Tuesday, December 31, 2019

On The Seventh Day Of Christmas: A Sobering Post Of Christmas Past

Launching another of WalMart's mammoth cargo ships
How Christmas Excesses Harm Our Planet And Threaten Our Future 

Our appetite for cheap Christmas gifts and other manufactured products from China and other developing countries requires massive numbers of huge cargo ships to bring us all the stuff our consumer appetites demand. These giant freighters use a  frightening amount of fuel, and together discharge more carbon pollution than all of the cars in the world, according to an article in the Daily Mail, and they mostly return to their home ports empty.

Then there is the enormous environmental harm done by the coal consumption and other resources needed to manufacture all of these goods in far away places like China, resulting in it becoming one of the most polluted countries in the world. According to a recent study cited in the Guardian, 1.6 million Chinese die each year of exposure to intolerable levels of pollution in their atmosphere and water supply. That's 4000 deaths per day in China alone, which provides 91% of all of WalMart's products, as one example.

But aren't we helping poorer countries economically by buying all of these manufactured products in huge numbers?

Well, yes and no. Any economic system that depends on the overconsumption by some for the financial survival of others is neither moral or sustainable. Thus we need to find more creative and God-honoring ways to celebrate the birth and life of Christ than by buying ever more quantities of things--mostly stuff we'd all be better off without.
From National Geographic's "How Much is US To Blame For "Made-in-China" Pollution?

Monday, December 30, 2019

On the Sixth Day Of Christmas: Another Favorite Post Of Christmas Past

A Lin Wellford rock painting
An Amazing Kind of Manger Power

The Advent story in Luke’s gospel begins by naming the head of the major super power of the day, the Roman empire's Caesar Augustus. He issues a decree that "all the world should be taxed” and the writer notes that this census was first taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And in Matthew’s gospel King Herod, puppet governor of Roman-occupied Judea, is named as well.

These were ruthless, powerful men under whose occupation rebellions were met with brutal force. Subjects who dared to defy them were crucified, beaten or beheaded as a way of keeping the population intimidated and under submission.

And like many monarchs of his time, Emperor Caesar Augustus claimed to be a divine son of God, and a God himself, with titles like "Lord", "God from God", "Liberator"and "Savior of the World". So the early gospel writers were placing their lives in jeopardy by claiming divine birth for a child born of a peasant girl in an occupied country, one whose revolutionary and worldwide new kingdom, to be ruled justly by Yahweh alone, was to prevail over the entire earth--just as in heaven itself.

Citizens of such a government, whose treasonous pledge of allegiance is "Jesus is Lord" rather than the required "Caesar is Lord" are frequently martyred for their heresy. And Herod commanded that all male children in the area around Bethlehem be killed out of his fear of a coming rival.

All of which makes Christmas more than just about festivity and merrymaking, but a bold announcement about who, and what power, is really sovereign, a declaration that still divides the world in two.

Two thousand years later no one knows or cares much about the Roman empire's Caesar Augustus or his contemporaries King Herod of Judea or Governor Quirinius of Syria. It is the babe in the manger who still commands the greater allegiance.

From a FLRC Centerpiece radio spot, aired locally on WEMC 91.7 FM at 11:58 am M-F and on Sunday at 7:58, on WBTX 1470 AM at 4:20 M-F and on WNLR 1150 AM at 11:28 am M-W-F.  (posted here December 13, 2014)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

On The Fifth Day Of Christmas--A Favorite Post Of Christmas Past

At age six, it was my
most anticipated day
of the year.
An Amish Christmas

I still remember how magical the number 25 seemed on the December calendar in the living room of my childhood home. Our farm family, consisting of two hard-working parents and nine children, was dirt poor, but we celebrated Christmas in a way that could have warmed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.

Yet by today’s standards it was bare beyond belief. 

So why did we experience such a breath-stopping, adrenaline-rushing, sleep-denying anticipation of Christmas day?

Like other Amish families in our community, we had no Christmas tree, hung no holiday wreaths, displayed no Christmas lights. There were some pine cones and evergreen branches decorating our mantles and window sills, but that was about it. 

The carefully wrapped presents we had made or bought from our meager means were kept in hiding until Christmas morning. We each knew better than to look for such treasures in the weeks prior to the 25th. Snooping would have spoiled the fun and diminished the pleasure of our Advent-long waiting, wondering and guessing. 

The one gift from our parents we could always count on was a plate loaded with hard candy, nuts and an orange for each of us children. What made it priceless was that it was entirely our own, to be savored at leisure or consumed that very day if we wished. Other gifts from our parents were always a surprise, and especially in earlier years, were often homemade. 

For example, my older siblings fondly remember the time during the Depression (just before my birth) my mother made each child a pair of mittens from some reused flannel material. That was their main present. At other times there were homemade rag dolls or doll clothes, or hand made toy tractors or blocks. And it was not unusual to receive practical gifts like socks, scarves or gloves as well.

