Saturday, February 20, 2021

Fact Or Falsehood? "I Found This On The Internet"

"Thou shalt not bear false witness."  The Bible

"Lies and mendacity... There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity. You can smell it. It smells like death."   Tennessee Williams "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” attributed to Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels

“Falsehoods diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.” analysis of Twitter in the journal Science.

Take a moment to see if you can pass this True-False test based on "alternative facts" one can find on the internet:

T F 1. Recent increases in severity of wildfires and severe weather events are just a normal part of natural cycles throughout history and have nothing to do with increased CO2 and methane in the atmosphere causing a global warming trend.

T F 2. The Holocaust as taught in our history books never really happened.

T F 3. Preserving slavery had nothing to do with the founding of the Confederacy, but it was all about defending states' rights.

T F 4. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11/01 was the work of a high level government conspiracy.

T F 5. Dr. Fauci and Bill Gates conspired to spread coronavirus infection in order to profit from the sale of vaccines.

T F 6. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a communist.

T F 7. Donald Trump personally colluded with Putin in his efforts to win the 2016 election.

T F 8. Joe Biden arranged to have his first wife killed in the fatal crash that took her life.

T F 9. Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, paid for dozens of buses to ferry demonstrators to Washington January 6.

T F 10. The January 6, 2021, mob in the state capitol were largely antifa supporters disguised as backers of President Trump.

T F 11. There were tractor trailer loads of completed, fraudulent ballots transported across state lines to be used if needed in order to ensure a win for Democrats in the 2020 presidential election.

T F 12. Donald Trump will be officially inaugurated president on March 4, the original (and the only correct) date set by the founders for this event.

T F 13. It was the failure of solar and wind turbine systems that caused all of the recent the power failures in Texas.

T F 14. The 2020 election was stolen,

T F 15. The earth is flat.

NOTE: Having to ask for an answer sheet for this "test" may be our first sign of having failed it.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

In The War On Drugs, Let's "Fight Like Heaven"

A 1978 study led to a revolutionary change in how we understand and treat addictions.

We've all read about early experiments involving laboratory rats becoming heavily addicted to drugs. Isolated in metal cages and given a restricted diet, they were given the choice of either pressing a bar for ordinary water or one that gave them a drug like morphine. that gave them a high. This was meant to prove that our brains are hardwired for pleasure, and when given the opportunity, we humans, like rats, are prone to becoming hooked on doping ourselves with as much pleasure as possible.

Then in 1978 Bruce K. Alexander, a Canadian psychologist, began to wonder whether rats, being highly social creatures, might have overdosed on morphine because they were cooped up in metal cages. 

So he designed an environment called Rat Park in which scores of rats were able to live together in a kind of rat utopia, where they had ample free space, good nutrition and lots of ways of experiencing an active and good life together.

What he found was that the residents of Rat Park had little interest in getting high on drugs, but occupied themselves with healthy and appropriate activities.

This is not to say that humans can't become addicted to alcohol and other drugs, and experience addiction as the disease it has indeed become, one that causes physical withdrawal when they try to break their habit. But it also means that incarcerating such people in steel cages is surely one of the worst possible ways to help them overcome these addictions.

Likewise, it may suggest that drug addiction is a symptom of our society's ills as much as it has become not of its major problems. While the disease can inflict anyone, many people grow up in environments where they are especially vulnerable to needing treatment.

So what if we were able to help parents provide more supportive and nurturing environments for their children? What if we invested more in good schools for our children and teens, and provided ample job training and employment opportunities for everyone? What if congregations would reach out to more hurting people, inviting them into caring spiritual families of faith, hope and unconditional love and support? What if drug treatment programs were designed to help addicted people find good human connections, get needed medical treatment and improve their work skills?

That sounds utopian, I know, like a foretaste of heaven on earth.

But isn’t that how we are all created to live as members of God's heaven-ruled kingdom? 

Certainly it's a dream that should motivate us to invest lots of time, energy and creativity in a truly effective "war on drugs."

