FOREWORD


“Cliff Nellis: On Restorative Justice, Holistic Healing, and Practicing Law as a Christian”

11.30.2021  |  Season 3  |  Episode 8




SHOW NOTES

TEDS MDiv alumnus Cliff Nellis joins Dr. Madison Pierce and Dr. Fellipe do Vale this week to speak about his work as executive director of Lawndale Christian Law Center, located on the westside of Chicago. Cliff holds a BA in Philosophy and English from Illinois Wesleyan University, a law degree from the University of Chicago, and is working toward an MBA at the Booth School of Business, also at the University of Chicago.

Cliff’s rich and diverse training distinctively equips him for his work at LCLC, which provides care to the youth of north Lawndale in the form of legal services, social services, and other opportunities for healing in the community. Cliff elaborates upon the holistic approach preferred by LCLC throughout the episode, an approach that takes into account both social and legal aspects of the lives of the young people they serve, which he calls “wrap-around supports.” Through these services, Cliff and his team (most of whom live alongside those they serve in Lawndale) hope to enable and equip those they help not to recidivate. The ultimate outcome for which they work is restorative justice, or a state of affairs of broader reconciliation and restitution beyond the distribution of punishment. This approach is both motivated by distinctly Christian impulses and better addresses questions of racial and criminal injustice. Cliff describes how he got into this kind of work, and what Christians can do to cultivate practices that benefit the communities in which they find themselves.

Along the way, listeners will discover…

  • How God can change someone’s life during a very long bike ride
  • How arguing with your sibling is a tool for sanctification
  • What resources are helpful for learning about the criminal justice system in the United States

To learn more about Cliff Nellis and the work being done at Lawndale Christian Legal Center (and to work alongside them!), look around their website (where you can make a donation), read the book that originally inspired Cliff, Real Hope in Chicago, or watch the news piece done on LCLC on ABC News.

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Transcript

 

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

Cliff Nellis
[00:00:00] Anyway, long story short, so I was—after my clerkship, I was going to go work for a big firm. You know, I had gone into law to make a lot of money. And I had gotten a number of job offers with the U of C Law degree, and the clerkship, I could go to really any city I wanted to and work for a number of big firms. Before I was going to do that, though, I was going to take some time to travel. And so I ended up riding my bicycle from Denver, Colorado; San Diego, California; to Miami, Florida. So three months, three days on my bicycle.

Fellipe do Vale
Oh my days! Really?

Madison Pierce
Oh my goodness!

do Vale
So you went backwards, then went to the East. [PIERCE LAUGHS]

Nellis
Yes. [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Which was the logic of a 26 year old.

do Vale
Yeah, I was going to say—“Let’s go further!” [LAUGHTER]

Nellis
Yeah. Yeah. Well at the time, I was living in Denver, I didn’t know anybody in San Diego, and I was like, “I don’t know. How am I going to get my bike there?” I was like, “Eh, I’ll just bike there and turn around.” That was literally the logic.

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

Pierce
Welcome to Foreword: A TEDS Faculty Podcast. I’m Madison Pierce.

do Vale
And I’m Fellipe do Vale.

Pierce
Today we have the pleasure of hosting Cliff Nellis, who is Executive Director of Lawndale Christian Law Center, which is in a neighborhood west of Chicago—on the west side. This is a practice that provides zealous, holistic, criminal defense—free of charge, exclusively to the youth of North Lawndale. We’re really excited to learn more about this ministry. Cliff holds a B.A. in Philosophy and English from Illinois Wesleyan, a law degree from the University of Chicago, and is working toward an MBA at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago also. But best of all, at least from our perspective, he has an MDiv from TEDS. So it’s a pleasure to have you here with us, Cliff.

Nellis
Thanks for having me.

do Vale
Well, for listeners who might be unfamiliar with you and your work in Lawndale, could you maybe tell us a little bit about it? Could you describe what you do and what the others at Lawndale Christian Law Center do as well?

