Grandma’s Story

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Des Moines, Iowa

It’s Mother’s Day. What they say is true. The loss is felt long after the burial. My mother died a week before Christmas seven years ago. Time doesn’t make it easier. I’ve been thinking of my mother’s story lately while considering a different approach to the “Justice Diary”.

A year ago, with one class left in my graduate studies at Eastern Mennonite University, I made a promise to Howard Zehr that I would blog for a year. In exchange, he said I would earn three hours of credit. It sounded like a good deal and I have to say I’ve enjoyed it for the most part. Howard told me last week that, as far as he’s concerned, I’ve blogged enough. And the folks at EMU say I get to graduate. But to some extent I’ve not done what I set out to do.

I was talking recently with a friend, a fellow introvert. We were discussing why it is that introverts frequently have a need to write. We considered various reasons. Then it struck me. We introverts write to finish our sentences. Extroverts, wonderful people that they are, wouldn’t understand this. They rarely have trouble getting in the last word. But as an introvert, I can attest to the innumerable times when I didn’t start a sentence knowing there was little chance of a successful conclusion.

I think that’s why what I’d hoped to do with blogging didn’t happen. What I wanted to do was to explore justice through the stories of others. I wanted to learn about justice as James Baldwin exhorted in “No Name In The Street”:

“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those who need the law’s protection most — and listens to their testimony. ”

I haven’t done that, I suppose, because I had some things to say. I had some sentences I needed to finish. But I’m in recovery now and ready to learn from others. I’m not sure what it will look like. I need to take a few weeks off to think about it. I know there are questions I want to ask of the unprotected. I know it’s their testimony that is more important than mine.

In the meantime, I’ll catch up on some reading. I’ll mow the lawn and take my grandson on bike rides. And I’ll give serious thought to those who need the law’s protection most.

With Mother’s Day nearly over, I’m still thinking of my own mother’s story. She knew some things about justice and injustice, quite a bit actually. At her funeral service I attempted to tell her story for the benefit of her grandchildren. What I shared with them is some of what they now know as “Grandma’s Story”:

“It’s customary at services like these for people to pay tribute to a loved one. My mom wasn’t one for tributes. She thought they were boring and she would have said she didn’t deserve one. Instead, I think my mom would have wanted someone to tell her story. She would have wanted those she cared about to understand her for her accomplishments and her failures. She would have wanted her story told to her grandchildren who she loved more than anything in the world.

To the extent anyone can tell another’s story, I want to do that for my mother’s grandchildren so when they are asked someday by their children what their grandmother was like, they will have something to add to what they already know.

So this story is for you, her twenty grandchildren.

More than anything, your grandma was a complicated woman. Her mother and her father studied at Iowa State University. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother an accountant. Her grandfather, the Dutch one, was a lawyer and for a while was the City Attorney for Des Moines. Her German grandfather helped run the family brewery in Dubuque. Your grandma also had a sister, the obedient one.

Your grandma grew up in a home where there were a lot of rules and very little love. Because of that she became a rebel of sorts. Your grandma was also very smart, smart enough to skip two grades at Visitation Elementary School.

When it came time to attend high school she was offered a full scholarship to the Academy, the all girls Catholic High School on the other side of town. She refused to go. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go to a school with no boys. She went to East High School instead and, by all accounts, was the one you’d want to have at your party. She was funny, witty, and knew everyone. Your grandma was also a good athlete and loved to swim. She won a lot of races until she was stricken with polio.

When it came time to go to college your grandma again was offered scholarships. But she refused to go. She said she was going to marry her high school sweetheart, the wrestling star who was also the life of the party. Your grandma did what she said she would do, perhaps out of love and perhaps to spite her parents.

Like most girls, your grandma wasn’t ready to be married at eighteen. She also wasn’t ready to be a mom at nineteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-three, at twenty-five, and at twenty-eight. She was a strong woman, but not strong enough to be the mother of five children at such a young age. Your grandma had been strong enough to overcome the disease of polio. She was not strong enough to overcome another disease, depression, which crippled her more than polio ever did. And when she divorced your grandpa at the age of thirty, the disease paralyzed her.

Your grandma was smart, but she didn’t have the skills to take care of herself and her five children. She had never known poverty but found herself having to maneuver the welfare system, waiting for the monthly check, waiting for the food stamps to come, waiting in long lines to get government peanut butter and cheese, waiting to see if she could get help so she and her kids wouldn’t get evicted. Ultimately, your grandma’s disease left her unable to parent.