In later years there might be jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, a set of Tinkertoys or other inexpensive playthings to be shared. Once, wonder of wonders, my Dad splurged on a small wind-up train set for the whole family to enjoy--including himself, of course, an avid train lover and still a child at heart.

Since our trips to town were few and our allowances non-existent, we siblings often made things for each other, like a scrapbook of pictures, an embroidered handkerchief, or a wooden knickknack of some kind, carefully sanded and varnished. Or we gathered up our meager savings and shopped at one the of 5 & 10 cent stores in Waynesboro or Staunton. We knew that each small gift would be cause for great celebration. 

Family devotions on Christmas morning always included the reading of a nativity text, the timeless tale of poor folks like ourselves who were caught up in an event that still heralded “good tidings of great joy” 2000 years later. And like every other morning of the year, we knelt together in our living room as my father led in a prayer of blessing.

Today, when I compare these memories with our current Christmases, involving grandchildren surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper and boxes after having opened an abundance of battery-operated and other high tech purchases, I can’t help wonder who really had the most fun.

With fewer possessions, it takes very little to provide a bundle of pleasure. Each gift is priceless. Add a few more, and the result is even more delight.  But at some point the pleasure curve peaks, levels, and may actually decline. In our efforts to give our children and grandchildren everything we didn’t have, we may fail to give them some of the good things we did have, like experiencing great blessing in receiving small gifts.  

And like the gift of a greater capacity for joy itself.

This is adapted from the column I wrote for the Winter, 2011, issue of LIVING magazine, and posted here December 2, 2011.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

On The Fourth Day Of Christmas: A Memorable Post From Christmas Past

The story of my newlywed parents' winter journey by team
and wagon has made the Christmas story more real to me.
Two Journeys: Joseph and Mary, Ben and Mary

My parents were newlyweds when they made a 200-mile move from Thomas, Oklahoma, to Hutchinson, Kansas, with a young team of horses pulling a small canvas-covered wagon loaded with most of their belongings.

It was December 22, 1925, the second day of winter, when my mom and dad, young and adventuresome (and in spite of their parents' grave misgivings), embarked on their seven-day journey, planning to sleep in their wagon each night.
All went well until the day after Christmas, when the temperature dropped to 10 below zero on a Sunday morning as they headed north into a bitter prairie wind. My father closed the wagon to try to keep it warmer for his new bride, then got out and walked with the team to keep them moving against the driving wind and to try to stay warm.

My mother’s feet and my Dad’s ears and fingers became frostbitten that day before they reached the farm house of some relatives who put them up for the night.
To me, that experience of my parents, Ben and Mary, brings the reality of the first Christmas a little closer home, a story of a Joseph and Mary who endure a journey of also about a week’s length. Except they have no team and wagon, and may have even been traveling on foot.
Christmas cards portray Mary as a mature, composed thirty-ish white woman with a halo around her head and riding a donkey. In reality, she may have been a frightened young teenager, forced to go on a grueling journey in her last month of pregnancy, and then having to have her first child born in a less than welcoming place.
Such is the drama of Christmas, a story of poor and ordinary people with whom God journeys in extraordinary ways.                     (December 7, 2010)

Friday, December 27, 2019

On The Third Day Of Christmas--Another Favorite Post From Christmas Past

The Startling Story of the Stolen Stihl

I gave myself the gift of a brand new chain saw back in 2009, a smooth running Stihl 250. Until then I had always gotten by with used ones for cutting our annual supply of firewood, first a faithful old Homelite and later a secondhand Stihl named “Farm Boss.”  When that one finally breathed its last, I heeded the advice of family members who urged me to get a new one.

Some months later, just before Christmas, we had one of the heaviest snow storms ever. Soon thereafter, on a cold day while I was at work, a friendly stranger came to our door and asked my wife if he could shovel out our lower drive--for a modest fee. Among other things, he explained, he had just been awarded visitation of his ten-year-old son and needed some extra cash to buy him some things for Christmas.

While my kindhearted spouse had never met the man before, he seemed pleasant enough, and we did need more parking space cleared for holiday guests. So why not have him remove the snow, she thought, to surprise me and to do a needy person a favor?

“Just return the shovel to the utility room when you’re finished,” she said, “and I’ll have your money waiting for you there in an envelope.”

Meanwhile, she went about her work and only occasionally checked to see how he was doing. A phone call she received near the time he was finishing prevented her from actually seeing him leave, but when she checked everything out, she found the lower driveway clean, our shovel back in its place and the payment gone, so she felt satisfied that all was well. She also excused herself for the extra generous payment she had left for him. After all, it was Christmas.

When I came home that evening and learned about my wife's surprise move, I assured her it was fine. Whether or not his story was entirely true, I figured, it's always better to err on the side of generosity.

