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.

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