Nellis
Sure. So we call it “holistic, community-based defense.” We are criminal defense lawyers that work on a holistic team with case managers, outreach workers, circle keepers, and wraparound supports. But on a big picture level, really the big picture from the beginning was to meet both the legal and social needs of young people under 25 in the North Lawndale community. So all young people who are getting in contact with the criminal justice system through policing courts or through probation, parole, and incarceration are eligible for our services that are under 25. And we basically put together an integrated legal social service package—services for them to help them navigate the system and hopefully never return to it again.

Pierce
Could you say a little bit more about what those kind of comprehensive packages look like?

Nellis
Yeah, sure! So, you know, it started out with me—it was a staff of one and I was the only lawyer, only staff member, and over the years, we developed a model where we added…first staff component we added to it was what we call “case managers,” social workers, but people who typically have a BSW, MSW—you know, a little more clinical background. They’re doing social assessments. And, you know, I was a Youth Pastor before coming into doing the legal center, so to me, it was just building relationships with kids and families and supporting them. But it’s understanding what’s going on at home, what’s going on in the block, what’s going on in the community, what’s going on at school, and how do we make sure they have the supports that they need to succeed in life, really. But then also, while at the same time, of course representing them in court. So our case managers do that clinical piece. The next component that we brought on—and this was… I don’t know how many of the…the founding board of directors 100% were residents of North Lawndale. By our bylaws, 51% will always be residents of North Lawndale. And at the time, I moved into North Lawndale—so I still live in North Lawndale. I don’t know how many of us predicted—I don’t think anybody predicted what would happen, which is, from day one to present day for the last twelve years, we have brought in—by, just, demand…I mean, people just walk in—very high need young people who really have a lot of significant challenges going on in their life. They’re pretty heavily connected to the streets and that’s their predominant sense of community and support, and with that came very serious legal cases and also very serious social needs. So one of the things we learned very early on was adding outreach workers, which is the term most people use—street outreach workers, violence interrupters (sometimes they’re called)—but guys who used to be on the streets that are no longer on the streets. We staff a team of those—usually young men, but I know they’re not young. Actually, it’s funny. If any of my outreach workers were listening, they’d be like, “Young!?”—formerly street-involved people. I’ll just say that. But they understand our kids’ lives. They’ve been there, they’ve done that. They also are still connected to the streets through family and friendships and relationships—they still live in the neighborhood. And so they can help us and our young person and their family navigate some of the more serious challenges in the neighborhood around violence and conflicts that are going on in the community.

Pierce
[00:05:11] How did you develop a passion for this? So you were a Youth Pastor, and then—

Nellis
Yeah, well, so I grew up in Lake Zurich, which is a northwest suburb of Chicago—it’s not far from here—and had very little faith background. I wasn’t really raised in the church, so to speak, I wouldn’t say. My grandmother was the one who got me into church most of the time, and I had a great deal of respect for her. So I went to college, became an atheist, went to law school—went from college to law school and then I clerked for a federal judge out in Denver, Colorado. And I was an atheist the whole time—and didn’t read the bible, didn’t go to church, etc…of course what an atheist would do. And my older brother, my only sibling, became a Christian. And I always like to say that he was the obnoxious one, because he was, like, just “Jesus,” “Bible,” all the time. [LAUGHTER] And he was also an atheist too—like, he was, and I was like, “Dude, what happened to you?” I was like, “I’m happy for you. You seem happy, but, like, come on. You know me. What are you doing?” But through him pastoring me, I really just decided to debate him—I was like, “Fine. I’ve gone down this road.”

do Vale
Older brother stuff, right? Just settle a debate!

Nellis
That’s right. I was like, “I’ll take this on, buddy!” And through that exchange, I think God started working on my heart, and started revealing to me that my grandmother was who she was because of her faith in Christ—that it was what molded her to become the woman that I knew and loved. And honestly, once God made that connection, I got—I was clerking for a federal judge in Denver, Colorado, I got up at lunch, went straight to the local book store, and got my first NIV bible. I had never really read it before, I turned to Romans of all books, and you know, Paul—was he a lawyer? He was a teacher of the law, he was an expert in the law—it’s a little bit different, you know, it was social-political-religious… “What is the Old Testament law? I don’t know.” But I read it fresh, and I was like, “There’s a lawyer that wrote the bible? I’m on this.”

do Vale
That’s amazing.