It was not until the next morning that I discovered my new chain saw, stored in the aforementioned utility room and with the word "stihl" emblazoned on it in bold letters, was missing. Just plain gone, nowhere to be found.

My wife was devastated, in spite of my assurances that a chain saw was quite replaceable, and that she needn’t be hard on herself. I also promised I would report the missing saw in case it showed up in a pawn shop somewhere and could be recovered. “Maybe I just loved my new toy a little too much,” I joked.

Much to our surprise, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the case showed up with the stolen Stihl the very next day, Christmas Eve Day. “Here’s your saw,” he said, “Merry Christmas. And just to let you know, the gentleman who took it will be spending his holiday in jail.” Which seemed fair enough, though we couldn't help feeling sorry for anyone having to be behind bars at this special time of the year.

But the story doesn’t end there. Over the next year we had a series of conversations and an exchange of letters with our unexpected friend. We learned he had earned the position of “trusty” in his jail pod and was scheduled to be released December 24, 2010, exactly a year after being locked up for stealing my Stihl.

In one of his letters he wrote, “Yes, it's a blessing to be leaving here on Christmas Eve. It makes me feel special to know God has plans for me.”

Among those plans was to spend his first months of freedom at Gemeinschaft Home, a local recovery and re-entry program for ex-offenders, subject to our being able to raise at least $500 toward his first month's stay.

Our new friend, along with so many others who have ever been incarcerated, faced the doubly daunting task of finding a job, a decent place to live and the kind of treatment and support network people need to remain free of their addictions.

I say, "God, please bless them every one."                      (December 9, 2010)

Update: After several failed attempts at overcoming his addiction, including facing a later charge and twice being at Gemeinschaft Home, our friend is today holding down a job and appears to be doing well.

P. S. As a strong believer in the mission of Gemeinschaft Home, I urge you to support its 2020 Vision Campaign by sending a generous check to Gemeinschaft Home, P.O. Box 288, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. Or you can contribute online at to help recovering people get a new start.

Thanks for your help!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

On The Second Day Of Christmas--A Favorite Post From Christmas Past

This is one of Darrell's pencil drawings.
This is one of my earliest posts, published nine years ago.

Darrell Price And The Peanut Brittle Project

I’ll always remember Christmas, 2010, as the year of the peanut brittle project. 

My older sister Fannie Mae had always made some of this delicacy every year for friends and members of her family, following the same hand-written recipe our Amish mother had always used. But in the fall of 2010, my sister learned she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, resulting in her having a mastectomy which, while successful and with encouraging results, left her unable to make our usual holiday treat. 

About this same time, some of us on the board of Gemeinschaft Home, a residential recovery and re-entry program for ex-offenders, were looking at some possible enterprises that would help provide some work for unemployed or underemployed residents, always a challenge for persons with prison records. 

So with candy on my mind, I began to think, what if we could have a resident or two at Gemeinschaft make some peanut brittle? Initially it was an idea my sister dismissed as unwise, given how difficult it is to make the product come out just right, like our own mother would make it. But when I mentioned this to the program director I was immediately encouraged to talk with Darrell Price, an experienced cook who was currently in search of work.

It turned out that Darrell, also an accomplished artist, was willing to give it a try. After several failed attempts, he finally got the tricky process of peanut brittle manufacturing down to a science, and with some advertising over some of my email address lists--along with some word of mouth promotion--he was able to produce and market a total of 45 pounds of what we labeled “Fannie Mae Yoder's Peanut Brittle” (not to be confused with the Fanny May candy brand), packaged in half-pound Ziploc bags. Within a ten day period of time, he had made and sold a total of $270 worth, with an overhead of of just under $50. 

It felt good, even to my sister, to see a project succeed that added a little extra holiday blessing to people, including myself, who got to sample some of the product from time to time.

Strictly for purposes of quality control, of course.😏   (December 23, 2010)

Update: Sadly, my dear sister passed away on October 21, 2019.

P. S. As a strong supporter in the mission of Gemeinschaft Home, I urge you to contribute to its 2020 Vision Campaign by sending a generous check to Gemeinschaft Home, P.O. Box 288, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. Or give online at to help recovering people get a new start.

Thanks for your help! 


When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins;
To find the lost,
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people everywhere.
-author unknown

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

On The First Day Of Christmas: Reflecting On A Year Of Unexpected Stress And Amazing Grace

This is still our favorite carol, sung here by the Indianapolis
Children's Choir and Youth Chorale
This has been an eventful year for our family, with our 55th wedding anniversary in August, the death of my sister Fannie Mae in October, and my first ever series of major health issues this summer and fall.

Having planned to join a long prayer walk to promote giving for refugee relief, I had a checkup with my doctor in June to make sure it was OK for me to do this.

