Monday, April 15, 2024

In Defense Of Old Order Mennonite Education

Mountain View is one of six two-room Old Order 
Mennonite schools in southwestern Rockingham County.
Local Old Order Mennonites keep their formal education simple and have kept things pretty much the same as when they first established their own schools for grades one through eight beginning in 1968.

Conservative Mennonites of the horse and buggy variety in Rockingham County have, among other things, managed to preserve one of the most pristine and unspoiled region of family farms in all of the South. And chief among their contributions to our community are their offspring, mostly honest, hard working, law-abiding and tax-paying citizens who require few government services, take care of their own aging (without relying on social security and Medicare) and who provide for their own education.

But is that education of equal quality to what our public schools offer? Based on standardized tests they do well above average when it comes to the basic three R's, and of course excel when it comes to Bible instruction, but is that enough to prepare their young for today's challenges? And are their teachers, mostly graduates of their own eight grade programs (many of whom first served as teacher assistants), adequately trained?

These are valid questions, to be sure. But these people do offer some of their own training for their teachers each summer, with experienced teachers passing on their wisdom to the newer recruits, and they do avail themselves of the help in teachers' manuals accompanying their text books, some of which are produced by Christian Light Publication, a local conservative publishing organization. And while their library offerings are very limited, most Old Order families do buy and borrow books and other reading material for members of their households, and many are regular readers of our local newspaper, the Daily News-Record, which greatly values its Old Order subscribers. 

One thing is clear, Old Order Mennonites don't rely on their schools alone to educate their children. From early childhood their young are taught by their elders to produce, preserve and prepare food on their farms, gardens, and green houses. Their daughters learn gardening, how to sew their own clothes, take care of younger siblings and how to otherwise manage a household. Their sons learn whatever is necessary for the maintenance and management of their family's extensive dairy, poultry and/or other enterprises. So by the time their non-Mennonite peers are graduating from high school, most Old Order teens have already learned skills sufficient to make them capable of taking over many of the responsibilities of managing their family's entire operation as needed.

On recent visits to the Mountain View School I was again impressed by the dedication of their young teachers and assistants, and by the diligence of their students, many of whom walk to school, arrive by bicycle, or are transported by drivers paid for by their parents. I was especially impressed by the fact that the current lead teacher of grades 5-8, a young woman in her early 20's, drives a horse and buggy to school every day from her home seven miles away.

In summary, the Old Order community appears to accomplish in depth what it may appear to lack in breadth. It produces young people well prepared to pass on their faith- and family-focused way of life, but without exposing them to the full array of information and options the rest of the world may offer.

Which is pretty much what they intend.

As someone who grew up in a similar community (mine was Amish, a rapidly growing group that has been separate from Mennonites since 1683), I have a special appreciation for the efforts of faith communities dedicated to helping preserve some of the important values of past generations. Such "old order" adherents, in my mind, represent a kind of monastic way of life they don't expect all of their neighbors to adopt, but which remind us all that not everything that is new is necessarily better, that not all that glitters is gold, and that we should make sure we don't discard ancient wisdom in pursuit of the latest innovation or invention. 

Some of the upper grade student at recess. (photos by Ruby Schrock)

Postscript: A local Old Order group that no longer requires horse and buggy transportation (Mt. Pleasant and Hinton Mennonite churches) operates the Hickory Hollow School along Limestone Lane, one that now includes some classes for grades 9-12; the Southeastern Conference Mennonites offer grades 1-12 at their Berea Christian School; the Calvary Mennonite churches have classes for grades 1-12 at the former Mt. Clinton Elementary School; and the more progressive Virginia Conference Mennonites offer kindergarten through grade 12 education at Eastern Mennonite School next to the EMU campus.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

A Frightening Kind Of Powerlessness

I had an interesting conversation in my dentist's waiting room recently with someone who arrived in a four wheel drive pickup with "Don't Tread on Me" plates and a hood wrap displaying an American flag. I immediately saw him as someone I wanted to get to know better.