Here's a link to a Ted Talk video on this topic:

Monday, February 15, 2021

HARD TIME VIRGINIA Vol. 6, No. 1 (an occasional newsletter for Virginia prisoners)

2020 Parole Release Numbers Remain Disappointing
Only 467 geriatric and regular parole releases were granted in 2020, with the highest number (113) being in March and the lowest number (9) in May. These included many sentenced as juveniles who are now eligible for parole. Since the Parole Board has recently come under criticism for some prisoners it has released it seems to be denying more of the "old law" and even "first time" offenders who have violent crime convictions. Many are now in the geriatric age group, which diminishes their chances of a successful reentry.

2/5/21 Letter on Parole to the Daily News-Record

Editor, DNR: My heart goes out to all victims of horrible crimes, and I join them in opposing the release of violent criminals. But should not parole be considered for prisoners who for decades have shown genuine remorse, a willingness to make restitution in whatever ways possible, and who have demonstrated law-abiding, non-violent behaviors in the worst neighborhoods imaginable—prisons? If we don't believe such correction is possible we should simply rename the DOC the Department of Punishment, or just give those guilty of violent crimes an immediate death sentence rather than a prolonged life sentence. And, we should choose some other religion, since our scriptures are all about restoration and redemption, with people once guilty of capital offenses, like Moses, David and Paul, becoming the Bible's most prolific authors, proclaiming both God's justice and amazing grace. So, let’s not release unrepentant criminals, but offer second chances to transformed ones.                                                                                                                                    - Harvey Yoder, Rockingham, Virginia

Groups Demand More COVID Protection For Prisoners

Nearly 7,800 inmates in state prisons have come down with COVID-19. Fifty of them and two staff members have died, and advocates are demanding the governor release more people who are at high risk of death from the virus. And in the last six months of the year the Department of Corrections has spent more than $7 million in hospital bills alone. 

   The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says some of the pain and expense could have been avoided if the state had followed through on promises to release people who pose no threat to public safety and were supposed to get out within a year.  Jenny Glass speaks for the ACLU.

   “People who are incarcerated in Virginia at 7.6 times more likely to get infected with COVID-19 and 3.1 times more likely to die from the virus," she explains.

   When her group sued the Department of Corrections, officials promised to speed up review of inmates eligible for early release and those who had requested pardons.

   “VADOC has been incredibly slow in reviewing and granting early release to people.  On a good week about 40 people may get approved, on a bad one that number is as low as six people," Glass says. "Governor Northam also had the power to grant clemency to people through a conditional pardon, but he has not released any data about his progress, because his administration has claimed executive privilege.”  information from Sandra Hausman, WVTF radio. Hear her entire piece here:

A Virginia Prisoner’s Wish List For Prison And Parole Reforms

1. Past offenses should not remain the deciding issue in granting parole, as human beings evolve and can change (be corrected) over time while in a DOC facility. In the early 1990's Virginia had just over ten thousand people incarcerated. Now there are some thirty thousand behind bars in Virginia prisons, costing taxpayers over one billion dollars annually. It is much more cost effective to rehabilitate and release people than to keep them incarcerated. There are people who have been incarcerated in Virginia since the 1960's who have been model inmates and many have aged out of crime. There are approximately 1,500 parole eligible people who have served 25 or more consecutive years in prison and/or are age 50 and older. There are over five hundred people who are eligible for both Regular Parole and Geriatric Parole grants in Virginia's prisons. These people should be released if their merits, prison record and attitudes demonstrate they are no longer a threat to society and their COMPAS Test shows that they are a low risk for violent recidivism and or recidivism in general.

2. Deserving inmates who could possibly die or be permanently disabled from contracting the COVID-19 virus should be released with a conditional pardon. 

3. Priority should be given to the release of deserving inmates who were sentenced prior to the implementation of the 1995 "No Parole" law, then those who have become eligible under the Fishback category and those who are eligible for geriatric release.

4. The Lawrenceville Correctional Center, a Geo Group privately operated prison, should be closed and sold or used as a reentry facility for parolees.

