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Mediator Training

By John Bertsche
Originally Published: January 10, 2011

I have served as volunteer mediators for the Small Claims Court.

Volunteer mediators are scheduled at 9:00 or 10:30 AM on alternate Friday mornings at six to eight week intervals. At the time, litigants have a brief hearing with the judge and are offered the opportunity to have their cases mediated, to see if they can arrive at a mutually-agreeable settlement. Inducements include the possibility of same-day resolution, avoiding additional court costs, and being more actively involved in the resolution process.

If the litigant agrees to the suggested resolution, the mediator writes out the terms of the agreement and both parties sign. The agreement is then presented to the judge, and becomes a court order. Should the parties refuse mediation, or if an agreement cannot be reache during mediation, the case is rescheduled for a later date, at which time the judge will impose a settlement. About two-thirds of mediated cases are resolved without this step.

This is one of the first attempts to employ mediation in small claims court in Illinois. The court system has judged it to be very successful. Students from the University of Illinois Law School come from Champaign-Urbana to observe and participate. Because of the success of the program, another four-day training to equip additional mediators is being planned for the near future. If you think you may be interested in participating, contact John Bertsche.

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Pay Day Loans

By John Bertsche
Originally Published: February 03, 2011

…economically depressed areas of the twin cities. I already new that these places prey upon poor people with usurious rates. But I was further educated when Phil Dick and I attended an Illinois Peoples’ Action (IPA) “Pay Day Loan” Teach-In at Centennial Christian Church on November 15, 2010. Numerous local churches and the synagogue were represented.

Persons wqith pressing immediate financial need are lured with offers of small cash loans, using car titles or undated personal checks as security until the loans are paid off. Interest rates charged readh 400 percent APR (Annual Percentage Rate) of the total loan! Payment schedules usually coincide with the borrower’s pay day, generally two weeks. Most of what is paid at that time is interest on the loan. At the end of the loan period (usually three months), there is a large balloon payment of up to 80 percent of the loan amount. The borrower is then encouraged to roll over the balance into a new loan, with the enticement of receiving the paid-off balance as cash.

This practice perpetuates the debt problem. Failure to meet scheduled payments results in seizure of automobiles, or overdrawn bank accounts, with the associated fees for the overdraft.

Two victims of these practices told their stories at the teach-in. In one instance, the victim’s faith community intervened, paying off all debts with a no-interest loan. In return, the individual’s credit card and checkbook were temporarily surrendered to the financial mentor assigned by the church. These were returned after the loan was fully repaid.

The second person has become increasingly entangled with multiple loans. Since no one intervened to help, bankrupty was the only option.

The IPA representative encouraged us to take petitions to our faith communities, supporting efforts to have the Bloomington City Council and the Normal Town Council enact a 35 percent APR limit in their jurisdictions. Legal counsel has advised that this can be done under Home Rule Guidelines. Were this limit to take effect, these usurious businesses may be forced to close. Most persons could still obtain needed loans from traditional sources that abide by the 35 percent limit.

Our Peace and Justice Committee will provide members of our congregation opportunity to sign such a petition. Both the Old and New Testaments strongly counsel business practices which benefit the poor rather than extort from them, as these businesses do.

Reduce Military Spending

By Meredith Schroeer
Originally Published: June 17, 2011

Most Americans are very concerned about our already astronomical and steadily growing national debt, a debt which is causing draconian cuts in social and other domestic programs all across the country. But one area of the budget has until now come under very little scrutiny, and that is the defense budget, a proposed $685 billion for 2012. If all the programs associated with war were included, the defense budget for 2011 would actually exceed a trillion dollars. Last year the U.S. spent about $2.1 million every single minute for war and defense.

The most powerful nation in the history of the planet now devotes more than half of its tax revenues to wars, past, present, and future. The U.S. accounts for 48 percent of all the military spending in the world, although our population is only five percent of the world’s population, and our land mass only one-fifteenth.

Regarding this level of military spending as unsustainable, especially in view of our domestic needs, four congressmen representing otherwise widely divergent political views, Barney Frank (D-MA), Walter Jones (R-NC), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Ron Wyden D-OR) called for the formation of a Sustainable Defense Task Force. This group, ultimately composed of representatives from fourteen groups across the ideological spectrum (from the Cato Institute on the right, to Peace Action on the left) put forth a report last June, Debt, Deficits and Defense: A Way Forward, proposing measures to cut defense spending without affecting our national security. By way of illustration, five of these recommendations follow. Savings would be over the next ten years.

