Midtown Legal Clinic

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells a parable about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” He illustrates his point with a story about a widow who seeks justice against her opponent. The judge who stands between her and justice is a rigid one. Jesus says he “neither feared God nor had any respect for people.” He refused the woman justice despite her fervent pleas. Nevertheless, she persisted, and became so bothersome that the judge decided to grant her justice for no other reason than to be rid of the annoyance.

Because God is nothing like the disrespectful judge, moved only by his own self-interest, this story as an allegory breaks down pretty quickly. We do not pray to a God who is like the unjust judge.

But Jesus is clearly drawing a parallel between the persistence of the widow and the persistence we are called to. And he’s clearly blurring the line between prayer and action, between the inward or “spiritual” and the outward or “lived” aspects of faith. It seems that persistence is a key ingredient all-around.

About a week ago, Idlewild opened her doors to forty-two people seeking legal counsel. Many of them displayed the kind of persistence the widow in Jesus’ parable exercised.They were mostly the working poor, women and men who make hard choices every month between rent and groceries and utility and doctor’s bills. Often, pursuing justice in some personal matter –no matter the severity—is one more item on a long to-do list and within an inflexible work schedule.

For those who persist, Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) is there to meet them. MALS is a not-for-profit corporation that provides free civil legal services to low income and elderly residents of Shelby, Fayette, Tipton, and Lauderdale Counties. They offer services to many who would otherwise fall through the cracks of the justice system, providing them counsel on issues ranging from domestic violence and custody cases, housing discrimination and eviction, health and benefits (such as SSI and Food Stamps) accessibility, and issues related specifically to the elderly, including Medicare, Wills, Advanced Directives, and financial exploitation.

While those seeking assistance can contact MALS at any time, Saturday legal clinics have become instrumental in increasing community awareness and reaching more people. When attorney and Idlewild member Elizabeth Roane suggested that we open our own clinic, it was the church’s central location in midtown that was most compelling. Add to that a large building and a congregation that includes a generous number of attorneys, and the vision of a new ministry began to emerge. Bruce Webber and Dennis Higdon attended clinics at the library to get a feel for how they functioned, Cindy Ettingof was brought on as the official MALS liaison, and David Bell led the advertising effort and recruited his students and paralegals. Attorneys from Idlewild and beyond agreed to volunteer their services, Idlewild members agreed to organize the space, and area churches and other non-profits helped to spread the word.

All of this led to the first Midtown Legal Clinic (as it came to be called) on April 2nd, 2016. Our most recent clinic, on October 21st, was the fourth, and the fifth clinic is already being planned for April 2018.

Sylvia and MALS

With the support of the Outreach Leadership Team and Brenda Harris (whose administrative support is vital), our current Legal Clinic Committee (to which new Idlewild member Rebecca Hinds has been added) certainly names providing greater access to the justice system as their primary goal. But they also recognize the power in simply opening up our space. The Midtown Legal Clinic is as much a ministry of hospitality as it is a ministry of seeking justice.

And that understanding seems to be shared (albeit in a different language) by the staff lawyers at MALS. Ms. Danielle M. Salton, Manger of the Pro Bono Program, says she attends every legal clinic and that the sheer number of people who attend “speaks volumes as to the need…” She understands better than most the objective difference that legal counsel can make in someone’s life, but she also recognizes the other aspect of what they do. She says:

“People often thank us following a clinic for providing the service, but I am most touched when someone says, ‘Thank you for listening.’

For many it is not even about getting an attorney to take their case for free; it’s about someone taking the time to listen to their story. Feeling unheard is something many, if not all, of our clients feel; and though we may not “win” every case that comes through our doors, we listen and we let the unheard be heard.”

legal clinic volunteers

When we hear the story of the persistent widow, our imaginations may immediately leap to more contemporary examples, but in his reflection on the parable, Peter Woods points out the limitations of such a leap. He reminds us: “This was not a society where everyone was entitled to their day in court. The irony of the story in its context is that the widow would have no rights and she certainly would not have access to a judge in a formal procedure of law. So her crying out for justice is in fact a parody.”

Jesus did that a lot; he told stories that didn’t so much have a moral as they revealed some aspect of the world that violated God’s will and way.

Today, the vulnerable have much greater access to the justice system than they did in Jesus’ day, but there remain significant obstacles. While most of us do not serve as judges and live out our faith within that vocation, we can accompany those who seek justice. We don’t have to live in a world where their cries go unheard.

When we open our church doors to neighbors seeking legal assistance, we provide access to needed services, but just as importantly, we provide a place and a people that say, “Tell me. I will listen.”

At the same time, we meet people like the ones Jesus held up as prophets and teachers. We receive just as much grace as we give.

Created to Create

The hardest part is discerning where to begin, so I’m making it simple and starting with Genesis.

The very first chapter and verse.

When God created the heavens and the earth. (When the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.)


Too often this story is reduced to a story of origin only, to a debate between biblical literalists and non-literalists. Is this a story about how the world was created, or why?

It’s a good question, but there’s a wealth of meaning that lay just beyond it. This is a story about our creative and creating God, a God we will come to know more fully as the narrative unfolds, but a God whose first act was to make something where there was nothingness. God may be many things and have many names, but we first come to know God as Creator.

Not much farther into the story, we learn that humankind is made in God’s image.

Theologians have spilled a lot of ink on exactly how we reflect God’s image (is it God’s wisdom that we reflect? Or God’s power or compassion?), but if we take a cue from the story itself, it’s arguable that our capacity for and call to creativity is the first claim. We are made in God’s image, called to create as God creates.