When the authorities came and took her five children away she had to be taken away too. At that time, the disease of depression was not well understood. People thought the best way to fix your grandma was with hospitals and electrical shock treatments. They were wrong. The best way would have been to give her the love and support she needed so badly. That never happened and your grandma never got her children back – except one.

For a long time, your grandma was bitter at the system that never came to her aid. But she was smart and she was also courageous. She woke up one day and said she was going to fix herself. She started taking college classes while working as a store clerk. She quit her job when Judge Harrison hired her to work at the county substance abuse center. It turns out your grandma had a gift for helping people who had been laid low by life. It also turned out that your grandma’s bitterness against a system that never came to her aid blossomed into a compassion for those caught up in that same system.

Your grandma’s compassion enabled her to get up in the middle of many nights when the calls would come from the alcoholic or the heroin addict or the crack head. She would always respond. It didn’t take long for the authorities to say your grandma should be in charge of the county programs for helping people with substance abuse problems. She was the best person for the job and did it well.

Then the authorities called. They said she was the best person to run the county’s General Relief Program – the program that helped moms and kids who were getting evicted, who had run out of food stamps, or who were having their electricity turned off. Your grandma took that job and helped a lot of people there too.

Your grandma wasn’t perfect. She sometimes got in trouble for breaking the rules. She couldn’t understand why there would be a rule that said a mom couldn’t get help just because she had gotten help nine months before. But they couldn’t fire your grandma because she helped too many people, and she was the best person for the job.

But the authorities called your grandma again. They said she was the best person to run the county programs that helped old people. She didn’t want to stop helping moms and families but she decided to take the new job – perhaps she was thinking of the day when she would be old.

By now, you know your grandma’s story. She helped a lot of old people. She helped get them meals when they couldn’t get out of the house. She got them fans when the temperature in their apartments was ninety-five degrees. She helped them get money for rent when the landlords wanted to evict them. And when she had to she broke the rules.

When I was going through some of your grandma’s papers yesterday, I found a job evaluation her boss had written when she was running the elderly programs. The evaluation said your grandma was very good at all she did. It ended with the statement “if one can tolerate individuality in an employee, then Mary is an asset.”

Your grandma had to stop working just before she turned sixty. Her mind was still sharp but her health was poor – and she was still haunted by depression. Without the work that meant so much to her she was oftentimes hard to deal with. But she always loved her grandchildren.

As you know, two years ago we took your grandma to Kavanagh House. They said she had two weeks to live. She had ideas of her own. Eight months later they said she had to leave because she hadn’t died soon enough. With the help of Hospice nurses, she stayed with us for the next six months. It was oftentimes challenging but also a blessing. We finally had to put your grandma in a nursing home because the Hospice nurses said they couldn’t come any more. They said your grandma wasn’t going to die anytime soon.

We thought she wouldn’t last long in the nursing home but we were wrong. She met Willa there. Willa was your grandma’s roommate. She was ninety-nine years old, the daughter of a slave, and the loving mother your grandma never had. There were times when I would visit your grandma late at night. She and Willa would be holding hands. Your grandma was oftentimes in a lot of pain and Willa would get out of bed to comfort her.

Many people cared for your grandma, loving her each in their own way. But Willa was the first person in your grandma’s life that loved her unconditionally. Willa brought out the best in her. The last few months of your grandma’s life were times of both pain and peace. Near the end, she shared her love unconditionally with those around her.

When your grandma was moved to a second nursing home it broke her heart to be separated from Willa. But she didn’t give in. A week ago yesterday she was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Des Moines. It looked like she didn’t have long to live. When she was lying on the gurney in the emergency room she pulled me close and said: “I could have died tonight but I decided not to, is that alright?” Your grandma didn’t die that night and they took her back to the nursing home.

Two days later we took her a small Christmas tree. When she saw us she was an expression of pure joy. Shortly after that she went to sleep and never woke up.

Your grandma’s story is one of promise, rebellion, despair, courage, accomplishment, suffering and, ultimately, redemption. But your grandma was more than her story. As I said earlier, your grandma was a complicated woman.

She loved politics and she loved the Democratic Party, with all of its faults. Your grandma was always asking about the courthouse and what boneheaded thing the Board of Supervisors had done. She loved John Kennedy and hated Richard Nixon. She loved Bill Clinton and hated George Bush, both of them. Your grandma loved ideas, controversy, and debate and she loved Larry King.

Your grandma loved to travel when she finally had the resources to do so. But she didn’t go to Paris and Rome like others. Instead, she went to Russia – four times. She loved to talk to people there about their struggles. Your grandma hated the Nazis and was fascinated by the Holocaust. The last trip she took was to Poland – she had to visit Auschwitz.

