Neighborhood Justice

I met George O’Laughlin in the early 1990s when I was assigned to my first pastorate; it was in the inner city.  He was the first person I knew who was a member of two Catholic parishes at the same time: one in the suburban neighborhood where he lived and the other in the urban core where his charitable love flowed.  Though engaged in his neighborhood of residence, he also wanted to be aligned in, connected with, and committed to, the heart of the city because it expressed the heart of his faith.  An octogenarian lawyer at the time, he spent his retirement years at the Saint Therese Little Flower food pantry, receiving hungry clients and conducting intake interviews with them.  In conversation, he discovered that their need went way beyond household food; it often included layers of legal challenges that many poor people are clueless to navigate.  He contacted friends in the field of law which gave birth to a community justice center.  One of the young lawyers that helped him form the group back then was Tom Bradshaw.

Tom, now in his 80s and recently retired (about where George was thirty years ago), has elevated the program to greater levels.  In 2015 he formalized the Neighborhood Justice Center at Saint Francis Xavier Parish and is now working in conjunction with the Alvin Brooks Center for Faith Justice at Rockhurst University.  There are currently a dozen or so volunteer lawyers who take a case or two per year (or one every two years) to help low-income citizens maneuver through legal conundrums that hinder them in society: everything from traffic violations to immigration challenges to a lingering crime as teenagers.  Some pre-law students and others, from judges to para-legal workers, assist with cases, either to gain practical knowledge or share wisdom from their experiences.  Though some are retired, most are not.  We have partners at UMKC and hope to work with their wonderful law school, as well as programs like Midwest Innocence Project, and those working with expungement or exoneration.

This week Tom was honored with the Xavier Medal of Service, an award from Jesuit institutions recognizing outstanding endeavors that exemplify qualities which made Saint Francis Xavier a generous and holy man of God.  Francis was a sixteenth century companion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and one of the seven original members of the Society of Jesus.  He was immensely bright, talented, and selfless.  The best often get sent to spread the good news; and Ignatius recognized Francis as the best there was.  He sent him to the Far East where Xavier served the remainder of his life in service to God by spreading his faith.  Volunteers in the Neighborhood Justice Center, like Saint Francis, are men and women for and with others, contributing to the betterment of society and standing in solidarity with those in need—those who, but for divine grace or good luck, are us.

It is important to note that in ecclesial circles, “justice” is not defined as we think of it in street or court justice as “getting even”; rather it is thought of it as “getting right” (with God, neighbors, society, creation, and self).  If you have experience in the legal field and are willing, able, and interested, in assisting with the Neighborhood Justice Center or helping marginalized members of our community get right again, we would love to have you join the effort.  I will pass your contact information along to Tom who will welcome you aboard.  Like George, Tom, Francis Xavier, and others, your involvement can change lives—possibly save lives.