Faith leaders, judges, attorneys, and other members of Tennessee’s religious and legal communities gathered online recently to discuss ways to work together and expand access to justice in the state. It is estimated that at least 1.3 million Tennesseans at or below the poverty line have civil legal needs.
This year’s event was held online because of the Covid-19 pandemic and was co-sponsored by the Beecken Center of the School of Theology at the University of the South, the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, and the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance. The Summit is founded on the idea that, by working together, faith leaders and leaders from the legal sphere can reach underserved populations with unmet legal needs.
At the Summit, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark discussed the early days of the Access to Justice Commission, when it partnered with legal services agencies and bar associations to try to reach people in need. They did find and help many people, but, as Justice Clark explained, “We knew that we were missing out on reaching people who didn’t trust or couldn’t get to traditional service areas for clinics.”
They soon alighted on the idea of looking at houses of faith as potential partners. After all, “historically faith-based groups are already serving as a source of comfort to those people in need,” Justice Clark told summit attendees. “Some of those people we would like to help are showing up on your doorsteps each day already.”
One of the first steps was to show faith leaders how many of the problems that their parishioners or community members came to them with, whether they were related to finances, housing, immigration status, or other topics, had legal components.
“Underlying whatever crisis that brought them to you in the first place there is almost always a legal issue that, if resolved, will change their lives,” Justice Clark said.
The outreach worked, and now Tennessee has a thriving network of legal and faith-based partnerships all over the state. The Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance has built relationships with both individual lawyers of faith, eager to fulfill both a religious and a professional mission by helping the economically deprived, and with houses of worship, where many legal trainings and workshops have been held in recent years.
The necessity of this mission has never been more apparent for Justice Clark.
“I believe that a community however defined is only as strong as the justice it provides to its weakest citizens,” she said. “I think any nation or state that lays claim to being just has the responsibility to make justice available to all regardless of their resources or any status they occupy in our society. And in this moment and time in a world we never have seen before that responsibility I think is more important than ever.”
Justice Clark concluded with thoughts on what she hoped the summit could accomplish.
“I hope the legacy of today will be a firm desire to motivate others toward acts of love and good works,” she said. “On behalf of our Court I thank you for joining us today”
Summit attendees heard from an array of different people over the day who are on the front lines of the effort to expand access to justice through faith-based partnerships. These panelists discussed the needs in their communities and the steps they were taking to meet those needs.
For instance, Andi Clements is a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University who is deeply involved with organizations dedicated to battling substance use disorders in her region. At the summit, she participated in a panel moderated by Dr. Monty Burks, director of faith-based initiatives with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, on the subject of faith, justice, and mental health partnerships.
Clements is a co-founder of the Holy Friendship Collaborative, a Christian organization that she said was all about “mobilizing the church to combat addiction.” The Collaborative accomplishes this “by facilitating collaborations among churches, individual believers, and community organizations; sharing resources and training opportunities; and developing new publications.” Clements is also involved with Uplift Appalachia, an outgrowth of the Holy Friendship Collaborative, which enlists church members to help those struggling with substance use disorders secure jobs, housing, and rides to recovery meetings, work, church, and more.
She said that one of the most important things that you can do to reach underserved people is to get outside of your comfort zone. She cited Uplift Rides as a prime example of just that. A car ride is not necessarily just a car ride, as Clements explained.
“A ride is a way to get in to someone’s life and become their friend and develop a relationship,” she said.
While Uplift Rides is in its early stages, Clements said that she “would like to develop it into a program that could be shared across churches, especially in rural areas where transportation is such an issue.”
Trina Frierson is the co-founder and CEO of Mending Hearts, an organization whose mission is “to provide shelter, hope and healing to women who are homeless due to addiction, co-occurring disorders, mental or emotional disorders.”
The scope of the struggle against these disorders in the state made Frierson come to a stark realization.
“We as nonprofits cannot do this alone,” she said.
To Frierson, it makes perfect sense to partner with faith-based communities and organizations to get the job done.
“The faith community has the biggest voice to help out people, whether that is on the pulpit, whether that’s virtual, we need to come together and provide resources,” she said. “It’s the faith community who can speak volumes to the people we cannot even reach.”
The reason these collaborations are so critical is because the need is so critical.
“We cannot be silent about the issues we have in our community,” she said. “When we’re talking about homelessness or mental health we cannot turn our back on it, we cannot run from it.”
In many cases, this means meeting people where they are. Nancy Cogar holds regular legal clinics as the leader of the Gospel Justice Initiative Chapter in Chattanooga. She said there is no religious requirement to seek help at these clinics.
“Someone does not have to make a profession of faith to come to one of my clinics,” she said. “This is to offer help to people.”
At the summit, attendees also heard from members of the Tennessee Judiciary who are working day in and day out to improve the lives of those in need.
Grundy County General Sessions Court Judge Trey Anderson does just that as the presiding judge over the Grundy County Safe Baby Court, which provides wraparound services to families with at least one child under 4 years old
As Judge Anderson pointed out, there are not a lot of community resources available in his rural jurisdiction.
“The faith-based community helps fill that gap there,” Judge Anderson said.
Grundy County Safe Baby Court Coordinator Deanna French agreed.
“If you need something, there is always someone there to help you,” she said.
Judge Anderson said that the Safe Baby Court has had a lot of success in educating “our community and our faith-based community, making them aware of the need, giving them clear direction on how they can help and what services are needed,” he said.
They also provide spiritual support for people going through difficult times and a demanding program.
“The emotional and spiritual support from a faith-based community can be invaluable as well,” he said.
Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate offered a host of suggestions to attendees representing faith-based communities about how they could help their members with legal issues.
“I would ask everybody out there, almost 200 people, educate yourselves and your congregation,” she said.
She suggested that leaders could help spread information about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, for instance, which can have a negative impact on development and can lead to run-ins with the justice system later in life. She also encouraged faith leaders to learn about legal resources that are available locally, so that they can refer community members for legal assistance. Of course, places of worship could also host their own legal clinic or adoption services fairs.
The key point is to get engaged for the good of those struggling and without legal representation.
“People are hurting and people are dying and I can’t say enough how important it is to have the faith leaders involved in this justice work that we are all doing,” Director Tate said.