5. The Virginia Parole Board (VPB) should no longer use the inmate's crime as a reason to deny parole, not arbitrarily deny parole release to inmates who have served 25 or more consecutive years. And when it issues a "not grant" decision, it should tell each inmate how to enhance their chance for release.

6. We should eliminate the catch-22 situation with the Parole Board requiring eligible persons to have an approved home plan with a specific address, since many places won't promise or reserve a bed for a person until after they have received a grant from the VPB.

7. Provide WiFi in housing units so inmates can receive regular educational material from VADOC 24-7 even during a pandemic. New or used laptop computers should provided, or inmates or their families should be allowed to purchase them and have them shipped directly to the inmate. Also, they should be allowed to store information on their laptop's hard drive, which would make it easier for technicians to search for contraband and eliminate excessive paperwork.

Or VADOC could contract directly with Microsoft to make their Microsoft Surface laptops with Microsoft Office already installed for a reasonable and affordable price.

8. VADOC inmates should be provided an increase in pay and should be allowed to work 40 hour weeks. The majority of inmates are paid from 27¢ to 45¢ per hour, rates that have been in effect for over three decades, both before and after VADOC allowed for-profit companies to enter the VADOC and to profit off inmate labor.


"Prison may be just a word to you, but for some people, it’s a whole sentence."

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Re-Envisioning Virginia Mennonite Conference

Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) was formed in 1835 by former members of Lancaster Mennonite Conference who had moved into Shenandoah and Page Valleys from Pennsylvania. 

I first became an official member of this branch of the Mennonite Church after graduating from Eastern Mennonite College, which was then a VMC school, and a year after being employed as a teacher and dean of boys at Eastern Mennonite High School. In 1965 I was asked to serve as an assistant pastor of Zion Mennonite Church near Broadway on a marginal time basis, and it was then that I officially moved my membership to VMC.

I had no seminary training at the time and was only 25 years old, but felt honored to have been invited to join the Zion family and its affiliated Mennonite congregations, one with many rising young leaders in my age group. 

Last Saturday, over 55 years later, I took part in VMC's winter delegate session, along with over 100 fellow pastors and other congregational representatives. It was a well planned and inspirational event, where we heard moving stories by some of our members of color who further convicted us of our need to repent of the latent racism we have been guilty of condoning and even perpetrating throughout the church's history. Having to meet via Zoom, though, we missed the camaraderie and the kind of "family reunion" feel of our normal conference sessions.

Recalling my many years good years as a part of VMC, I again felt sadness over the number of congregations who have left our Conference due to differences they had with the rest of VMC and with the national Mennonite Church USA. Meanwhile I have also mourned the steady number of individuals and households leaving VMC congregations and joining other churches in our community. 

Like many older denominations, VMC has an increasingly aging membership. As I looked over the gallery of participants in Saturday's session I saw no teens and very few adults under 30 among them, not a hopeful sign for the church's future. We were also told that the pool of potential pastors for congregations seeking trained leaders has been shrinking drastically, another disturbing sign.

Maybe it's time for a radical rethinking of how we do church. 

For one thing, might we need a new name? We have been planting churches in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky for years now, so we are not just about one state. And while I value the term "Mennonite," it also conjures up images for some that may not be positive. Also, the word "conference" may suggest a kind of bureaucratic organization rather than a living and loving organism that embodies the presence of the loving and living Christ in the world.

So how might something like "South-Atlantic Family of Anabaptist-Minded Congregations" sound? Interestingly, Dutch Mennonites have long been known as "Doopgezinde," or "Baptism-minded," as in representing free churches whose members belong by choice rather than by their being christened by their parents as infants. 

This kind of name change should be accompanied by a less centralized, top-down form of administration and suggest a fellowship of self-governing congregations collaborating with each other for purposes of fellowship, support, outreach and discipleship. There could and should also be more focus on providing mentoring and training for developing pastoral and other leadership roles from within congregations rather than relying on hiring professionally trained pastors from elsewhere.

