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Friday, May 24, 2024

Prepping For The Final Exam

This new study Bible published by Menno Media
will be available in December, 2024.
In my years of teaching high school courses a question I was often asked by students was, "Will this be on the test?"

Most people of faith like myself believe we will all face a day of examination, not so much about facts we know about faith but how we have lived out the beliefs we profess. So with tongue only partly in cheek, I offer the following passages as being among those worthy of being underlined in the primary Textbook we use in preparation for our finals.

Fill in the blank:

1. from the prophet Micah: "God has told you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do ____________, to love _____________, and to __________________________________."

2. from the lawgiver Moses: "So what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to love and serve God with all your ________ and with all all your _______, and with all your ______.  And you shall love your ____________ as yourself." Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, Leviticus 19:18

3. from the apostle John: "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just/righteous (Greek: dikaois), and will ________ our sins and __________ us from all injustice/unrighteousness (Greek: adikais)."  I John 1:9

Multiple choice (circle your answer):

4. from Jesus's inaugural address (which begins with nine characteristics of God-blessed persons): "Whoever hears these words of mine and a) commits them to memory,  b) has them posted the walls of classrooms and public buildings, c) does them, will be like a wise builder who builds his house on a solid rock foundation."  Matthew 7:24

5. from Jesus's description of the final judgment: "Come you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and you a) prayed for me, b) fed me,  c) referred me to a charity organization for help."  Matthew 25:35

6. To a wealthy entrepreneur who asked how to inherit eternal life Jesus answered with: a) "Sell what you have and share it with the poor,"  b) "Give a tenth of your income to charity," c) "Pray the sinners prayer and become baptized."  Mark 10:17-21

7. To a religious person who asked the same question, Jesus responded with: a) the story of the Prodigal son (you should repent as he did) b) the parable of the Ten Virgins (you should be watchful as five of them were) c) the story of the Good Samaritan (you should do as this unlikely foreigner did).  Luke 10:25-37

Brief Essay: 

8. from the prophet Isaiah: Describe how you have experienced this kind of fasting in your life:

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
    releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
    setting free the mistreated,
    and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
    and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
    covering the naked when you see them,
    and not hiding from your own family?  Isaiah 58:6-7

Answers: 

1. justice, mercy (or kindness), walk humbly with God  
2. heart, soul, strength, mind, or might, and neighbor 
3. forgive, cleanse 
4. c  
5. b 
6. a 
7. c.
8. A merciful God will grade this.

Monday, May 20, 2024

An Early Morning Reflection From Inside LVCC

Jonathan White has been incarcerated
for 42 years and been repeatedly denied
parole in spite of being a model prisoner.
I received these reflections from a friend who has been transferred from Augusta Correctional Center (recently closed) to the Lawrenceville Correctional Center (LVCC), which has been a state-contracted privately run facility but is again being taken over by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) as a "reculturalization" program for qualified veterans and parole eligible prisoners. It is being renamed the White Oak Correctional Center. 
I post the following with his permission:

I have been up since 4 a.m. when the diabetics were called to "stand by" to receive their insulin. For years now my biological time clock has been geared to a 3:30-4 a.m. wake-up. I guess my upbringing as an early riser has been ingrained in my biological time schedule. It is also a good quiet time when I can read my morning devotion and plan my day. It is one of the most peaceful times inside this environment for personal reflection.

Laundry services start early at this facility too. Workers report to work at the same time the kitchen workers start their first shift, 3:30 a.m. They come to the pod and collect the dirty laundry for the wash details, then return it clean later in the day. 

Today, another round of transfers is in progress. The process of transferring all those that do not meet the criteria of the new reculturalization project here and replacing them with parole eligible offenders and veterans is still underway.

Last week the transport bus broke down before it could leave the facility, so that run had to be rescheduled. Yes, there were some rather disappointed folks, but they just had to go with the flow. There are over 750 men currently approved to transfer into this facility out of 1200 applicants that opped to participate through the advertisement on the JPay kiosk announcement posted in February. I have seen men recently that have been transferred here from as far back in my incarcerated times as July 12, 1982.

Yes, that is the date I first stepped foot on the Southampton Correctional Center and served my first nineteen years of my sentence. Southampton was considered a youthful offender facility during that time for first-offenders and anyone under the age of 25. I was just a fresh 22-year-old, and had never been in any type of penal system whatsoever, juvenile or adult.

