Judging the Poor Worthy of Help


By Bradley Merrill Thompson

Brad is a shareholder in the Washington DC office of Epstein Becker Green. Although he works in Washington, he lives in Zionsville, Indiana and volunteers with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. In his spare time, Brad is an avid photographer who loves to document stories of justice.

Saturday mornings, I volunteer at a church legal aid clinic.  One Saturday, a young lady, Amy, walked in and told me that a man with whom she had a baby was seeking sole custody. Turns out this is Amy’s fourth child by four different men. Each of the first three children had been given to their fathers. It seems that Amy has a number of problems in her life, including some past drug usage. She was rail thin, and nervous. But she was adamant she was clean and being treated unfairly by a system where the father had an attorney and she didn’t.

So of course I did what any Christian lawyer would do, … I judged her.  My first piece of legal advice was that she ought to cross her legs once in a while. Actually I didn’t say that out loud, but I thought it.

I’ve been volunteering at the Saturday clinic for years, and sometimes struggle with whether the work is worthwhile. You wouldn’t believe the mess people get themselves into. But, I keep going back. Indeed, at this point, I can’t imagine not serving at the clinic, and I’d like to share with you why I feel the need to help the poor seek justice.

The Case for Caring

I have to first point out that actually I have picked a bit of an outlier in terms of the type of clients who come to the clinic. The vast majority of the people who come are often victims, for example of a crime (in America we make sure that all criminals have attorneys, but not victims) or a disease (one of the leading causes of financial distress is prolonged illness). I needed to explain that, but that’s not the focus of this post which is on those clients who walk in the door and are in some ways responsible for their plight, like Amy. And, to be sure, there are many clients where I could, if I tried, find fault.

  1. Amy is not as bad as I think

We know with certainty from the Bible that God loves Amy. Indeed, God made Amy in his image. Fortunately for us all, we are not defined by our sins. We are more than our past behavior.  We all make bad decisions, and some people seem to make more than their share. But the Lord sees in all of us our inherent worth, and it is great.

  1. I am not nearly as good as I think

Frankly, through the course of my day, I find it easy to forget I am a sinner. Ironically, the reason I forget is because one of my biggest sins is pride. If you are successful by worldly standards, it’s easy to go through life feeling validated. People treat you as something special if you have education, social standing and financial success.  It is easy to look at the poor and conclude that they are suffering because they have not worked as hard as I have, or simply haven’t made as good decisions.

The truth is those feelings come from the twisted values of this world where money and power are valued above all else. The reality is I am a depraved sinner.  Indeed, the Bible explains that Jesus had to die a horrible death not just for the world at large, but for me.   I need to depend every day on God’s grace, to avoid the punishment I’m due. On advice of counsel, I will not list all of my sins here.

  1. Gifts are to be regifted

I must admit that my view of the poor has evolved immensely over the years I’ve been volunteering.   I now appreciate how we all have certain gifts, and I see an incredible richness and diversity in the skills and abilities of the clients who come through the door.  I see people with enormous capacity for love, faith, humor, compassion, industry and creativity. At the same time, I see gaps in particular skills or abilities.  And I don’t limit this to measurable skills like math, but also less objective skills such as self-discipline and willpower. All of those come from God. God is the source of everything we are.

More profoundly, I’m starting to see a larger picture, of how we all fit together as the body of Christ.  If the Lord gives me the ability to manage my personal finances well, it is just a gift, and it is a gift to be shared. I’m not talking about the money, although we are supposed to share that too. I’m talking about the ability itself.  We get clients through the door who honestly have never been trained in personal finance. These clients present the church the opportunity to pair people with complementary skills. It’s beautiful to see.

  1. Not judging others pays dividends

Everyone knows that God will judge us as we judge others. So by not judging others, we can avoid some of God’s judgment ourselves. I am so grateful for that opportunity.

  1. Helping your neighbor isn’t optional

To some extent, every motivation I’ve shared is irrelevant. What it comes down to is that loving our neighbors, and helping our neighbors, isn’t optional. It is not friendly advice or a helpful suggestion, but a command. The various rationales listed above are simply tools I use personally to try to adjust my attitude.  But make no mistake – I need to do this work.

  1. Great joy comes from serving the poor

The first five reasons all appeal to my rational side, helping me make sense of what I am called to do.  But honestly my emotional side is the bigger motivation for trying to put aside my judgmentalism, and simply offer a hand to the poor.

I’ve worked with people involved in prison ministry, and my experience at the clinic seems similar. One of the most frequent comments from those engaged in prison ministry is the raw authenticity of the encounters.  In contrast to an arrogant suburbanite like me, prisoners often acknowledge their brokenness and are in fact eager to hear how God loves them and is willing to forgive them.

Perhaps unlike any other ministry, clients needing help from a Christian legal aid attorney often come to that encounter prepared to bear their souls.  For any attorney to help them, the client has to first share the source of their suffering. An attorney has to get to know the client in a personal way in order to help them fix whatever is broken. Further, by operating through churches, the attorney has the opportunity to be a point person on behalf of the entire church, directing the client to other forms of assistance the church offers.

The Rest of the Story

I want to return to Amy’s story.

In Indianapolis, the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic has numerous sites where they meet clients.  On this particular Saturday, I had what my children call a brain fart, and I went to the wrong church.  I’m over 50, and this seems to be happening with alarming frequency.

Since I was about a half-hour late to arrive at the correct church, Amy spent the time talking to the minister, Karen. So when we wrapped up, I walked Amy back to where Karen was sitting, and noticed they started talking again. I went about my business with the other clients.

When I finished three hours after Amy first arrived, she was still sitting talking to Karen– or more precisely crying and hugging. Amy had spent her Saturday morning with a pastor in church, a place where she acknowledged she had not been in a long time and would not have gone except to meet with an imperfect attorney.

Fortunately, God doesn’t need me to be perfect. He just wants me to show up, even late.