Our short visit went something like this:

Me: A beautiful day.
He: Another day in paradise.
Me: Yeah, we have a lot to be thankful for.
He: Maybe, if we could just get the government off our backs.
Me: I guess we'll all have to work at making things better.
He: But there's really nothing we can do. The government is totally controlled by the liberal media and the big shots in Washington. We don't have any say anymore.
Me: Except in a way, though, I guess we are the government, like "of the people, by the people, for the people."
He: That hasn't been the case for a long time. Nothing we do can make any difference. That's been totally true for years now.
Me: You really think so?
He: Unless somebody can put a bullet through Biden's head.
Me: You think that would make things better?
He: Well it would certainly help.
Office person: Harvey, we're ready for you now.
Me: Have a good day.

By the time I was finished with my checkup, my friend had gone. I still wish we could have had more time to talk and get to know each other better. But as someone has said, "Talk and facts don't change people. Relationships do."

Saturday, April 6, 2024

As It Was In The Days Of Noah--Complacency In The Face Of Catastrophe

Noah's Ark During the Flood, Vladimir Kosov

"Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing—until the flood hit and swept everything away."
Matthew 24:38 (the Message)

Like most North Americans, I fail to realize how exceptionally fortunate I've been in having avoided the trauma millions of others on our planet have suffered in my short lifetime. 

In the first decade of my life, over 50 million people died in World War II. In western Europe and in parts of Asia whole cities were obliterated, two of them by nuclear bombs. Over six million people, mostly Jews, suffered horribly and perished in the Holocaust.

In the 50's the Korean War devastated millions, as did the Vietnam War in the 60's and the 70's, in which the US dropped more bombs in that part of the world than had been used in all of WW II. An untold number of our southeast Asian neighbors lost their homes and their lives.

In the 80's and 90's our African neighbors saw an increase in droughts and other conditions that led to mass starvation. In the Second Congo War some 2.7 million died, mostly from hunger and disease. 

In this century, over 13 million of our world neighbors have been affected by drought and famine in Niger and West Africa, and multitudes have starved in Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria. In the Middle East thousands of men, women and children have perished in Yemen as a result of the Yemeni Civil War and the US supported blockade of Yemen by Saudi Arabia.

Most recently, over 30,000 civilians have been killed in Gaza, with a population of 2.1 million people already living in poverty and crowded in a space less than 20% the size of Rockingham County. Many in Gaza have suffered severe burns. loss of limbs and other injuries, and most of its inhabitants, many of whom were already living as refugees for decades, have had to flee their bombed out homes and refugee camps with nowhere to go, and without shelter, food or even minimal healthcare.

In spite of all of these recent disasters happening on the small blue dot we share on planet earth, we have come to believe we are exempt from the tragedies experienced by billions of other human beings.

Everywhere but here. Any time but now.

Just as in the days of Noah.

Monday, April 1, 2024

"YE (Not 'Thou') Are The Light Of The World" Why The Ye Pronoun Matters

"You [plural] are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your [plural] light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."
- Matthew 5:14-16 NRSV

We usually assume this passage in the Jesus's Sermon on the Mount is about each of us individually being a source of God-given light. While that interpretation obviously has merit, Jesus is really saying that it is the God-chosen community of Jesus followers, collectively, that is like a beatitude-blessed light for all to see. 

In the book of Revelation, the Son of Man is introduced as one who is in the midst of seven golden lampstands representing seven congregations in Asia Minor. Whether the author is the same John as the apostle who heard Jesus's words firsthand, his use of the same metaphor for a congregation (a luminous lampstand) is striking, as is the writer's description of a well-lit city on a hill, a new Jerusalem ("city of salem, or shalom") that cannot be hidden. 

In the first century, outsiders were amazed and impressed not just by the witness of individual believers, but by the way members of the Jesus community in the book of Acts loved each other and shared generously with those in need. This was a convincing answer to one of Jesus's last prayers, "that they may all be one (unified), as I and the Father are one" so "the world may know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another."

