Nearly 40 families from four Minnesota counties received help last weekend in the form of answers to their pressing legal questions at Spirit River Community Church’s fifth annual “Ask-a-Lawyer” event.
Church member James Dehn, an Isanti County district court judge and member of the 10th Judicial District Equal Justice Committee, came up with the idea several years ago—and he recruits lawyers specializing in a wide variety of practice areas to volunteer their time each year. This year, 11 lawyers, three judges, and several interns were there to help attendees navigate a wide variety of legal issues.
This ministry is especially impactful given the significant amount of poverty that exists in Isanti and surrounding communities; in fact, roughly a third of Spirit River’s members are below the poverty line.
“I want Spirit River to be at the forefront of everything in the community,” said Dehn. “We want to show that we’re there for people who don’t have access to certain things. One of those things is legal advice. This is a way the church and the community can work together to give assistance to people in a very tough time in their lives.”
Each attendee fills out a form listing up to three pressing legal questions and is then directed to attorneys who specialize in the areas in which they need help.
Questions asked last weekend were wide-ranging; some of the most common areas people asked about were landlord-tenant relations, taxes and tax rights, social security, wills and estates, family law, and civil litigation.
“Hosting this important event is a privilege and gives us a chance to reach out to a population that might not have the resources able to go to a lawyer’s office,” said Rev. Jim Crecelius. “Many of these people are or feel disenfranchised in our culture and might not have the opportunity to voice their concerns or ask important questions.”
Dehn said the first “Ask-a-Lawyer Day” was the biggest, with 125 people asking in excess of 400 legal questions. But there’s been enough interest ever since to keep it going on a yearly basis.
“It lifts my spirits when we have people who leave with tears in their eyes because they finally got answer they’ve been struggling to get and couldn’t afford to get,” said Dehn.
He’d like to eventually expand the ministry by hosting a self-help event at Spirit River. Self-help events provide resources to people thinking about starting or responding to a legal action who can’t afford an attorney.
Spirit River, which became a chartered church in 2014, has a strong emphasis on outreach. Aside from the “Ask-a-Lawyer Day,” the church hosts community dinners, has a food pantry that it opens up to families in need, and organizes community prayer gatherings.
“We pray that these people we’re reaching come to know Spirit River Community as a place where they are received, embraced, nurtured, listened to, cared for, and respected,” said Crecelius. “Our hope is that people feel loved and accepted by the Spirit River Community folks they meet at our events like law day and might take the step of joining in the life of our faith community.”
What are the pressing needs in your community, and which assets can your church deploy to help address them?
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church