In my mind, this would be one of the best ways to increase participation and a sense of commitment to the local congregation, that is by intentionally providing lots of apprentice leadership opportunities for all members from the time of their baptism. These opportunities for learning by doing could include people of all ages and from all walks of life bringing Sunday morning messages, for example, always with coaching and mentoring help offered by those with more training and experience. In this way, Sunday morning and other church gatherings would be more like celebrative "carry-in meals" rather than well-orchestrated "buffets" prepared by a special team of professional chefs. 

In short, we need to think creatively and boldly about how to not only create new wineskins,--as in making some structural or organizational changes--but to pray together for an infusion of new wine and new life in our congregations, starting from the ground up in each of our local congregations.

These newly energized and re-envisioned congregations should then reach out to invite, and re-invite, other Anabaptist-minded congregations around them to friendship with them as they seek to follow the way of Jesus together. 

I believe we may be enriched most by not simply allying with other Christ-following, Sermon-on-the-Mount heeding congregations who are most like us, but with communities of believers who are also in some ways unlike us.

In every way possible we need to be an answer to Jesus' final, heartfelt prayer, "That they may all be one, as I an my Father are one," and in this way having communities of Jesus followers becoming outposts of heaven right here on planet earth.

E pluribus unum.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Old Men Dreaming Dreams---Harrisonburg & Rockingham "Better Together" Partnerships

Synergy: "the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects."

Too often we think solutions to local problems like over-incarceration, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and drug addiction are going to all come from our governing bodies.

And it's true that members of our city councils, county boards of supervisors and other state and national elected officials can do a lot to help address such problems. But I'm increasingly convinced that it takes the engagement of the whole community working together to really come up with good solutions.

So what if we created some stronger partnerships that helped citizens at all levels to get to know each other better and to become more actively involved?

One way would be to have existing local agencies and institutions agree to partner with each other for a time as sibling groups.

We could first think of two kinds of community organizations, 1) service producing and providing groups and 2) service promoting and encouraging groups, then have each of these in the first category partner with a chosen group in the second category, and over a five-year period of partnership, see what they could come up as some ways to bring more good.

It may not be easy or even seem helpful to distinguish between the two kinds of groups, but I picture the first  as including businesses, healthcare providers, fire and rescue organizations, educational institutions and other public and private service providers. The second group would include congregations, civic clubs, sororities and fraternities and similar non-profit entities.

The line between the two may seem arbitrary, since many in the latter groups not only seek to inspire and encourage but are often directly involved in projects and programs that directly benefit the community. But the point would be to connect groups that are somewhat unlike each other to actively brainstorm ideas with others for making ours a better community. Specifically, they would try to find ways of reducing the school drop out rate and the number of people in our jails, providing more help for those struggling to overcome addictions, etc., and to support people in gaining access to affordable housing, training for better jobs and other means of improving their lot.

During this five-year partnership, people from each group would periodically get together with representative folks in their partner group to brainstorm solutions to such issues, collaborate in bringing about positive changes and support efforts already being made to make ours a model community. The goal would not be for them to form and operate a separate organization of their own, but to encourage working through existing ones.

Examples of some possible pairings might be the Rise congregation (on East Market Street) with The Harrisonburg/Rockingham Regional Jail, Park View Mennonite Church with nearby Gemeinschaft Home, the Islamic Center with the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, a JMU sorority house with Patchwork Pantry, or the Harrisonburg Rotary Club with Pleasant View Homes. 

An existing organization like the United Way, with help from representatives of local media, could coordinate and promote these "Better Together" partnerships. This group could serve as a clearing house for the those needing help getting connected and getting started, along with publicizing positive things groups are doing to help create more community collaboration and engagement. 

Maybe you have a better idea, but I present this as one possible way of getting out of our many separate silos and began to experience a greater sense of common purpose and more united efforts at bringing about positive change.

After all, it takes a whole, diverse, and engaged neighborhood of people, working together, to bring about a whole and healthy human community.

