By J. Denise Arnold
Pictured left to right: Abigail (5), Eric, Denise and Jacob (6). J. Denise Arnold obtained her Bachelor of Science from Bradley University in Peoria, IL and juris doctor from John Marshall Law School in Chicago, IL. She practiced law for several years but today is happy to spend her time as a wife, stay at home mom of two and volunteer.
It was 5:30 am and my house was quiet. I was trying to focus and clear my head before I started what would be a busy day of being a stay at home mom with our two young kids. I couldn’t focus because of the lingering conversation I had with my husband a few days prior. He had been approached by a fellow church member at Christ Community Church who thought we would be interested in meeting with some “higher ups” to find out about starting a church legal clinic. I immediately and emphatically said “no” not giving him a chance to explain. I stopped practicing family law in 2007 and never missed the contention, anger, stress, anxiety, panic attacks and busyness of that life. I did not like the person I was when I practiced law and wanted to forget it all. However, what I was about to learn is that God can and will use the worst experiences of your life and turn them into something amazing.
As I sat there before the sunrise, I recalled a book that a friend had mailed to me a month earlier titled “Gospel Justice: joining together to provide help & hope for those oppressed by legal injustice.” The author, Bruce Strom, founded the organization Administer Justice, which just happens to be the same program that our church had approached my husband and me to implement. When I received the book in the mail and read the title, I threw the book to the side and selfishly thought “I want nothing to do with law ever again, especially not helping the poor and oppressed.” But on this specific morning, I couldn’t just throw the book to the side, I had to open it. Three chapters of “Gospel Justice” later, what some would call guilt, I call conviction and it set into my heart and I had tears in my eyes. I knew I couldn’t hide anymore. I had no choice but to do what God had created me to do: to help others using what I already possessed, a law degree. In a matter of minutes, my whole life path made sense and all the pieces of the puzzle came together, why I chose to go to law school, why I practiced family law, why my husband and I had chosen to attend Christ Community Church, why my friend had mailed to me “Gospel Justice” and why my husband works in legal staffing.
Fast forward nine months and numerous meetings with leaders at Christ Community Church, meetings with the founder and staff of Administer Justice, then recruiting attorneys, paralegals, prayer partners and interpreters and now there is a once a month legal clinic on a Saturday morning at Christ Community Church providing help and hope to low income individuals who cannot afford legal resources. Each clinic morning, attorneys, paralegals, interpreters and advocates join together as a team to make each client who walks in the room feel important and cared for. After being greeted and offered coffee and fresh baked treats, the client fills out paperwork. They go into their scheduled 45 minute appointment with an attorney to discuss their legal issues. Usually, the legal issue is just one of the many struggles they are facing. Most of these people are struggling in many ways, including physically, emotionally, spiritually, or financially. After meeting with an attorney, if the client so chooses, they meet with an advocate who first prays with them and then gives them any needed information about resources for food, clothing, churches, support groups and more. Sometimes we can help them resolve their legal issue that day, but not always. Regardless, I know that we have made a difference by just listening, encouraging and letting them know how important they are in this world.
The process of starting this legal clinic has been amazing. It has softened my heart to the needs of so many people living right around us. It has given me hope that there is good in the legal system and that attorneys, including a former judge, from all areas of law can team up and selflessly work together to help a bigger cause. You see, Administer Justice doesn’t just give free legal advice, we are trying to show love, compassion and mercy to each individual client, which is shining the light of Jesus Christ in dark situations. Not to mention the true gratefulness the clients express as they leave our clinic is such a refreshing change. In turn, I hope that the clients are having a change of heart too. I hope that they see that lawyers are human just like them; that there can be good in the legal system; that their voice can be heard; and most importantly that there is a God who loves them and hasn’t forgotten them. We, as attorneys, have been given so much power by knowing the law and I personally want to use that power for a lasting and life changing impact.