to flee from their homes with only their children and whatever else they could carry with them--and most for far more than a mere seven miles.

In the face of such need, $50,000 seems like a paltry sum, the price of a couple of donuts and a cup of coffee for each of the 10,000 or so attending the Sale each year.

May God have mercy on all of us who are blessed with such abundance, but especially on the nearly one in 110  people who are displaced, homeless and often hungry around the world.

We are intended to be the living expression of God's mercy.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Some Valley Justice Coalition Accomplishments

We currently meet at the Dean House 110 Old South High Street

Most of the following developments are the result of collaboration among many people and organizations, but the changes below are among those either initiated by and/or substantially supported by members of this group of concerned citizens that has been meeting each Monday noon since 2014:

1. Tireless (and successful) efforts to promote alternatives to building a new jail.
2. The long inactive Community Criminal Justice Board becoming a group that meets quarterly, and is now open to public input.
3. The CCJB appointing an Alternatives Committee which included members of the VJC and chaired by Judge John Paul, which has made significant proposals for reform.
4. Initiating ongoing conversation about need for better mental health services in the jail, and eventually resulting in having the Community Services Board provide funding for a half-time, then a full-time, counselor.
5. Drug Court, which according to the DNR, began as “several community leaders raised concerns about the growing inmate population…” (DNR, 12/10/18)
6. A Day Reporting program at Gemeinschaft Home.
7. Increased citizen involvement in the Reentry Council and its Action Committee and subcommittees.
8. A survey done of over 80 members of inmate families to learn more about their concerns about jail policies.
9. 'WITH' hospitality center at RISE church for visiting family members and loved ones waiting to see inmates at jail.
10. Having significant influence both in the formation of Faith in Action and in its choice of criminal justice reform as its 2018 focus. 
11. Significant collaboration with Faith in Action in the wording and implementation of specific objectives in their campaign.
12. Sheriff becoming more aware of, and sensitive to, community concerns about jail policies, resulting in his taking initiative in improving those policies, including the remarkable step of providing educational tablets for a pod of inmates on a trial basis.
13. A October 15 community forum led by Board of Supervisor William Kyger and attended by some 300 people, on the issue of considering hiring a community justice planner. This meeting would not have happened without the influence of VJC and FIA.
14. Numerous op ed pieces and letters to the editor by members of VJC on local criminal justice reforms.
15. Having criminal justice reform advocate Nancy Insco and Probation and Parole head Joshua Lutz of the Reentry Council added to the membership of the CCJB.
16. Advocating for accessibility and submitting data requests for incorporation in the new data system being acquired through a cooperative effort by Harrisonburg, Rockingham County and James Madison University. 
17. Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst stating she wants to change “the warehouse mentality to a greenhouse mentality.” (April 27, 2017, in the the minutes of the meeting of the State Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee.)
18. With James Madison University's Mahatma Gandhi Center, initiating and planning a December 4, 2018, meeting of community leaders with Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, along with Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett, for the purpose of promoting parole reform, followed by a public meeting at JMU.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Memorial Meditation For Martha Shank Whissen, Age 105

Martha Shank 1914-2019
EMS yearbook photo

It was my privilege to have been Martha Shank Whissen’s pastor for over 20 years, and I was honored to have been asked to share some reflections on her life yesterday, as follows: 

I can’t help but be in awe of all of the history Martha witnessed as a lifelong member of this community and of this congregation. She was a woman of faith who came from a long line of faithful believers, many of whom are buried right here in this cemetery where she’s just been laid to rest. For over a century she’s observed and absorbed so much, and represents a kind of living archive of the story of how God has worked in her life and in the lives of her ancestors and fellow believers.
Which reminds me of Psalm 78, identified as a maskil, or a teaching psalm, with stories of the failures and the blessings experienced by God’s people. I’d like for you to hear the introduction to the psalm as though Martha herself were speaking it directly to us. 