  1. Reduce the current U.S. nuclear arsenal to 1,050 total warheads deployed. Save $113.5 billion. The new START treaty reduces the U.S. arsenal to 1,550 deployed, strategic nuclear weapons, and this cut would still provide the U.S. with an overwhelming nuclear arsenal.
  2. Reduce U.S. routine military presence in Europe and Asia to 100,000 troops and reduce total uniformed military personnel to 1.3 million. Save over $200 billion. U.S. troops have been in Europe and Asia since World War II, to defend against attacks from the now long-defunct Soviet Union. In the late 1940s much of Europe and Asia lay in the ruins of WWII, but now these countries can decide for themselves what constitutes an adequate defense, and pay for it themselves.
  3. Realign the Missile Defense Program. Save $60 billion. Although over $200 billion has been spent on Star Wars over the past 25 years, the results have been only failed tests and no workable system. The recommendation would still leave tens of billions for research and development.
  4. End the V-22 Osprey. Save $15 billion. Even the military has rejected this Cold War weapons system which has been plagued with cost overruns and fatal crashes.
  5. Build/operate fewer aircraft carriers and associated air wings. Save $43 billion. No other nation has even one ship comparable to the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers. The second largest military spending nation, China, is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile system to respond to the U.S. advantage. The sense of threat which other nations experience when the U.S. ramps up its military creates an arms race with no winners.
Just these five steps, which are only a portion of the Task Force’s recommendations, would amount to $431.5 billion savings over ten years, or a 6.2 percent reduction in military spending per year, based on the proposed military budget for 2012.

Specific details are included in this article so persons who may wish to call their representatives in Congress may cite specific steps to reduce our military budget, without any realistic danger to national security, as a way of saving crucial domestic programs. The difficulty in obtaining such cuts will lie in the job losses which they would cause. But individuals could be re-trained to help meet domestic needs, especially in our crumbling infrastructure, but also in emerging new energy initiatives, health care, and environmental restoration. Such a policy shift could breathe a new spirit of hope into the world.

Peace and Justice at Our Doorstep

By Joe Jantze

On February 18, 2012, Charles Osgood, of the Osgood Files, stated there are approximately 7 billion people alive today. According to Osgood, 101 billion people have lived in the past. This is difficult for the human mind to comprehend.

The February 26, 2012 worship theme was the renouncement of violence as a way of “solving” the problem of sin. Despite our failures, God encourages us to follow in the way of peace. The assurance of pardon that Sunday read, “The Lord does not remember the sins of our youth, nor the transgressions of our old age, but, in steadfast love, God remembers us. Let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus, confident that the words he heard are also for us: “This is my beloved; in you I am well pleased!”

This covenant has been made with billions of people throughout the ages! Remembering another recent sermon (February 11, 2012), Pastor Tim stated that it is important to die in the fullness of God’s love, as opposed to Solomon, for example, who was unable to experience the fullness of God’s love by the end of his days, due to his own greed and other issues.

We live in difficult times. Social, political, cultural and economic issues affect personal finances. An article in the Pantagraph pointed out the problem of homeless high school students in Livingston, McLean and DeWitt counties. Congress is at an all-time low approval rating of approximately six percent. The only way to make our political system honest is through campaign finance reform via public financing, thus causing self-interest groups to lose their influence.

An eleven-part Christian Education series, called Peace and Justice Issues at Our Doorstep, coordinated by your Peace and Justice Committee, concluded recently.

JESUS HOUSE – Tom Lentz described this ministry, which includes worship opportunities for the less fortunate. He told about Bill, who came to Jesus through the movement of the Holy Spirit during such a service. The Jesus House also provides a safe place for Westside children to gather during the summer. Tom and his wife Bonnie learned about Christ as adults, by reading the red print in a Bible. Tom has a fresh perspective on Christianity. Jesus House also has food pantry and clothing distribution center.

IMMANUEL HEALTH CENTER – A faith-based health clinic, located on the Westside of Bloomington, should help to alleviate the problems of our failing medical system, which is leaving more than 47 million Americans without health care. Dr. Trina Scott is the director.

JOY CARE CENTER – Based on his own personal experiences, Bill Hertter has a passion for helping ex-felons integrate back into society. He has a working relationship with McDonald’s, and further aids his clients with spiritual mentoring.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Town of Normal Police Officer Amanda Street presented alarming statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence in our community, and the difficulties presented by the various cultural backgrounds of our residents.

IMMIGRATION ISSUES – Saulo Padillo, of Mennonite Central Committee, presented the complexities of our failing immigration system. There are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants present in the United States today. There simply was not enough time during the class to delve into this issue fully.

PRAIRIE STATE LEGAL SERVICES – Attorney Adrian Barr told us how PSLS provides individuals and families with limited financial means, and those over age 60, with civil domestic legal assistance. This helps to alleviate some of the problems Officer Street talked about in her presentation on domestic violence. PCLS offers legal assistance in civil cases in these areas: family law, housing law, health care and other needs-based government assistance.

