December 13, 2017

US Local Church Launches Free Legal Clinic

Heidi Baumgartner, North Pacific Union Conference News

Community advocate Carolyn Brown knows all about sandwich-making, homeless feeding and community networking in Seattle, Washington, United States.

“After 14 years of feeding the homeless downtown, I’ve learned a lot from sitting and talking with people,” said Brown, a member of Maranatha Seventh-day Adventist Church in the city. “They appreciate the sandwiches, socks, and gloves. But what they wanted more was to be able to buy their own. Small legal issues kept them from working, getting a place or going to school. They couldn’t afford an attorney.”

So the lady who is already changing lives started finding more avenues of change.

Brown began knocking on doors of lawyers and judges. Doors closed, yet she persisted in her God-inspired calling. She formed a prayer team and attended ministry training sessions. She didn’t know how to start a legal clinic, but she knew God knew the right people.

“Six years ago I prayed, ‘God, I just want to be more relevant to my community. I want to do something that will change lives,’” remembered Brown.

Finding the Right Door

After many disappointments, Brown went to the next legal office. She was tired of uncooperative clerks who wouldn’t give her time. Her frustration drew the attention of the law practice owner, who invited her into his office.

“Are you in trouble?” he asked.

“No, but people in this city are,” she responded. Brown explained the situation and need for a free legal clinic and ended her appeal with, “And you are just the person to help me.”

The lawyer shook his head in disbelief — and ended up advising Brown and her team of volunteers.

The details started coming together: office space in a converted Sabbath School room, office furniture at bargain rates, a network of legal volunteers willing to help for a couple of hours a month and a marketing company’s services at a discounted rate that matched their financial picture.

It’s been a faith journey all the way through. Many planning meetings were held in Brown’s hospital room. With weekly challenges, Brown often threatened to “quit,” but God kept bringing her back.

Now if you drive along the Rainier Valley neighborhood in Seattle, you will see yard signs for politicians, professional services, various causes ... and Maranatha Adventist Church’s free legal clinic.

The church family posted the yard signs two hours before a dedication service on Sept. 9. The phone started ringing with appointment requests, and the first scheduled evening of legal aid was immediately booked.

What’s next for this ministry? Brown says more frequent legal clinics at Maranatha Church and maybe more legal clinics up and down the I-5 freeway corridor.

“If I can be a small part in changing someone’s life, that’s what I want to do,” said Brown with conviction. “God changed me and gave me a second chance. More people need this help too.”

An original version of this story was posted on the Gleaner Now magazine.