My people, listen to my teaching.
    Pay attention to what I say.
I will open my mouth and tell a story.
    I will speak about things that were hidden.
    They happened a long time ago.
Things we have heard and know.
That our people who lived before us have told us.
We won’t hide them from our children.
    We will tell them to those who live after us.
We will tell them what the Lord has done that is worthy of praise.
    We will talk about God’s power and the wonderful things God has done.

Martha’s life is like a priceless collection of 105 plus years of parables and stories with teaching value that we can’t afford to ignore or to forget with her passing. Not that she wanted this service to be a eulogy to her, but to be about stories in which the main character is always God, how God has been at work in people’s lives like hers and the many others she lived with and learned from for over a century. 

Martha was born in a house less than a mile north of here which was built on the ashes of one destroyed by fire during the Civil War, a memorial to the devastation and tragedy of that terrible conflict.       

And when Martha was only a toddler, delegates of Virginia Mennonite Conference gathered at the white frame Zion church that stood here before this one was built on land donated by her Shank grandfather. With the horror of the Civil War still fresh on their minds, conference delegates on this spot wrote up a statement appealing to Congress, which was about to involve the nation in another terrible conflict, WW I, a part of which reads, “Therefore be it resolved, that we as representatives of the religious body known as Mennonites, who recognize the plain teaching of the Word of God, call your attention to the fact that we cannot engage in carnal warfare, and that, in the light of all good government, it is eminently proper that all matters of national dispute should be settled by arbitration.”  

These people of so long ago were way ahead of their time. Martha was cradled in their kind of wisdom, of a community of faith trying to be faithful to the Prince of Peace.  

Also, as a very young girl, her life was impacted by many of her friends and close relatives, young and old alike, who died of a deadly flu epidemic that was brought over by those who took part in that war, and she would have witnessed the grief of many a tragic and untimely burial here at the northwest corner of the cemetery. She was also very young when Eastern Mennonite School was established in the Park View area, intended to produce people who could truly be a salt of the earth and a light on a hill, now the home of a University and a sprawling suburb on land which was once pasture and plowed fields.    

She attended there as a young farm girl, and became the school’s oldest living graduate, and later went on to get a teaching degree at a time when not many of her female church peers had the opportunity or the courage to get into that kind of profession, especially teaching in the public school system, much less to later get a Master’s degree at Madison College. Meanwhile, she taught generations of children in Zion and other Northern District Sunday Schools and Bible schools. As her pastor, I was blessed by the opportunity to hear many of her stories, along with those of her late husband Clarence.

People like this are a reminder that all of us are a part of a larger continued story that doesn’t begin with us or end with us, but is but one part of one chapter of a drama that goes back to the “In the beginning” of Genesis itself, and continues on, generation after generation to the Revelation of a new heavens and the new earth. 

We all need to learn from treasures like Martha, and to immerse ourselves in the life stories of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone ahead of us, each a powerful parable of God at work in imperfect but faithful folks of faith and courage. While experience is a powerful teacher, we don’t want to learn everything by experience, but rather from people like our spiritual forbears that go all the way back to the stories of God’s people told in Psalm 78. We learn from their strengths and their weaknesses, their blessings and their failures. The entire Bible is a book about ordinary Martha’s who through faith became parables of God’s truth and agents of God’s grace.

So we conclude Martha’s maskil, the teaching psalm that represents her life, with the words with which J. S. Bach signed each of his musical works, “Soli Deo Gloria,” “To the praise of God alone.” 

That would be Martha's wish, and Martha's last will and testimony.

May we be ever willing to learn from those who are not behind us, and we ahead of them, but of those who are ahead of us, and we coming along behind, blessed by lessons we can live by and pass on to all who will follow us, to the praise of God alone.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Opinion Survey Regarding Local Fall Election

If you are a resident of Harrisonburg or Rockingham County, please take the time to respond to the following with comments I may use in a future article or blog post. No names will be identified.

