I’ve been steadily getting the organizational work done for the documentary on Christian legal aid. Plan to start photographing in earnest next week. Here’s where I am at in my thinking:
We are in the research phase, so we haven’t yet decided which specific stories to use. But here are a few of the attorneys we’re following at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis. Think Atticus Finch, but more human.
- Art Johnson, a retired Brigadier General from the Strategic Air Command who participated in the SALT talks back in the 70s, disarms his litigation opponents through a very direct approach.
- Merryn Gluys, a middle-aged mother, feels great empathy for her family law clients, having grown up with a close family member who is bipolar. Merryn’s mission seems to be putting families back together. To do that, Merryn was willing to drive 243 miles, each way, to go to law school in Michigan for three years while raising her own family in Indianapolis.
- Joshua Abel, the Clinic’s youthful-looking Executive Director, focuses his staff meetings more on the Bible than business.
- Plus other attorneys and professionals who offer counseling and assistance. It takes a village, or the body of Christ, to serve a client.
The Questions We Have
We seek answers in four areas:
- Who needs Christian legal aid and what are their circumstances? What kind of help do they need, perhaps beyond traditional legal services?
- What is the difference between Christian legal aid and its secular counterpart from the client’s perspective? Is the advice any different? Does the client need to be a Christian? What if the client wants retribution against an ex-wife, or to seize the element of surprise or to exploit a gray area of the law?
- What challenges does the Christian attorney face in a secular legal system? How should a Christian attorney treat an opponent? Do other attorneys ever try to take advantage of Christian attorneys, believing they will back down from a fight? Is it a disadvantage to be a Christian in a court of law, conforming to Biblical directives?
- What motivates a Christian attorney to give aid? What kind of relationships do they have with their clients? What’s their satisfaction level? Most secular legal aid attorneys burn out after a few years: is the same true for Christians?
The Context for these Stories
Here are a few of the clients they’re helping, and the help needed:
- Immigration law. A political refugee who fled violence in the Congo now wants to bring his family to the United States.
- Family law. A father wants to have a relationship with his daughter born out of wedlock, but the mother wants him to have no part in his child’s life.
- Housing law. A young woman couldn’t pay her rent, and so the landlord removed all of her possessions. What little furniture she had was sold, and the rest seems to have disappeared. Those other possessions include a shoebox, which just happens to have contained the only photographs of her child, now deceased. She just wants the shoebox back.
- Immigration and family law. A woman, brought to the United States more as a slave than a wife, is now desperately trying to secure her children.
- Bankruptcy law. A single mother trying to get her financial house in order may face bankruptcy.
- Housing law. A client family struggling to save their house from foreclosure.
- Civil rights law. An ex-offender needs to earn his driver’s license back to get a job.
The Obstacles Faced by Christian Attorneys
In serving their clients, Christian lawyers face at least two obstacles:
- An often uncaring legal system in a fallen world that favors those with resources.
- A legal environment sometimes hostile to Christians. While most attorneys are quite professional, some choose to treat their Christian counterparts as doormats, believing they won’t fight back. Further, Christian lawyers in some cases struggle to reconcile their legal duties with their Faith. For example, when should a Christian lawyer litigate? The Bible discourages civil litigation. But some clients favor it.
Why Are We Producing This Documentary?
The need for legal aid is growing quickly. This spring, about a dozen lawyers from across the country gathered in northern Illinois to launch a new organization called Gospel Justice Advocates. The group’s mission is to create a 1000 Christian legal aid clinics across the country, up from the hand-full that exist now. Achieving success in that mission will require partnering with many other organizations, including churches and attorney groups, convincing law students that there is a career path in Christian legal aid, recruiting volunteers and raising money. We want this documentary to be a captivating and useful educational tool for communicating what is special about Christian legal aid.
The Production Team
The more I learn about multimedia production, the more I realize it’s a team sport. I am absolutely thrilled that several extraordinarily talented people have offered to work on this project. So far, the team includes:
- Research and development. Erin Hougland is working on her Masters of Divinity at Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana, with the goal of becoming an Episcopal Priest like her father (Father?). Erin’s focus in the Masters program is on the use of storytelling in Christianity. Coincidentally, she has also been working at the Neighbor Christian Legal Clinic, the setting for the documentary, managing the volunteer pool. Consequently, not only does she understand what makes for a good, Christian story, she understands the subject matter of Christian legal aid like few others. Further, as the youngest member of the team (everyone else is over 50), she represents an important demographic we want to reach. Erin will help us pick and tell stories that are relevant to her generation.
- Story Consultant. Lynn Tyler, a partner in the Indiana law firm of Barnes & Thornburg, was one of the founders and past presidents of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. Mr. Tyler graduated summa cum laude in 1981 from the University of Notre Dame and received his J.D. magna cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School in 1984. He was a member of the Michigan Law Review and elected to the Order of Coif. For his work on behalf of the Clinic, he received the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award in 2002.
The next four members of the team were law school classmates 25 years ago.
- Story consultant. John Copeland Nagle is the John N. Matthews Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Law School. He was the law school’s inaugural Associate Dean for Faculty Research from 2004 to 2007, and is an expert in Christianity and the law. John is a popular speaker, and an adviser to the Christian Legal Society chapter at the school. (J.D. cum laude, The University of Michigan Law School, 1986.)
- Camera guy. Me. My family will help manage the equipment. (J.D. cum laude, The University of Michigan Law School, 1986.)
- Postproduction. Dana Newhouse began his 30-year career in music, radio, television and documentary film production before going to law school. In law school, Dana worked for the school’s family legal assistance clinic. After two years of practicing law in Southern California, Dana shelved the law and went back to music and film. Dana’s feature film credits include “Stardust” and “Killzone.” He has scored numerous commercials and corporate soundtracks for Blue Cross Blue Shield, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company and General Motors among others. Both his music and sound design work have been featured in numerous award winning documentaries and corporate videos for a wide range of national and local clients. Dana is a two-time winner of the Detroit Music Awards “Classical Composer of the Year.” He was a Rochester National Scholar at the Eastman School of Music where he earned his degree in music composition. (J.D., The University of Michigan Law School, 1986.)
- Distribution. After law school, Chris Rizik became a partner and department chairman at one of Michigan’s largest law firms. Wanting to go beyond the law, Chris became a venture capitalist with his partner Rick Snyder (a fellow Michigan Law School alumnus, former president of Gateway Computer and now Governor of Michigan). Chris spent his time investing in high-tech startup companies and, as a hobby, launched www.soultracks.com. That site now has over 300,000 visitors per month, making it the number one soul music website in America. A few years ago, Chris turned to public service, as CEO of a nonprofit organization intent on bringing economic revitalization to the City of Detroit. Chris will be drawing on his high-tech friends as well as his own understanding of what makes content popular on the web to help develop a strategy for distributing the documentary. (J.D. cum laude, The University of Michigan Law School, 1986.)
The documentary will be an 8 to 12 minute video clip that can be viewed on websites or by large audiences. Our plan is to produce additional clips over time, with at least one of them in the 2 to 3 minute range. The clips will be multimedia, meaning a combination of still photography and video, together with audio giving voice to the people in the documentary and music.
You can follow the progress of the documentary at www.Facebook.com/storytellingministries.