And finally, your grandma loved her church, particularly Jesus’ mother – and all the Mary’s of the New Testament.

If your grandma were here today, she would tell you to engage in the struggles of the world and debate the burning issues of our time. She would tell you to never stop learning. She would tell you to lift up those who have fallen and always be kind to strangers. She would tell you to hug those who are close to you and never forget to tell them you love them. And finally, she would tell you to never, never become a Republican.

I want to finish by reading you something from one of your grandma’s books. As you know, she was not sentimental. Her books were about politics, travel, and the struggles of others.

Of all of her books, she only had one book of poetry, aptly titled: “Risking Everything”.

I want to read the first poem, one she had dog-eared. It’s titled: “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Justice Is Local

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Portland, Maine

It’s interesting to think of justice as local, which it is and must be. But it’s easy to forget. We’re more likely to think of justice as “top down” with Congress, the Supreme Court, state legislatures and state courts grabbing the headlines. Each has a role, making the rules and interpreting them. Without them there would be no “Rule of Law”. Without the Rule of Law there would be chaos. Civilization as we know it would cease to exist. One need only travel to any number of foreign countries to experience this.

But laws do not necessarily equal justice, unless justice is defined narrowly as the consequence imposed as the result of a violation.

There are times when temperance is required. Times when the laws applied to a particular situation don’t really fit. Times when the consequences outweigh the seriousness of the conduct.

Last week I listened to a lawyer with fifty years of practice under his belt speak about the need for a re-writing of the Maine criminal code. He said it was last done in the ’70′s and it’s time again. Many of the laws on the books are antiquated and irrelevant. Times change and our laws need to change with them.

Just last night I was at a pizza joint / pub in downtown Portland. A group of five guys were making great music with their fiddles and acoustic guitars. During a break I spoke with the lead, a man in his sixties who makes violins during the day. He told me it’s against the law in Maine to have two stages with live music within a hundred feet of one another. He pointed across the street at a bar that also hosts musicians. Because the two establishments are less than a hundred feet away they can’t have music playing at the same time. Then he told me there’s another silly law which says a musician can’t stand up and have a beer in his hand. But if he sits down that’s ok. He said recently a local Cajun band was playing at the same pub and near the front window which looked out on the street. A police officer saw one of the band members standing up and with a drink in his hand. The band lost its gig and the proprietor was fined a thousand dollars.

These examples might seem petty but the point is that even with the best of laws, there must be temperance, there must be the exercise of reasonable discretion.

This is particularly true when it comes to kids. A sixteen year old may be as tall as an adult, may weigh as much or more, but he doesn’t have the brain of an adult. The neuroscientists are teaching us this. The risks the teenager takes, the decisions he makes to do or not do something, are not made with the aid of a mature brain. Compound that with what we know about early childhood trauma and we find ourselves with a canon of laws and a justice system not ideally suited to respond to the misbehavior of our youth.

That is why there must be the exercise of reasonable discretion. Sometimes law enforcement does it and sometimes it does not. The same is true of juvenile corrections officers and juvenile prosecutors. It’s easy to get frustrated with and angry at kids who commit offenses that, if they were eighteen, would be considered crimes. But we can’t ignore the science and we must be cognizant of the unintended consequences that can result when our schools and our justice systems label youth because of misbehavior.

Here in Maine there is something to be encouraged about. Communities are taking greater notice of kids caught up in our systems. Individuals are coming together to address the inequities and unfavorable outcomes. One thing being considered is the use of community review boards. Once in place, police officers will have the discretion to refer a teenager to a board of community members and professionals rather than to the formal system. The teenager, his or her parents, and members of the board will meet collaboratively, placing equal emphasis on the needs of the youth and the community’s need for accountability.

Justice is local. And because it’s local it’s best served when the community realizes it has a stake in its administration and in its outcomes. This is particularly true when the lives of our kids are at stake.

- Fred Van Liew

The Circle Process In The Service Of Truth

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New Gloucester, Maine

My son is a young trial attorney. He’s a natural. To further his education, I recently gave him my well-worn copy of Francis Wellman’s “The Art of Cross-Examination”. It’s a classic and was recommended by my trial advocacy professor when I was in law school. Wellman cites numerous examples from famous and not so famous trials, giving credence to John Henry Wigmore’s assertion that “Cross examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”

As a young criminal defense attorney I witnessed its power. My client, an eighteen year old boy, was charged with first degree murder in the death of his girl friend. He swore it was an accident following a night of drinking at the neighborhood bar. The prosecutor saw it otherwise and was seeking life in prison without parole. The state’s key witness was the coroner who testified on direct examination that an intentional blow caused the girl’s death. I was convinced the coroner had botched the autopsy but he stuck to his opinion. It was only through cross examination that the truth came out. The jury returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and the young man was given a five year sentence.

