This is my latest and probably last version of this statement I will post online. Once again, I would greatly appreciate any feedback.
If familiarity breeds contempt, there is nothing I should hate more than church. Having grown up in a deeply religious family and spending most of my formative years in church, I am at a point where I can predict every moment of the service when I attend. Yet I actually relish the sameness of it all. I love my pastor’s messages most, messages that speak to people emboldened by faith who challenged political and social institutions, spoke truth to power, and triumphed over pervasive forces designed to maintain the status quo. His sermons communicated that with faith, determination, and hard work; anyone could break unjust shackles, lift heavy burdens and uproot evil institutions.
However, neither my church nor my pastor’s sermons seemed to translate into my life outside of church. As we walked out each Sunday, it was as if the community surrounding the church proclaimed an altogether different message, one that declared that matters of religious preference were best not shared in the company of others. I struggled to find ways to practice my faith in a neighborhood so marred with the constant realities of being tossed aside, marginalized, and oppressed. I didn’t want to be known as that religious fanatic or the one that was always bringing God into every conversation without being sensitive to the views of others. So I grew up believing but never sharing, thinking that issues of faith were too delicate to share without offending the sensibility of others.
This struggle continued as I began my work as a community organizer for a multi-faith based nonprofit. When I first came to work, I was assigned to a resident based team to help initiate a campaign that would bring local attention to the activities transpiring within their apartment complex. I was familiar with the complex, but warned to never go near the apartments because of the reputation of the people that resided there. But as I walked the halls and visited the apartments of residents I would work with, my fear and apprehension quickly turned into disgust. I had never seen sights so sickening in my life: apartments where you could would be too scared to hold a conversation out because of the stench emanating from heating ducts; wet, molded sheetrock littered throughout the living room from a decaying ceiling; rotted kitchen countertops infested with mold and fungi; human feces left in hallway corners despite the janitorial staff’s supposed daily cleanings.
What disturbed me more than the sights were the people I met that were forced to live under these conditions. These weren’t lazy criminals and welfare queens as others had described them to me; these were honest, hard-working people that struggled to maintain healthy, close-knit families in the midst of indescribable chaos. I met single mothers who worked multiple jobs but were stuck living there because they could not fathom where else they could go with their tight budget. I spoke with men who lost their jobs where this complex was the only thing that separated them from sleeping on street corners and bus stations. These people definitely deserved better.
Still, it seemed that despite our best organizing efforts, we could not seem to make any meaningful progress. We came to a decision that we would be more effective if we had a lawyer advocate our cause in court. However, my nonprofit was unwilling to wage a legal war with a slumlord and I was told that the team would have to bear the costs for legal representation themselves. Realizing that they couldn’t afford the fees they envisioned it would cost to sustain a long battle with the rich slumlord, the team went to visit two local legal aid clinics. The clinics, however, would not accept them as clients due to short-staffing and backlogged cases.
Disheartened, but unwilling to quit, the team continues to press on. But I continue to wrestle with the setbacks that we faced fighting for change. Sure, we would gain small victories here and there, in an effort for a rich slumlord to save face. But without legal counsel that shared their resolve and knew how to confront the powers necessary to bring meaningful change, any campaign would be an uphill battle at best. My experience reaffirmed, in my mind, the need for competent lawyers, undergirded with a strong moral foundation, who would advocate for the least of these.
I came to realize that practicing my faith means incorporating the values and the morals I learned in those sermons into my daily life. My faith tells me that it is inherently wrong for someone to profit off the misery of others. My faith teaches me that it is the responsibility of those who claim the faith to challenge unjust political and social institutions, speak truth to power, and fight the pervasive forces designed to maintain a status quo where the success of a few is contingent on the failure of many. I want to practice law to do my small part to help create more equitable work situations, which in turn will give people the ability to escape the horrid conditions that constitutes my team’s lived experiences. In this way, I can practice my faith without proselytizing, without passing out tracts, and without offending people of different faith traditions. As I think back to those Sunday mornings at church, I can still hear those church mothers singing hymns of Zion; I can still feel the passion as the deacons pray and travail; and I can sense the jubilation of those who dance and leap in celebration. This is how they choose to express their faith. I want my life outside of church to serve as my expression of faith.