Pierce
I love it.

Nellis
So I started reading the book of Romans, of all places to begin with, and Romans 12:2 was my conversion verse: “Do not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And I thought of myself as a fairly non-conformist person and then I kind of looked at my life, and I was like—money, prestige and partying, and the pursuit of women were probably like the top three goals I had in life. You know what I mean? In that order, or all tied for first. And so I was like, “Wow. That’s not as non-conformist as I thought.” [LAUGHTER] Anyway, long story short, so I was—after my clerkship, I was going to go work for a big firm. You know, I had gone into law to make a lot of money. And I had gotten a number of job offers with the U of C Law degree, and the clerkship, I could go to really any city I wanted to and work for a number of big firms. Before I was going to do that, though, I was going to take some time to travel. And so I ended up riding my bicycle from Denver, Colorado; San Diego, California; to Miami, Florida. So three months, three days on my bicycle.

Fellipe do Vale
Oh my days! Really?

Madison Pierce
Oh my goodness!

do Vale
So you went backwards, then went to the East. [PIERCE LAUGHS]

Nellis
Yes. [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Which was the logic of a 26 year old.

do Vale
Yeah, I was going to say—“Let’s go further!” [LAUGHTER]

Nellis
Yeah. Yeah. Well at the time, I was living in Denver, I didn’t know anybody in San Diego, and I was like, “I don’t know. How am I going to get my bike there?” I was like, “Eh, I’ll just bike there and turn around.” That was literally the logic.

do Vale
There you go.

Pierce
That is so funny.

do Vale
San Diego to Miami.

Pierce
Wow.

Nellis
Yeah. I ended up—so three days before that trip, I decided to bring the bible with me. It wasn’t going to be a spiritual experience. It was all because my brother—it was the summer and spring before that trip, I left in August, that he started proselytizing. I mean, now I look at it and I know what he was doing. But, I decided to bring the bible with me, and then I had just an amazing, powerful conversion. I mean, it was a time in my life that I will look back on for the rest of my life. I often tell people about it—like, I remember biking across Western Texas where there’s nothing. Like, there’s nothing.

Pierce
Yeah.

do Vale
Oh my days. You biked through that? Oh my goodness. [LAUGHS]

Pierce
Bless you.

Nellis
Yeah. I did. Yeah. It was…I know that I couldn’t do it today. [LAUGHTER] I’m glad I did it—wouldn’t do it again. But I remember feeling like God was so close to me that I could whisper to him on my shoulder. I had never experienced such a powerful love and transformation and peace. And so I felt called to ministry, had no idea what it meant—literally, I hadn’t been to church for 10+ years, and even then, when I went to church, it was not because it was part of our home life or family life. And so I go back to the church that my grandmother went to, and sat down with the pastor, who I’m still friends with now, and I said, “What do you do? I think I’m supposed to do it.” Because I was like, “What do you do Monday through Saturday?” [LAUGHTER] “I see you’ve got something going Sunday morning, but what else?”

do Vale
[LAUGHS] Just hanging out!

Nellis
Just kicking it? It’s like, “Sign me up!” [LAUGHS]

Pierce
That’s incredible.

Nellis
And it turns out that her late husband was the founder of LaSalle Street Church downtown—

Pierce
Yeah!