Doing time then was much more productive and rehabilitation oriented then it is today! Men had a desire to strive to earn every privilege they could to make their lives better both while in prison and for when they left prison behind. The foolishness that many of today's younger generation allows would have never existed or been tolerated. I know first hand because I lived through many of the hardships and struggles that the older generation had fought and bled for to achieve. But today the rehabilitation oriented mindset has been replaced with drug abuse and mental health issues.

Yes, the DOC is definitely a major participant in the lack of rehabilitation and the mayhem the prison system faces now. But the type of offender's coming into the prison system are also a major factor. Men who were revolutionary militants fighting to change the economic and racial issues prior to the 1980's and used the legal justice system to fight those oppressive injustices have been replaced by "crack babies" "heroin and mental health post-war veterans," and the lack of rehabilitation. Society has made a prison cell its solution rather than addressing the problem with the proper rehabilitation. It is easy to make excuses for people's criminal behaviors when it doesn't affect them directly. But when little Mikey and Susan are in their elementary school classroom exchanging sexual favors, or using their allowances for some spice, crack, heroin, methamphetamines or some other mind altering illegal chemical substances, that's a problem. Next you have the early development of the soon to be incarcerated felon rather than a social graduate.

Okay, this story does have many different versions as to how it all comes about. But the prison system is not the fix-all for everything. I am told all the time that to heal and redeem one's self we each have to take responsibility for our own actions. Believe me, I have been up and down that rocky path as well. Don't get me misunderstood here, taking responsibility for our own actions doesn't solve all the problems we are going to continually face in a lawless society. But it does allow us to recognize that each of us can be a positive part of the solution.

This LVCC reculturalization project has many men transferring into Lawrenceville with the hope of being granted parole if they subject themselves to the planned programming that this unstructured and undeveloped prison revamping has to offer now that the VaDOC has resumed oversight its day to day operations. I sincerely caution everyone that chose this planned project not to look outside themselves for such a reward that doesn't exist. Those of us here are going to have to deal with some major crap we have to put behind us to live the rehabilitated lives that we have struggled to achieve over the years of our incarceration. The LVCC reculturalization  project has a very long way to go to develop. Some of the task is going to have to be of our own design. Yes, we are all back on that road of "responsibility" again. Collectively, this facility has a blighted past history of illicit irresponsible behavior on the part of everyone who was here when many of us arrived.

Today, that can change and a positive solution can be achieved. It is going to take a community of minds working together to set the tone for true reculturalization  in this facility. It should start with granting parole to those of us who have been through the fire of change and allow us the opportunity to serve as examples for others to follow. Give us the second chances and employment and volunteer rights to help those behind with our community service. This will be a positive demonstration of rehabilitation.

Blessings,
Jonathan White
Parole Eligible/Veteran - LVCC

Here is a link to a record of Mr. White's achievements: 

Saturday, May 18, 2024

A Concerned Pastor Addresses Racism in Powhatan Public Schools

Pastor Engle

Pastor John Engle and some 150 other concerned citizens recently expressed grave concerns about an increase of incidents of racial and other forms of bullying in Powhatan public schools. Both parents and students cited examples that included an actual death threat (for which the student responsible was given only a three-day suspension) and frequent uses of the N-word and other racial slurs against people of color, including Asian and Latino children. LGBTQ students were also among those targeted.

Here is the text of the remarks Engle prepared for the April 16 meeting of the all white Powhatan school board, shared with his permission:

My name is John Engle. I am the pastor of Powhatan Mennonite Church and am speaking tonight as a representative of the Powhatan Pastors Alliance.

A verse in the Old Testament book of Proverbs says, “The tongue of the wise brings healing,” and it is my hope that my words tonight will promote at least a measure of that healing.

I want to thank the Board for extending the time for public comments at the March 18 meeting. We know that your roles involve challenging responsibilities and appreciate your service.

The Powhatan Pastors Alliance is a fellowship group of pastors from various local churches. We are diverse both in terms of denominational affiliation and race but have enjoyed a genuine unity in our relationships. We are united by our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as well as by our concern for the welfare of all students in Powhatan schools.

The book of Proverbs also tells us, “Speak up for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” After hearing the statements made by students and their parents at the last Board meeting, we as pastors felt that we could not remain silent; that in fact we had a moral obligation as spiritual leaders in our community to speak up. When we hear students as young as seventh graders telling us that they are called racial slurs and verbally abused in other ways regularly at school, how can any of us not be affected and concerned?

