The Church and Criminal Justice: What it Looks Like “On the Ground”

I am fortunate to work on the edge of the Eastern Mennonite University campus—known around the world, literally, for the amazing and effective Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice. One of CJP’s graduates, Leymah Gbowee, went on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and I was happy to meet her on one occasion at EMU.

When my daughter spent a college semester in Belgium in early 2002 (just months after 9/11/2001) I was surprised to learn that her roommate, a cultural Muslim from Cyprus, had heard of EMU. One of this roommate’s textbooks for her international studies major with a focus on conflict transformation was Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr, published by Herald Press.

Recently I participated in “A Day of Learning: Criminal Justice and the Church in Our Community” in order to get better acquainted with one of MennoMedia’s partners, Mennonite Central Committee, as we publish the Third Way* website (check under Third Way’s “Justice” tab, or the Wider View archive you find there). But more importantly, I wanted to find out how our area, with its huge Mennonite, Old Order and Church of the Brethren population, (to say nothing of many other religious groups interested in reform for the criminal justice system), is doing in applying the principles of restorative justice. In a nutshell, restorative justice aims to right the wrongs that have been done rather than just punish offenders.






Jason Gerlach and Ben Risser (at left) address the Day of Learning on criminal justice. Your truly on far right, heart t-shirt. (Photo by Joshua Russell, MCC)

At the Day of Learning, two pastors from Harrisonburg, Jason Gerlach (associate pastor at Community Mennonite) and Ben Risser, (pastor of Ridgeway Mennonite) talked about their prison ministry.

Jason was a beginning pastor at Community when one day an article hit him between the eyes. At the time, his office at the church overlooked the local Rockingham Regional Jail facility, housing over 400 inmates awaiting trails or sentencing (including some maximum security and federal inmates).

The article he was reading, “The Church and the Concentration Camp: Some Reflections on Moral Community”** reflected on the disconnect between an Orthodox church in Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s located outside the perimeter wire of the Dachau concentration camp. The author of the article, Duncan Forrester, pondered whether those inside the concentration camp ever wondered about the beautiful singing or organ music they heard coming from the cathedral, whether any Nazi camp guards went to worship there, or what, if any, interaction there was between camp and cathedral.



Rockingham Regional Jail, Harrisonburg.

And there was Jason, within a stone’s throw of a prison of another type. Surely the suffering is not as grave, but the irony hit him and he began to explore how he could at least try to reach out to the residents of the local jail next to his church and his work—which is a worthy question for any Christian to ponder. Both Ben and Jason help lead Bible studies at the Rockingham Regional Jail. Many inmates there are just awaiting the next step in their judicial process, which means these pastors have limited long-term contact with inmates. But they feel called to at least be a presence—to bridge the gap between jail and church.



Restorative Justice Circle in library of Eastern Mennonite University.
Photo by Joshua Russell, MCC. Raymond (story below) is seated at the right end of the circle participants, gray jacket.

In the afternoon at EMU, we met with two graduate students in the Restorative Justice program, who introduced us to the “circles” they use to make sure everyone gets a chance to say what’s on their minds in mediating an issue. Raymond served 20 years in a penitentiary for selling and using drugs. One day Howard Zehr, the author of Changing Lenses and also the book, Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences (Good Books, 1996), was taking photos for a project.

Raymond began asking Howard questions about what he was doing. Ray learned about restorative justice and Howard’s work, which “changed my life.” He couldn’t really read or write, in spite of graduating from high school; he failed his GED twice. But eventually he got a bachelor’s degree and is now working on a graduate degree in addition to doing motivational speaking. Raymond said he went from the “halls of the penitentiary” to the “halls of Congress,” most recently in a day of advocacy spent talking to members of Congress in Washington, D.C. He sees a need for the U.S. to work at its systemic racism issues because of the relationship of racism to the justice and incarceration problems here.

I was fascinated by my six hours of learning about restorative justice and the local issues workers here face. Harrisonburg has the blessing of EMU’s programs and people, but that doesn’t automatically translate to local implementation.