Nellis
—which started Cabrini Green Legal Aid. So she had connections to Cabrini Green Legal Aid, and she said, “You’re a University of Chicago Law grad. You should practice law.” And I was like, “You didn’t hear me. I’m called to ministry.” And she was like, “No, you didn’t hear me. You should practice law.” It took me a few years before I connected it. I didn’t…at the time, I was biblically illiterate and I felt like I needed an education and didn’t know what, because my life was turning upside down pretty radically, and I was stepping out of the boat, for sure, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just felt led and called and sensed a peace about it, but I was like, “Okay. I need to attach some knowledge to this.” You know? So I went to seminary school—here, obviously—and then it was…I’m trying to think…it was during seminary that I came across Lawndale Community Church. I think it was 2005. I was youth pastoring at a local church in Long Grove, and my mentor there had come across a coach when he founded Lawndale Community Church. And he wrote a book, and he heard him speak, and he said, “You know, Cliff, you’d really like this guy. You should check out his book.” And the book’s called Real Hope in Chicago—I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It’s a pretty amazing story. In fact, I thought it was too good to be true. I read the book in 2005, he wrote it in 1995, so everything he wrote about had grown for ten years. And what he wrote about in 1995 I thought was too good to be true, such that I called the church and I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to look at this for myself. I don’t believe it.” And I went to Lawndale, looked around, and everything—I mean, the health center now has 500 employees, you know, I mean it’s got I think six sites around Chicago, one in Afghanistan, I mean it’s unbelievable. And the development corporation is doing—I don’t remember how many units of housing and apartments—affordable housing in the neighborhood. But what’s compelling—there’s a lot of compelling things about the story and the church—but it was started by a ​​group of high school kids and a schoolteacher-coach. And they all got together and said, “Well, if Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, doesn’t that mean to love your neighbor-hood?” And so they brought the neighborhood together—they brought moms and families together—and said, “Hey, what do you need? How can we serve you?” That was sort of the foundational value that this church was created on. So we don’t have a real “sanctuary.” That first community meeting—it was a safe place to play basketball, affordable housing, healthcare, jobs, legal services. That was the five things. And so they started with basketball. They created a gym, and that’s where we hold church to this day. We convert it every Sunday into church, you know, which I respect about the way the church—obviously I respect it; I moved into the neighborhood in 2009. [DO VALE LAUGHS] You could say I bought into it. But they could have done all kinds of capital campaigns and things to build another church building or something for a bible study or something—which we do, but not…you know, instead, we do community centers and stuff like that, or start a legal center. I mean, how many churches would pay for criminal defense representation?

do Vale
Oh my gosh. More than should.

Nellis
Listen, I always say if Jesus were a lawyer, he’d be—well, he’d work for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, of course. [PIERCE LAUGHS] Like, he would have found it. I’d work for him. Or he’d be a public defender. I mean, honestly, we should be all about redemption and grace and forgiveness and second chances.

do Vale
[00:13:29] Absolutely. Goodness, I love that. I love your story. It’s a lot of interesting wrinkles and turns, and that’s really cool—not to mention that you stand in good stead with loads of Christians in history who are either former lawyers or are on the path of becoming lawyers—like John Calvin, for instance. So you’re the next John Calvin. [NELLIS LAUGHS]

Nellis
I don’t know. We’ll see. [LAUGHS]

do Vale
But one of the things that I found so amazing when I was looking over the things that you do at LCLC was your commitment to restorative justice, and it seemed like a particular kind of emphasis. So maybe…could you say a word or two about what restorative justice is, how it differs from different approaches to justice, and how you enact that with your practice and with everything else that’s going on.

Nellis
Sure. Yeah. So I would say our current system to contrast it—what it is not—is centered around laws and punishments, right? You have a law, and with it comes a class of a sentence—Class X felony 1, 2, 3, 4 and then misdemeanors A, B, and C. And they are sentencing ranges. You know, it’s “Do this, get this.” Right? Restorative justice looks at the world from a relational point of view—I think it’s quite biblical; I don’t think its origins are necessarily in the Christian church, but it is an indigenous practice—where it looks at a community and says that there’s been a broken relationship, right? Crime at the end of the day is committing harm to somebody. And so you’re looking at instead of this being a Class 2 felony with 3-7 years that carry with it, it’s, “This was harm done to a specific person—a family, and a community that was effected by your actions.” And so restorative justice processes are about healing harm. It’s about bringing the people who were impacted together to go through—so the other…the fourth component of the staff that we ended up hiring, and we’re hoping to scale up in 2022 because of a new law that was passed, is Restorative Justice Circle Keepers. So those are people—I’m trained myself, I don’t…I’m just an Executive Director these days, so I don’t have time. I don’t get to do that anymore—but it’s people who are trained to take victims and defendants and effected community members together through a healing process. It starts with some one-on-one relationship building, then you come together in a circle, and you build…you do a little story telling, you build some relationships, you get to know each other, but then you define your values, your guidelines for how you’re going to conduct yourself, and then you create a space for people to share. One—the defendant takes responsibility, apologizes, and explains what was going on…you know, what happened that day or what was going on. The victim gets to hear that, which in and of itself, is healing. You know, because lots of times it’s the unknowns—“Why did you…”

