Seeking the Good of Others

“No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”  I Cor 10:24

Throughout the Scriptures, we are commanded to love God and one another.  This is the way life works best for us and everyone else.  Ever since I have taken this path of helping others, God has never neglected my needs, even the smallest ones.  And if I have had to go through trials while I’m waiting, then, when I get on the other side of it, I realize I needed to go through that to grow and learn what I needed to know to live this life even better.  “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called”.  I don’t know who said that but I have found that true all my life.   In May of this year, I began the process of creating a non-profit corporation.  I’m calling it Sweetwater Network, Inc.  You can find the full description at sweetwaternetwork.org

The Mission Statement is “mobilizing people and resources to stop recidivism”.  Recidivism means to reoffend and return to jail and or prison. In Missouri, 85% of the people who get out of prison return within the first three to five years.  That is a higher percentage than the national average.  Missouri has the 8th largest prison population in America. Missouri is #1 for the most incarcerated women.  Texas County according to the 2018 Missouri Poverty Report ranks second among the other Missouri counties for poverty – 29.9%.  With numbers like this there are innocent people suffering in silence.  Not everyone in jail is guilty.  Most of the ones I meet cannot even come close to paying bail to get out and await trial.  Even for misdemeanors in some cases, the bail can be set at hundreds of thousands of dollars, of which the person has to pay 10% to be released until court. If they can be released, they might be able to keep their job, their house and their children.  I have discovered that many are there because someone leveled charges against them that must be proven right or wrong in court.  Many times, it ends up in taking a plea bargain even when you’re innocent so you can be released on probation or do a lesser sentence in prison.  When you plead to a felony charge just to get out of jail, you will pay for that the rest of your life.  The national average is 95% among the more than two million incarcerated who took a plea because they were afraid they couldn’t take a chance in court of being proven innocent.  Then there is the issue with public defenders.  I will cover that next week.  “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.  Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.” Proverbs 31:8-9

 

I observed while volunteering at the jail that the residents had many things in common: poverty, mental illness, sexual-physical abuse as children and adults and raised in homes where drugs were abused. Many of the same people were in and out of jail as if it were a revolving door and many were sent to prison multiple times for drug abuse and/or probation violation.

Because they couldn’t pay the exhorbitant bail in many cases they lost their jobs, their children were placed in state care and any stability they had established on the outside slowly disintegrated. The guilty absolutely deserve punishment, but all too often, the difference between guilt or innocence is determined by the quality of the defense attorney.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Missouri, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Missouri over its unconstitutional system of public defense. The state’s public defenders don’t have the time or resources to provide adequate legal representation and are unable to talk to their clients about possible witnesses, exculpatory evidence, plea negotiations, or trial strategy. The suit asks that the court force the state to improve the public defender system and end its violations of the Sixth Amendment. Last year, the state’s 370 attorneys handled roughly 82,000 cases. This averages out at 222 cases per public defender. The Amer. Bar Assoc states that 300 more public defenders are needed in Missouri. Many in jail take plea bargains rather than taking their chances in a trial with an overworked public defender. “This year, lawmakers authorized $49.6 million for the Missouri State Public Defender System. While it’s an improvement over previous budgets, it’s still far short of the estimated $75 million the office says it needs to provide defendants with adequate representation.  Virtually everyone involved in criminal justice in Missouri knows the problem. Yet judges and state officials, relying in part on public disdain for suspects’ rights, have fought against the defense lawyers — and the Constitution — for months. That should stop. Attorney General Josh Hawley, who recently expressed deep respect for the Constitution, could demonstrate actual belief in that document by reaching an appropriate settlement with the ACLU. The settlement should guarantee full funding for the public defenders system. Gov. Mike Parson, a former law enforcement official, should encourage such settlement talks. Surely he understands defendants have an absolute right to effective counsel. . . The legislature also must step forward next year to tackle this issue. We understand the public is sometimes worried about defending suspects accused of horrific crimes. But the Constitution says everyone deserves a lawyer. That requirement should be honored in Missouri.”  Taken from Kansas City Star Editorial Board June 29, 2018

Changes are happening in Missouri and it is my prayer that they will come quickly. 

“Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down and outers. Speak out for justice!” Proverbs 31:8,9 NLT   

Sweetwater Network, Inc continues to grow. The stated purpose and mission of the Network is to stop recidivism.  Recidivism means habitual or chronic relapse to reoffend and return to prison. As taxpayers, it is in our best interest to help people not to return to prison.  We spend $20,000 a year to house an inmate in our prisons. 85% reoffend and return to prison in the first three to five years.  Missouri’s rate of recidivism is higher than the national average.  As Christians, it is our call to stewardship as Christ compels His followers in Luke 4:18 & 19: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. …”

This month, I have begun sending my newsletter STONES and a personal letter to over 20 inmates with whom I worked over the last three years in Texas County Jail. I have worked with people for months and months as many can’t pay their bail and must remain behind bars until their innocence is proven in court or their public defender finally gets them a hearing to resolve the sentencing for their charges.  Most – innocent and guilty- just settle for a plea bargain so they don’t have to stay in limbo in the county jail any longer. This long period of working with them has a plus side even though I believe it’s unfair, in giving them time to work on their faith journey and become clean from drugs. The 20 inmates have begun to respond and so far I’m thrilled to know that their faith is intact and growing.  Here is a few excerpts:  “I am ready to get out and live the life the Lord wants me to live. I got your newsletters and will spread them to the prison population. I pick up my Bible every day.  I also do a Bible study through the mail.  I’m happy because I really know God.”  Another letter states: “God has been keeping me safe and protects me from all harm. I still sing praise songs in my cell and pray every day and read my Bible you gave me. . . It’s easy to understand.”    

We talk about people in jail getting “jailhouse religion” as if it’s without merit and doesn’t really matter.  Consider this, perhaps if we were to somehow build on that fragile beginning of the Spirit working within that person in prison and then after release, treating them like someone who has paid for their crime and deserves a second chance to be treated like everyone else and not labeled for the rest of their life, perhaps they would continue to be transformed in the Spirit as they saw a real future unfolding and a place at the table to be a contributing member of the community. This is the vision God has placed on my heart.   God can fix all the problems on this planet but he knows that it works best for our faith journey if we let him work through us to fix them. I pray that there are others reading this column who feel the same way and are taking action to make it happen even in small ways.  Come to sweetwaternetwork.org and read more about this work. 

James Smith finished filling his small backpack and attached it to a larger pack that contained what will be his worldly possessions for the next five and a half months.  The Ellwood City Ledger in Yorkhaven, PA ran an article on Smith.  His 11 yr old daughter came home from school one day with a stressful story about being bullied at school.  She told him she agreed with him that “life sucked” as she expressed it.  He had been really negative lately bringing home his anger and disillusionment with people around him.  He didn’t want that to be his children’s legacy.  He decided to take a 3,000 mile journey on foot.  He’s calling it the Point the Thumb Journey, the idea being that instead of pointing your finger at someone else, point your thumb at yourself – “walking across America for humanity.”

He would have to count on the good in others for food and lodging for the whole trip.  So he quit his job and began training, walking miles every day to get his 50-year-old body in shape. He sought donations from local businesses to get him started. He plans to walk about 20 miles a day. Along the way, when he reaches a destination, he plans to talk to total strangers, telling them his story and the story of his journey and perhaps asking for a place to stay, just to see how they react.

He wants to see whether people will volunteer to help him out, or give him a place to stay, or a hot meal, or just take the time to get to know him. He plans to document the trip – you can find links to his YouTube and Facebook pages at pttjourney.com – with the goal of writing a book about the trip.

He has said, “It isn’t about me. It’s about the people I’ll meet along the way.”  He left on his trip on July 9, 2018.  He plans to document the trip.  You can find links to his YouTube and Facebook pages at pttjourney.com – with the goal of writing a book about the trip.  This is actually what the disciples of Christ did in the Scriptures.  “Then Jesus called the Twelve to Him and began to send them out two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits.  He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” Mark 6:7-8

This takes a certain kind of faith that doesn’t have fear and inherently believes that God will provide what we need and if we are outside in a tent on the roadside in the rain, then, maybe we needed that too.

Seeking the good for and in others is the next level of spiritual growth that raises the bar for us and everyone around us.  Point the Thumb Journey on Facebook has a video diary of James’ trip.  It should be very interesting to follow.  You can find my work and writing at sweetwaternetwork.org and sweewaterjourney.com.