Gemeinschaft Home and the FairField Center are two area organizations that also work on the ground in this field. Gemeinschaft offers both day and residential opportunities for helping offenders integrate back into society upon being released from incarceration; residents have to find employment, become more independent, and participate in counseling designed to help them become successful citizens. (Above, Richi Yowell, program director at Gemeinschaft Home addresses the group.)

Although FairField Center wasn’t present for the day of learning and advocacy I experienced, later I talked to Sue Praill, director of Restorative Justice there. I asked about the efforts they’re making to work with the local courts, police officers, and jails. These include:

  • Victim impact training with juvenile offenders: This is a program that has been running around 18 months, consisting so far, of ten groups of juveniles, to educate youth on how their actions impact their victims and their own families. The youth who participate are part of the juvenile court diversion program that aims to give young people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The victim impact training has been generally well received, with parents reporting very good feedback, and the youth talking about wanting to “turn their lives around.” According to Sue, statistics do show that when people (adults and youth) understand the impacts of their behavior, they are less likely to re-offend.
  • Victim impact training with adult inmates. Sue has been part of an effort to educate adult inmates on the impact of their actions on victims and their own family members (Federal Correctional Institute, Petersburg, Virginia). “We talk about their own experiences as victims; we discuss case studies that enable them to put themselves in the shoes of others; help them take responsibility for their actions; and learn how to repair relationships with their families, who are also victims,” she said. The men who participate are in the eighteen-month Interfaith Life Connections Program that prepares them for release and reintegration into society. Counselors from that program have been “blown away” by the response of the men and the intensity of their engagement.
  • Collaboration with Harrisonburg Police Department. FairField Center is part of a coalition of partners, (including HPD, EMU and JMU) to broaden the impact of restorative justice in Harrisonburg. The goal is for police officers to divert certain cases to be processed restoratively. As part of that program, Sue and the other partners have been training city police officers in the basics of restorative justice so that they understand the benefits, both to those affected by crime, and the police department. When the victim and offender are willing to participate, they work together to create a plan to repair the harm done.
  • There is also considerable effort to work in the local public school systems here at all levels from elementary through university. Two daughters of our director Russ Eanes at MennoMedia, Allison and Carolyn Eanes, were interviewed by a local NPR station on their efforts to bring restorative justice to their 6th grade classrooms.




More learners and practitioners at the Day of Learning.

Much remains to be done. I’m encouraged that there are good, smart, people working on these efforts locally and in many locations. One woman present at the workshop had worked in helping restorative justice efforts for 18 years in Colorado. Google “restorative justice” and you’ll find examples all over.

May the numbers of effective programs spread. And so gratified to know that Changing Lenses (see below) by Howard Zehr has had such a huge role in changing the way the world thinks about justice. And to meet one man, Raymond, whose personal life was changed for the better by this book and Howard Zehr.

–Melodie Davis
Managing editor, Herald Press; Curator, Third Way website. Photos by Melodie Davis, except for those by Joshua Russell.

Contact info: Joshua Russell, Legislative Assistant/Communications Coordinator
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office 


To purchase Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr, click here.


*Third Way website has information and resources on Mennonites, beliefs, and activities. In addition, the MCC Washington and Ottawa offices supply a current issue “Wider View” blog post (you can sign up for here) two to three times a month on various critical and hot button issues in North America and around the world.

**The article by Duncan Forrester titled “The Church and the Concentration Camp: Some Reflections on Moral Community” can be found in the book Faithfulness and Fortitude: Conversations with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, edited by Mark Nation and Samuel Wells.

New Indiana-Michigan Mennonite history released

May 19, 20169781513800356

News release

Faithfulness, conflict, and change
New Indiana-Michigan Mennonite history released

HARRISONBURG, Va., and KITCHENER, Ont.—The first Mennonite and Amish settlers arriving in Indiana and Michigan in the mid-19th century were both distinctively American and uniquely Anabaptist. They were part of a wave of settlers expanding westward in their search for new and cheaper lands, but they were also distinct in their understandings of Christian faithfulness.

In Pursuit of Faithfulness: Conviction, Conflict, and Compromise in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, a new Herald Press book by journalist and historian Rich Preheim, examines the long history of faith, conflict, and outreach that has shaped Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. This narrative 420-page history is volume 50 in the Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History series.

