KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Sixty-eight people have received attorney help with their legal issues since a new ministry started almost a year ago at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
Crystal Schrof is happy for those people, but she wants to put a bigger dent in addressing a need that overwhelms many low-income Americans.
“We had some open appointments today, and I hate that, because I know there are people out there with legal needs,” Schrof said.
Housed at Cokesbury, Knoxville Legal Ministry is now one of 74 ministries in churches throughout the United States, designed to help people with child support, child custody, debt, immigration, eviction, wills and other legal challenges that might require an expensive lawyer. The umbrella nonprofit organization with the plan for beginning, organizing and running these church-based legal clinics is Administer Justice.
Katie McIlwain, Cokesbury director of outreach, said she has long hoped to begin a legal-aid ministry at her church but “kept bumping into walls.” Then came Schrof, a Cokesbury member who retired as an Oak Ridge National Laboratory lawyer in 2020 and approached McIlwain about volunteering.
At McIlwain’s suggestion, Schrof worked with Administer Justice to recruit volunteers and help create Knoxville Legal Ministry at Cokesbury. Appointments are available every second Saturday of the month from 8:45 to 11 a.m. The first clinic kicked off in April 2022.
“We named it Knoxville Legal Ministry because we see this as a community effort,” said McIlwain.
At the most recent clinic on Feb. 11, about 15 volunteers arrived at 8:15 a.m. to get briefings from Schrof and to pray before the first clients arrived. The group included five attorneys and four Lincoln Memorial University law school students.
The volunteer group also includes:
- “intake specialists” who gather client information and connect them with aid
- “client advocates” who accompany clients to their appointments, help them understand and carry out attorney advice, and connect them to other services
- hospitality team members who offer refreshments, conversation and prayer while clients wait for aid
- “follow-up advocates” who contact clients two or three weeks later to track progress and offer help
“It’s very much a holistic approach to helping the individual,” Schrof said. “We’re always looking for more attorneys because life happens and they can’t always serve. But we’re also looking for volunteers who are not attorneys.”
Knoxville Legal Ministry offers its help for free, except for an initial $30 co-payment.
Janelle (who asked that her last name not be used) is a Cokesbury member who signed up to serve on the hospitality team on Feb. 11. She sat in a lobby area of the church, waiting to offer breakfast foods, pray or just to chat.
“Anything that promotes equity and provides access and opportunities for people is something I’m very interested in and passionate about,” she said. “Sometimes the clients get the answers they want, sometimes they don’t. I’m just here to offer encouragement and hope and provide a non-judgmental space for them.”
Gerry Bock is also a Cokesbury member, a retired IBM employee who greets clients at the door and directs them to the right place. On Feb. 11, three of 13 total clients were walk-ins; the others had appointments.
“I want them to know we’re glad they’re here, and we hope they got some wise counsel,” Bock said. “This isn’t going to solve all their problems, but it will give them first steps and some direction.”
Claire Brown is a University of Tennessee student majoring in social work and also a member of nearby Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. On Feb. 11, she came to Cokesbury to update Schrof and McIlwain on her volunteer work as a “community advocate.”
“My job is to expand awareness by putting flyers up in places like the UT campus and in Knoxville libraries,” Brown said. She also emails and calls social-justice agencies such as Compassion Coalition and Bridge Refugee Services to remind them of upcoming clinics for clients who might need legal help.
“It’s been really cool to hear people say, ‘Oh, I thought Legal Aid was my only option,’” Brown said.
Legal Aid nonprofits exist throughout the U.S. (including the Holston Conference states of Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia), with the same goal of providing help to people who cannot afford or locate an attorney. The problem is, said Schrof, the load is too large to handle. Administer Justice estimates that 40 million Americans are unable to get access to legal help each year.
“Legal Aid can only take about 20 percent of people who need their services,” Schrof said. “In Knoxville, if you can retain a lawyer for $300, that’s a bargain.”
Administer Justice is hoping to take on part of the load by establishing 88 new legal ministries in 2023, to add to the existing 74 throughout the U.S., said Emily O’Donnell, senior director of engagement for Administer Justice. The nonprofit is based in Elgin, Illinois.
“All the centers are hosted by churches with the exception of one at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois,” O’Donnell said.
Cokesbury is one of four United Methodist churches hosting an Administer Justice ministry (named “gospel justice centers” by the organization). The other three are in Illinois. Cokesbury’s legal ministry is the only one related to Administer Justice in Tennessee. Other Administer Justice ministries exist in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Atlanta.
Faith communities of all types, including Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist and non-denominational, are currently hosting Administer Justice ministries, O’Donnell said. “One of the things I love about our model is that we work with churches from a wide variety of backgrounds theologically, culturally, geographically, etc.”
Schrof, who now works part-time for Administer Justice, said it’s her goal not only to attract more volunteers and clients to Knoxville Legal Ministry, but to inspire other churches to begin justice centers. She’s inspired by the 68 total clients who have walked in Cokesbury’s doors on the second Saturday morning of each month during the past year.
“People come in looking like they are so down on their luck, and when they leave, they look brighter,” she said. “We’re not just solving their legal problems, but it’s really about sharing the love of Jesus Christ with them.”
Sign up for a free weekly email subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Holston Conference's main offices are located in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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