When we hear their parents telling us of their heartache as they see the bigotry their children face, how can our hearts not ache with them? All that those of us who are not part of a minority need to do is to ask ourselves, “What if it were our children or grandchildren who were being abused?” Wouldn’t we do everything we could to bring about change? I believe we know the answer to that question in our hearts.

In speaking up, we first want every student who has faced discrimination to hear us say that you are valuable in God’s eyes. The first chapter of the Bible speaks of human beings as those created in the image of God. This truth, which applies to all races and includes you, gives you a value and dignity that no one can take away from you. No matter what anyone else has ever said to you, you are not a second-class citizen in God’s sight, but a unique individual fearfully and wonderfully made by him, and we are glad you are part of our community.

Secondly, we want the parents of those children to hear us say that we are with you in solidarity of spirit and will do whatever we can to support you in your struggle for justice.

Thirdly, we hope every adult of good will listening to this will commit to working together to rid our community and school system of every expression of racism and mistreatment of minorities.

We know that young people can make unwise decisions, but it is up to us as adults to lay aside our differences and stand together for the sake of all students, to affirm that we are all connected by our common humanity, all created in God’s image, that no one is superior or inferior to anyone else in His eyes, and that therefore discrimination and bigotry can never be tolerated.

Finally, in speaking up, we as pastors are urging you as School Board members to be proactive in response to what you have heard from students and their parents. Please do not think these issues will go away by themselves; hundreds of years of American history tell us otherwise. We understand there are no simplistic solutions to complex problems, but we urge you to make addressing this problem a high priority, to keep listening, to work together creatively with parents, teachers, administrators, and students to do everything in your power to ensure that every student in Powhatan public schools feels safe and respected and is able to get a high- quality education without fear. 

Again, I ask the five of you directly, what would you do if it were your children or grandchildren being abused at school? Please consider that scenario, ask God for wisdom, and let your God-given conscience guide you with proactive responses.

Ultimately these issues remind us of human brokenness and our great need for authentic spiritual renewal. Our prayer is that we might experience such renewal in Powhatan, that the darkness of racism and alienation will be eradicated, and that all members of our community might live together in peace in the light of the love of God. “What is impossible with man is possible with God”

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham, Alabama jail—sadly enough, to a group of white religious leaders who opposed his work in the city— in which he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

May God help all of us recognize our connection to one another as those created in his image and do all we can to oppose injustice anywhere and promote justice everywhere, including in the Powhatan public school system and community. 

Thank you.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

A Church Called To Be An "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" (EPCOT)

Author Meghan Good invites us to take
a new look at God's vision for the future
God's plan is to "heaven" the earth, to close the gap, to make the two realms one--a single place where God's good, just will is always done.
- Meghan Larissa Good (Divine Gravity--Sparking a Movement to Recover a Better Christian Story)

October 1982 marked the grand opening of the EPCOT Center (acronym for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow"), an expansion of the Florida-based Disney World. Founder Walt Disney stated its vision as,  "EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

In a similar way, the Reign of God Movement Jesus announced should see itself as a demonstration of God's "experimental community of tomorrow" here on earth, reflecting the imagination and creativity of the God of the universe, and launched in the present age.

For too many, the Christian story has been reduced to promoting a free pass to the life to come, with too little attention paid to engaging disciples in a movement to reclaim and restore God's vision for life in the present world. As theologian and author N.T. Wright writes in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”

According to Jesus, God's kingdom, or reign, "is at hand." It begins in the present and is a prototype of God's forever reign on a new and restored earth. The worldwide community of followers of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets is to be a primary manifestation of this new reality, a "city on a hill" known for its good works, or its "God-works," as follows:

1) God-followers envision diverse people of "every tribe, nation, language and race" living together as communities of shalom.

2) God-followers "beat their swords into plowshares" and renounce all forms of violence. They refuse to take part in the manufacture or use of weapons of war.

3) God-followers repent of their "love of money" (Mammon) and re-invest treasure in the "Company of Heaven," God's plan for eliminating want and making sure everyone on earth has enough. 

4) God-followers "do not commit adultery," and live lives of loving integrity in their family, marriage and other relationships.