RichPreheim“In many regards, the history of the conference is the history of the Mennonite Church,” Preheim said in an interview. The many church agencies eventually located in the northern Indiana region—educational institutions, mutual aid groups, mission agencies, and others—brought Mennonites from elsewhere. And they brought differing ideas of faithfulness that sometimes resulted in conflict and change.

They also brought new ideas of mission and outreach. “An early conflict was over Sunday school in the 1860s and 1870s,” said Preheim. As the idea took hold, Sunday schools became a tool of mission. Sunday schools were placed where no Mennonite churches existed, as the first step in church planting.

In the early 20th century, in reaction to changes in the church, many Mennonites responded with a move toward the fundamentalism of the time. Later Mennonites had to find their way through other conflicts, from divorce to the charismatic movement to women in leadership.

Significant leaders in the conference have served the broader church: John F. Funk, Harold S. Bender, and many others who helped shape the vision of church agencies and schools. The book also includes sidebar stories about notable themes and people of the conference, from the role of ministers’ wives in the early 20th century to the legacy of an early mission church in Chicago.

Through conflict, change, and new fields of endeavor, the Mennonites of Indiana-Michigan Conference have taken their Christian commitment seriously, said Preheim. His history ends in 2001, but an epilogue carries this story of faithfulness up to the present, with its own new challenges and opportunities, building on the past.

David R. Swartz, associate professor of history at Asbury University, writes of In Pursuit of Faithfulness, “Preheim tells fascinating stories about conflict over education, same-sex marriage, clothing, and vain amusements like birthday parties. This terrific book is both an accomplishment of historical recovery and a testimony to the faithfulness of God.”

Lois Johns Kaufmann, conference minister of Central District Conference, says the book “shimmers with tension and hope, flawed and faith-filled believers, amazing advances and perplexing problems. With each chapter, my sense of God’s patient leading kept growing.”

In Pursuit of Faithfulness is available for $34.99 USD / $41.99 CAD paperback, and $45.99 USD / $55.99 CAD from MennoMedia at 800-245-7894 or, as well as at bookstores and elsewhere online.

Ardell Stauffer
High-resolution photos available.


Author Interview—In Pursuit of Faithfulness, by Rich Preheim

Rich Preheim is the author of In Pursuit of Faithfulness, which has just been released by Herald Press. Ardell Stauffer interviewed Preheim.

Tell me about your writing background and your interest in history.

I was a history major at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas. I have worked as a journalist with Mennonite World Review and The Mennonite. I view a lot of the world around me through a historical lens. I found that this worked well as a journalist.

What got you interested in writing the history of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference?

Indiana-Michigan was looking for someone to write a new history of their conference. In addition to my interest in Mennonite history, I had just moved to Indiana a couple years before. I knew enough about Indiana-Michigan to know this would be some fascinating stuff. And it has been, more than I ever anticipated. In many regards Indiana-Michigan has been central to events in the broader Mennonite church, even internationally.

What’s the span of chronology in In Pursuit of Faithfulness?

I start with the arrival of the first Mennonite and Amish settlers—in the 1830s and 1840s. I set the stage with the Native American presence, and the process in which Indiana was appropriated by whites. The towns of Elkhart and Goshen were already in existence when Mennonites first arrived. The year 1916 is the beginning of the current incarnation of the conference. It began as a merger between a previous Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonite Conference.

The history ends in 2001, when the Great Lakes proposal failed to combine several Mennonite conferences. It includes an epilogue covering some “loose ends” since 2001.

Are there themes that carry on through Indiana-Michigan history, or do they change over time?

One theme is reflected in the title: In Pursuit of Faithfulness. Those who make up the conference had their values and understandings. They wanted the conference to be the best representation of their understanding of Mennonite faith, of Christianity. They often disagreed on what that was. In Indiana-Michigan, conflict has always been a big part of the conference. They had these commitments to faith that they felt strongly enough about to tussle over them.

Part of why conflict has been so prominent is because Indiana-Michigan has been so prominent in the church. A really early conflict was over Sunday school in the 1860s and 1870s. One of those pushing Sunday school was John F. Funk, who lived in Elkhart, Indiana. On one hand, this was an Indiana-Michigan issue—but it was also a churchwide issue.