Everything checked out well, but while there I asked about a little nodule I'd been noticing next to my left ear. "Likely just a little cyst," he said, and agreed we should keep an eye on it but didn't think it was anything to worry about. More on that later.

Then in the weeks that followed I began to notice some unusual shortness of breath on my daily mile-long daily walks, so when I was at our local hospital with Alma Jean for one of her checkups, I made an appointment with a cardiologist. She in turn arranged for a stress test that revealed that something wasn't right, and a subsequent heart catheterization and echogram showed that one of my main descending arteries was totally blocked and another 70% blocked.

So very soon thereafter, on July 5, I had the first major (five hour) surgery of my life at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville for a double heart bypass. But after only four days I was in full recovery mode, blessed with the good care of Alma Jean and some nurses who made regular visits to make sure I was doing OK.

The support of my great wife, our daughter and sons, and our house church family and other friends and colleagues during and after the surgery was a blessing beyond belief. Ironically, at the time I remember telling numerous people how thankful I was that with my heart problem there was clear and specific way to have it repaired, and that, unlike if I had a diagnosis like cancer, once treated it was over. Fixed. Done.

Little did I realize that all the while I actually did have a malignant tumor in my left parotid gland. It was my dermatologist who urged me to see my ENT specialist to have it checked out. A biopsy showed it to be benign, but when my surgeon removed it on November 21 it proved to be malignant after all. In the process, he also took out seven lymph nodes, four of which also harbored cancer cells.

So beginning January 9 I'm to have 5-6 weeks of radiation treatments just to make sure the cancer hasn't (or won't) spread elsewhere.

I'm blessed to be back at work half-time at the Family Life Resource Center as before, but with a very slight speech impairment due to some nerves to my mouth and tongue having been affected by the surgery. This will hopefully get better over time.

Brad, our oldest, continues to write and perform his music in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, along with tutoring a number of students in math and other subjects and helping with music at the Pittsburgh Mennonite Church. Brent is really liking his second year of work with Beck Builders, a local solar and general contractor and a member of his congregation, and daughter-in-law Heidi is busy doing beautiful drapes for local homes and institutions. Joanna has moved her family of three children into a home she purchased in Pittsford, a suburb of Rochester, NY, and just became a fully certified art teacher. And all six of our "well above average"(!) grandchildren, ranging in age from 8 to 14, are doing amazingly well. 😊

In all we're experiencing tons of gratitude for all of the faith, hope and love we've experienced from all the good people we're blessed to have in our lives, especially our family and members of the house church family we've been a part of for three decades. But next to our Great Physician and Good Shepherd, I've found in Alma Jean my greatest friend and best caretaker imaginable, a priceless gift of amazing grace.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among everyone of goodwill!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Heaven-Inspired Birth Steeped In History

Immanuel is the joining of the heavenly with the historical.
Some people have a disdain for the study of history. Why spend time learning about events, people and places in some distant past?

But the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel is deeply involved with the human story. History appears to be God's favorite subject.

God could have communicated with us earthlings without a trace of human interaction. Any resulting "Bible" could have simply been a collection of inspirational sacred writings and rules for living, void of any names, dates, events or anything having to do with the human experiences of mortals like ourselves.

But in fact every part of God's story is interlaced with our story. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah introduces the radical concept of Immanuel, which means "God with us." This intimate connection with God incarnate is the means by which God restores and redeems us as members of the human family.

In the very first gospel in the New Testament, Matthew begins with a genealogy, suggesting the importance God gives to history. The stories of these spiritual ancestors are an integral part of our continued story. Five women, each with a fascinating resume, are given prominence.

As Christians we are especially aware of all this during Advent and in our celebration of Nativity. The thin space between the heavenly, spiritual realm and that of our earthly, historical one is bridged in an amazing way. An ordinary Joseph and young Mary become key players in God's unfolding drama of redemption. Heavenly hosts and shepherds, angels and learned men from afar interact with each other as though this were the normal and natural thing to do.

Immanuel. God with us. Heaven with us.

Thanks be to God.

In the words of hymn writer Marty Haugen,
"We are the young - our lives are a mystery,
we are the old - who yearn for your face.
We have been sung throughout all of history,
called to be light to the whole human race...

"Not in the dark of buildings confining,
not in some heaven, light years away,
but here in this place, the new light is shining;
now is the Kingdom, now is the day..."

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Peace Churches Should Call For Recognition Of All Conscientious Objectors To War

During World War I US conscientious objectors were forced
into military training camps and endured untold hardships for
refusing to put on uniforms and practicing for combat.
"Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe. ”
― Indian author Arundhati Roy, 1961-

"I cannot serve, for I am a Christian."
-- Maximilianus of Tobessa, 295 A.D.

