Thursday, April 16, 2015

For better or worse

The rabbi's wife challenged her husband's glowing “60 years of wedded bliss” with “ you've got to be kidding. 30 years at the most! 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there, a day here, a week there. That comes to about 30 years of wedded bliss.”

Marriage is less about romance than commitment. In fact, staying in love with our partner may be the hardest thing one can do. Working with another to create a relatively functional, relatively happy family unit is very demanding!

When hubby and I walked down the aisle we didn't anticipate the broken hearts and broken dreams that shaped our years together or that 50 of our 56 years would be shaped by chronic illness. That a significant part of our story would be shaped by teen addictions. That two of our four would drop out of high school, one be incarcerated. That my father's untimely death necessitated caring for my mother. 

We didn't anticipate the ways we'd both change. I am not the same compliant girl he married. He is not the same laughing romantic I dated. We've had to re-choose each other many times over. There have been times when I've thought, “this is not what I signed up for,” But the reality is, this is exactly what I signed up for. Our marriage vows stated, “for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” Fortunately our shared faith, values, and goals helped us survive the challenges life dealt us, even making us softer, gentler, wiser, more accepting individuals.

Somehow we muddled through crisis after crisis, thanks to family support, marriage counseling, 12 step programs, individual determination, a strong church family. When I complained to a favorite college professor that I felt stifled and my brain was dying he suggested I go to seminary. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start thinking about what it's like for your family to feel responsible for your unhappiness. The only person you can change is yourself, so do what it takes to make yourself a better wife and mother and go back to school.” What good advice!

Arranged marriages involve fewer expectations of romance or hot sex since they are basically business arrangements. We feed our young the rosy promise that love and sexual compatibility will solve every problem and romantic passion will never go away. Thus few of us are prepared to get gobsmacked with the challenges of marriage, work, and family. Those of us who realize our spouse and children are not responsible for our happiness have a fighting chance to succeed. It takes friends, challenging jobs, meaningful hobbies, support groups, community involvement, and a strong faith to diffuse the demands of raising a family. Marriage, after all, is all about sharing your life with someone you mostly recognize, sometimes understand and occasionally like.

Looking back I am grateful for every challenge that came our way. We are both better persons for walking a different path than the one we anticipated that hot summer day we said “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part.“

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. You can follow her blog at www.Fairfield Mennonite

The high cost of prisons

With primary elections this spring an important question is: “How do you want your money spent, Adams County?”

Here are some numbers to consider. $9,653,089 to run the prison. $566,184 for central processing. $2,455,152 for Probation. $1,102,122 to fund the court. $798,721 the district attorney. $566,184 for the public defender. $818,040 for the sheriff. $148,612 for the law library. Together these “services” come to over 38% of the county's budget! Does Adams County really that dangerous?

Just as our local prison eats up over a 4th of our county budget, the states corrections budget is its largest growth item. More arrests, higher fines, and longer sentences have created a huge marginalized population that's a horrendous drain on society. Since 1980, Pennsylvania's corrections budget grew 1000%, going from $94 million to $2 billion. Pennsylvania's prison population grew 600%, going from 8,000 to over 54,000 and 9 state prisons to 28! Our so called war on crime has not reduced crime; it has simply created a prison industrial system that's turned the US in the world's incarceration nation.

Since racism did not die with the Civil Rights Movement those in power deliberately chose to use the justice system to marginalize blacks. Today we don't lynch black men. We incarcerate them. Over 68% of all black men in the US are enslaved by our “justice system.” That's more than were slaves in 1850! Over 78 million US citizens today can't vote, find decent jobs, housing, or receive benefits because they have been incarcerated or arrested!

What can we do locally? Become better informed. Attend the Prison Board meetings the 2nd Tuesday of the month. Attend Prison Society meetings the 3rd Wed of the month. Encourage the Criminal Justice Advisory Board to focus on grants for rehabilitation. Many inmates need GEDs or high school diplomas, others long term intensive drug and mental health services, with quality follow up once released. Warden Clark dreams of turning part of ACACC into an accredited long term treatment facility for those arrested for drug and alcohol related crimes. Support him! 

Encourage our judges and probation department to experiment with creative sentencing. Challenge the DA to be more lenient when possible. Incarcerating non-violent criminals should be the last resort, not the first. Treat everyone equally, black, white, rich, poor. If someone violates probation, incarcerate them on weekends instead of forcing them to serve the rest of their sentence in state prisons, forcing them to lose their jobs and impoverish their families. Create re-entry housing and jobs training programs for those coming our of prison so they can get back on their feet.

We have turned our justice system into a commodity, for sale to the highest bidder. Justice is determined by ones ability to pay. Our courts and prisons charge inmates exorbitant fees for basic services such as medical, telephone, commissary. Excessive fines for those who can least afford them results in a system whereby those already down and out are perpetually in debt to the “justice system” because each failure results in more fines.

Yes, changing our system and establishing rehabilitative programs will cost money, but far less in the long run than our broken system which doesn't work.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church and co-chair of the local chapter PA Prison Society.

Kisses Just as Sweet

January 1967. While admiring the babies through the nursery window at Gettysburg Hospital I noticed a dusky brown infant whom gossip had was the product of local “white trash” and a migrant. When someone behind me said, “God love him, who'd want him” I heard myself say, “We would.” That baby was placed with us in foster care and two years later we formally adopted him, then adopted a second bi-racial child.

Our extended families were always supportive, though my husband's mother later confessed she'd had mixed feelings until watching a TV news clip of the Selma march and police brutality, she gasped, “that could be my grandson their hurting!”

Have things really changed? Almost weekly we hear of another unarmed black being gunned down by white police, of racial profiling. Blacks and Hispanics are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites. Their sentences are longer. Why are we so afraid of each other? Why do we teach our children to hate based on skin color? Why are we so threatened by our religious or social differences? Aren't we all God's children? Our boys bleed red just like our girls. Their kisses are just as sweet. 

True, we've made progress since the 60's. For instance, inter-racial families are fairly common these days. In 1969 ours was the first inter-racial adoption in Adams County. We quickly discovered others depended on us to set the tone so they'd know how to react to us. That included some funny incidents. One day a drunk (white) staggered up to me in Gettysburg and snorted, “Got yourself a black one this time, didn't you?” I was still laughing when we got home!

While we taught our kids that skin color was just like eye or hair coloring, they still experienced the ugly face of prejudice. More than once our girls got in trouble at school for hitting someone who'd called their little brothers the “N” word or the boys came home crying. One night we watched the movie “Old Yeller.” In a scene where the father is roughed up by a gang of whites, our youngest, about 6 at the time, threw himself at me sobbing, “why does everyone hate me?” What could I say? What can any parent of a black or brown child say? “Just because your skin is darker?”

After years of searching, our youngest finally found his birth mom. On the internet, of course. Last Thanksgiving we met her. We marveled at the ways our lives had intersected because she'd loved her child enough to give him up for adoption. We thanked her for giving us the most precious gift possible: her beloved child. She thanked us for giving her “a life” as she took advantage of not being a teen mother and put herself through college. Today she is a successful dress designer for celebrities in Vegas.

Our nation was founded on the principle that all are created equal. Too many of us are still limited by prejudice and fear. It is crucial we come together to ensure that neither race, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, nor religion define who is allowed to succeed and who to fail. As Martin Luther King said, what matters is not the color of ones skin but the character of ones soul.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. You can follow her at