Trial by jury is a foundation of our democracy. It is designed to reveal the truth to a panel of the defendant’s peers. But it’s not perfect. Over reaching prosecutors or incompetent defense attorneys can lead to a result that fails to reflect what actually happened. Complicit oftentimes is cross examination, that great engine of truth, which can be lethal when employed by the experienced, “win at all cost” lawyer or by his counterpart, the novice. Even when the playing field is level, the “real truth” may never come out.

I was thinking of this during a phone conversation this morning with Frank Cordaro. Frank, a former priest, founded the Des Moines Catholic Worker Community in the late ’70′s and has seen more than his share of trials. For more than thirty years he has exercised his conscience and been charged on numerous occasions with criminal offenses arising out of his protest activities. Like many of this country’s great dissenters, Frank has served jail and prison time in cells throughout the country.

Unlike others who break the law, dissenters want to get caught. They stage their actions before reporters and cameras, hoping the brief news coverage will somehow influence public opinion.

I once prosecuted Frank. He and other Catholic Worker protestors had crossed the line at the Iowa Air National Guard which deployed fighter jets to the mideast. Twenty were arrested but by the day of trial all had entered guilty pleas but one. Michael would tell the story of the international law violations that occurred as the result of the “no-fly zone operations” over Iraq conducted by our government.

The jury trial lasted five days. Constitutional law experts testified as well as National Guard attorneys and other personnel. The jury returned a verdict of trespass and the judge imposed a small fine. A judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, expert witnesses, a court reporter, a court attendant, and six jurors had been employed in order to obtain the result.

This past St. Patrick’s Day another Catholic Worker action was held at the Air National Guard, now a drone site. Seven were arrested and trial is set for late June. I’ve been asked to assist in the defense. A few weeks ago Frank began to consider another way for the truth to be told. He called this morning to continue the conversation. He wondered about mediation. I said I didn’t think there was anything to mediate and that a compromise wasn’t possible. We then talked about the use of a Peacemaking Circle. What if the seven defendants and an equal number of guard personnel sat in a Circle with a Circle Keeper present to facilitate the conversation? And what if, like a trial, the process was open to the public? Anyone could attend, sit outside the Circle, and listen to everything that was said.

There would be truth telling – by the defendant and by the National Guard. There would be no attempt to reach consensus. It wouldn’t be possible. The protestors abhor the use of drones. The Guard personnel, while perhaps sympathetic to the protestors, have chosen to join the Guard and have a job to do.

Each side has a truth. Each side is unwavering. But unlike cross examination, and its potential for abuse, the Circle process is a sacred one and honors each person’s truth no matter the chasm between.

And wouldn’t a great service be rendered by the sharing of these truths in the presence of the community at large?

- Fred Van Liew

A Fire In The Center

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New Gloucester, Maine

I had a dream last night. It was about justice. I’m sure it was prompted by the ACLU of Maine Award Dinner I attended earlier in the evening. There were stories told of justice, the struggle and the fight for it, on the behalf of individuals and of groups. On the drive home I felt proud to be a lawyer.

Anyway, my dream last night was both vivid and formless. I woke from it searching for a metaphor – not for justice as we know it, but for Restorative Justice, that toddler trying so hard to find its legs.

I showered, and as I scrubbed my arms and legs I thought of the elephant and the blind men, and how each believed that what they touched was the whole truth. In the daydream of my shower I saw one man holding tight to the tail. He proclaimed that he had found it, that school conferencing was Restorative Justice and that Bethlehem, PA is the holy city. A second man grabbed a leg, asserting that victim-offender dialogue is Restorative Justice. A third man clutched another leg, shouting out that Youth Court is RJ. Another man said it’s community restorative boards and a fifth said it’s restorative circles. A sixth man, riding on top of the great beast, said that restorative conferencing is what Restorative Justice is all about.

I finished my shower, dried and dressed but wasn’t satisfied. The elephant story was incomplete. It spoke of processes but was lacking in some way.