Members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites and Church of the Brethren denominations are officially recognized as "peace churches" whose members are granted exemption from military service on religious grounds. During recent wars they have been offered the opportunity to do some form civilian service instead engaging in combat.

For people of other denominations or faiths, or who profess no faith, this kind of exemption on either moral or religious grounds is not so easy to obtain.

Germany, after two unimaginably disastrous wars that left the country in ruins, now permits all youth of draft age to register as conscientious objectors, and over half of them are choosing to do so. While many make this choice for religious reasons, others do so simply because they see taking part in war as morally indefensible, and that saying no to it is necessary if humanity is to survive. Should a draft be reintroduced, all objectors would be protected by the German constitution from having to take up arms against their fellow human beings, and would be expected to engage in some noncombatant service for their country instead.

We should make provisions for the same, and our peace churches should be leading the way in advocating for the right of all to abstain on the basis of conscience. More and more people of goodwill worldwide are seeing warfare as unconscionable, a wonderful development indeed, just as many people of all kinds of faith, or not faith, are speaking out against abortion as a means of birth control on moral grounds.

Members of peace churches should urge legislators to provide protection for all who are conscientiously opposed to war, and ask the two major political parties to make this a part of their pro-life, pro-conscience, pro-liberty platform.

Then if they vote, to vote accordingly.


Monday, December 16, 2019

Some Prisoners For Your Christmas Card List

Many in our prisons will get no cards at all this Christmas.
"Remember those in prison as if you were also in bonds, and those who suffer as though you were suffering with them."  
Hebrews 13:3

This year I'm again encouraging folks to send holiday cards to people behind bars. Many of the inmates listed below have spent years in prison and are deserving of parole and/or geriatric release, but have been denied such release a heart-breaking number of times. 

Unfortunately, I only have addresses here for some of the men with whom I have corresponded, but there are also two state prisons for women in Virginia, and the number of women behind bars is growing.

When you send your card(s) you can include an article, a copy of an inspirational piece, or your family's annual newsletter. Regrettably, the Department of Corrections now allows only photocopies of the envelope and its contents to be given to the prisoner, to avoid having even a particle of some illegal substance to find its way inside (though illegal drugs are more likely to come through prison staff). 

Your card and whatever else you send may weigh no more than one ounce, and include no more than three additional sheets of paper. Do not include cash, personal checks, postage stamps or prepaid envelopes. 

Mr. James E. Bender 1010837
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-6914

Mr. Brian E. Brubaker 1315055 B-414
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA 23829

Mr. Brian Cable1198941
Sussex Correctional Center
24414 Musselwhite Drive
Waverly, VA 23891

Mr. Lawrence Davis
Sussex State Prison
24414 Musselwhite Drive
Waverly, VA 23891

Mr. Stephano Colosi 1037581
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

Mr. Branson Fink 1011319 
Lunenberg Correctional Center 
690 Falls Road, 
Victoria, VA 23974

Mr. Robert Davis Fitchett 1035660
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

Mr. Jason Good
Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation
East Patrick Henry Highway
Baskerville, VA 23922

Mr. Greg Goodman 1101523
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. M. Steven W. Goodman 1028377
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-9614

Mr. A. Jefferson Grissette 1143033
St. Brides Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 16482
Chesapeake, VA 23328

Mr. Pernell Jefferson 1016207
Buckingham Correctional Center BI-412-B
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Larry D. Johnson 1060258
Green Rock Correctional Center
P.O. Box 10000
Chatham, VA 24531

Mr. John Livesay 1108120
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-6914

Mr. Ronald Miles 1067348
Powhatan Correctional Center
600 Woods Way
State Farm, VA 23160

Mr. John Nissley 1148222
Buckingham Correctional Center 
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Kenneth R. Pack 1063808 (far left, above)
Buckingham Correctional Center 
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Nat Painter 1009725
Coffeewood Correctional Center
12352 Coffeewood Drive
Mitchells, VA 22792

Mr. Guy Price 1177889
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. Minor Junior Smith 1158588 (legally blind)
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA 23829

Mr. Jerry Treadway 1021558 cell B-617 (deaf)
Sussex Correctional Center
24414 Musselwhite Drive
Waverly, VA 23891

Mr. Thomas Tully 1130289
Baskerville Correctional Center
4150 Hayes MIll Road
Baskerville, VA 23915

Mr. Jonathan David Turner 1941213
Dillwyn Correctional Center
P.O. Box 670
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Richard Webb 1174188
Augusta Correctional Center 
1821 Estaline Valley Road 
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. Jonathan D. White 1161021
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430
Mr. John Bennie Williams 1091323 (blind, second from left, above)
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA 23829

Mr. Raymond Witt 1180381
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. Jamie Yoder 1010853
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. Charles E. Zellers, Sr. 1036758 
Buckingham Correctional Center B1-113-T
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

