How Church-Based Legal Aid Is Growing

How Church-Based Legal Aid Is Growing

When the police came to take Beth’s two children away from her, they gave her papers to explain what was happening. Her estranged husband had accused her of domestic violence for not spraying the children with mosquito repellant, which could lead them to contract West Nile virus.

And she’s planning to move to Mexico, he said, even though she wasn’t. She didn’t even know anybody in Mexico.

In court, Beth tried to tell the judge what was happening, but she didn’t have an attorney and the judge was impatient. Her husband’s attorney kept objecting to everything she said.

But Dad hadn’t really wanted them—he had a new girlfriend—so he dropped them off at the laundromat where his mother worked. Though his daughter had special needs, he didn’t give her medication.She lost the kids.

Devastated and desperate, Beth agreed to go with her mom to a place called Administer Justice. This isn’t your typical legal aid clinic—it’s more of a pop-up shop in a local church. When you walk in, a volunteer church member prays with you. Another hands you a cup of coffee. Then an attorney prays with you, helps sort your problems, and tells you what to do next. At the end, a church volunteer makes you sure you know what to do, and then calls a few weeks later to see if everything is going all right.

If that sounds like a lot of volunteers—it is. Founder Bruce Strom modeled Administer Justice off the Baptist congregation he grew up in, and he rooted it in the physical buildings of local churches. He took the name from Zechariah 7:9–10: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.”

Administer Justice volunteers at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois / Courtesy of Administer Justice

Over the past 20 years, his attorneys (mostly volunteers) have helped Mabel, an 82-year-old woman whose Social Security check was shrinking until she couldn’t meet her needs. (Turns out her identity had been stolen.) They helped Juan, who was being charged 45 percent interest on his truck payments. They helped Rita, whose employer was deducting her paycheck for insurance he didn’t actually purchase for her—when her husband fell ill, the bills were crushing.

And they helped Beth get her children back. Previously unchurched, now she sings in her church choir.

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