___ 1. I choose NOT to vote. Here's why:

___ 2. I choose to cast a vote for each office, even if a race is uncontested. Here's why:

___ 3. For uncontested races, I will leave that option blank. Here's why:

___ 4. I will write in a name or comment if I am not in support of a candidate listed, Here's why:

Other comments:

Please send your responses to or comment below:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

What If Jesus Wasn't Sent To Just Be Our Personal Friend? How A Half-Truth May Become A Heresy

Is this kind of world view increasingly
defining our theology?
"I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.

And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known."
- Lyrics by Paul Brandt

I still enjoy singing this kind of gospel song, one of many of its kind that continue to evoke good feelings  and warm memories. And I will always cherish the thought of experiencing intimate fellowship with one I claim as my Master and Redeemer.

Many Christians agree, as indicated by the popularity of Sarah Young's books in her 'Jesus Calling' series, which suggest that a primary work of Jesus today is to engage in daily conversations with each of us. 

I certainly don't want to take away from the benefit of exercising ones spiritual imagination in this way, picturing what Jesus might say were he to engage in such dialogue. Yet I'm finding it hard to find support for the kind of one-on-one alone time this assumes Jesus is simultaneously giving billions of believers who are presumably enjoying his undivided personal attention. Does this kind of "in the garden alone" theology really square with what Jesus himself, his early followers, or later church leaders and reformers taught?

I agree that Jesus, in his ministry here on earth, did call his disciples his friends, and that he certainly proved himself to be a friend to despised 'sinners' and other marginalized people as well. But what did Jesus mean when he repeatedly told his disciples it was good that he would be returning to his Father, and that they would be experiencing the indwelling of God's very own Spirit as their abiding, daily communicator, comforter and counselor in his physical absence?

And what if Jesus expected us to experience our most intimate fellowship with him in the presence of fellow believers gathered in his name, where the various gifts of the Spirit are being exercised for the mutual building up of everyone's faith, and where we celebrate the presence of Jesus in the bread and cup of the Lord's Supper? For me, this focus on the church as the living, Spirit-led embodiment of Christ in the world today is the glaring missing piece in Sarah Young's and Paul Brandt's world view.

In addition, what if Jesus would have us especially seek intimacy with him in the presence of the hungry, homeless, sick and in prison, always in the spirit of his promise that, "whatever you do for the least of these you are doing for me?"

I present this not as the definitive word on how Jesus relates to us today, nor to counter how others are experiencing him, but as an inquiry into how we can all more fully enjoy his abundant life--together.

And that of course means we will also want to individually reflect daily on God's Word, God's Spirit and on what it means to be God's people.

Your thoughts?


(Jesus) the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.   Colossians 1:15-18 NIV

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Join Us In A Prayerful Walk For World Relief

Thousands of our Rohingya world neighbors have fled into densely populated Bangladesh.


WHO: Anyone who wants to show support for the upcoming Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale effort October 4-5 at the Rockingham County Fair Grounds

WHAT: An opportunity to show solidarity and support for those suffering from famine, natural disasters, war and other catastrophes

WHEN: Sunday, September 29, 2019, leaving at 1 pm 

WHERE: From the Virginia Mennonite Conference Center to the Fair Grounds

WHY:  To add to the prayer support and the financial help the Sale provides to the Mennonite Central Committee and its worldwide relief efforts. 

HOW: Sign up as a participant and/or financially sponsor someone else willing to take part. Checks can be made to Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, with “SOS” on the memo line. This means the gift will go to the Relief Sale’s “Sharing Our Surplus” Campaign, which has raised over $75,000 for MCC refugee relief over the past two years. Have the person you're sponsoring deliver the gift to the Everence tent at the Sale entrance or bring it yourself. Thanks!

