High profile religious liberty cases have been in the news. Hobby Lobby and Jack Phillips went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend their rights to freely exercise religion. They were aided by great legal organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
But not all legal cases are so high profile, or attract the attention of behemoths such as ADF or The Becket Fund. What about the single mother fighting for custody of her child against the state, or an abusive husband? Who will fight for justice in these much more common, but much less spectacular cases?
Bruce Strom decided it would be him, along with an army of volunteers and churches he is rapidly assembling.
John Stonestreet and I first told the story of Bruce Strom in our book Restoring All Things. We recounted how as he grew up as a pastor’s kid, Strom watched his father draw a meager salary and make hospital visits in the middle of the night. He decided to pursue a law career, where he’d never struggle to make ends meet.
Life went according to his dreams. He graduated from law school, married, and started a successful legal firm. If he took calls for help at night, Strom charged his clients 25 percent extra to call him at home—on top of his regular $300 per hour fee. He argued a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Back home, he was a respected church leader and gave generously from his income.
But when people in his church found out he was a lawyer, they would sometimes ask legal questions, or they would have friends who were too poor to seek the legal advice they needed. So in 2000, Strom founded Administer Justice (AJ), a nonprofit providing free legal services to the poor of Kane and DuPage counties, suburbs just west of Chicago. Since then over 40,000 people have come to the organization seeking legal help: The elderly, single parents, and orphaned and homeless children are frequently victims of fraud and abuse.
Administer Justice helps those who often have nowhere else to turn. Its services are free for anyone with an income under 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Administer Justice is now in a dozen locations in the Chicago area, and has more than 100 attorneys who volunteer to advise or represent clients as part of their pro bono work. For clients with slightly higher incomes, AJ offers free consultations and will represent them in court at a reduced rate, or will refer them to other law firms who can represent them. Administer Justice is explicitly Christian but doesn’t require volunteer attorneys to profess Christ.
In Restoring All Things, we cited the example of then 24-year-old Jose Robledo of Carpentersville. An ex-girlfriend had custody of their 4-year-old son. He had fallen $660 behind on child support payments while temporarily unemployed and hadn’t seen his son for a month. He wanted to establish a new visitation agreement, or petition the court for full custody, and an attorney outlined for him the first step he needed to take: Get his ex-girlfriend’s address so she could be sent a legal statement.
Much of the advice Administer Justice offers is similarly unspectacular but real. When a client arrives at AJ for an initial consultation, he or she receives a folder with a handwritten note of encouragement, a list of area churches, and Bible verses such as “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” When clients are distressed about their circumstances, AJ staff use the opportunity to pray with them or encourage them to consider how God may be at work in their lives for greater good.
Now, four years after John Stonestreet and I first wrote the story of Administer Justice, Bruce Strom is using Administer Justice as the model for a national ministry. Though he still remains on the board of Administer Justice, he is now president of the Gospel Justice Initiative (GJI). The Gospel Justice Initiative now “equips people across the nation to transform lives by serving both the spiritual and legal need of the poor with pro bono legal services.”
According to the group’s website, “Through Christ, we can speak for the voiceless.” And the group teaches that you don’t have to be a lawyer to help. Lawyers who provide pro bono legal services are essential, but lawyers alone are not enough. A church can be the location for a Gospel Justice Center. A business owner can sponsor a Gospel Justice team. Non-lawyer volunteers provide administrative and scheduling assistance. The group now has nearly 100 affiliates in 13 states. It also has a location in Honduras.
According to the World Justice Project, the United States ranks a dismal 94th in the affordability of legal services. GJI hopes to bridge the gap between those who need legal services, and those who can afford them. “A nation cannot flourish when access to justice depends on how much money you have,” Strom said. He cites Habakkuk 1:4 to help make his point: “The law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked him in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
Strom continues: “With so many Americans unable to access the legal help they so desperately need it is impossible for us just to stand by. We have a God-given calling to help those in need, and we believe that providing Christian legal help through Gospel Justice Initiative is the answer.”
Editor’s Note: Administer Justice was the winner of WORLD Magazine’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion in 2013. To read WORLD’s profile of the group, click here.
This article is one in a series based on the ideas in the book Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan To Change The World Through Everyday People by Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. To see all the articles in this series, click here. If you know of an individual or ministry that might make a good “Restoring All Things” profile, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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