By Martin E. Willoughby, Jr.
I met Susan a couple of years ago. She has two small children and an angry and abusive husband. She has desperately tried to get away from her husband who essentially abandoned her and the kids. However, she lacks the resources to provide for her family on her modest salary and restart her life. She lives one minor financial setback away from being potentially homeless. Susan opened my eyes to the challenges of the working poor in the United States. She is not alone. In 2013, one in seven Americans was living in poverty (45.3 million people) with almost half of those living in deep poverty (50% below the poverty line). Children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of poverty. Each night, more than 1.6 million children go to sleep without a home.
From time to time, we read about such statistics or our paths may cross someone who is struggling in poverty, but for most Americans, we go about our daily lives with not much additional thought about these problems. It is easy to get numb to these challenges and wonder what can be done. When we open the Bible, we see God’s heart for justice and caring for the poor. A few examples: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do no plot evil against each other” (Zechariah 7: 9-10); “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7). In all, there are over 2,000 verses throughout the Bible that address justice and the poor.
I recently had the pleasure to make the acquaintance of Bruce Strom. He has given me a fresh perspective on the opportunities we have as followers of Christ to help others get justice. Strom is a graduate of Judson University and the University of Illinois College of Law. He built a successful career in private law practice as the senior partner of a multi-office law practice. In 2000, he started an organization—Administer Justice—in Chicago with the mission to “administer justice through a comprehensive program of educational outreach, legal assistance, financial counseling, and conflict resolution services to empower the powerless, give hope to hopeless, and show mercy and compassion to those in need.” At first, he and seven other volunteers rotated providing part-time assistance.
In 2002, Strom took a leap of faith and left his lucrative law practice to join the ranks of the poor he was serving so Administer Justice could be a full-time, full-service organ, deliver legal help and gospel hope. The idea of Christian legal aid has been around for a while. In 1876, a group of twenty German merchants in New York City were outraged at the treatment of German immigrants and they pooled their resources to hire the nation’s first legal aid attorney who helped hundreds of poor immigrants who could not afford one. By the end of World War I, over 41 legal aid organizations existed. John Robb was at the forefront of the Christian legal aid movement and inspired Strom to create Administer Justice.
In 2011, Robb and Strom met with other leaders and formed Gospel Justice Initiative to “excite and equip churches, attorneys, and individuals to defend the rights of the poor and needy through legal help and gospel hope.” They were concerned that the number of organizations providing legal aid was decreasing yet those in need of help continued to grow. They want to wake us up to the reality of the needs in our society and to equip and encourage people to serve. In his book Gospel Justice (which I highly recommend), Strom states, “Love requires action. If you say you love someone but never demonstrate it, your love is not real.” He continues, “We are called to be people of action. We are to be members of the Lord’s army battling sin and injustice. Get engaged. Get involved. Make a difference.”
I am excited to share with the readers of this magazine that Strom will be in Jackson, Mississippi on May 29, 2015. Mission First Legal Aid will be hosting a symposium to discuss faith-based legal aid at Mississippi College School of Law. This event will be open to the public and will be a gathering of church leaders, attorneys, and others interested in gospel justice. For more information on the event, contact Patti Gandy at Mission First Legal Aid 601.608.0056 or Mississippi College School of Law 601.925.7100.