I was blessed to run a soup kitchen for fourteen years in Upstate New York where I was pastor at The Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church. During most of my tenure, I was aided greatly by many members of the community, including Steven Gottlieb, Esquire. Steven was a tireless volunteer. He ran a free legal clinic for the folks in our community, helping with issues like housing, bankruptcy, and even some criminal cases.
Recently, Steven has been working on a memoir of his experiences as a lawyer working in a challenged community, and he blessed me with an opportunity to write a short introduction. Here it is:
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
“The lawyer is in the house!” I yell across the church gymnasium housing the soup kitchen, and the echo bounces off the basketball backboard, confirming the news on the small, hand-painted, sandwich board out front: Free Legal Clinic Today. It’s Friday, and the lawyer has arrived.
Some weeks there are only a few souls waiting. Other weeks there seems an endless line. They are people searching for solutions, a way out, a bit of light in the darkness. They all need a lawyer, and none of them have enough money to pay for one, so they hold fast to hope and wait for Friday afternoon.
A few souls hold thick folders tightly against their chests, guarding the documents they have struggled to secure, the proof, the notarized signatures, the evidence of injustice and pain and time served. They are the ones most likely to return week after week, involved in lengthy litigation or a criminal case. They have exhausted their resources or been rejected by those seeking payment, familiar with how things work or don’t work, burdened by layers of fatigue and disillusionment or brimming with excitement for the chance to tell their story once again. They wait their turn with those more fortunate souls, lighter somehow without those thick files, the first-timers, inexperienced and wondering what to do next, free from a long history and intimate knowledge of the system.
Yet, they are all anxious; they are all waiting for help. Many just want to know if they can sue their landlord or stave off eviction and homelessness. Others fight mental illness and addiction and incarceration. They all wait for a chance to go behind the partition and sit in front of the banged up metal desk and talk to the man who can help—the lawyer.
Yet, he is more than a lawyer. He is a friend, a lifeline, a savior. He is the one who reaches in his pocket to hand them bus fare, who gives them advice, who has the patience and compassion to understand even the bruised and beaten and guilty. He is a healer, a helper, a giver, a gift to the community and the church, the best Methodist and a better Christian than most, though he hails from a tribe in Israel. He listens. He cares. He pats them on the shoulder and hands them his card. Yes, they can call him. Yes. He’ll be thinking of them. He’ll be there for them. He will see them next week, and we all hold on a bit longer.
Rev. Darlene L. Kelley
August 28, 2019