MARC FIRST / CENTER FOR HUMAN SERVICES – These organizations provide social services for the mentally ill and developmentally challenged. Some local businesses hire disabled individuals through Marc First. Rick Glass and Tom Barr shared about the impact of ongoing state cuts to these programs.

SOCIAL IMPACTS OF URBAN PLANNING – Mercy Davison, Town of Normal Planner, was our guest for this presentation. Little emphasis has been given to low income housing. The location of Normal Community High School is a detriment to students involved in extracurricular activities, as the only means of transportation to this location is a school bus or private vehicle. Bloomington-Normal does have a functional public transportation system in place; the Constitution Trail is a wonderful addition to the community.

CHESTNUT HEALTH CENTER – Alan Markwood works with prevention research, a vital aspect of alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Children should be encouraged from an early age to get involved with appropriate peer groups; once addiction has begun, it is very difficult to achieve a “cure.” Of the clients who enter treatment at Chestnut, there is only a 10 percent success rate. Prevention is THE key.

CLARE HOUSE – Tina Sipula told us there are eight food distribution centers in Bloomington-Normal. Clare House is the only one that does not require paperwork in order to receive food. They distribute bags of staples twice weekly, and provide two weekly lunches at St. Mary’s.

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY – Kristen Sand explained how this organization works against substandard housing and homelessness. Their success rate is high. Only two of 137 homes built locally have been foreclosed on. Habitat also works with house rehabilitation.

The leaders of the above-mentioned organizations have something in common. They are trained professionals, who have compassion for those in need of their services. We, in turn, should be prayerfully aware of the needs around us and help where we are able.

Titus Peachey, MCC Cluster Bomb Presentation

By Matt Hickman
Originally Published: November 2, 2011

Corey Mattson of justblono.org covered the lecture by Titus Peachey, of Mennonite Central Committee, which was held Oct. 30 at the Mennonite Church of Normal. Mr. Peachey shared, with a crowd of 50, biblical principles, particularly the parable of the Good Samaritan, to show that violence is immoral and ineffective in any setting. The video of the lecture is divided into four parts.

The Hard Road to Democracy

By Gerlof Homan
Originally Published: December 19, 2011

Recent developments in the Middle East have raised hopes that democracy might finally emerge in this part of the world. History teaches us, however, that the rise or emergency of democracy can be a slow and painful process. Western European countries tried for almost two centuries to create a democratic system.

France tried in 1789, and failed. After some ten years of turmoil Napoleon seized power and established a dictatorship. The French tried again with limited success in 1815, 1839, and 1848. Their revolution of 1848, which had considerable impact on the rest of Europe, also failed and gave rise to a new dictator, Napoleon III. He was overthrown in 1870. After much internal wrangling, democracy finally reemerged in the 1870s. But the new regime had many enemies. There was no national concensus! During World War II these enemies saw an opportunity to reestablish an autocratic regime. They failed, but it was not until 1958 that a stable democracy finally emerged. It took some 170 years for France to reach this point.

Other European countries experienced similar trials. In 1848 Germany was swept by a large number of revolutions in various states. All of them failed, and many revolutionaries fled to the United States. Among them was Carl Schurz, who later became prominent in American politics. The Germans tried again after World War I, but most Germans were not enamored of democracy, and allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to come to power. Only after the disastrous World War II experience did most Germans agree that democracy was the best political system for them. The same can be said of Italy, where Mussolini came to power in the 1920s. He was overthrown during World War II.

Some years ago, our son Chris Homan was in Lesotho, a small African nation, where he and others tried to help launch a democratic system. Shortly after he left there was an election, but the losers didn’t like the outcome and staged a coup. In a democracy one must learn to accept the outcome of an election, no matter how difficult and disappointing it may be. There is such a thing as political maturity.

Much of Africa, Latin America, and Asia have gone through similar experiences. For a democracy to succeed, a country must agree on a few essentials, such as respect for minority opinions and human rights, and learn the art of compromise. That can be a painful process and may take a few generations. We must remember that holding free elections does not a democracy make!

In fact, an election might result in the creation of a dictatorship if the undemocratic forces win the election. In some respects, that happened in Germany in 1933, when the Nazis came to power. There is bitter irony in that event: the Nazi Party, determined to destroy democracy, came to power through a democratic process!

Why did the United States not experience such growing pains? We inherited our political traditions from the British, who began their democracy with the drafting of the famous Magna Carta in 1215. India had the same good fortune.

Lacking such experience, we may expect a lot of instability in the Middle East. There will be failures and military coups and other serious challenges.