So in fulfilling Christ's mission, rather than simply singing "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," we should strongly affirm something like,

This Great Light divine,
We're gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Another good theme song for followers of Jesus should be, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." Clearly one of the more convincing ways of doing that is to have congregations patiently and persistently working at their differences until they are resolved, no matter how long it takes.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

"Work Court": An Alternative To Incarceration

This beautiful motto has been on the wall behind the Judge's bench of the Rockingham Circuit Court for over 100 years. (Photo provided by Chaz Haywood)

One of the more obvious signs of good citizenship is individuals holding down good jobs, 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.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Why Don't We Form Search Committees For Apostles, Prophets And Evangelists?

Should we reconsider how our
congregations are led and nurtured?

"To some are given gifts to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip God's people for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ..."

- Paul, in a letter to the Ephesian church (Eph. 4:11-12 paraphrased)

Most churches seem to read this text as, "To one is given the gift of being a senior pastor, to another an associate pastor, to yet another, a youth pastor, who are to be the church's apostles, preachers, and evangelists."

I hold pastors in high regard, having been blessed personally being in that role for over 58 years. But I have long wondered why we elevate this particular office above all the other leadership roles mentioned in the New Testament.

Over time, congregations in Mennonite Church USA have largely adopted the same model of a pastor's office and role as that of most of their Protestant counterparts. While in the past our ministers were chosen from within their congregations and were a part of an unsalaried ministerial team led by bishops (who in turn were chosen from among their peers), most Mennonite pastors today are hired from outside the congregation and are seen as the congregation's primary leader and chief spokesperson. This in spite of the word translated pastor consistently being in the plural.

David Sproules of the Palm Beach Lakes Church of God, writes, "The preacher is not by definition, then, a 'pastor.'  He is not 'the leader' 'in charge' of the church.  He is one of the members (sheep) of the congregation and is subject to the eldership (like all members, including the elders).  He is not on a level 'above' anyone else or to be 'revered' as such (cf. Psa. 111:9); thus, there is no special title (ex: Pastor, Reverend, Father) for him to wear or to be called (Matt. 23:5-12)."

He goes on to note references to a plurality of elders, overseers, bishops, pastors and/or shepherds in the church, suggesting a shift from relying primarily on special seminary trained and salaried pastors for the spiritual care of our congregations. 

In the body of Christ, blessed with multiple gifts, we are all a part of the "laity" (from laos, the people), and we are all "called to the ministry" of caring for each other and reaching out in love and care for the world around us.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

An Intake At Goochland Women's Correctional Center: "We Were Treated Worse Than Dogs"

The author of this piece is serving a sentence at
Goochland for a probation violation in 2022.
This was written for publication by a local 50-year-old mother of three who is to be released from prison this fall.

I arrived at Virginia Correctional Center for Women (VCCW) on January 18, 2023. I transferred there from Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where they hold maximum security inmates as well as do intakes and classify women coming into the Department of Corrections from Virginia jails.

VCCW, aka Goochland, is in Goochland County, an approximately 30-minute drive from Fluvanna. There were around 12 to 15 women transferred that day. We were all shackled with chains between our ankles, so you must take baby steps to keep from falling on your face. There’s a chain wrapped around your waist that is intertwined through a metal box that holds your hands at your waist. The contraption holds your hands so tight that some of the women complained their circulation was cut off and I could see because their hands were turning purple.

The bus that carried us was more like a horse trailer, with little oblong windows that were so high we couldn’t see out of them. The only way to see was if you stood up and stretched because there was a considerable height.

Our only stop was at State Farm. State Farm is a work camp that is on the same property as VCCW but maybe about five miles apart. We stopped to drop off one of the women on the bus who was going to be housed there.