5) God-followers "tend and care for" God's creation, avoiding doing harm to the planet and seeking to preserve and protect all life on earth.

6) God-followers "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God," crying out against injustices suffered by the oppressed and marginalized.

7) God-followers welcome all people everywhere to a life of full salvation and life-giving shalom. 

Every gathering of God's people should be a time of re-empowering us for that mission.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Spring Issue Of A Newsletter For Prisoners

 HARD TIME VIRGINIA Vol. 9, No. 1
An occasional newsletter by and for incarcerated persons in Virginia. Harvey Yoder, editor


Jail Cost Shifting Creates Financial Crisis for the Poor  - Kevin Drexel


It is a misnomer to believe the public covers all the costs of incarceration and operations of jails. Jails shift the cost burdens of operations onto inmates and their families through excessive fees charged to inmates and through inflated private contracts with private vendors who provide food, clothing, and communications. 

     Vendors will offer kickbacks (“bribes”) to get county administrators to sign up. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy released a hard-hitting video on the matter. A must see.  

     These costs — rent, food, communications, hygiene, and clothing — are passed on to families trying to assist loved ones with basic material and emotional needs while incarcerated. Many of these families end up in debt and in financial distress. Excessive Fees disproportionately harm low-income families as the median annual income of a person incarcerated hovers around $19,000.

     Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, comments that “Public prisons are public only by name. These days, you pay for everything in prison.”


A Growing Practice

     “There are an estimated 10 million people who owe more than $50 billion resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system… In the last few decades, fees have proliferated, such as charges for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and sex offender registration.”


Fees versus Fines

     “Fees are not the same as fines. Fines are intended to serve as punishment, whereas fees and surcharges are explicitly designed to raise revenue for the government. But both fines and fees bring governments revenue as if they were taxes, and this method of funding government inflicts considerable harm on already impoverished communities” according to the Vera Institute in their 2021 report “The High Price of Using Justice Fines and Fees to Fund Government in Virginia.”  

     Let’s look at one of the most egregious fees – “Keep Fees”.


Keep Fees or Daily Rent

     Keep Fees are the daily rent jails across the country charge inmates while incarcerated and can run from $3 per day to as high as $60 per day in some parts of the country. In Eaton County Michigan, the jail bills you $32 per day. The reality is Keep Fees vary by state in terms of the maximum allowed to be charged and vary within the states by county in terms of practice on how high they bump up to the maximum.


The Eighth Amendment and Link to Slavery

     Some legal experts argue that these keep fees violate the Eighth Amendment constitutional protection against excessive fines. In a 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Clarence Thomas noted that excessive fines were used after the civil war to re-enslave freed men.

     In a New York Times article titled “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system,” the author notes that we cannot understand excessive punishment that permeates the U.S. mass incarceration system without understanding its roots in the legacy of slavery. 


Kevin recently spent 30 days in a Virginia jail, and posted this on his new Stand4Count website.


Work Court: A Proposed Alternative To Incarceration - Harvey Yoder


One of the more obvious signs of good citizenship is individuals holding down a good job, showing up regularly for work, providing for their families, keeping up with their bills, paying their taxes, and otherwise helping the economy and avoiding being a burden to society. The current unemployment rate in Virginia, at 3%, represents adults of working age who are less likely to be contributing to their communities in these ways.

     Sadly, among those in the latter group are the more than 60,000 men and women in the Commonwealth confined in our jails and prisons. So as a concerned tax paying citizen I would offer the following modest proposal:

     That anyone charged with an offense who has a steady job, is paying taxes and providing for themselves and for their families will not receive sentences that result in their losing their employment unless they are a clear danger to their community. Alternatives to incarceration could include paying appropriate fines, being under house arrest except for work, having an extended probation period, being on electronic monitoring, and/or serving time at night and on weekends.

     I recently became acquainted with a local breadwinner who was within months of completing his probation when he was given an 18 month sentence for a probation violation. During the five years since completing his prison term he had kept a good paying job, paid off all his court fines and fees, gotten married, bought a home, bettered himself financially and remained law-abiding and infraction free. Then he made the bad mistake of violating one of the terms of his probation, which is a "technical violation" but not something that would be considered a crime for anyone not under court supervision.

     This individual acknowledges his mistake and was prepared to accept some kind of consequence, but due to what he felt was poor representation by his court appointed attorney, was sentenced to serve another year and a half sentence in prison, losing his job and putting his spouse in financial straits in the process.