I remembered the passage from John: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Perhaps Restorative Justice is like a house where place is as important as process. In my mind’s eye I could see a mansion, with long hallways and rooms of various sizes and uses throughout. I opened one door after another. There were schools, churches, workplaces, neighborhoods, justice systems, jails and prisons. Each one a place in need of healing and an opportunity for Restorative Justice.

I liked this image but I’m not sure that Jesus had such a dwelling in mind. It’s too western and too segregated. Maybe a Mediterranean house provides a better image, with its doors opening to a common courtyard. Or perhaps better yet is the image of an African or Navajo village with thatched huts and teepees opening to the communal fire. In the village everyone participates in the life of the community, whether to celebrate a wedding, give honor to the passing of an elder, or meet in a circle to weigh the impact of a harm inflicted by one on another.

And then the young Perceval came to mind and the search for the Holy Grail. It could be that the Grail myth is an appropriate metaphor for Restorative Justice, unattainable and yet worth pursuing. The Grail was thought to be a container for what is most precious. For the Celts it was a symbol of plenty and for early Christians it symbolized eternal life. Psychologically it’s a symbol for wholeness never to be completely realized.

A few years ago I took a course on advanced issues in Restorative Justice. There was great discussion about what Restorative Justice is, is not, and what it could be. Near the end of one class Howard Zehr commented that he had long thought of Restorative Justice as a flame or spark, that it informs our work without defining it.

Maybe that’s why the image of an indigenous village resonates – the communal circle around a fire in the center.

- Fred Van Liew

There’s No Substitute For Experience

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New Gloucester, Maine

Eight of us met last evening in an upstairs room at First Parish Church. It was the third such meeting in a month. The Director of the Portland Center for Restorative Justice and I engaged the six “newcomers” in a lengthy role play. Each volunteer had a part – as the adult victim of a burglary, the teenage offender, or as the mediator. Lecture all you want, talk about philosophy and principles, but it takes role playing to get people to a point where they actually feel the process. I’m always fascinated by the transition from problem solver and fixer to listener and mediator. A few take to it quickly. For many it is a struggle. And for some, try as they might, it never happens. Fortunately, the Restorative Justice movement requires all kinds and there is work for everyone no matter their skills, interests or aptitude.

One of the “naturals” arrived a little late. During a break she apologized. She had been at her son’s baseball game. I asked how it went. She said he is a senior and he had a hit, his first in four years. After the game he was ecstatic and declared that by the end of the season he would be hitting home runs. Then she told me that despite his modest success, he plays for the love of the game.

I’m reminded of a case I prosecuted a few years ago. It involved another high school senior. School had let out and on his walk home he was jumped. Three boys took him to the ground. He was hit and kicked and somewhere in the struggle a knife came out. A single thrust lacerated his spleen and he was left in a pool of blood. An elderly woman walking her dog saw everything and called the police. An eight hour surgery followed. The parents of the boy were told afterward that the width of a quarter was the difference between life and death.

It didn’t take long for the three boys to be identified, arrested and charged. Kids talk. All three were nearly sixteen. Had they been a few months older they would have been treated immediately as adults. Even at fifteen that was still a possibility as the juvenile court judge had the authority to give up his jurisdiction and turn the boys over to the adult system. If convicted, a lengthy prison sentence would follow. Early on in the case, that is what the parents of the injured boy wanted.

They had nearly lost their son and, as punishment, they wanted the perpetrators to lose their youth. But an attorney for one of the boys called to see if there might be a different way to hold the boys accountable. The attorney was a long time advocate for juveniles caught up in the system. As an attorney he had seen on many occasions how Restorative Justice could help make sense out of a senseless act.

We talked at length about the need for the victim and his parents to be included in the discussions. Meetings were held and the pros and cons were explored. The parents finally agreed that they and their son needed to meet the three boys and tell them how their lives had been changed by their acts of brutality.

I will never forget that evening when everyone came together. The parents were nervous as was their son. The three boys feared for their own lives. One of our best mediators had been called in to facilitate the dialogue. He was skilled in managing the complexities of anger, fear and shame. The boy’s mother spoke first and then his father. They told of receiving the call, of rushing to the hospital, of waiting helplessly throughout the night. They described the tense days that followed when survival was not assured. And they told of their concern for their other son, the identical twin, and how they kept both boys home for fear of retaliation.

The young offenders sat motionless throughout. Not one of them appeared moved by what had been said. And then the young victim spoke. He told of his love for baseball. How every year he looked forward to the coming of spring. How this was to be his last season and having grown three inches and twenty pounds over the winter he hoped to hit his first home run. And then he described what it was like to sit on the bench the entire season, keeping score while his teammates went on to win the championship. He looked at the boys across from him. He started to cry when he told them what it was like to have something so precious as baseball stolen from him.