Another theme of the book is that in many regards, the history of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference is the history of the Mennonite church. For example, John F. Funk played a role in the beginning of Goshen College—which later helped birth Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Funk also helped launch Mennonite Board of Missions (now Mennonite Mission Network). Because of him, we have MennoMedia and Herald Press. With churchwide Mennonite Mutual Aid (now Everence), the people most instrumental in starting it were Harold S. Bender, Guy F. Hershberger, and Christian Graber, three people affiliated with Goshen College.

Why were Sunday school programs important?

From the late 19th century onward, mission and outreach has been significant to this conference’s identity. Sunday schools were an evangelism tool. They were placed in places where the church wasn’t—the first step in church planting. Later, Bible schools served that function. The number of church plants over the years is impressive. Indiana-Michigan had its own conference mission board, which was very active.

Given the location of many Mennonite church offices and education institutions in the region, is this a story that’s driven by biographies of strong leaders?

No getting around it: H. S. Bender and John F. Funk are pretty prominent, from the 1870s to first decade of the 20th century. But though Indiana-Michigan had a lot of strong leaders, not everything is attributable to them. A lot of people and forces were at play here.

For example, Willard Handrich, pastor of Grand Marais (Mich.) Mennonite Church got the ball rolling that resulted in the elimination of closed communion. In the early 1960s, a woman who had grown up in Grand Marais and now lived elsewhere attended the Grand Marais church whenever she was back. One morning the bishop refused her communion, as she was not a member of the church. It was traumatic for her, and for Handrich. He said, “We won’t serve anyone communion then.” He wrote letters to conference leaders—it took years of wrangling, but he got permission to perform his own communion services. He was not a powerful conference leader, but he left his mark.

The book includes sidebars and stories that provide understanding. For example, one story is Teofilo Ponce, the pastor of Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor in Goshen, who grew to faith at Lawndale Mennonite Church in Chicago, an outgrowth of the first Mennonite mission, initiated by John F. Funk and Prairie Street Mennonite Church. His pastorate in Goshen was a legacy of that mission impulse. I include a sidebar about the role of ministers’ wives in the 1920s and ’30s. And another about Christiana (Buzzard) Holdeman, a prominent family matriarch in the 19th century who lost her husband in Ohio. She’s the grande dame of Indiana-Michigan Conference. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite [Holdeman Mennonites] was started by her nephew.

What has been the role of Indiana-Michigan in the broader Mennonite church? Is it a leader among conferences?

It has been different in different eras, and is still being figured out in the Mennonite Church USA era. Indiana-Michigan’s denominational influence has been huge. It has been the place where some of the most influential people in the Mennonite church were based because of Mennonite institutions here. John Howard Yoder, H. S. Bender, and J. D. Graber, the long-time president of MBM, were influential churchwide.

Indiana-Michigan hosted the 1948 Mennonite World Conference, the first after World War II. Indiana-Michigan has had some ardent conservatives, traditionalist constituents, and you have a lot of people who came from the outside to teach, or to work at the mission board. This puts Indiana-Michigan front and center in some conflicts. The whole homosexuality membership issue—Southside Fellowship and Assembly Mennonite congregations tackled that early; they weren’t longstanding traditional rural churches.

Other conflicts include changes in worship style and attire. Goshen College was closed in 1923 and reopened in 1924—partly because of students and faculty members from outside with different understandings of what one did or didn’t have to wear. Professors argued, “My church membership is in Ohio, we don’t require this.” Students from Illinois said, “We don’t wear that kind of prayer covering at home.”

What surprised you as you dug into this history?

One thing that surprised me was the intersection of almost every Mennonite group in North America here in Indiana-Michigan. Splinter groups, Old Order Mennonites, the Missionary Church. The role John F. Funk played in the Russian migration of 1870s; any Russian Mennonite group has a connection here.

The whole closed communion thing also surprised me; I realized how central the communion service is to group identity. A lot of this is not just Indiana-Michigan but the broader Mennonite church. Another example is the 1948 Mennonite World Conference: the Mennonite Church almost didn’t participate in that because of the last vestiges of that fundamentalist stream. Orie O. Miller, a native of Indiana-Michigan, and H. S. Bender stepped up and helped it happen.