Friday, February 5, 2021

An Appeal To The Middle River Regional Jail Authority Board February 2, 2021

This excellent presentation was made at the meeting of the MRRJ Board (representing five jurisdictions--Augusta and Rockingham Counties  and the cities of Harrisonburg, Waynesboro and Staunton) regarding a possible $40,000,000 jail renovation and expansion. Posted here by permission.

I'm Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, with Valley Justice Coalition in Harrisonburg.

Thank you for the work you do to meet the needs of incarcerated persons in your care. You've spent many hours over many months.

However, you are public officials requesting to spend public money from five jurisdictions, none of which has yet given the taxpaying public a broad opportunity to be heard on whether or how to spend their money to expand the jail.

Some of the projected costs represent capital expenditures and updates to serve needs for persons presently incarcerated.

But most of the cost is to expand the capacity of the jail, to service those costs over time, and to operate a facility with many more beds. This will lock us into another cycle of increasing incarceration.

Your five communities are well aware that these recommendations come from an architectural firm, which has an obvious interest in expansion of the jail.  This doesn't feel right to a lot of people.

Every one of these jurisdictions Is part of a community criminal justice board which is required by law to adopt a plan for reducing incarceration. That plan is to be updated every two years.  I cannot speak for other jurisdictions, but Harrisonburg-Rockingham has not adopted a plan showing how it will reduce the rate of incarceration.  And it has surely not updated any such plan in the last two years.

It is as if we have a constantly flooding basement and have just commissioned an expert on how to better patch and fortify against our constant influx of water. But we have failed to look outside at what may be causing this unusual flood. 

And it is unusual.  We are incarcerating people at twice the national rate even though Virginia is a low crime state and we are a low crime area of Virginia.  And we aren't "badder" than other people.

Citizens and taxpayers question this uncontrolled spiral of ever more incarceration and ever more jail construction. We support our new efforts to improve local law enforcement, drug and mental health treatment, and recent innovative programs to actually divert people from the criminal justice system entirely.  These efforts, scaled up, improved, and joined with new initiatives, show promise and need a few years to reduce our jail numbers.

So now that you have seen the experts' recommendation on the costs of expansion I urge you before you make a request of these communities to take the next step: 

Before acting, take ten months to let these five communities get expert analysis of another kind:  in depth evaluation of which practices and policies in each community are causing our over-incarceration and how to change them.  AND an in-depth community listening process for citizens and taxpayers to be heard on what they want and how to build on positive, community-based alternatives to the endless cycle we are currently in. 

That way, the request you make of them will be one that can be respected -- informed by a process of solid expert information and on genuinely hearing the priorities of the public you serve.

Thank you.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Over 1500 Have Signed A Petition Against MRRJ Expansion--Update On What You Can Do Today

The Middle River Regional Authority has delayed its final decision about asking the state for money for jail expansion.

Here's the link to the petition, which reads as follows:

"We, as citizens of Rockingham and Augusta Counties and the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, oppose spending millions to build more jail space at Middle River Regional Jail and propose that these dollars be invested in creating community based programs and policies proven to reduce incarceration."

Here's a link to the MRRJ website.

Call to Action from Communities Against Middle River Jail Expansion

Send a comment to the Harrisonburg City Council, whose members have already expressed opposition

Email  Staunton City Council or leave a voicemail at 540-332-3810  TODAY!  
Send a comment TODAY to the Waynesboro City Council

Email the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors  TODAY!  
Email the Augusta County Board of Supervisors TODAY!

Rather than promoting spending millions on jail expansion, what I wish we could hear from Superintendent Newton and others on the MRRJ Regional Board would be something like, "Please stop sending us ever more people who are not a danger to the community but whose primary needs are for addiction and mental health treatment. Jails and prisons are not good places to offer services best provided in your community. And don't send us more people who can do well in the kinds of work release programs we've been offering successfully for years without adding any significant danger to the community. Set up more of your own systems for supervised work release to enable ever more non-violent offenders to remain employed while they await trial and/or who are having to make child support payments and pay off their court fees and fines."  - Harvey Yoder

This post was updated February 9, 2021.