The three started to cry as well. Nothing was said for several minutes. And then the boy looked at the three again and told them he forgave them.

It is a challenge sometimes to explain to the uninitiated what Restorative Justice offers that our retributive system can’t. Like love and compassion, it must be experienced.

- Fred Van Liew

Fighting For Survival

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New Gloucester, Maine

I spent Friday evening and most of Saturday at a church in western Iowa. In thirty minute intervals I met individually with members of the congregation who wanted to talk.

These were not your fair weather church goers. Most are long time members. Some have attended service nearly every Sunday for forty years or more. All are deeply committed to the health of the church. They have tithed faithfully and substantially. They’ve served on numerous committees, participated in the liturgy and choir, assisted with the youth ministry and led youth outings, and they’ve seen the church through major capital campaigns. They consider the church their primary community. And when I met with them it was clear that they all are hurting.

What had once been a thriving congregation is now struggling with conflict. Long time members, individuals and families, have left the church. Others are close to leaving. Revenues have declined considerably. Staff are hired but few stay long. The energy that served as a magnet, attracting new members, has dissipated to the point of non-existence. All agree that something has to be done, and soon. But there is no agreement on a course of action.

Common to every conversation was sadness. While there is a widening rift between those who lay blame on the pastor and those who see a problem with deeper roots, there is no denying that the pain is shared by all and is in direct proportion to the degree of caring and concern.

As an outsider called in to assess the situation, and hopefully assist the church through a healing process, I find that I am conflicted in my own belief as to what might be the outcome. On the one hand, this is a church that is nearing a critical point in its existence. There is a shared grief for the loss of something very dear and a recognition that recovery might not be possible. But there is also a shared sense of urgency, and with urgency comes the possibility of dramatic change.

In a couple of weeks, on three consecutive evenings, members of the congregation will come together in small Healing Circles – twelve to fifteen in each one. A week later a much larger Circle will be convened with up to forty participants, the pastor included. The final Circle will be held in the sanctuary. There will be candles and a center piece, reflective of the congregation’s history and values. Church members will choose the talking piece to be used, one that is symbolic of the congregation’s need for community.

In addition to the other feelings shared, there is a guarded optimism. Everyone I spoke with will participate in the Circle process. It’s new to them but intuitively they sense that it’s the right thing to do. While they don’t have answers they do have hope, and they have an understanding that if their community is to survive they must come together as a community to make that happen.

It’s easy these days to think that our communities are in decline and to allow resignation to seep in. But when I see an Iowa church fighting for its existence, I am encouraged.

- Fred Van Liew

RJ Musings

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Des Moines, Iowa

For years I’ve wondered what a Restorative Justice system would look like. Dating back to the mid-90′s I would attend RJ conferences and attempt to corner experts who had researched and written about program design, best practices, effective processes, and success stories. When I could get one of them alone – I didn’t want to embarrass them in front of an audience – I would ask the question that begged for an answer: “But what would a Restorative Justice system look like?” Without exception, the question would be followed by a pause, silence of varying lengths, and then inevitably, “I don’t really know.”

At first it seems preposterous that the many fine minds that have thought deeply about Restorative Justice for nearly four decades have not come up with the schematic of an RJ system rivaling our present system that so effectively grinds out justice. And even more than a schematic, why hasn’t a team of experts identified the ideal city, descended upon it, and made the commitment to move it in a decade or less from a retributive city to a restorative one?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the present system is so complicated and convoluted that very few people, the experts included, can tell you how it works down to the minute details. Without understanding the machine as it is, how can even the geniuses come up with a machine to replace it?

But where would you start? What would be the ideal incubator or laboratory for a grand restorative justice experiment? We are often told that politics is local. When you consider where most of our justice is meted out, it is probably safe to say that justice is also local. Where most people experience justice, and injustice, is in their own communities. That is where the schools are, the police, the lawyers, and the judges, and the courthouse, if the community is large enough to have a one. And that is where the crime is.

Nearly all of the makings of a justice system can be found in communities of ten thousand or more. In Iowa, there are ninety-nine counties, each with a county courthouse (Lee county has two courthouses). Nearly all of the county seat towns in Iowa have a population between five and fifteen thousand people. And each one of those towns has its own justice system. So why not start there? Why not pull a few good minds together, maybe even an engineer from BMW or Mercedes, and start at square one?

