Sixty-eight people have received attorney help with their legal issues since a new ministry started almost a year ago at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
Cokesbury United Methodist Church is a part of the Holston Annual Conference.
Crystal Schrof is happy for those people, but she wants to put a bigger dent in addressing a need that overwhelms many low-income Americans.
Housed at Cokesbury, Knoxville Legal Ministry is now one of 74 ministries in churches throughout the United States, designed to help people with child support, child custody, debt, immigration, eviction, wills and other legal challenges that might require an expensive lawyer. The umbrella nonprofit organization with the plan for beginning, organizing and running these church-based legal clinics is Administer Justice.
Katie McIlwain, Cokesbury director of outreach, said she has long hoped to begin a legal-aid ministry at her church but “kept bumping into walls.” Then came Schrof, a Cokesbury member who retired as an Oak Ridge National Laboratory lawyer in 2020 and approached McIlwain about volunteering.
At McIlwain’s suggestion, Schrof worked with Administer Justice to recruit volunteers and help create Knoxville Legal Ministry at Cokesbury. Appointments are available every second Saturday of the month from 8:45 to 11 a.m. The first clinic kicked off in April 2022.
“We named it Knoxville Legal Ministry because we see this as a community effort,” said McIlwain.
“It’s very much a holistic approach to helping the individual,” Schrof said. “We’re always looking for more attorneys because life happens and they can’t always serve. But we’re also looking for volunteers who are not attorneys.”
Knoxville Legal Ministry offers its help for free, except for an initial $30 co-payment.
Legal Aid nonprofits exist throughout the U.S. (including the Holston Conference states of Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia), with the same goal of providing help to people who cannot afford or locate an attorney. The problem is, said Schrof, the load is too large to handle. Administer Justice estimates that 40 million Americans are unable to get access to legal help each year.
“Legal Aid can only take about 20 percent of people who need their services,” Schrof said. “In Knoxville, if you can retain a lawyer for $300, that’s a bargain.”
Administer Justice is hoping to take on part of the load by establishing 88 new legal ministries in 2023, to add to the existing 74 throughout the U.S., said Emily O’Donnell, senior director of engagement for Administer Justice. The nonprofit is based in Elgin, Illinois.
Cokesbury is one of four United Methodist churches hosting an Administer Justice ministry (named “gospel justice centers” by the organization). The other three are in Illinois. Cokesbury’s legal ministry is the only one related to Administer Justice in Tennessee. Other Administer Justice ministries exist in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Atlanta.
Schrof, who now works part-time for Administer Justice, said it’s her goal not only to attract more volunteers and clients to Knoxville Legal Ministry, but to inspire other churches to begin justice centers. She’s inspired by the 68 total clients who have walked in Cokesbury’s doors on the second Saturday morning of each month during the past year.
excerpt from a story by Annette Spence, editor, The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
This story represents how United Methodist local churches through their Annual Conferences are living as Vital Congregations. A vital congregation is the body of Christ making and engaging disciples for the transformation of the world. Vital congregations are shaped by and witnessed through four focus areas: calling and shaping principled Christian leaders; creating and sustaining new places for new people; ministries with poor people and communities; and abundant health for all.