My Journey to Christian Legal Aid
by Eka Akpakip Fleming
"Silent, aching, never knowing why.
Your soul dies but your heart keeps beating…"
Those are the opening lines of a poem I wrote many years ago. That was me. My heart had broken in pieces, and though God was calling out to me, I couldn’t hear His voice, I couldn’t see His hand, I couldn’t reach out. I was lost in darkness. BUT GOD sent others to be His hands and feet, to bring me light and, eventually, hope. And so I go out—and encourage others to go out—and help bring light to those lost in the darkness. That is why I serve: to bring light to those in darkness, hope to the hopeless, strength to those who are weary; as God once did for me.
"For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light."
I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for about as long as I can remember. Why? Because I learned at a young age that lawyers fought for JUSTICE. And unfortunately, I learned at a young age that there was a lot of injustice in the world. My parents had to overcome disadvantages and prejudices to get where they were. My dad, who grew up in a village in Nigeria, would tell me stories of the poverty and lack of opportunity that existed in the world. My mom, who had grown up in poverty in Dallas, would share stories of her mom’s struggle to get food and of her friends being killed by the police without cause. And then there was me, growing up in a rural area where we were the only black family and facing and fighting against all the prejudice, ignorance, and sometimes even hate that others had for me just because of the color of my skin.
I was in preschool when I discovered I was black. My best friends at preschool told me one day that they had heard their parents talking about the “black people.” Their parents had said these people were bad and did bad things and should be kept out. I had never heard this before so I was VERY concerned. After school I told my mom what I had heard and told her something had to be done about these black people! That’s when she explained to me that WE were black. I was eager to report this news to my friends at preschool the next day. I told them that there was nothing to worry about. That I had I found out last night that I’m black and I’m not bad, so everything was fine.
My friends never spoke to me again.
There’s something that happens to you when you realize people are judging you based on the color of your skin. It becomes harder to see the world as good and hopeful; it becomes easier to put your guard up and assume the worst of people.
Fortunately, from a young age I also knew that God was real. I grew up with parents who believed and lived for God and consistently put their trust in Him. They taught me that although there is sin and pain in the world, we are to love our neighbor and be a light to those around us. I recognized the great gift God had given me to think and solve problems using logic and I prayed about what He wanted me to do with my life. And the law was my answer. I wanted to help right the wrongs, advance the ideals of equality. I wanted to fight for justice!
But then the real world caught up with me. When I got to college, I made A LOT of mistakes. I had always thought that I needed to follow God’s law for Him to love me. So when I ended up breaking all of the rules I had followed as a child (no drinking, no sex, no drugs), I felt that God couldn’t possibly love me anymore. I couldn’t see a path back to His love and light. But I still felt the law was my calling so I went to law school. By the time I entered law school, I was very far from God and had lost sight of His plan for my life. I acquired A LOT of debt and learned about areas of law that would actually pay me money. And if I’m absolutely honest with myself, I became enamored of the lifestyle and prestige that “Big Law” had to offer. So I put aside my dream of “fighting for justice.” Instead I was going to be a corporate lawyer, I was going to make deals on Wall Street, and make a lot of money. I was going to live for me and I was going to be successful.
But God had different plans for me. With the down turn in the economy, I found myself working for the federal government in a non-legal position. And with an unexpected pregnancy I also found myself single mother to a beautiful baby boy. It wasn’t easy, and I needed help. I needed to go to court to get child support. But despite my legal education, I felt completely lost and alone. Just getting the case started was hard. I had no money for an attorney, so I had to figure out myself which forms to use. Luckily, I at least understood enough to know which jurisdiction I needed to file in (not that anything on the forms explained that!).
Once I started the case, things were even more stressful. My son’s father had an attorney, so I was responding to briefs written by experienced lawyers completely on my own, and argued my own case in court. And at the end of the day, it was really God’s blessing and intervention that allowed me to get a good result.
In the course of representing myself in that first year of my son’s life, I had a glimpse of what it’s like for those whom we serve in Legal Aid. I couldn’t have felt more powerless and afraid. Money was tight; I had to negotiate down the price for daycare; I only bought second-hand clothes; and my parents had to give me money so I could pay all my bills. That memory of feeling powerless stuck with me. Even as I got promoted, got child support, and got into a more comfortable position, I thought of all the people out there who didn’t have the same support and opportunities that I did. It wasn’t right that anyone should have to feel that way; God did not intend for us to have to live this way.
This was also the time when God called me back to him. After I had my son, I knew I needed to go back to church--I wanted him to grow up learning about God and with the support of a church community. Over the next two years, I re-discovered God and had a great revelation of His love. I realized that God’s love is a gift freely given and that we should live and act out of love and gratitude, not to try to earn anything. So I prayed that God would show me how I could help, where he would call me to serve.
That’s when I found out about Good Samaritan Advocates, a Christian Legal Aid clinic, and it felt like what I’d been waiting for my whole life. In Christian Legal Aid, I can help those in great need who many times feel completely lost and alone. I can coach and assist clients who felt powerless and help them to see that they DO have some control over their lives. And most importantly, I can share God’s love with them, to be the light of God in the world. There is nothing else like Christian legal aid, it allows us to use our legal gift from the Father, to help further Christ’s justice in the world, while sharing the Spirit of God with those in need. It is a picture of God in the world.
Although I’ve been volunteering for 4 years and am now a Clinic Director, I still think seeing clients is one of the most intimidating, humbling, and fulfilling things I do. When I first got started, I felt very inadequate, but I kept reminding myself, it’s me or nothing. Over time, I realized it’s a great gift to do something where you can’t just rely on your own strength. Even though I’m now more experienced, I will always need God’s help when serving clients because it’s not about giving legal advice-- it’s about giving HOPE, and only God can do that.
I’ll end with a prayer. First, I lift up those of you who are in need, I pray for you with all my heart. Jesus is there with you, and God loves you. I encourage those of you who are already serving or supporting Christian legal aid, give all that you can give, and ask God where he is calling you to serve and lead in even greater measure. And I exhort those of you who have been thinking about getting involved, don’t wait! The time to help is now, the need is great, and you are greatly needed. Even now, God is calling you to reach out to those in darkness and show them His marvelous light.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other. ~John 15:16-17
Eka Akpakip Fleming lives in Fairfax, Virginia with her husband, Chris, two sons (Jeffery and Matthew), and a very friendly cat named Buttercup. After graduating from Georgetown Law, she went to work for a federal agency and is now a Program Manager in the Office of the Chief Information Officer. She started volunteering at Good Samaritan Advocates in 2014, became a Clinic Director at the Columbia Baptist clinic in 2015, and recently joined the GSA Board. She’s a member of Columbia Baptist Church where she sings in the praise band and plays the clarinet in the orchestra.