NOTE: If for whatever reason you prefer not to include your return address with your letter, and don't have a post office box, you can have the person respond to me and I'll relay their message to you (assuming I have your contact information). In my many years of corresponding with incarcerated individuals I have never had any problems resulting from disclosing my address, but some people do recommend against it.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Ruth Jost: We Must Balance Our Right to Guns With The Right To Life

We were a definite minority in this sometimes raucous crowd (photo by Jonathan Murch)
The following statement by Ruth Stoltzfus Jost at Wednesday's hearing by the County Board of Supervisors (on Rockingham County becoming a "Second Amendment Sanctuary") was repeatedly interrupted by boos and jeers from a crowd of some 3000 present. I post it here with her kind permission:

I'm Ruth Jost, a law-abiding gun owner from west Rockingham County. 

I appreciated the lawful use of a gun six days ago when I looked out my window and saw a beautiful 8-point buck that had been injured, thrashing and writhing in the pasture. It took exactly one shot from my neighbor's .257 bolt-action rifle to put it down (And yes, we're going to freeze and can that venison!).

This resolution was written to support my gun rights.  But the most important constitutional right our state and federal governments are bound to protect is the right to life itself. The resolution seems to misunderstand the balance of our right to guns with the right to life --which we protect through gun safety legislation.  

Preventing misuse of guns is the best way to protect their ownership and proper use. In fact, our gun rights are safe so long as gun safety is right. 

Some years ago as a lawyer I represented a woman in a custody dispute here in Harrisonburg. She testified that her husband drove by the house with his gun as she was standing in the front doorway holding their child. He fired at her.The bullet missed and went into the door frame beside her head.

When the judge ruled against this man on the custody of their child he exploded. He ran out of the courtroom to get his gun and his family ran after him. I don't know to this day whether it was his family or an officer who reached him in time. I, like my client and everybody else in the courtroom, was crouching below the windows until we thought enough time had passed. Chances are that in following days my client, like many thousands of women terrorized by domestic violence, had to lay low, go into hiding, or move away. 

If Virginia had had a red flag law then and a court had found that this man who shot at the heads of his wife and child was a violent person his firearm would have been temporarily taken and he would not have had his gun in the car that day. It is no surprise that this law has broad support, including among gun owners: a law abiding person recognizes that this law can protect that most important right: the right to life.

We all know gun rights aren't absolute and the Supreme Court has held they can be limited for legitimate safety concerns. 

Yet the language of this resolution appears to assume that any new gun safety law will be unconstitutional and implies that local officials will determine that and refuse to enforce it.

Does that mean that in a case like the one I described our law enforcement officials may decline to remove a firearm from a person determined by a judge to be violent? I do not want our county or our officers to risk being held liable for harm based on a misunderstanding that this resolution creates.

Our courts, not local officials, determine the constitutionality of our laws. I am confident our officials will enforce the law in the future as they have in the past. This document should be tabled and revised to reflect a balanced approach to the importance of gun safety.

December 11, 2019

For a constitutional scholar's take on the Second Amendment:
For a mother's account of the meeting, with a response her young son prepared for the Board of Supervisors, see:

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Crowd Of 3000 Praises God And Guns Alike

"Secession means war; and war means tears and ashes and blood. It means bonds and imprisonment and perhaps even death to many in our beloved Brotherhood, who I have the confidence to believe, will die rather than disobey God by taking up arms." - Rockingham County's Church of the Brethren elder John Kline, January 1, 1861

Miles before arriving at our County Board of Supervisor hearing on whether to declare Rockingham County a Second Amendment Sanctuary, there was already stop-and-go, bumper to bumper traffic on Highway 33. Needless to say, there was standing room only in the Spotswood High School gymnasium, packed with people wearing red "Guns Save Lives" stickers. Many others undoubtedly gave up and went home for lack of any more parking available on the entire school grounds. Meanwhile vehicles were parked along the highway for a stretch of at least a mile, many with "Don't tread on me" license tags.

This was indeed a historic event, not unlike some that must have led to citizens in Virginia vowing to secede from the Union over 150 years ago.

The meeting began with a rousing recitation of the pledge of allegiance, followed by numerous spontaneous calls from the audience for someone to offer a prayer to open the hearing. After some hesitation, Board of Supervisor William Kyger led in a prayer, inviting all who wished to stand with him as he did so.

The first speaker, representing the local Republican party, strongly urged the Board to adopt the second of the two resolutions being considered, one that favored Rockingham County becoming a Second Amendment Sanctuary. The Board's original resolution simply stated, in strong terms, that the County would use every legal means necessary to preserve current gun rights in accordance with current interpretations of the Second Amendment. This would effectively have committed the County to resist the enforcement of any attempt by the state legislature to change current gun regulations, without clarifying whether they would enforce such laws if deemed constitutional by the courts.

