By Kellye Fabian. Co-founded the Willow Creek Legal Aid Ministry in 2009. Kellye’s passion is that every person, and especially those experiencing poverty or injustice, would encounter the transforming love of Christ.
I need to confess something to you. For years, the word “justice” overwhelmed me. It triggered fear and an unnamed unsettledness in me. The thing that makes this confession even stranger than it might otherwise seem is that I am a lawyer and have been for nearly 15 years. How can this word “justice” make a lawyer so uncomfortable? Isn’t justice at the heart of what it means to be a lawyer? Plus, I am a follower of Jesus and isn’t justice something our God commands us to seek after for the oppressed? (Is. 1:17)
The thing is that when I used to think of justice, I would think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Wilberforce. I would think of things like Ferguson, Missouri and the unaccompanied children stranded at our borders. I would think of the prison system, the mental-health system, the immigration system, and the school system in poor neighborhoods. By the time my mind made its way through this series of thoughts, I would simply throw up my hands. It’s too much, the systems are too big, too complicated, too broken. What could one person do? What could I possibly do to bring justice to the oppressed?
Then, in 2009, a good friend and I started the Willow Creek Legal Aid Ministry and I met Lori. At the time, the Legal Aid Ministry was just two lawyers with legal pads and a hand-written sign at the Willow Creek Care Center, a food pantry. Lori told me she needed help with an issue related to her condo. But as she talked, I sensed something deeper was going on because she seemed more upset than a person would be about a condo. I probed a little and eventually she revealed a painful story about how she had been fired from her low-paying, hourly job after suffering through a hostile work environment for years. And I don’t mean that her co-workers didn’t like her. Her supervisor followed her around and sprayed everything she touched with Lysol. Her manager said racially derogatory things to her on a daily basis for nearly five years, and ultimately framed her for stealing so she would get fired.
Any lawyer who works in the employment area knows that hostile work environment claims are nearly impossible to prove because the standards are so high. And, would a manager at a major, nationally known company really act so outwardly racist and get away with framing an employee? Lori said she had documents; said she had complained twice to the national CEO of the company; and promised she had a witness who saw what had happened when she was fired. Over the next several weeks, I collected the documents and talked to the witness. Lori’s family was suffering financially, and she was personally defeated, humiliated, and deeply hurt by the way she had been treated. Since she’d been fired, she had spent months trying to find new employment, but was repeatedly denied due to her termination.
This was unjust.
I had to do something.
I decided to represent Lori on a pro bono basis in a case for wrongful termination and hostile work environment against her former employer, something she never could have done on her own or paid a lawyer to do. For three years, I built the case, deposed the employer’s witnesses, and reviewed key documents. All the evidence she told me about that first day we met was established. I advocated for Lori before the judge and prepared to try her case before a jury.
Just days before trial, we settled the case. There was no way the employer would risk taking this case to a jury and settled it in a way that was very favorable to Lori. The outcome restored Lori’s dignity and gave her and her family hope for a future. Justice was done.
The word “justice” doesn’t scare or overwhelm me anymore. There are systemic injustices and I have a role to play in seeking solutions to those. But, there are everyday, life-altering injustices in the lives of my neighbors and I have the privilege of being able to serve one person at a time. I have the ability to lock eyes with one person who has suffered or is suffering in some way, agree to be their advocate, and speak on their behalf in the arena God has given me.
Gospel Justice Initiative seeks to establish justice centers that are similar to the Willow Creek Legal Aid Ministry all over the country. Our goal is a big one, but it just takes one person at a time to answer the call God has placed in them, to respond to the privilege they have been granted, and to lock eyes with one person and be their advocate for justice.
If you are interested in starting a justice center, or learning more, please visit www.gji.org.