The thing is, when I think of the Church, and try to articulate what the people of God are called to do and how the people of God are called to live, the language of creativity is not my go-to language. And that makes me wonder whether creativity is one of those words most of us relegate to the past, when we were all artists holding giant pieces of sidewalk chalk in clumsy hands. It makes me wonder whether the word itself carries too much baggage for adults, whether it was abandoned somewhere between preschool and the end of adolescence.

The question invokes a rather clear memory from my own childhood.

Near the end of kindergarten, I was told that my painting, “Where the Wild Things Are,” had been selected for the annual gallery organized by the school system. My family would be invited to join me for a celebratory reception on the day of the gallery’s opening.

One of countless projects we completed in Mrs. Bly’s art class that year, I barely remembered it but nevertheless swelled with pride. It never occurred to me until that day that some kids got to display their paintings in places other than dad’s office or the refrigerator.

And so I waited with building anticipation as the opening day neared. And as my anticipation built, so did my remembrance of the painting. In my mind, it had become worthy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You can imagine the horror I felt when the day arrived, and tracing the art-lined walls with my pointer finger, I turned the corner and saw my name under the framed picture pretending to be my own. As my parents ooh’d and ahh’d and said all the right things, I slipped into tearful indignation, insisting that this was not my work, that there must have been some sort of mix-up. This ridiculous painting looked nothing like the illustrations in Maurice Sendak’s magnificent book and more like a six-year-old student’s experiment with primary colors and under-developed fine motor skills.

It was a terrible afternoon soon made better with ice cream and more affirmation, but I do wonder if that was the day I ceased to really create. I would keep creating, of course, but it was never with the abandon of a six-year-old armed with finger paint and a boundless imagination. It was never with the same freedom and playfulness.

My story is, of course, only mine, but I would venture to say that most of us suffer a similar fate, whether we call ourselves artists or not. And I think we would serve ourselves well if we recovered creativity, both in our lexicon and in our understanding of who we are and to whom we belong: we are creators, made in the image of our Creator God. We were made to create and called to create. We need to create.

So what does any of this have to do with outreach to the community?

We talk about the church’s outreach in a number of ways.

Sometimes it’s in the language of command: God told us to feed the hungry; that’s why we do it.

Sometimes it’s in the language of discipleship: Jesus forged a path for us; we need to find it and follow his way.

Sometimes it’s in the language of forgiveness and freedom: God has forgiven our sin; we are now free from anxious striving and free for serving others genuinely as Christ served us.

All of this language is biblical but it’s not all equally generative.

The language and way of creativity isn’t used as often but it has the potential to be enormously generative if we claim it and live by it.

It will always be within the bounds of what Jesus taught and called us to do, of course, but when the starting point shifts from mere replicating and modeling to dreaming and creating, the possibilities grow.

And this doesn’t mean we are constantly reinventing the wheel! Author Vinita Hampton Wright says, “In a general sense, every human being is creative. This trait is not always flashy. Often it’s not called by its true name. But when you take the stuff of life and rearrange it so that it matters, so that it does good things, you’re acting creatively. At those times when you are breaking a sweat to make life work better, you are most like the God who created you. You don’t have to come up with a new idea in order to be creative. All you have to do is find an old idea and apply it to a new moment or group of people, a new problem or situation.”

When I survey Idlewild’s outreach ministry, I see creativity everywhere. I see a congregation that has taken “the stuff” of her life and rearranged it so that it “does good things” in the community. The depth and breadth of witness and service reflects the diversity of our membership and the diversity of ways we can reach out to our neighbors. Many of these ministries appear as solid as the building by now, deeply ingrained in the life of the place, woven seamlessly into congregational identity.

Solid as they are, all of our outreach ministries began with a creative spark and were guided by a creative (and therefore messy!) process. They are sustained now and continue to thrive by creative re-working.

Sometimes I wonder whether my six-year-old self stopped creating with ease as different languages began their toxic creep into my head and heart: the language of perfection, of striving, of success. That language is present in the Church as well, as individuals strive to be good people and congregations chase success in their programming and demographics and attractiveness. Sometimes, an obsession with what we should be doing (or doing better) takes the wind out of our sails, even when the motivation for asking such questions is genuine.

Doesn’t it sound a lot more fun to begin with a commitment to creativity? To channel our six-year-old selves and say: What can we make today?

What if we held at bay those anxious questions and standards that paralyze our fingers before they even get going? What if we gave ourselves a higher allowance for first drafts, for trial-and-error, for play? When we consider our presence beyond Idlewild’s walls, what if our verbs shifted from “should” to “can”? What if our questions began here:

What can we create together? What does our canvass (our context!) look like and what materials do we have to work with and what is the vision? What can we make—or re-make—that will make our world kinder? Our city stronger? Our witness bolder?

These questions aren’t exclusive to professional artists. They reflect a deep understanding of who we are at the core and what makes us tick. We are called to create, and more importantly, we get to, because God endowed us with the gifts we would need.

We get to form things out of darkness and formlessness, as God did on the first and second days with light and darkness, water and land. We get to make something good out of what’s already there, as God did on the third day when out of the earth sprung vegetation.

Creation is not a one-time event, for God or for us. It is the mode by which the world becomes more abundant, more beautiful, more just.

Creation is the antithesis of nothingness, of chaos, of darkness. It is the way we move forward with joy and into joy.

In the next several months, I’ll be highlighting the different ways Idlewild reaches beyond her doors. I’ll be exploring where the creative impulse for those ministries began and how they unfolded to become what they are now. And because the creative process won’t end until Kingdom Come, I’ll occasionally wonder aloud where new drafts are beginning to bubble.

I invite you to wonder aloud with me!


(Photo: http://www.childrenandyouth.co.uk/children/god-art-project/)