This is the final installment in a blog series: Don’t leave Christian Legal Aid to the Lawyers. 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.
Perhaps you are not yet convinced that the church should avoid leaving legal aid to the attorneys. If you still think this is a ministry simply for lawyers, I’ll give you one more example. I will warn you, however, this story does not have a happy ending.
Shauna, a young woman, terribly thin and shaking a bit, sat down in front of me. On the one hand, she could’ve been in her 40s from the lines on her face, but from her story it sounds like she’s probably in her late-20s.
Shauna explains to me that all her possessions were removed from her apartment and put into a storage unit as a part of being evicted. I had to Google this topic while we were talking, but in Indiana, there is a law that allows a landlord to go into your apartment as a part of the eviction process, cart away all of your possessions, and put them in a warehouse. To get your stuff, you need to pay the storage facility for the expense associated with carting and storing your stuff. It’s sort of like if your car gets towed. The law says that after 90 days the owner of the storage facility can sell your stuff to recoup the money, but he is supposed to try to give you notice before he does.
Apparently that’s not what happened here. Shauna had to spend a couple weeks trying to scrape up the money necessary to get her stuff. But well before the 90 days, the warehouse owner sold her stuff. Apparently whatever he couldn’t sell, he simply threw away.
When Shauna went to the warehouse to pay the fees, the owner treated her almost as human trash, just rudely telling her to go away. Frankly, as an African-American woman with no money, she was no threat to him.
Again, as I told you before, I’m not an expert in these kinds of legal issues. But it seemed to me that perhaps since he had not followed the law, there would be an opportunity to at least get him to reimburse Shauna for the value of her possessions. So I asked Shauna if she could remember the stuff she had lost. She had to stop and think, and eventually she explained that she had a washer and dryer that were somewhat new-ish, and a table and a chair. Not very much.
So I told her I would try to refer the case to an attorney who had experience in this area to see if we could get compensation for the value of the furniture she lost.
Then I paused. She just sat there. After a bit of silence, I asked her if there was something else I could do for her.
Shauna hesitated, and then she explained that all she really wanted was to get her shoebox back. She said she really didn’t care about the furniture. She just wanted the shoebox.
Okay, I’ll bite. I asked what was in it.
Turns out she had a son several years ago. The son died very young. And in this shoebox was every memento she had to remind her of her child, including all of the pictures taken. Shauna was estranged from her family, and this was the only human connection she had left.
But it was gone. I knew from what she had told me that the landlord had thrown everything away that he couldn’t sell.
I had nothing. I had no legal advice. I had no practical advice. I didn’t even understand why she had come to me because I’m not a magician; she should know that I could not bring the shoebox back.
As I was sitting there, Shauna started to sob and shake uncontrollably. All this pain that she had been carrying around with her just started to come out in title waves. But I had nothing to offer.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Dorothy, a paralegal who had been helping me, is hugging Shauna. The two of them sat there hugging and crying for what seemed like a half hour (in reality it was probably only five or 10 minutes). Somehow it seemed as though Dorothy was able to actually comfort Shauna. Through obvious deep caring, Dorothy conveyed to Shauna that God loves her and that there are people in the church who would like to help her. But Dorothy also just gave Shauna the chance to let it all out. It was amazing to see.
My job during this time was, as usual, to find some Kleenex. That was about the extent of my usefulness. I should explain that my wife has a nickname for me, “Sheldon.” If you have seen the TV show The Big Bang Theory, you know that Sheldon is a physicist who is smarter than the rest but completely at a loss to understand human emotion. Since Sheldon is smart, I take the reference as a compliment, even though my wife says it at odd times when I haven’t done anything deserving of a compliment. I know; it’s kind of strange.
As I’ve explained, I’ve been doing client intake for the legal aid clinic in Indianapolis for many years now. And it seems to me that the vast majority of our clients come in with a problem that may have legal aspects but almost certainly has other aspects as well. They may need help with creditors or a tax issue, but more fundamentally need help learning how to manage their money. There are those who come in with drug problems, who could really use help with their addiction. A gazillion clients come in with family law issues, but what they really need is help healing family relationships.
Christian legal aid really needs to operate within the framework of the church, as one service wrapped in a package of many designed to help people with their true needs. Indeed, one of the nice aspects of Christian legal aid is that it can bring people to a church who otherwise would not be found in church. Further, a legal aid ministry requires people to open up as to what their true needs are. Having church members from other ministries participate is essential to providing the help and hope the body of Christ can offer.