Contact Mark Keller or Harvey Yoder for more information or to participate.   540 820-4387   

Prayer Walk Instructions
1. Sign up via email or phone.
2. Drum up as many sponsors as possible who will commit to generously support of your walk. 
3. Have them pay up ahead of time with a check made out to Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, (with SOS prayer walk on the memo line) or have them make their donation in your name at the Everence SOS Giving Tent at the Sale entrance. We will not be keeping track of who is sponsoring whom or at what level, but will make that your responsibility.
4. Show up at the Virginia Mennonite Conference Center with comfortable clothes and walking shoes (and a water bottle?) ten minutes ahead of the hour.
5. Keep up with the group, in single file or as pairs, and stay on the sidewalk (or several feet off the shoulder for the last stretch of the highway), always following directions of the the designated safety patrol persons at the front and back of the procession to ensure safe crossings at intersections. Safety is everyone's personal responsibility.
6. Pray up and down a provided list of refugee and other needs around the world as you walk, in silence for the most part.
7. Arrange for a pick up at the Fairgrounds at around 2 1/2 hours after your departure time (or sooner if you experience an emergency).

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Power of Fear And The Fear Of Power

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”
John 4:18a NRSV
“…you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Acts 1:8 NRSV

In my experience as pastor I’ve often been dismayed at the feelings of powerlessness many people experience. New members often feel that only those with a long history with the congregation have a voice, whereas those who have been a part of the church for generations feel the opposite, that it is the newcomers whose views get all the attention. Youth and young adults see older members as having all the power, whereas older folks tend to feel younger members have the greater say. Women tend to feel dominated by men, and many men feel intimidated by certain women in the congregation.

As a result, participation in congregational business meetings and in leadership roles is diminished. Members fail to appreciate the power they actually have, defined as “the ability to achieve ends and influence outcomes.” Many hesitate to express their views, believing they won’t really make a difference anyway. And some reason that Christians are supposed to set aside all claims to power, and practice the kind of ‘Demut' (humility) and Gelassenheit (yieldedness) that attributes all power to God and to others in positions of authority.

As a counselor I see some of these perceptions of helplessness going back to our having been in a relatively powerless position throughout the most formative first years of our growing up. Parents and other giant-size adults may seldom affirm us for expressing our opinions, especially if they didn’t align with theirs. As children we may have heard messages like, “As long as you’re in our house, you do as we say”  far more frequently than something like, “Thanks for sharing your ideas. Tell us more.”

Regardless of our past history, each of us actually has an abundance of available power, more than enough to be an effective influence in our congregation and community. For followers of Jesus, this doesn’t mean power over people, of course, but power with them. It means always using the power we have in ways that help empower others and that invite their collaboration in seeing more of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Not all forms of power are equal, of course. In fact, there are at least three distinct kinds.

1) In the first category are healthy forms of divine power, always good and freely available to each of us. Such grace-laced forms of power include:

Love, joy, peace, patience and other "fruit of the Spirit"
Christ-like influence and example
Prayer and intercession
A transformative “new birth”
Ministries of kindness and mercy
Acts of justice and liberation
Peacemaking and reconciling
Membership in a strong community of faith
The indwelling presence and gifts of the Spirit
Ability to respectfully appeal and persuade
Being unselfishly hospitable and invitational 
Experiencing lots of faith-based courage and confidence

We can all be transformed into having these supernatural expressions becoming natural and powerful parts of our everyday lives.

2) As a second category, universally available human power involve things we may each be able to claim, and which can be used for good or ill. They include the following:

Education and experience 
Wealth and possessions
Intelligence, knowledge
Status, titles, degrees, positions
Race, ethnicity, national origin
Physical appearance, stature and strength
Gender, marital status
Family of origin
Charisma, personality traits 
Talents, skills and special abilities
Organizational and professional affiliations

We all have some combination of these assets and benefits with which we can accomplish good things—or that we can use in self-serving ways

3) A third category involves harmful forms of evil power. These are never acceptable, and yet are things we are prone to resort to when we feel angry, anxious or desperate. They include such things as:

Verbal, physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse

As believers, we reject these out of hand, while also rejecting Sir Acton’s axiom that “all power corrupts.” We recognize that power is essential, and that without an abundance of good power we are as useless as a vehicle without an engine, or an electrical appliance without a power source. So having effective power is not only a good thing but an absolutely necessary thing.