Chances are that square one would be the town square. That is where, on any given day, you’d find the locals. It would seem that you would want to sit them. Maybe invite them one or two at a time to have coffee. Find out what their attitudes are about justice. What experience they’ve had with their justice system and what they think of that system.

My guess is that before those wonderful German engineers start designing and building a new model, they sit down with a lot of folks and find out what they like and don’t like with the cars they are already driving. They ask a lot of questions and make very few assumptions. And when it’s all said and done, they try to come up with a product that works for the people.

These are just musings as the clock nears midnight. But they do keep my up from time to time.

- Fred Van Liew

Communities Of Resistance

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Des Moines, Iowa

Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan met in Paris in 1975. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam had ended two years earlier. The two great peace activists, one a Buddhist monk and the other a Jesuit priest, talked about the war, its destruction, the aftermath, and the many levels of casualties. Relevant for today was their conversation about “communities of resistance.”

They didn’t limit their conversation to resistance against war. In fact, they broadened the definition of war beyond that of a military conflict engaged in by combatants. For both men, resistance must extend to all things that are like war. There must be resistance to whatever in modern society makes it difficult for the individual to retain integrity and wholeness.

“Resistance” said Thich Nhat Hanh “means opposition to being invaded, occupied, assaulted and destroyed by the system . . . the purpose of resistance is to seek healing in order to see clearly.”

I have a friend who is a community organizer. The son of a minister, he learned about organizing from his father who didn’t just preach economic and social equality from the pulpit. He fought for it in his rural Nebraska community which was in danger of dying at the hands of big banking. My friend says that community organizing must be about two things. It must be against those forces in a community which diminish people and it must be in favor of community institutions, churches included, which provide a buffer between the people and the dominant culture which deadens.

I thought of Berrigan, Hahn, and my friend earlier this week while facilitating a Circle at a local church. Ministers and staff met for nearly six hours to celebrate the work the church does in the neighborhood and to try to improve relationships within the church so the good work can continue. Despite the best of intentions, time had taken a toll. Slights, even minor ones, had led to withdrawal and distrust. Friendships had been damaged and others suffered as a result.

The first two hours were spent in getting to know one another and learning about the values and joys of each. Only by taking the time to relate in this way was it possible to move on to the issues that threatened the viability of the church’s mission. People began to open up, sharing what brought meaning to their work and what saddened them about the present difficulties. The sharing allowed for a discussion about communication – the lack of it and how it can be improved.

Honesty and vulnerability went hand in hand:

“Triangulation is an issue for me.”
“If I have a problem with someone I should take time with them.”
“I see generational problems here and I need to help bridge the divide.”
“Different levels of communication lead to difficulties.”
“Face to face communication is best.”
“I need to be able to speak with others without getting emotional.”
“It takes effort to learn what others are doing.”
“It takes intention to know who someone is.”
“A lot of grace is needed everywhere.”

The Circle process has its own internal clock. While not every issue was resolved, collectively the group knew when it was time to end for the day. Resolutions were made to continue the conversation. Much of the difficult work had been accomplished. Trust was possible again.

What Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hahn termed “communities of resistance” might also be called “communities of restoration” or “communities of trust”. Those who would be healers must heal themselves first. And if the world is to be healed the work of healing cannot be accomplished by those working alone. It will take communities working within larger communities.

Trust, as Parker Palmer suggested, is essential:

“A circle of trust is a group of people who know how to sit quietly “in the woods” with each other and wait for the shy soul to show up . . . . In such a space, we are freed to hear our own truth, touch what brings us joy, become self critical about our faults, and take risky steps toward change – knowing that we will be accepted no matter what the outcome.”

- Fred Van Liew

Time To Speak Up

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Des Moines, Iowa

I had coffee this afternoon with a woman. We met in Ankeny, about half way between her home and mine. Recently turned sixty, she is a community organizer. Not in the traditional sense. She doesn’t organize around issues. Instead, she organizes around hope. For the past eighteen years she has worked in her community with those without a voice – the poor and the mentally ill. She helps them create and maintain their own community. They meet weekly, in a Circle, and share their struggles. She has found, as they have, that by using a talking piece they are empowered to speak their truth in a way previously denied them.

From time to time they have conflicts. Sometimes just two of them. Other times its several. As a result, she has taken it upon herself to learn how to help them manage conflict. She has trained as a mediator and uses her skills, and her native ability to listen, to help those in conflict find common ground.