The second speaker, representing the County Democratic party, stated that the courts alone, not a local Board of Supervisors, had the legal authority to determine whether a gun law, or any law, was constitutional, and that local officials were bound by oath to support all of the laws of the Commonwealth.

Nearly all of the speakers that followed, supported by the vast majority of the crowd in attendance, would have nothing of it. They repeatedly insisted the Board adopt the Sanctuary action that night, even though no actual copies were made available at the event.

Here are some of the memorable quotes by those who spoke:

"The right to bear arms is not simply guaranteed by the Virginia and US constitutions, but by God himself."

"The nation that rejects God will be cast into hell."

"We do not consent to tyrants from Richmond (and liberals from northern Virginia) wanting to take away our guns."

"The tyrants are coming. What they are imposing is wrong, immoral and illegal."

"The ideas of restricting gun rights comes from socialism, Communism and Marxism."

"If this be treason, make the most of it." (quoting Patrick Henry, who later apologized to the House of Burgesses for the statement)

One of the few exceptions to these sentiments was a statement made by Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, which I will also post with her permission. Not surprisingly, she was interrupted by repeated boos and counter protests from the crowd.

Listening to a rerun of the day's polemic impeachment hearings on the way to and from Spotswood added to my concern that the Union we have come to know and appreciate may be becoming unraveled at the seams.

Side note: While God was frequently referred to as being in full support of Sanctuary status for the County, I recall no mention of how Jesus might weigh in on this, which I found interesting.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Will Our County Support Militias To Defend Against Any Changes In Virginia Gun Laws?

Let's not even think about starting down this road.
At Wednesday's public hearing at Spotswood High School our community will consider whether our County should be declared a "Second Amendment Sanctuary." I also expect a second issue to be raised, that of supporting the establishment of a local militia such as Tazewell County has recently done.

Both actions concern me, and either could lead to a form of de facto secession from the rest of the Old Dominion, especially from the "North" (as in our northern Virginia counties) seen by many as left-leaning citizens bent on giving government more control of people's lives. A number of my ex-Mennonite and other good friends are all in favor of having even more citizens armed, and insist this would only be for purposes of protection and "deterrence."

But what if threats of force by militias failed to "deter" and we had a tragedy like that of the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas? Or what if a militia were to mount an attack on a state or federal facility in revenge for a perceived wrong as did the South Carolina state militia on Fort Sumter in 1861?

I know that may sound like an alarmist overreaction on my part, but militias are formed not for the purposes of negotiation or problem solving, not to work at mature constitutionally informed ways of bringing about fair and just outcomes, but to actually prepare to use armed force--or at least threaten to do so. And I tremble to think of what we might unleash as far as other groups, like neo-Nazi or white supremacist organizations, Black Panthers, the KKK, or communist cells following suit and establishing their own armed militias. Are we in danger of opening Pandora's Box?

So before the Board of Supervisors takes any action, could we at least allow for some needed time to have a blue ribbon commission of representative local citizens come up with a set of reasonable proposals that could bring us all together for the common good? Couldn't we get input from all interested citizen stakeholders to come up with a response that could be a good example for all Virginians to follow?

Meanwhile, I contend that any current proposed bills on gun legislation didn't just result  from northern Virginia liberals wanting to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Rather, they are the result of grieving family members and friends and concerned citizens in general desperately wanting something done to end as much of the carnage as possible associated with events at Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Pensacola, Charleston, Parkland and other places too numerous to mention. Without those horrific disasters, there would be no discussions of the kind we are now having. None.

So gun owners need to make the case that the problem of gun violence has nothing to do with the ease with which people can access firearms, or that this is only a mental health problem (though as a mental health professional I see no reason to believe that US citizens have more serious mental health issues than other countries that have far, far lower rates of gun deaths).

And those who favor more restrictions on access to guns need to make the case that those kinds of restrictions actually contribute to the common good, and are not in violation of the Second Amendment.

Together we can find a responsible way forward.

Here are some more posts on gun violence

Friday, December 6, 2019

Local Hearing Set On Our County Becoming A "Second Amendment Sanctuary"

Should we require a well regulated militia in our County?
I predict there will be a full house at the Spotswood High School gym next Wednesday, December 11, when our local Board of Supervisors will hear public comments at around 7:15 pm on whether to join other counties around the country declaring ourselves a "Second Amendment Sanctuary." The gymnasium will be open at 6:30.

Page, Augusta and other nearby counties have already done so, and the pressure is on to have members for our board of Supervisors do the same.

I grew up on a farm and we used our Winchester 22 rifle whenever needed at butchering time and to help keep various varmints in check. I have nothing against responsible gun ownership for hunting and other legitimate purposes.

I do question the value of our becoming a "Second Amendment Sanctuary," however.  I know the primary argument in favor of being armed is for legitimate "protection." And "sanctuary" has a nice, safe sound to it, a word I really like when it refers to providing safe haven for vulnerable people like refugees fleeing from violence, for example.