  

Through my agency Sweetwater Network, Inc. I met Ryan* at the place where he said he would be.  He told me he wanted to show me something that causes “recidivism” – going back to prison like it’s a revolving door.  John and I slowly drove back in to a place that used to be a thriving trailer court a long time ago.  I had driven there in times past picking up clients.  Even then the mold was so bad in the rented trailers you could smell it with your windows rolled up.  As Ryan directed us through the potholes and deep ruts at a very slow pace I looked up ahead and saw what he was talking about.  What I saw was a disturbing scene far removed from the nice homes in the town below.  No water or sewer anymore at the trailers, only electricity in a few.  Only two were occupied due to hard-case scenarios to prevent them living on the street.  Ryan showed me the needle syringes where junkies frequented the court.  Some doors were hanging open.  There was no doubt that homeless people probably found a place for the night in many of the metal hulks rusting in place – dinosaurs from another time.  It looked like something in a third world country or the worst slums you could find anywhere.  Tall weeds everywhere.  Broken out glass even in the trailer where Ryan was staying with a family member.  What I saw there was symbolic of the state of many people’s lives filled with hopelessness and want, an environment that can make you give up and make bad decisions with harsh consequences.  He had been promised work at a local mill and waited to hear back. I found out that he and his family member had another house in some other town waiting for them.  They just couldn’t find a pickup truck to move their few belongings.  While at Wal-Mart, Ryan saw a pastor he used to work with and there was talk about working with him until his other job opened. They exchanged phone numbers. Sweetwater Network purchased clothing, personal hygiene items and a phone card for Ryan to have some basic dignity and survival needs met.  He had spent nearly half of his young life behind bars because of wrong choices.  This week I will work on finding them a truck to move them out of there and connecting them with more resources and hope.  This is chaos.  When you have a disability or a minimum wage job, you can be in a situation to have to live in a place like this.  Bringing hope into this chaos is hard work and no promise that what is done will last because of insidious drug addiction. Helping people in these cases, I have found that familiar loving Christ Presence because it is everywhere we are called to go, especially the touch places.  He is waiting there for us.  The solutions to these problems in each case will emerge because of faith and hopefully one by one people will be in a safer, more hopeful place. I have begun receiving a few letters back from the people in the ten Missouri prisons and so far I have discovered that in every letter people are still studying God’s word and keeping the faith.   Some are having Bible studies and prayer meetings.  They declare the amazing miracles they are seeing in their lives every day as more and more come to know God through Jesus Christ.  The fragile faith-journey they began while they were in jail in Texas County for at least some had taken hold.  One man was training dogs so they can be adopted out and was finding great joy in doing that.  There is so much good around us but also so much chaos.  Only faith in action can change this.  Check out sweetwaternetwork.org   *I have changed his name to protect his identity. 

 “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”  I Cor 10:24

Right now, Texas County Sheriff’s Department is going through a catharsis of change and public scrutiny.  Every week local newspapers are filled with the news of the latest coming out of the court proceedings.  It is my hope that imminent change will come across the board to not just the Sheriff’s Department and not just Texas County.  The Missouri Prison Reform Task Force has brought much to light about the failing grade for Missouri’s system of justice. As we are presently poised to build two new prisons with a price tag of nearly a half billion dollars to handle the numbers of people being incarcerated and re-incarcerated, it is important that we the citizens understand that there are better, smarter ways of spending tax money to keep our communities safe from crime.  A good place to start is to become better informed about what is really taking place in our system of justice by looking at the numbers.  The following are the statistics that are in my brochure for Sweetwater Network, Inc.: Missouri Stats:

 8th in the nation for incarceration rates

 First in the nation for numbers of incarcerated women, 45% sent for drug treatment

Nearly one half of first time drug offenders are back in prison within three years of release

In 2016 half of the 19,000 sent to prison had violated terms of supervised release and just 15% were new to prison system

MO has an 85% recidivism rate compared to national average of 76.6% for first five years after release.

In 2014 a survey of inmates found 90% of assessed prisoners had issues with substance abuse with at least 22,302 of 31,889 total inmates needing treatment.

85% of women and 69% of men are newly admitted for nonviolent offenses.

A state report is showing that many rural counties are sending a higher per capita number of non-violent offenders then big city counterparts.