Do you find these historical figures and situations sympathetic?

A lot of them, yes; not all of them. One of the most flawed individuals was John F. Funk, whom I hold in high esteem.

A common thread is that through everything that happened here, because they took their commitment to Christian and Mennonite discipleship so seriously, they felt “We will have to fight about this.” The topics were different: attire, fundamentalism, divorce and remarriage, LGBT issues, the charismatic movement in the early 1970s. Conflict is really not a new phenomenon.

Sometimes Mennonites seem to be moving away from their past history as fast as they can. Why in a 21st-century world should we care about this church history?

You have to be rooted in something. Your response to what that is defines you. We have to know our origin to know what we should be now. You have to have a frame of reference. To decide who you are as an individual, group, conference, denomination, you have to define your starting point. What makes us who we are, what made us who we are? Then you react and say, “I like this part; I don’t like that part.” But if you eliminate it, pretend it doesn’t exist, you’re functioning from a vacuum.

I see through a historical lens. I find it inconceivable to identify yourself without that historical understanding.

Ardell Stauffer, freelance writer and editor, interviewed author Rich Preheim.

In Pursuit of Faithfulness is available from the MennoMedia store, Amazon, and other online sources.

For more information on this press release:

Melodie Davis
News manager


Joan Daggett to serve as new project director for Shine children’s curriculum


Joan Daggett, new project director for Shine

May 12, 2016
News release

Joan Daggett to serve as new project director for Shine children’s curriculum
Current project director Rose Stutzman retires June 30

HARRISONBURG, Va., ELGIN, Ill., and KITCHENER, Ont.—Joan Daggett of Bridgewater, Virginia, has accepted the position of project director for Shine: Living in God’s Light, children’s Sunday school curriculum produced by MennoMedia and Brethren Press.

Daggett is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren and was a writer for the Jubilee curriculum and a trainer for Gather ’Round, both also copublished by MennoMedia and Brethren Press.

Since 2011, Daggett has been executive director at the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center in Harrisonburg. From 1998 to 2011, Daggett was associate district executive at the Shenandoah District of the Church of the Brethren. In those years, she coached congregations on matters related to Christian education, faith formation, nurture, and discipleship, and provided staff support for the Disaster Ministries Auction. She also led numerous curriculum trainings during her time with the Shenandoah District.

“Christian education and discipleship formation have been my passion and calling in life,” said Daggett in accepting the position.

Before 1998, Daggett was director of Christian education in a Presbyterian church and a copastor in a Church of the Brethren congregation. She is a graduate of Bridgewater College and Bethany Theological Seminary, and has a certificate in nonprofit management from North Park University. The search committee named Daggett’s experience working with previous curriculum projects, ordination, and additional education in nonprofit management as being beneficial in the role of project director for Shine.

Amy Gingerich, editorial director for MennoMedia, commented, “We are excited to bring Joan’s passion for sharing about Christian formation to the Shine team.”

“Joan is also especially strong in building relationships with congregations,” says Wendy McFadden, publisher of Brethren Press. “She brings exceptional experience to this position.”

Daggett will work out of the Harrisonburg office of MennoMedia as project director and will begin full-time later this summer.

Rose Stutzman, writer for MennoMedia. Stutzman works from the Elkhart office.

Rose Stutzman, retiring project director for Shine and other publishing work.

Rose Stutzman is retiring June 30 as project director for Shine. Stutzman led the team that developed the Shine curriculum through conceptualization, implementation, and launch from 2013 to 2016. She also served as Gather ’Round editor from 2006 through 2014.

Prior to her work with Gather ’Round, Stutzman and her husband, Mervin, served with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Kenya, where she was an elementary school teacher. Additionally, she worked at Mennonite Publishing House from 1995 to 2002 as an editor and director of Faith & Life Resources.

MennoMedia, the publishing agency serving Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, and Brethren Press, publishing house of the Church of the Brethren, have been publishing curriculum together for many years, earning high marks for Shine, Gather ’Round, and Jubilee, all Sunday school curricula for children.

MennoMedia Staff
High resolution photos available.

For more information on this press release:
Melodie Davis
News manager