do Vale
Yeah. “Why this?”

Nellis
—“Why did you get my house?” “Why did you break into my house?” “Are you coming back?” “What was the…is it personal?” “Was it…what’s the story?” But then at the end of the circle, everybody talks about what they need to become whole. Like, “How do we become healed and stronger through this?” It’s very powerful. Our current system has no…there’s no capacity in our current system for doing this. Well, I shouldn’t say that, actually—we started the first restorative justice community court in the country in 2017 in North Lawndale with the Circuit Court of Cook County with Chief Judge Timothy Evans. So other than that court, though, there really isn’t a capacity in the system as a whole to do this. And so that’s…we call it a “Repair of Harm Agreement,” a “Healing Covenant,” whatever you want to call it, but it comes to this conclusion of “What does everybody need to become whole?” And then there’s a follow up process where everybody’s supported through that process. For example, we had a young man who robbed a pizza delivery guy. This was a violent crime. Most people would not think this would be applicable in this situation, but about five guys jumped a pizza guy, took him down to the ground, roughed him up, took $600 out of his pocket. That’s a Class 2 felony—that’s 37 years. It’s…not likely to get probation on that. And we did a circle with the pizza delivery guy, the store owner, of course the young man that I represented, his mother, two Circle Keepers, myself, and some effected community members, and it was a way—what ended up happening with that Healing Covenant was he built a relationship with the store owner, with the pizza delivery guy, went over, volunteered hours to clean up the store, went on deliveries with the pizza delivery guy, and he also got training circles to be able to do circles for other people. But the most powerful thing was his mother. His mother was in the circle and said that his two younger sisters, who really looked up to him, were processing the fact that he’d—you know, he wasn’t sentenced to jail, but he was in jail pinning trucks…he couldn’t afford his bond—and so they were processing the fact that this older brother that they look up to was in jail, and coloring and doing things that children would do to express their emotions, and now there’s not a dry eye in the room—we’re all crying because she’s crying; she’s talking about her family. And so one of the things that came out of that circle was to do another circle just for their family. So he could sit and heal harm with his younger sisters. So when you compare restorative justice to our current system or punitive justice or traditional justice—whatever you want to call it—it’s a whole different way of doing things. And obviously, we believe, and I think we’ve proven over the last 12 years, that it’s a far better result—from a justice point of view, to a community point of view, to a public policy and how much money we spend on our criminal justice system, and a we-can-save-taxpayers’-money view—on all of them.

Pierce
[00:19:01] Yeah. Do you have some statistics about the likelihood that people would be repeat offenders having participated in this? Is there a much lower rate of—