But face it, guns don't primarily protect. They are by their very nature offensive, not defensive instruments. Armor protects. Forts protect. Locked doors protect. But weapons can only destroy and kill, or be used as a part of a threat to do so.

It can be argued, of course, that destroying, maiming or killing bad guys bent on harming the innocent rids us of threats and has the affect of protecting us. So I do believe a well regulated sheriff and/or police force is a necessary thing in a violence-prone world.

But providing "sanctuary" and offering legitimacy to just any and every kind of unregulated gun owners may make us far less safe. Do we really want to defend the right of white nationalist or Nazi groups to be armed to the teeth? Members of Antifa? Black Panther groups? Card-carrying members of the Communist party?

And if owning our current number of death-dealing instruments helps keep us safe, will encouraging even more citizens to buy ever more guns make us even more safe? I don't think so.

We're told that any sanctuary action taken by a city or county would only be a symbolic gesture. But if we really favor plows over swords, pruning hooks over spears, maybe we should quietly and respectfully show up in numbers this Wednesday with a different message. We could all wear dark sweaters as a sign of solidarity with a community that strives to become more like Mr. Rogers neighborhood and less like a coalition of unregulated individuals with ever more lethal weapons.

We are better than that.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Guest Post: Is It Time To Televise Executions In Virginia?

Can we we really condone state-sanctioned killing?
I'm totally against the death penalty, and am not ready personally to have executions aired on prime time television. But Roanoke College Professor Todd Pepper argues that keeping them hidden from public view prevents us from seeing how barbaric state-sanctioned capital punishment really is.  

I post this with the author'spermission:

In September, four media outlets -- including the Richmond Times-Dispatch -- filed a lawsuit in federal court, challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections' execution protocols. Specifically, the lawsuit asserts that VDOC procedures mandating curtains to shield official witnesses from viewing the condemned man strapped to the gurney and insertion of lethal injection IVs are unconstitutional. "The First Amendment... guarantees the public an affirmative right of access to certain government proceedings, including a right to witness the entirety of executions carried out by the government," the complaint asserts. It further argues that the denial of such a right prevents citizens from fully understanding how Virginia executes its prisoners -- and if these executions are ever botched. The attorney general's office opposes the lawsuit, claiming in a dismissal motion that it could lead to states being "compelled to broadcast executions for public viewing,"

This is not the first time Virginia's execution protocols involving public access to executions have been challenged. In June 1990, death row inmate Joseph Savino petitioned then-Gov. Douglas Wilder to televise his execution -- arguing that the broadcast would both deter others from committing similar crimes, as well as trigger a public debate about the death penalty itself. "As it is, they do it in the middle of the night in the basement in some corner of the prison so selected people see it and the next morning you want to read if the guy had last words." Savino explained in an interview: "You just read that he was killed. It's kind of ho-hum." Savino's appeal to the governor, however, was quickly denied. Clearly the spectacle of an electrocution in living color was too much for Virginia officials to contemplate.

While the current federal lawsuit does not ask that executions be broadcast, one might ask whether Savino -- who was executed on July 17, 1996 -- had the better idea. Why not broadcast executions for public viewing? Most supporters of capital punishment argue that executions deter criminals. Yet isn't this deterrent effect diminished when executions are carried out at remote locations during the evening, hidden away behind concrete walls and razor wire? Wouldn't a live feed of the state killing one of its citizens be more likely to scare future criminals and lowered crime rates?

But it's often death penalty supporters who blanch at the idea of public executions, dismissing such ideas as barbaric and crude. We can kill, but it must be discrete and behind closed doors. One wonders, however, whether proponents of capital punishment are less concerned about the tastelessness of a public broadcast and more worried that support for the death penalty might continue to drop if citizens saw the reality of state-sanctioned executions. Seeing human beings put down like old dogs isn't for the faint of heart. Nor is it good for politicians who support a policy grounded on the idea that the state should kill to show that killing is wrong.

Justice Anthony Kennedy once urged citizens to take a greater interest in what occurs in the American penal system. "The subject is the concern and responsibility...of every citizen," he said in a speech to the American Bar Association. "This is your justice system; these are your prisons... [W]e should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away." Perhaps Virginia should heed Justice Kennedy's words. Instead of fighting over whether a small group of witnesses should be able to watch an inmate prepped for execution, why not shine a light on the entire execution process? Let's watch the final walk into the death chamber. Let's see if the condemned man shakes as he is tied to the gurney. Let's listen to his final words. Let's observe his final breath. And then let's ask ourselves if we still support state-sanctioned killing.

Todd C. Peppers is a professor at Roanoke College and co-author of two books on the death penalty. This appeared as a column in the November 5, 2019, issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.