Above all, believers must reject powerlessness, and recognize that to a great extent power may lie in the perception and perspective of the beholder. With an exception in the case of sheer physical power, we can agree there can be no effective power wielder without a power yielder. 

Together we affirm that followers of Jesus can and must claim all the good forms of power available in order to accomplish the good work of the kingdom.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Memorable Memorial Service For A True Saint

Scores of relatives and fellow church members came together
to bury one of our loved ones. -photo by Judy Yoder Peachey
I emailed this to members of my extended family following the memorial service Saturday near Stuarts Draft for my beloved brother-in-law, 91. He was a minister of the Mt. Zion Beachy Amish Church for over 50 years, and was one of my first pastors as well as the faithful husband of my sister Lucy, who died in 2003:

I was deeply blessed by the service today for  Alvin Schrock. In the early half hour when family members and some of Alvin's closer relatives met together before the 10 am service at the Pilgrim Fellowship Church we again reflected on what a consistently godly, gentle and faithful servant Alvin was. 

I was also impressed by many of the time-honored rituals of the church, like having the entire group of attenders, some 300-400, pass by members of the family as they walked in quiet procession past the open casket in front of the sanctuary. Along with this demonstration of their respect, folks often reached out their hand in blessing as they passed by members of Alvin's family. 

I used to question that procession and that ritual, but wonder if it might not have some real healing value for everyone, in spite of how the family, in its time of grief, is so vulnerably and publicly exposed in their grieving. 

At the end of the viewing, all of Alvin's descendants, as families, stood together for their own last time at the open casket, with the congregation's empathy filling the place in a way that was palpable and powerful. Then at the very last, the adult Schrock siblings joined together for their own last time of reflection by the open casket, with the oldest, Barbara Ann, gently covering her beloved father's upper body with a soft cloth cover as if to "lay him down to sleep." The two sons then closed the casket in preparation for the procession of scores of cars to the Mt. Zion cemetery. It was all enough to make your heart hurt.

All of this was without any professional funeral home staff present as ushers and directors of the event. This was meant to be an intimate experience by the church, of the church and for the church (in fact numerous churches) of which Alvin and his family were a part.

At the graveside there was the unforgettable ritual of the pallbearers, all members of the family, gently lowering the casket down into the grave, securing the homemade wooden vault with its homemade wooden lid, then proceeding to cover the grave with the clay subsoil--and then the dark topsoil--of the freshly dug resting place for their beloved father and grandfather. Meanwhile, hymns were being sung in four-part harmony by friends and family members, who took turns, with shovel in hand, adding to the blanket of earth that would be the body's last resting place, which was then carefully covered with the sod that belonged to that small spot of ground.

These people seem to know how to bury their dead--and how to support each other in their grief and celebrate with each other their bittersweet memories of a loved one for whom they were bidding farewell. And then to celebrate with a farewell meal and a kind of family reunion together afterwards.

Or as we were constantly reminded, farewell for now.

I'm reminded of the Irish blessing that goes, in part: 

"May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.

May the earth rest easy over you when at the last you lie under it.

May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God."

Rest in peace, Alvin S. Schrock 1927-1919  - photo Judy Yoder Peachey

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

HARD TIME VIRGINIA Vol. 5, No. 1 (an occasional newsletter by and for incarcerated Virginians)

It's mission is to "grant parole to those whose
release is compatible with public safety."

Second Chance Month Falls Short Of Its Promise
Governor Northam designated May, 2019, as "Second Chance Month," but according to the official numbers posted on the Parole Board website, there were only 8 regular releases granted in May and only 5 geriatric releases.    
     By way of comparison, in May of 2018 there were 27 regular releases and 6 geriatric releases.
     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.