The state pays $19.80 per day per inmate if the charge results in prison time.

Ranked 2nd in the nation for drug use. Bordering states rank: KS-28; NE-44th; IA -50;  IL-27; AR-19.

Since 2012, drug deaths increased 18 percent, from 14.9 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people,

Texas County ranks second for poverty in the state with 29.9% – 2018 Missouri Poverty Report

A right to counsel group found MO ranks 2nd to last in the country in funding for public defenders.

Nationally 95% of the two million plus in prison took a plea bargain. This means that they would rather take a plea bargain than take a chance to prove their innocence in a trial with an unprepared, overworked public defender.

I observed while volunteering at the jail that the residents had many things in common: poverty, mental illness, sexual-physical abuse as children and adults and raised in homes where drugs were abused. Many of the same people were in and out of jail as if it were a revolving door and many were sent to prison multiple times for drug abuse and/or probation violation.

Because they couldn’t pay the exorbitant bail in many cases they lost their jobs, their children were placed in state care and any stability they had established on the outside slowly disintegrated. The guilty absolutely deserve punishment, but all too often, the difference between guilt or innocence is determined by the quality of the defense attorney.  More on this topic next week.    sweetwaternetwork.org   and  sweetwaterjourney.com

 

 

Last year, the state’s 370 attorneys handled roughly 82,000 cases. The Amer. Bar Assoc states that 300 more public defenders are needed in Missouri. Many take plea bargains rather than taking their chances in a trial with an overworked public defender. This year the public defender budget was slightly increased.

It costs the taxpayer $20,000 per year just to house a person in prison.  If they have a child(ren) in state custody then the price tag increases.  Our neighbor Arkansas is investigating handling drug cases as mental health issues not criminal issues  Contact our representatives to work on prison reform and stop recidivism!   RF

 

The following is an excerpt from our sermon on the website Faith Church.    “When asked what they needed to do in order to be faithful to God, John Wesley gave the early Methodists 3 General Rules. They were not long complex rules, but simple ones that would be easy for people to remember and follow: do no harm, do good and stay in love with God. Now Wesley didn’t make up these rules himself, they were rules based on the guiding principles and commandments given to us by God. We learned that the one guiding principle God gave his people was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This command was to be recited by the people of Israel every day and taught to their children, which is not a bad idea for us to consider doing today. The command to love God was to be the one guiding principle for all of God’s people.

In an effort to be faithful, however, the people took that one principle and turned it into 613 laws. When Jesus came he tried to once again make things simple. When asked which of these 613 laws was the most important Jesus’ answer was, love God, but then Jesus added this, and love your neighbor as yourself. What Jesus did was to say that loving God couldn’t just be expressed in our words to God and the attitudes and feelings of our heart toward God, love for God has to be lived out in our relationships with one another in very real and tangible ways. Love for God has to be turned into loving actions towards others.

Do all the good we can.

By all the means we can.

In all the ways we can.

In all the places we can.

At all the times we can.

To all the people we can.

As long as ever we can.”  

 

If your faith walk doesn’t seem to be exhilarating enough to keep you from being negative, or depressed or not motivated just ask God to send you on a mission.  It may be a neighbor who needs to talk to someone or a family member you need to apologize to for hurtful behavior or words.  If you are wanting to follow this counsel, just ask God to open the way. My work has taught me that I can only find myself by losing myself in service as the Scripture says : “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25

 

Ryan, who I was working with and was living in squalid conditions in that condemned trailer court got word if they didn’t move, the cops would come and take them away in handcuffs.  He called me and we were able to find people to get them moved out asap.  The trailer where they were moving finally became available.  

 Many people don’t know Jesus Christ until they experience Him in the lives of others who are truly living in Him.  I hope that you are “seeking the good of others” too. I’m amazed at all the unlikely places I find Jesus waiting for me.  None of us can imagine living in some of the conditions in which some people live but Jesus is there with the innocent who are also there, living in those conditions.  Jesus waits for us to respond to His call to be His hands, feet, voice and heart and bring light to change those conditions.  That’s how it works, otherwise He could solve all the worldly problems immediately and we will not have learned anything or grown in our relationship with God that we are capable of through His Spirit. May God bless your mission, the one you are praying for, with great satisfaction and spiritual growth.  Imagine our community filled with believers seeking the good of others.

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