Joshua Abel, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, came to speak to a group of ESR, Bethany, and Earlham students at Peace Forum. ESR MDiv student Erin Hougland did her Americorps work at the NCLC, and now works as their volunteer coordinator. The NCLC began in 1991 when a Presbyterian pastor used his sermon to discuss the need for free legal assistance in the impoverished community surrounding the church building. Six attorneys in the congregation decided to create a legal clinic that provided pro-bono legal services to low income neighborhood residents. NCLC has from a volunteer organization to a not-for-profit corporation with 30 employees, including an Executive Director and 10 attorneys on staff. They offer legal services free of charge to those at 125% of the poverty line or lower. Areas of expertise include landlord/tenant law, foreclosures, child custody and visitation, immigration, bankruptcy, taxes, and wills.
A few things of note here: this is the first legal clinic that came out of a church setting, at least as far as the American Bar Association is aware. Second, the clinic does its work as a way of demonstrating the love of Christ. They do not evangelize in the sense that we think of evangelizing in the 21st century. One could argue that they are evangelists in the sense that they bring “good news”; much-needed assistance to the poor and needy. I am reminded of John 1: 46 where Nathaniel asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth and Philip answers “Come and see.” Evangelism may simply be letting your work in the world and what you advocate be a reflection of your faith.
The Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic is always looking for partners; non-profits who can refer clients, attorneys willing to volunteer on cases, donations, churches willing to serve as intake sites, etc. There was talk at ESR on Thursday of where a good intake site in Richmond would be. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one soon.
On a more personal note, I have dealt with legal bureaucracy two memorable times in my life. One was because the IRS made a mistake on my taxes and insisted that I owed money, while the other occurred because a landlord was (amazingly, suspiciously) slow in returning a security deposit. I muddled through both situations, but remembered thinking that this would be extremely difficult if I did not have the ability to take time during business hours to handle this, and if I did not feel equipped to research tax law and landlord-tenant law and argue based on that research. I mentioned these two examples to Erin Hougland, and she affirmed that these were not unusual issues for the legal clinic to deal with. For people who feel as though “the system” is stacked against them, having someone to affirm what their legal rights and assist them in navigating it is good news indeed.