     One of our community's more creative and effective alternatives to incarceration has been the local Drug Court initiated and championed by Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst. Rather than having those with substance use disorders serving time behind bars at an average annual cost to taxpayers of over $25,000 per inmate, individuals in the Drug Court program are subject to regular drug screens, are enrolled in substance abuse programs, and meet with Judge Bruce Albertson for a check-in every Thursday noon at the Circuit Court. They are closely monitored and are regularly encouraged, promoted to a higher level, reprimanded, demoted, and/or graduated. If they relapse, they must start the program all over again.

     So I'm wondering if a similar kind of "Work Court" program (perhaps meeting at night) could be created as an effective and corrective alternative to jail or prison time. In my mind this could be a win/win/win for 1) taxpayers, 2) our overcrowded jails and 3) all of the individuals, families and communities involved.

     Needlessly warehousing working people in cages hurts families, adds to human services costs, reduces tax revenues, has a negative effect on our economy, and creates an added strain on local and state budgets.

     We can do better than that.


******************************

Harvey Yoder is chair of the Valley Justice Coalition, P.O. Box 434, Harrisonburg, VA 22803

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Eye Opening Insights From An Indonesian Slum

Downward Discipleship is published by 
William Carey Publishing.
In Anita Rahma's first book, Beyond Our Walls, Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta, she describes how she and her husband Yosiah's call to live among the poorest of the poor in a slum in Jakarta, Indonesia, has radically shaped their lives. In this sequel, she reflects on how the life and writings of the late Amy Carmichael, a servant of India's poor, provided much of the inspiration for their choice of location and vocation.

In a time when we North American Christians are increasingly caught up in the pursuit of wealth, comfort and self-indulgence, this should be on our short list of must-read books. 

Some excerpts:

"There, in that crowded, hot little room, a sense of the unequal distribution of the Bread of Life came over us. The front rows of the Five Thousand are getting the loaves and fishes over and over again, till it seems as though they have to be bribed and besought to accept them, while the back rows are almost forgotten... Is this what Jesus our Master intended?"
- Amy Carmichael, Things as They Are

"I can get stuck asking, "Why?" Why do my friends back in America have homes of such abundance, each decked out with enough books, toys, and resources to open a kindergarten program for a hundred slum children? Why do people have huge garages for their cars while people in slums are living in makeshift shacks? Why do wealthy people in Jakarta complain about the smell of smoke, unaware that it is their own trash burning? Why do so many if my students drop out of elementary school? Why do so many thirteen-year-old girls in my neighborhood 'choose' marriage? Why was I born with a blue passport that entitles me to an entirely different reality than my friends in Jakarta?"
- Anita Rahma, Downward Discipleship

Taking Jesus as seriously as people like Anita Rahma and Amy Carmichael will forever transform our lives.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Vision Statements By Women's House Residents

I'm impressed by the strength and resilience of the residents of
the Gemeinschaft Home Women's House, where I have been
serving as a counselor and group leader two afternoons a week.
The following vision statements are by some of the current residents of the Women's House in Harrisonburg, posted with their permission:

I will maintain control over my life as I grow, evolve and adapt in an ever changing world. I will continue to choose wisely who I want to surround myself with as time goes on. I will stay positive and sober and continually search for happiness and to nurture good relationships.  
- Bridget Snider

I will continue to grow and become a better woman and mother, and to be able to be stable and to provide for my child.   
- Brittany Hammer

I will be a more confident and better woman, mother and wife. I will become ever more kind, helpful, generous, thoughtful and caring, will lead a simple, happy life with my husband and will succeed in my recovery.
- Dana Lawson

My personal vision is to lead the kind of humble, devoted life I am called to, and to surrender my whole-hearted self to God and to live my life for Him, not only with my words but from my heart. I will live in this moment and push forward to my future, without giving power to my past. I will accept and live by the truth that God has a great story for me and that I am created for a much higher purpose in life. I will live every day without hatred, guilt or negativity in my heart, allowing pure compassion for myself and others to dwell in me.  
- Jenna Liller

My vision is to remain totally sober and to rebuild my relationship with my children and with other family members. I will live a comfortable, happy life with my partner and children and not worry about basic necessities such as keeping a home, car, food, etc. We will just live our best lives, with every day full of unconditional pure love and happiness!
- Sarah Searcy