Nellis
Yeah. So there’s three evaluations I can point to: one, we’re leading a randomized control trial evaluation between our office and the local public defender’s office. So that’s sort of, like, our equivalent. They have lawyers that are free, but they’re not in the community and they’re not on a holistic team. And so we’re doing University of Chicago, Inclusive Economy Lab, is leading a randomized control trial evaluation. We’re still mid-stream of that, so results haven’t been published. So the sort of justice community court I talked about we launched in 2017, and COVID set it back a little bit, because a lot of courts were shut down for awhile. But…and I can’t remember the exact statistic, but it was like 83% successful, which is—and this is a particular process where once they’re done, they don’t go to jail and they don’t have a felony record. So they go through this healing process, and they don’t go to jail, they don’t have a felony hanging over their head for the rest of their life, and they’re connected to community-based supports, as part of the healing covenant is always also, “What does the defendant need?” It’s not just with the victim. But I would say 99% of the people we’ve represented over the last 12 years—like it’s…you know, you can look at their lives, and you can see why they are where they are. You know, it’s not bad people—they’ve been dealing with some really bad situations and they’re trying to make the best of a bad situation. And so if you can address some of those needs, you know, not many kids really want to be out on the streets. And then the last thing I will say is on statistics. So we had this published on our website—we took it down because I thought it was a little misleading—our 2019…I think it was 91% in re-arrest/re-recidivate, and that’s just our program overall, not just the RJCC, not the CRCT where a lot of the—not just aggregately for that year, and it’s actually a fact—it’s a true number, but it’s a true number for the duration that we had those kids, which was probably on average about a year and a half. And don’t get me wrong, that’s like…91 is way better than any average for a year and a half, but it made it seem like our aggregate recidivism rate was 9%, which I’m sure it’s not, because at year two, year three, year four, year five, and year ten—

do Vale
Sure.

Pierce
Yeah. It gets harder.

Nellis
—there are some people that are going to be falling back in. So we don’t have…what we need to do is come up with probably, like, “one, three, five, ten”—like, “What’s our recidivism rate?” versus “What is our current system producing?” What I know for sure is it’s better; I just don’t know the magnitude.

Pierce
Yeah. Well that sounds like a beautiful system. I think that another…so you talked about making people “whole.” And so in addition to this aspect of restorative justice, you’re also committed to addressing injustice generally—so that would be racial, economic injustice. And I wonder…how do you address those kinds of injustice, and why is that so important for you?

Nellis
Yeah. Well, I mean, so I grew up in Lake Zurich, right—White suburb. I went to Trinity here, which, I don’t know what its demographic is today, but when I was here, it was not diverse from at least a local population—I mean, I know we had international students that added diversity. But I’ve been in most—and college at Illinois Wesleyan University…I mean, I was just looking at my fraternity photo the other day, and I was like, “Wow. Very, very White.” You know? And I mean, I’ve just been in very White spaces my whole life, until I moved into North Lawndale. And as much as my bicycle trip and coming to know the Lord turned my life upside down and changed the trajectory of my life, I will say, you know, if you were to say “vertically,” socially-horizontally, moving to North Lawndale and living life there where I’ve lived now for twelve years, and representing kids in the criminal justice system, was an equally upending, world-turning-upside-down kind of experience on the social side. And so when it comes to racial equity, racial injustice or justice, it’s everything. I mean, we can’t talk about where we’re at in North Lawndale without looking at the decades and centuries of intentional, systemic oppression that occurred across every sector of society. And it’s not slavery; it’s not Jim Crow—it’s 70’s and 80’s redlining practices that prevented people from having generational wealth; it’s the boom in our criminal justice system from the “War on Drugs”; it’s the 869 officers out of the 11th and 10th district today that are policing basically three communities—East Garfield Park, Lawndale, and Little Village. That’s a lot of police. That’s a lot of police. And it’s billions of dollars—literally billions annually that we’re spending on it. And that’s just police. I mean, we’re spending $2.7 billion on police. It’s nuts. And then you add all of the costs to prosecute in courts—prosecution, public defender, judge, clerk, you know, sheriffs, then the local jail, and then probation, parole, and state incarceration—and then you do the whole thing again for federal: federal police, federal courts—it’s billions…billions annually—locally. Just even in our…in Chicago and Cook County…spending billions every year. And it’s not getting us anything by way of public safety—I mean, obviously, look in the news. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed. And so I always…I point that out, because if we had half of the budget, if we had a tenth of the budget, we could do magic with a restorative model that’s grassroots, community-led, and actually bringing resources into communities that have been really systemically disadvantaged for decades. Because you’re making up ground from—you have families that have been disinvested in for generations, and we’ve got to reverse that.