Inmate Sues Parole Board, Claims Violation Of Separation Of Power Clause 
On August 10, 2019, Steven Goodman, an inmate at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, filed a lawsuit in the Greensville Circuit Court against the Virginia Parole Board. See Goodman v. Bennett, Case No. CL 19-264. In this lawsuit, Goodman claims that certain Parole Board rules violate the separation of power clause in Article III, § 1 of the Constitution of Virginia. Goodman says:
     In July of 1997, the Parole Board replaced their prior rules with the Parole Board Policy Manual with the approval of Governor Allen. These changes went into effect in January of 1998. In Part I of this manual, the Parole Board sets forth fourteen (14) "Parole Guideline Factors."
     In Factor B, the Parole board replaced the statutory term "prisoners" with the word "individuals." These words are not synonymous. While all prisoners are individuals, all individuals are not prisoners. By changing this one word, the Parole Board empowered themselves to investigate crime-related factors (Factors D, E and F). The statute, however, limits the investigation of the statutory factors to that period of time in which the "prisoner is . . . in prison."
     As evidenced by the following, the General Assembly did not give, nor does the Parole Board have, the authority to investigate or consider any crime related factor when they review eligible prisoners for parole:
• No statute gives the Parole Board the power to investigate crime-related factors;
• If the General Assembly had wanted the Parole Board to investigate or consider crime-related factors when making their parole decision, they would have said so in a duly enacted law;
• The General Assembly did not do so because they already considered, used and disposed of crime-related factors when they established parole eligibility criteria;
• Crime-related factors have zero probative value as to the suitability determination the Parole Board is required to make: e.g., whether an individual will live a law-abiding life and will apply with all conditions of parole if released;
• If the General Assembly had empowered the Parole Board to investigate and consider crime-related factors, they would have encouraged and allowed arbitrary decision-making: e.g., one year the Parole Board uses crime-related factors too deny parole, but the next year they grant parole to that same individual though the crime-related factors did not change.
     Under the separation of powers clause, it is well settled that neither the courts nor administrative officials may amend a statute. The power to enact or amend statutes lies solely with the legislative branch of government. It is the duty of administrative officials to execute and enforce the law as it is written. Administrative officials cannot add to, change or ignore statutory language.
- press release by Steven Goodman, published at his request

September 3 Memorandum Limits Allowed Number Of Visitors To Ten
While the Department of Corrections claims to encourage contacts with an optimal number of good people in the outside world, it has just drastically cut the number of visitors a prisoner may have on their approved list, one that can be modified only twice a year. This is creating a lot of anguish on the part of prisoners who find regular visits a source of hope and support while they are incarcerated.
     The reason given is to limit contraband brought in from the outside, although it is not clear what this new policy will do to resolve that problem.

Number Of Prison Deaths On The Rise
According to report by Sandy Hausman of WVTF radio, Walt Isenhour, 63, died July 15 at Buckingham Correctional Center in what was ruled a heart attack, but one that may have been precipitated by extreme heat, which puts an extra strain on the heart. 
     Buckingham is one of 18 Virginia prisons without air conditioning, and many of its antiquated exhaust fans are no longer working, resulting in inside temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees. Isenhour had just been transferred from Sussex II, an air conditioned facility, and had not yet been able to purchase a fan for personal use. Of course, when temperatures reach 100, even that provides no real relief, but is like using a hair dryer in an attempt to cool off.
     In that same month, 39-year-old Margie Ryder died of pulmonary arterial hypertension at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, according to an August 14, 2019, report by Ned Oliver in the Virginia Mercury. Department of Corrections Officials insist her death was unpreventable, but  the Legal Aid Justice Center, representing her case and that of others at the Center, are attributing her death and that of numerous others to poor medical care, citing medical professionals at the UVA Medical Center who stated her condition was indeed treatable, and that she should have been able to live many years with proper treatment.
     According Shannon Ellis, an attorney in the case, “If the state has decided that they’re going to incarcerate this number of people, then it has to come to terms with the cost of that decision – including their medical care.” 
      And now that the percentage of Virginia inmates who are 55 or older has more than doubled over the past 10 years, medical costs will only increase, as will the number of needless deaths.

