Law, Faith Communities Join Together For Justice

May 15, 2018

The 22-year-old man wanted to find a better job, but like many Tennesseans he had a criminal history that kept him stuck in a rut of unsteady, low-wage positions. To make matters worse, the man owed hefty court fees and costs associated with his past offenses. Under Tennessee law, those debts had caused him to lose his driver’s license.

Looking for a way out of this situation, the man attended a legal clinic in North Nashville affiliated with the Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance, an initiative of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission. The TFJA is dedicated to connecting faith leaders with pro bono attorneys and other legal resources.

Rev. Dr. Judy Cummings, the senior pastor at New Covenant Christian Church, another partner of the legal clinic in North Nashville, recalls what happened next to the 22-year-old man she described as being “caught in a vicious cycle” of debt.

“Well when this young man came out of that clinic, that sanctuary, and realized he was debt-free he began to jump and to shout and to leap for joy with tears streaming down his face,” Rev. Dr. Cummings said. “He shouted, ‘I’m free, I’m free! I can get my driver’s license back! I can get a job! I can take care of my child! I can finally stand on my own two feet and be a real man!’”

To Rev. Dr. Cummings it recalled nothing less than the moment in the New Testament when a paralyzed beggar at the temple gates is healed by Jesus’s disciples. For the first time, he, too, could stand up on his own two feet, and he, too, leapt for joy because of it.

Rev. Dr. Cummings recounted this story recently at the TFJA’s Tennessee Faith & Justice Summit, which was held at Sewanee: The University of the South’s Beecken Center. The event brought together faith leaders, attorneys and advocates from across the state for a day devoted to examining how Tennessee’s legal and religious communities can come together to aid some of society’s most vulnerable members. Attendees heard everything from practical advice about setting up legal clinics to first-hand accounts of lives positively impacted by the work of the TFJA and its partner organizations.

The problem of a lack of legal representation in Tennessee is a substantial one, as Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate explained in her remarks at the beginning of the summit.

“Nearly 70 percent of our low-income Tennesseans have real legal issues that are not being met,” Tate said. “It is just so sad to me whether it’s eviction and landlord/tenant issues or the expungement of records. There are so many Tennesseans who get to the point of being offered a job and then they can’t take the job because they have something on their record that prevents the employer from hiring them. People feel shut out, they feel isolated, intimidated by our court system. Some are even afraid to go to the courthouse to get their problems resolved.”

Tate credited the Tennessee Supreme Court with being proactive on this issue and trying to come up with solutions to extend legal help to those in need.

“The visionary people who serve on our Supreme Court decided that access to justice, this need of justice for all, would be their number one priority,” she said.

Tate singled out Justice Cornelia Clark, who serves as the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice liaison, for special recognition in this area.

“She is really the spearhead of so many of the initiatives and activities that go on,” Tate said. “She has pioneered this successful Faith and Justice Alliance; a seed, an idea that has now grown into this beautiful oak tree that you all are a part of.”

The TFJA and the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice efforts focus on civil litigation. While everyone has a constitutional right for free counsel in a criminal proceeding, the same is not true for civil proceedings.

“There is no such right in Tennessee or any other state for persons who have civil needs, and yet those needs often equally affect their lives, sometimes their liberty, and certainly their health and safety and welfare,” Justice Clark said during her remarks at the summit.

That reality leads to a troubling statistic. While about 1.2 million Tennesseans need legal representation but cannot afford it, there are only about 75 to 80 legal aid attorneys in the state to provide them with counsel. While Justice Clark praised those attorneys for their selfless work, she said those disparate numbers leave many Tennesseans without access to legal care.

The work of the TFJA and its partners tries to even out that imbalance by expanding the legal playing field, so to speak. As both Director Tate and Justice Clark pointed out, some people feel uneasy about approaching an attorney or heading to a courtroom to find a way out of their legal predicament. They may feel more comfortable seeking aid in a religious setting.

“The places where people are already coming if they have problems are their houses of worship,” Justice Clark said. “It may be their own, it may be just one in the community where they know somebody, but they’re already coming to you and telling you their problems.”

Indeed, it has been estimated that up to 60 percent of people go to a faith leader first in a time of crisis.

The TFJA seeks to build upon those interactions by teaching religious leaders how to identify problems with potential legal remedies. For instance, not everyone dealing with issues like eviction, foreclosure, a denial of government benefits or debt collection even knows that they may be eligible for legal relief.

“We train clergy to spot legal issues,” Justice Clark said. “Not to know the answers, but to understand when someone is telling you their story that there might be, if not a complete solution, then at least something that will improve their situation.”

Just as the TFJA’s programs and partnerships depend on the relationships between faith leaders and community members, they also rely on the willingness of attorneys to volunteer their time to do pro bono work.

In 2017, the TFJA partnered with 125 different houses of worship across the state to offer programs like legal training sessions and clinics. That work requires a lot of attorneys.  Thankfully, Tennessee has a number of good lawyers willing to serve both their profession and their faith.

The TFJA helps to recruit those volunteer attorneys, and also provides malpractice insurance for them and gives them continuing legal education credits for their work at the state’s many legal clinics. A list of upcoming legal clinics is provided monthly in the TFJA’s newsletter.

