“The penny dropped,” during Tim Keller’s talk to the Redeemer Legal Fellowship on a Friday night in November 2007, Eric Yoon recalls. Eric, a partner at a prominent NYC law firm, was just one in a roomful of lawyers listening attentively as Tim challenged them to re-imagine their personal “lawyering” and practice in a way that served human flourishing. Among the lawyers seated around him were Erin Greenfield, associate at another NYC law firm, and Sandhya Reju Boyd, Executive Director of Brooklyn Jubilee. In the 24 months since that evening, the lives of these three lawyers have intertwined and moved from inspiration to action as they’ve created an organization to meet the legal needs of our city’s poor.
After leaving the Redeemer offices that night, Eric contemplated ways Christian lawyers might mobilize holistic service for the city. Through Hope for New York he learned about The Father’s Heart, a soup kitchen on the lower east side run by Chuck and Carol Vedral. He then connected with Sandhya, an expert in poverty/housing law, who had established the Brooklyn Jubilee ministry only one year prior. The two began immediate correspondence outlining what Brooklyn Jubilee offers: local food pantry services, legal advice on housing, and eligibility screening for food stamps and public health insurance. Eric drew all the pieces together and he invited Sandhya to speak to the Redeemer Legal Fellowship with the possibility of encouraging a volunteer initiative among the group members.
Meanwhile, Erin Greenfield was living the busy, time-crunched life of a patent lawyer, but feeling urged to serve in some physical capacity. She hosted a Redeemer fellowship group in her apartment, whose members committed to monthly volunteerism. Using the resources of Hope for New York, the group worked with several affiliates over the next year and half before settling on serving breakfast at The Father’s Heart. “8:30am was really early,” Erin admits, but the reality of the gospel outweighed her need for sleep and moved her to serve the physical renewal of the city.
Over the course of that year Erin and Eric had become acquainted at Redeemer’s Legal Fellowship monthly events. Both lawyers, in fact, initiated prayer groups at their respective firms, and have since expanded these groups to include other firms within the same geographic area. The two often collaborated and held joint monthly dinners for their groups. Eric discussed with Erin his new-found passion for serving the legal needs of the poor.
Using Brooklyn Jubilee’s work as a guide, Eric developed a plan for a legal desk at The Father’s Heart and shared this idea at one of the law dinners. He also committed to fill several volunteer slots each month with members of the Redeemer Legal Fellow-ship and NY Christian Legal Society. Throughout 2008, both Eric and Erin served breakfast at The Father’s Heart, and kept in touch about the development of a legal service organization.
In March 2009 an unexpected breakthrough occurred. An established non-profit called New York Christian Legal Services, Inc. was about to fold. The former board named four new board members, including Eric, and handed over the charter before stepping down. This bountiful gift saved the team months of wrangling with non-profit statutes and IRS procedures and allowed NYCLS to launch into immediate action.
The new board, soon including Erin, held bi-weekly conference calls to pray and discuss their next steps. They solidified their mission: To provide legal services and counseling for the poor and indigent in NYC. At their first fundraiser in April 2009 gracious donors gave $20,000, which covered the first year’s budget. Erin conducted a needs assessment at The Father’s Heart throughout the summer of 2009. She and several others sat at the breakfasts, heard the community’s struggles, and prayed with them. Eric maintained contact with Sandhya, who agreed to serve as the part-time Program Advisor, while the board continued its search for an Executive Director. To train the volunteer lawyers and non-lawyers in pertinent areas of poverty law, NYCLS led a training session in October 2009, enabling them to launch the legal desk at The Father’s Heart in November.
Is it possible to re-imagine the profession of law? The gospel enables lawyers to have a true basis for the norms of human rights and human flourishing. Practicing law for the common good is yet another way of gardening—cultivating the earth and bringing about the restoration of all creation. May we all have ears to hear the penny drop.