After appeal for compassion causes pain, a pastor apologizes

August 18, 2020 7:00 am
A table decorated for All Saints Day at the Mennonite church where Jennifer Harris Dault serves. (Submitted by Jennifer Harris Dault to Kansas Reflector)

A table decorated for All Saints Day at the Mennonite church where Jennifer Harris Dault serves. (Submitted by Jennifer Harris Dault to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jennifer Harris Dault is a Mennonite pastor in St. Louis, Missouri.

Recently I was featured in a Kansas Reflector article about Mennonite pastors and church members who wrote letters asking for compassionate release for 83-year-old Arlan Kaufman, who is halfway through a 30-year prison sentence.

I had read enough of the case file to know the charges against Kaufman and his wife, Linda (who died in 2019), were serious. As the Kansas Reflector article put it, they were convicted of forcing mentally ill residents at their group homes in Newton “to live and work naked and to perform sex acts, including some that were videotaped,” and of Medicare fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.

I cared about the case because some of the Kaufmans’ relatives are members of the congregation I serve as interim pastor. Arlan Kaufman is reportedly near death, diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and a number of other health issues. Prison medical care is often painfully lacking, with few (if any) updates to family.

So based on the fact that every major religious group has some variation of the Golden Rule — “Do under others as you would have them do unto you” — I wrote a letter saying Kaufman should be released to receive medical care and allow the involvement of his family in his final days.

“I recognize that the justice system is not based upon any particular religion,” I wrote, “but I do believe that it is at its best when it holds the dignity of humankind at its heart.”

I failed to consider the harm my letter would cause to survivors.

In the Reflector article, Newton resident Kathy Wiens was quoted as saying “the statements of support are only concerned with the one who has perpetrated sexual crimes against mentally disabled individuals,” and expressed her sadness at the twisting of Mennonite values of peace and nonviolence.

I have not read any of the other letters, so I speak only to mine — Kathy was right about me.

I believe our justice system is deeply flawed, and I believe in the rights of all people to have sufficient health care and medical treatment, and so I believe in compassionate release, not just in this case, but in general.

But Kathy rightly called me out on something I also believe and failed to address in my letter — that the voices of survivors are important and should always be centered.

I failed to do what should have been the first thing on my mind: Talk to survivors.

Instead, I wrote a letter assuming the warden or judge reading it would already know those stories and be holding them in mind. I envisioned myself writing to a place where those stories were already believed and held as important, so that I didn’t need to name them.

In doing so, I betrayed my own knowledge about the many, many ways the criminal justice system fails survivors, even as I was writing about the ways it fails prisoners.

I believe my words about the Golden Rule and the dignity of humankind, but I failed to apply them to those who have continually felt unheard and dismissed by Mennonite leaders like me. My words were incomplete and left too much in silence.

My silence was not only harmful, but sinful. It allowed the reading of a theology that so often closes its eyes to abuse and pain, and that is not what God calls me to do. I am so, so sorry.

Survivors, you deserve better. Your worthiness and care should never have to be questioned. I am examining myself and the places in me that allowed me to skip such important steps in this process and that made it all too easy for me to cause harm.

I am committing myself to create new processes to ensure I respond better in the future. I am asking some trusted colleagues to hold me accountable in centering survivors — and also welcome accountability from any of you.

Kathy, thank you for calling me out — and I am so sorry you had to.

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