It will always be difficult to govern humankind. Voltaire said that even the ancient Israelites made a mess of things, and yet they had God on their side! The Bible does give us some guidelines. Among them is respect for individual dignity. That goal can best be achieved by observing basic human rights and by introducing democratic values. Yet, respect for human rights and democratic values must be learned and appreciated.

Democratization of much of the world could also advance the cause of peace. Although democracies can become belligerent, as stirred by an angry jingoistic electorate, they do not make war on each other. No democracy has ever made war on another democratic nation.

Racism in America

By John Bertsche
Originally Published: Feb 21, 2012

Our Wednesday morning men’s book study group has most recently been reading Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, by Ronald C. White, Jr., referring to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. As expected, the focus is on the Civil War and slavery—the primary cause of the war.

Unfortunately, racism has a long and ugly history in the United States. Shortly after Europeans came to these shores, they began importing slaves from Africa. Following the Revolutionary War, when our nation was officially founded, slavery was endorsed in our Constitution. Not only was slavery legalized, but slaves were counted as 60 percent of a vote that was given to a “freeman.”

Though slavery was officially ended after the Civil War, by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (ending slavery, granting citizenship, and giving the right to vote), racism did not end. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) recently ran a series on a new twist to slavery following the War. Blacks were often arrested on flimsy counts and then forced to work under slave-like conditions, usually in coal mines.

James Cone’s recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree recounts the morbid history of lynching in America. Between 1880 and 1940, five thousand people were lynched, primarily persons of color.

Around 1900, the Supreme Court decided in Plessy vs Ferguson that separate but equal school systems were legal. Schools then were separate, but hardly equal. That decision was reversed in 1954, with the Brown vs Topeka Board of Education decision. Despite that decision, segregated educational systems are still all too common.

After the Civil War, official segregation continued for another one hundred years, with African Americans relegated to second class status. When I left for Akron, Pennsylvania, for my Mennonite Central Committee assignment to Gulfport, Mississippi in 1952, the bus stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line and the driver required that all black passengers go to the back of the bus. The Civil Rights movement ended legalized segregation.

The Sunday school series during this quarter, Peace and Justice at Our Doorstep, has indirectly highlighted a more recent form of racism. Drug use as a cause of imprisonment disproportionately targets blacks. Most studies show little different between white and black drug use. However, blacks are much more likely to be incarcerated. Currently, blacks constitute thirteen percent of our population, but account for forty percent of the prison population. Today more than 250 out of every 100,000 black adults are sent to prison on drug charges—a rate ten times higher than that for white adults. More black men are in U.S. prisons today than were slaves at the time of the Civil War. Incarceration leads to additional problems, including decreased opportunities for employment and the denial of the opportunity to vote.

Christians were often in the forefront of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement and in the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago. Vigilance is still required for the more subtle forms of racism which exist today.

Be alert for manifestations of racism. Watch for code words in political debates that try to use subtle racism for political advantage. Be ready to denounce racism and use judgment when casting your vote.

Voting rights in a democracy

By: John Bertsche
Originally Published: September 4, 2012

The United States justifiably prides itself as being a representative democracy. My Webster’s Dictionary describes democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections.”

However, our record of allowing all citizens the privilege of voting is not always a stellar one. After our nation was founded, our Constitution denied voting rights for slaves and women. And in fact, 60 percent of slave representation was given to “free” males.

After the Civil War, slavery ended and slaves were given freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote. However, voting restrictions, frequent in southern States, were imposed on the newly-freed slaves. Methods used included intimidation, literacy tests and the imposition of a voting tax (poll tax). The success of the Civil Rights movement greatly expanded voting participation by African Americans. Women were not given the right to vote until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Now conservative movements are working to make it more difficult for minorities and the poor to vote. The primary tactic is to require pictorial voter ID. It is justified as a method to eliminate voter fraud, despite lack of credible evidence that this is a problem. Currently Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana require voter pictorial IDs. The August 31, 2012 Pantagraph reported that the court invalidated Texas’ pictorial voter ID law as being unwarranted restriction on the right to vote.

Other strategies used to suppress voting in poor and minority areas include restriction of early voting, limiting the number of polling places, and limiting the hours of voting. Since American elections are held on a weekday, restrictions are more likely to negatively impact workers, students, the elderly and those with limited mobility.

In an effort to assure that the democratic right to vote is available to all eligible voters, be alert for ways restrictions are imposed on target groups. Help preserve voting rights for all who have the legal right to vote.

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Writings and sharings from the Peace and Justice Committee of the Mennonite Church of Normal, IL.

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Writings and sharings from the Peace and Justice Committee of the Mennonite Church of Normal, IL.