Shortage Of Guards Reaches A Critical Point
Richmond reporter Kerri O'Brien of WCIR Channel 8 News recently quoted numbers of corrections officers at a town hall in Emporia who expressed serious concerns about staff shortages, low pay and resulting security concerns. 
     Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran agreed the officers do deserve more pay, according to the Virginia Mercury. “We need to pay correctional officers more, and we need more correctional officers.” 
     Moran also agreed that what’s cutting into their pay was the rising cost of healthcare, some $200,000 to provide for the needs of an aging prison population. Ultimately, he says, more pay for the officers comes down to budget and the General Assembly would need to approve any raises in its next session. 
     Unfortunately, this may not happen without serious changes in the mindset and/or the membership of the Virginia Senate and House of Representatives.

Virginia Prisoners Deserve A Raise 
Prisoners in Virginia have not received a pay raise since the late 70's, and their pay is only between 0.27 and 0.45 per hour for a 30 hour week. 
     Meanwhile, the following changes have been made within the Virginia Department of Corrections:
1. Prisoners are served poorer meals with smaller portions.
2. Prisoners are now charged medical copays for their healthcare services and medications.
3. Prisoners have 10% of their incoming funds automatically taken for court cost, fines and/or child support.
4. Prisoners have 5% of their funds from the outside automatically taken from their account and placed in a savings account (until they receive $1,000).
5. Prices for commissary items have escalated.
6. Prisoners are not allowed to purchase personal items from catalog companies with more reasonable prices than those charged by their only vendor - Keefe Commissary Network Sales.
7. Prisoners are no longer provided a free bar of soap weekly, but are required to purchase such hygiene items from Keefe Commissary. For the cheapest soap sold, the average prisoner has to work 4 hours to purchase one bar.
8. Prisoners are no longer provided a free stamped envelope and paper weekly for regular mail and ten free stamped envelope and paper weekly for legal letters.
9. Prisoners who work can no longer get 40 hours a week, but are restricted to 15 to 30 hours.
10. Prisoners are no longer given a grocery bag filled with assorted candies, writing supplies, hygiene items or anything else for Christmas. 
- information provided by an anonymous prisoner

HARD TIMES is edited and published by Harvey Yoder of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Labor Leaders: Prophets Ahead Of Their Times?

Labor advocates were eyed with suspicion where I grew up.

The so-called "robber barons" of the steel, coal, railroad and other industries in the 18th and early 19th centuries were known for their ruthless business practices and for their harsh treatment of workers, especially those who sought better pay and safer working conditions. 

Yet most of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans and Carnegies of the day were regular church goers and esteemed  members of their congregations. The major Protestant denominations, by their silence if not their outright support, typically favored the interests of large corporations over that of ordinary workers, as expressed in statements such as those of the 1833 New York Journal of Commerce:

"But according to our notions of the obligations of society, all combinations to compel others to give a higher price or take a lower one are not only inexpedient but at war with the order of things which the Creator has established for the general good, and therefore wicked. ..."

I grew in rural community with a distinct bias against labor organizations, sometimes for the legitimate reason that some of their tactics were violent and coercive in nature. But there was little awareness of how violent the opposition was to workers who dared advocate for better treatment.

On this Labor Day weekend, I've done some reading about people like Eugene Debs, who may have deserved more recognition as a modern day prophet than he typically got from the religious establishment. In the First World War, he was jailed under the Seditions Act for opposing US participation, as were some Mennonites and other peace-promoting people, saying "I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world."

Whether we agree with outspoken people like Debs or not, we should at least ask whether their words may often be more congruent with the teachings of Jesus and the prophets than those of the New York Journal of Commerce (above) or of today's Wall Street Journal.