When we stopped the female officer who rode up front with the male bus driver got off the bus and managed to drop some important paperwork that concerned the inmate being left at the State Farm location. We stayed on the bus for several minutes, unsure of what had occurred, while the officer and the bus driver (also an officer) searched for the paperwork.

We were becoming restless and miserable with no air blowing and it was an unseasonable warm day. We could barely move with the tight restraints and shackles on our ankle. 

Finally, a taller girl stood up to one of those small, high windows to see what was taking so long. She then spotted the missing paperwork. When it was dropped it had blown up against a small wooden structure we were parked beside.

After we finally got their attentions, we told them someone had looked out the window and saw the paper had blown to the right of the bus. They acted as if they didn’t believe us, failing to make a move or even acknowledge what we were saying. We became adamant that their paper was over against the building and that clearly irritated them. Finally, one of them did go look and found the paperwork. 

This is an example of the disconnection between inmates and staff. They chose to ignore the information that would get us safely and promptly back on the road toward our destination only because the information came from inmates.

We finally arrived at VCCW and once again we were left sitting on this hot, stuffy bus with no air circulating. We asked the officer and the driver several time to please turn the air conditioning back on because it was so warm and stuffy. We got no response.

Finally, a woman who had asthma had an attack. She was sitting in the seat in front of me and hit my leg when she fell in the aisle of the bus gasping for air. She lost her glasses in the fall. Me, with quite a bit of difficulty because of the cuffs and shackles I was wearing, managed to rescue her glasses before they were trampled in the chaos that ensued.

Luckily, we were on VCCW property and more officers as well as two nurses boarded the bus to assist the woman in distress. The woman was taken off the bus amid a few very vocal complaints from my fellow inmates about our being treated worse than dogs left in a hot car. The driver/officer who had left us on this hot stuffy bus not once, but twice, continued to look indifferent, but turned on the air and left it on. A little later we were finally pulled up behind an old building and taken off the bus, then escorted physically to a basement, mostly because we could barely walk.

I later learned this building was known as Building Two and encompassed medical, a property room, and intake to the facility. The outside was red brick just like buildings Three, Four, Five and Six. Building One was a white structure and was the original prison before it became a money-making "body farm" that could hold 500 inmates. Building One has been condemned and sits in a cul-de-sac below Building Two. They say it’s haunted.

The first warden was Elizabeth Kates. When she arrived in 1931 there were only thirteen inmates. Building Two was also old, and there were tiles on the floors with old, yellowed wax. The walls were concrete, and their paint looked faded. While standing in the main intake room I realized the corner
of the building was separated all the way from floor to ceiling and I could see outside. Overhead were pipes that ran across the ceiling where every so often I could hear water run through them from a toilet or a shower, I assumed. 

After the shackles and restraints were removed we were all drug tested. Then we were taken into a room divided by partitions and pictures were taken of all our tattoos. After that, four of us at a time were stripped naked. We had to squat and cough, lift our breasts, our stomachs, open our hair and run  our fingers through it, show the backs of our ears, open our mouths, and show the bottoms of our feet. This was the second time we had performed the routine; we had done the same thing before we left Fluvanna that morning. I guess one time wasn’t humiliating enough.

Officer Wright was a woman in her fifties. She came in to assist once we were naked. Immediately she acted as if she was in charge. Some were afraid, I’m sure, as she told us how Goochland was a serious place where we could acquire tickets and lose any good time we might earn. She told us we didn’t want to mess up while we were there and on and on about the rules and regulations…while we stood naked. She mentioned several times that we were not at a fashion show as we were issued ill fitting state uniforms. We were told to live with it and stop complaining that something didn’t fit. Too bad!

I came to learn that you had to struggle, fight, and pay to keep halfway decent clothes on your back. Honestly, nothing you wear in Goochland is decent—not even what you pay for. That day of intake I got a shirt that was too small and pants that were too big. It took weeks before a clothing exchange was called where we could exchange those ill-fitting outfits we received on our day of intake.