Don’t Leave Christian Legal Aid to the Lawyers


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.

Lawyers need help – you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.   You really don’t want to leave Christian legal aid to just us.  Let me explain why.

As you may know from my prior post, I volunteer Saturdays at a church legal aid clinic. During the week, I practice what is called food and drug law, basically helping companies comply with FDA requirements. Even though I’ve been doing it nearly 30 years, that experience isn’t too helpful in representing the poor.

One Saturday, Caitlin walked in with her mother. I’m guessing she was between 15 and 25, I can never tell.  Caitlin recently had a baby out of wedlock. In a prior proceeding, the father was awarded weekend visitation. However, Caitlin says he’s unfit and doesn’t want to leave her child with him.

She then hands me a list of everything she wants me to do to the father. Yes, I said that right. Item number one on the list: she wants me to report him to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles because his license plate is from Ohio. She also wants me to do various other things to him, including report him to child services. So I ask Caitlin about that.  What’s he done?

Caitlin explains that, well, she hasn’t actually ever left her child with him because she’s sure he’s irresponsible. His home is not clean and he can be a jerk.

Okay, now I’m a bit ticked.

In all my years practicing law, I’ve never done what I did next. It was Saturday, I was spending my time at the clinic and at home, as I recall, that afternoon the noble Michigan Wolverines were taking on those godless Ohio State Buckeyes. Frankly I was feeling a bit crotchety. I explained that Christ’s name was on the door (ok, not literally), and I was not there to help her with some vendetta. I was a little more polite than that, but not much.

Then I felt taken over by the spirit, and I started to lead Caitlin through relevant Bible verses. First I earnestly explained the importance of forgiveness, and that for the child’s sake she needed to move past whatever ill-will she felt toward the child’s father. Then, getting back to perhaps the legal topic at hand, I took her through the story of Solomon and the two mothers, with the important punch line that the law rewards a parent who puts the child’s needs first. I was really on a roll. In fact, I was on such a role that Caitlin’s mother a couple times interjected, “you need to listen to this man.”

After about 10 minutes of this, she’s crying like a baby. I hate it when women do that. I paused and gave her some Kleenex.

That’s when I heard a voice. No not the Lord. This story is not that dramatic.  It was the young Hispanic woman – Maria – sitting next to me who had come to interpret. I guess out of respect for me, Maria had been sitting there quietly, not wanting to interrupt.

But in a very gentle voice, Maria said “I know exactly how you feel. You’re this child’s mother, and giving him up even for a weekend is extremely hard. There is a program at my church that works with young mothers and fathers to sort through exactly the feelings you are experiencing so you can do what is needed.  I can put you in touch with them. I’m quite sure that you would feel better if you had a support group walking you through this.”

Turns out Maria’s church identified the epidemic of having children out of wedlock as an area where the church could help young people experience both God and community. They designed an entire program to work with these young parents, giving them support for the challenges they face in the hopes of bringing Christ’s healing. Apparently young mothers in particular feel great conflict in having to separate from their children even for short periods of time.

As Caitlin asked more questions about the program, and the two of them began sharing stories of caring for young children, Caitlin’s sobbing subsided, and it was replaced with a faint glimmer of hope.

Someone really should’ve told me about these challenges before. My wife and I have two sons in college, but we never had to go through any of the challenges that single parents must cope with. I really had no idea what Caitlin was going through.

You don’t want me doing this alone. I thank God for Maria and her church.