Monday, August 22, 2011

Law School: A New Call to Ministry

My admissions essay to Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law:

“You shouldn’t say that in church!” The elder said it to me with a sneering kind of condescension that was half amusement and half judgment. “Why not?” I replied with the kind of naïve enthusiasm that could only come from a new convert. “Because it’s too political. People don’t want to hear about politics in church!”

That conversation happened on Sunday, January 30th, 1994 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. That is a date I will never forget. I was nineteen, had only been a Christian for two months, and was watching history unfold rather messily as my home country seemed to teeter on the brink of a racially charged civil war. We didn’t expect that only three months later, Nelson Mandela would assume the presidency in a peaceful election that some heralded as “miraculous.” Pre “Truth and Reconciliation,” we fully expected chaos and violence.

For reasons I still do not fully understand, I was asked to deliver the sermon at my home church. The message that I prepared was one of reconciliation, but more specifically, that it was the church’s responsibility, as Christ’s ambassadors, to be stewards of peace and to be fully engaged in ushering in a new era of justice in our country. Those who heard my sermon that night were kind to me, but the elder was right, my message was deemed “too political,” and therefore, by definition, not spiritual enough.

The following month I left my home in South Africa to make a new life for myself in the United States. Part of that new life was responding to the call of ministry. I pursued a theological education with the same rigorous enthusiasm that had characterized other challenges in my life. I was a young, foreign student with little money to spare, yet knowing that I was serving a much higher purpose, I found great joy in the life of the mind. After graduating from Dallas Christian College, I went to graduate school at Baylor University, and then Seminary at Abilene Christian University. Though I had served with churches since 1998, I was ordained to the ministry in 2005, when I received the Master of Divinity degree.

Over the course of my ministry I found that the church tends to talk about salvation as a future expectation for individual people – almost as a means of escaping this world. I heard Christians jokingly refer to baptism as “fire insurance.” I began to struggle with this understanding of the church’s role as a harbinger of some future spiritual reality, rather than engaging in the struggle for peace and justice here and now. In a sense, Christianity has become too spiritual. That is, the concerns of the church have become otherworldly, with Christians focusing their attention on the afterlife. While the pursuit of utopianism is also dangerous, such a focus tends to miss the political, social, and economic implications of God’s Kingdom breaking in here and now. The church I grew up in regarded the phrase, “Social Gospel” as near heresy, and today’s Evangelicals have the same reaction to the phrase, “Social Justice.”

As a means of broadening my experiences, I joined the Acton Institute’s Free and Virtuous Society in 2004. This is an organization that seeks to integrate a Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person with moral truths and free market economic principles. In 2005 I received certification as a mediator after studying at Abilene Christian University’s school of Conflict Resolution. My involvement in these programs brought me into close contact with several lawyers. It was refreshing to be around these men and women. They had an excitement about their profession and about making an impact for good that I hadn’t seen or felt in a long time. I think that was the genesis of my fascination with the study of law. But life was comfortable in the recesses of the church - as long as I didn’t rock the boat too much! So I buried myself in my work as a minister, fully believing that I could do more, and that I could make changes where others had failed.

In the summer of 2008, the toll became too much to bear. My wife and I separated, and were subsequently divorced in May 2009. (I won’t go into all the details of our failed marriage here because many of those details are, and should remain, private.) For a host of personal and professional reasons, I could no longer lead the church that I dearly loved, and resigned my ministry in August 2008. You’re only a leader if others are following! A whirlwind of loss and hopelessness took everything I had spent the better part of a decade building up. I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, or what to do with my life. Worst of all, I felt abandoned by the church.

And then, while sitting in Starbucks one afternoon, I gazed at my coffee cup, and read the following “The Way I See It” quote by Scott Turow:The law, for all its failings, has a noble goal - to make the little bit of life that people can actually control more just. We can’t end disease or natural disasters, but we can devise rules for our dealings with one another that fairly weigh the rights and needs of everyone, and which, therefore, reflect our best vision of ourselves.” 

After reflecting on that sentiment, it struck me that the study of law and a career as a lawyer was not leaving the ministry, but a new way to be faithful to my call to ministry. That may seem odd to some people, but in my way of thinking, both lawyers and ministers are supposed to promote and fight for a better world here and now. When people are at their weakest, it is either a lawyer or a minister that takes them by the arm, stands shoulder to shoulder with them, and gives them the greatest thing a person can have – hope! That ideological conviction is my primary reason for pursuing the study of law.

There are practical, career oriented reasons as well. Since receiving certification as a mediator in 2005, I have offered my services as a mediator and conflict resolution coach. However, it is difficult to establish one’s self in this field without having studied law. I believe that a law degree will give me the necessary credentials and professional clarity to effectively work as a peacemaker in our society.

Since March 2009 I have worked for Christian Relief Partners as their “Liaison for African Projects.” This aid organization is assisting with the development of a community in South Sudan. We are developing a sustainable model tied to the local community, including skills training, economic development, education, and agricultural programs. South Sudan has just voted to secede from the North, and establish their own country. I have traveled to the Sudan on two occasions now, and as I continue to invest myself in building up the new nation of South Sudan, I believe that a law degree will grant me the credentials that will open many doors.

In short, my desire to study law is born out of the same conviction that allowed me to answer the call to ministry. Or better stated, Christian Relief Partners has a simple, one sentence vision: “We believe that the world can be a better place.”

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