As we shared our coffee she shared some of her life with me. Born and raised middle class, she was always the quiet one. She suffered early on with depression although she didn’t know what to call it. It was years before she discovered that she had celiac disease which caused her to have significant mood swings. To be with others made her uneasy so she stayed to herself. She was particularly adverse to conflict and avoided it at all cost. She says it’s ironic that she is now the one who advocates for others who have yet to find their own voice, and mediates with others who have yet to learn the skills of compromise and reconciliation.

She is also a “conflict coach”, meeting privately with individuals to help them discover their own strengths so they can better enter into dialogue with those with whom they have disagreements. She is presently working with an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. They practice the art of conversation, the give and take of it, so that the awkwardness of social interaction is lessened.

Our conversation turned to Restorative Justice. She says it meets her need for inclusiveness. Having worked with the marginalized for so many years she has come to realize that the extent to which there is community is the extent to which each individual is recognized as indispensable. She is particularly sensitive now to the way the justice system works. How it ostracizes. She sees that the poor, the mentally ill, the people of color, increasingly fill our jails and prisons. She says she is ready now to enlarge the scope of her community organizing efforts. She wants to join with others, those who organize and those who are silent, to engage in dialogue about what justice is and what it could be.

Having been silent for so many years, she says it’s time for her to speak up.

- Fred Van Liew

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Random Thoughts On Kindness

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Des Moines, Iowa

Holy Week always takes me to a place having little to do with my present belief system. Despite the break so many years ago from early tradition, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem thrusts me back to a time before the onset of skepticism and teenage logic. The world slows down and I find myself serving Mass again at St. John’s. For the three years before high school I was an altar boy. Wearing a black cassock with a white surplice over it, I entered a realm beyond the drab and the mundane. Latin was the language there and mystery was its waters.

I’m reminded of the nuns who also wore black and white. They lived in community, across the street from the church and less than a block from the school. Occasionally I was given an errand to deliver something there, or to retrieve something that one of the sisters needed for the day’s instruction. Every time I entered their home I was greeted by one of the retired nuns who treated me like a guest and always gave me a cookie or a piece of candy. I was never rushed out the door or told I had to get right back to school. But I was always treated with kindness. And in the classroom, I frequently had two recurrent thoughts: “how do they go to the bathroom under all of that?” and “there really are people in this world who do things out of kindness and not for personal gain.”

Early on the drive home from St. Paul this morning I asked Sarah and Mary if they wanted to stop for breakfast. Sarah said she wasn’t hungry, that she’d been up in the middle of the night and had eaten a slice of pizza. I asked her if it was a leftover. She said it was, from a pizza she purchased the day before for herself and a homeless man. I asked her how that came about. She says she doesn’t have time to volunteer at a shelter so she oftentimes looks for an opportunity on her walk to or from class to purchase a meal for a street person. She will see someone and ask if they are hungry. The initial response is usually “no, but thank you.” Sarah is persistent, though, and will reply that she is going to buy herself something and would like to share it. Almost always she has a companion for lunch.

This evening at Good Friday service Mr. Sheaff sat in front of us. For years he’s been the theater director at the local Catholic high school. He has seven kids, at least. One of them is Bridget, a long time classmate of Mary’s. I coached Bridget in basketball, beginning in the second grade. That entire season Bridget never made a basket, either in a practice or in a game. The same was true the next season. As a fourth grader she started to understand layups and made a few in practice. She went scoreless, though, for the season. At the beginning of fifth grade Bridget told me it would be her last season; that she wasn’t cut out for basketball. I said if she came early to practice we could work on her game. She oftentimes did and her layups improved.

The last game arrived. Bridget had yet to score that season. It was a back and forth game but with a minute to go we held a four-point lead. But Bridget had yet to score. With fifteen seconds left I called a time out. We all agreed that Bridget had to score. I drew up a play. Rose would set a screen. Bridget would be free in the middle of the lane, ten feet from the basket. Mary would inbound, fake to Emmy, and feed Bridget. The play worked to perfection. Bridget swished it from eight feet. The girls went wild and hugged Bridget until she cried for help.

After the game, as Mary and I walked through the parking lot, we saw Bridget and her father in their car and approached them. Mr. Sheaff had never spoken a word to me in four seasons. We congratulated Bridget on her game. Her father stuck out his hand and shook both Mary’s and mine. He said “thank you.” I said Bridget had a great game. His eyes welled up with tears. He said, “I really mean it. Thank you.” Mary has never forgotten that, nor have I.

There is a story about a Buddhist monk who was meeting with a famous old lama for the last time. The master beckoned the student to approach. He did, believing he would receive the master’s most secret instruction. The master whispered his final teaching: “Be kind.”

- Fred Van Liew