“What I love about all those people who come from this great organization to volunteer is that they come to help,” Rev. Dr. Cummings said.

She remembered in particular one expungement clinic held in North Nashville at 9 a.m. on a hot August day. Despite the heat, a long line of people greeted the volunteers. The clinic was supposed to end at 3 p.m., but the volunteers stayed until 9 p.m. to ensure that everyone got support. Rev. Dr. Cummings found the scene inspiring. 

 “This is the work that we are called to do together,” she said. “To see the law and the church working together to do the restorative work of God.”

Nick Tidwell is one of the many volunteer attorneys who have partnered with the TFJA in recent years. In 2011, he started a faith-inspired legal organization, Compassionate Counsel, which holds regular clinics in the greater Nashville area. He is also the executive pastor at First Baptist Church of Gallatin.

At the Tennessee Faith & Justice Summit, Tidwell said he and other attorneys were happy to help disadvantaged Tennesseans get legal counsel.

“Contrary to some opinions, we lawyers do have hearts,” Tidwell said with a smile. “We want to make a difference. We want to make the world a better place, and, most importantly, coming from a background of faith, we want to make a difference for the kingdom.”

Tidwell moderated a panel at the summit featuring other faith leaders who work with the TFJA to expand the reach of justice. Those leaders shared stories of people who had been helped by TFJA-affiliated legal clinics and also spoke of the ways that legal programs had helped strengthen their relationships with community members.

German Castro is the senior pastor at El Shaddai Christian Church in Brentwood. Castro said that his church has members from 18 different countries. Many of those members are relatively unfamiliar with the United States’s legal system.

“This is a country of immigrants,” he said. “We have people from all over Latin America with many issues, many questions, and they don’t have the way to express them many times. They don’t have the way to pay a lawyer, so this is a great opportunity for us to outreach to the community, helping people.”

Castro said that as soon as he put the word out that El Shaddai was looking for volunteer lawyers to help with legal matters, he got back six or seven positive replies.

“That was amazing,” he said.

Those attorneys have since helped a number of people at El Shaddai’s legal clinics, including a young father hit with substantial costs after being involved in a car accident.

“Something I really admire is the passion of these lawyers,” Castro said. “They really want to help the people. The language barrier is not an issue.”

Zulfat Suara has also seen how the TFJA can have an impact on the lives of Tennessee residents. As the longtime chair of the American Muslim Advisory Council, Suara engaged in a number of legal efforts in recent years to inform Muslims of their rights as Americans.

More recently, she participated in an expungement clinic in Bolivar that the TFJA helped to organize and in which Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Roger Page participated. The experience made a profound impression on her.

“It’s a very rewarding experience seeing people being helped,” she said.

One story stuck with her in particular. After the clinic, a woman walked up to Suara and told her that she had studied to be a medical assistant, but was having trouble getting a job because of some things on her record. Those things were cleared from her record at the expungement clinic, and the woman was overjoyed and confident that she could now go out and get a job.

“You cannot impact someone any more than that,” Suara said. “To have the blessing of being a part of that is something that will stay with me forever.”

Faith leaders on the panel also discussed how TFJA programs had given them the ability to reach people that they previously had not been able to.

Amy Nutt, pastor of White Oak United Methodist Church in Red Bank, said that the legal clinics the church has held have been hugely successful in bringing people to the church.

“That was the most effective of anything we had tried for outreach,” she said. Nutt called to mind one man who had struggled with addiction, but who came to the legal clinic, got some legal advice and then was able to open up his own business.

“If had never opened our doors for recovery, if we had never opened our doors for a legal clinic, I don’t know where he would be right now,” she said.

Daniel Ogle, the pastor of Colonial Heights United Methodist Church in Knoxville, likewise appreciates how joining with the TFJA and volunteer attorneys has made a difference in his community.

There was the woman, for example, who came to a clinic with a legal question, but also spent time telling Ogle about the hardships affecting her family, which included drug addiction, divorce, and death.

“I think what she really wanted to tell me was, ‘I need to know that I’m not alone,’” Ogle said. “I need to know that there’s someone who will listen to me, care for me, and pray for me. The legal clinic allowed the church to be there to let her know that she wasn’t alone.”

Ogle hopes that the emphasis on legal issues will allow his church to stay more involved with the lives of local people in need.

“It’s a great vehicle I think to expand ministry beyond a one-off” and to lead the church to focus on questions like, “How are we engaged in the lives of people?” Ogle said. “How are we actually their neighbors? How are we in long-term relationships with the people who go to school with our kids? With the people we stand in line behind at the grocery store? How do we engage in a relationship with people over time as opposed to a one-off?”

While the work of the TFJA and its partner organizations has yielded an abundance of positive results so far, there is still much more to be done. The TFJA is always on the lookout for attorneys or houses of worship that would like to join its goal of expanding justice to Tennessee’s most vulnerable residents.

“I believe that a community, however we define that, is only as strong as the justice we can provide to our weakest citizens,” Justice Clark said. “A nation or a state or a city that lays claim to being just has the responsibility to make justice available to all, regardless of their status of any kind, regardless of their place in society, and regardless of their resources.”

Prospective TFJA volunteers and partners can find out more about getting involved in the organization’s mission on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice website.

AOC Director Deborah Taylor Tate