Pierce
Mmhmm. Amen.

do Vale
[00:25:09] Well that’s remarkable. Yeah, I was really struck with how you described your experience familiarizing yourself with the Lawndale community and how that was equally transformative—even if on different plains, but still remarkably transformative. And it occurs to me that you bring this unique skillset to your community—you know, you have a seminary degree, a law degree, you’re familiar with church settings, you’re familiar…I mean, you live in the context that you’re serving, you know the stories, and you’re working with people who live the stories themselves. How do you see your Christian faith, your work in the community, etc., your legal work—how do they intersect? And for those who may be… you know, can’t go out and get a law degree and things like that, how can we cultivate similar kinds of eyes to see the things that you see, or see things in the way that you have seen them?

Nellis
Yeah. Well on the first question, I think I’d say that anyone who feels called to ministry is…that intersection is just who I am and what I’m called to do. I mean, it’s not a job; it’s more of a—it’s my life, you know? Obviously, my children and family come first, but it’s not really like a—it’s not a job.

do Vale
They live there too.

Nellis
—It’s not a job. Yeah, raising my children there, yeah. And so on the how to…you know, how to integrate the church and justice—you know I don’t see those as two separate things at all. In fact, I kind of tend to argue more if you’re not really doing the work of justice, then you may actually not be a part of the church—the real church. Because, you know, if you’re…I think the bible’s just riddled with examples of people who knew Scripture very well, were very “pious people,” and experts in the law and experts in all things Scripture, but yet were not doing anything that Jesus was about. And quite frankly, He had some pretty hard remarks for them, right? The Pharisees, Sadducees—they’re not doing too well in Scripture. And then you look at the people He did hang out with, and they were the marginalized. They were the outcasts in society. They were lower-class, uneducated; they were lepers and prostitutes—and I don’t think that…that takes a whole different kind of perspective when now you’re living in a community of marginalized people. And not having ever been exposed to that my entire life, I was under the delusion that my life was representative of everybody’s shot in America, and that’s just not true. That’s just not even close to true. It’s almost bananas to think that’s even true—I mean, not “almost,” it is bananas. But that’s a lot of White people. I mean, my family still lives not just down the street from here. You know, we don’t agree on everything these days. [LAUGHS] And I think there’s a shift. I will say I think the murder of George Floyd actually has catalyzed something. I don’t know if it’s a movement or a moment, but I think it’s…that, and the fact that everybody had to sit down because of COVID, I don’t think they just rushed over that video. They actually had to sit with it. Because, I mean, honestly, there’s been horrible—worse, I think—well, I don’t know about “worse,” they all have gradings of murder, but that video was…I don’t think it was as bad as Tamir Rice’s, you know, that’s unbelievable to me. There’s a lot of people who have been killed, and it’s like, “Wow. Why didn’t that catalyze the movement?” But I always assume it’s because of COVID. Everybody had to actually sit. You know, you’re not in the hustle and bustle of taking kids to this, that, this, whatever, wherever you go, and people had to sit down and reconcile themselves with it. So I’ve been doing that for twelve years; I’ll probably do it the rest of my life. You know, I’m reconciling with the upbringing I had, the privileges and opportunities that were just handed to me just by way of birth, and social position in life and community, and now where I’m at now, and it’s very different playing fields—very, very different playing fields. And we want to balance those playing fields, right? I mean, we want to bring resources so that really everybody has a fair shot.

Pierce
Absolutely.

do Vale
And you are, right? That’s the amazing thing.

Nellis
Well, I mean, we’re working on it. There’s a lot of work to be done. I mean, we’ve made a splash, and in twelve years, we’re pushing 60 staff now, and the budget went from $30,000 to $5 million, so we’re starting to make a dent, but there’s a lot of work to be done. I mean, there’s a lot of work to be done.

do Vale
Of course.

Pierce
[00:29:20] Yeah. For those who are listening who haven’t yet done that work or made that same kind of commitment, what are some things that they can do—or do you have recommendations for them about how they can learn or can have their minds opened to the work of justice and its relationship with the Gospel, really?

Nellis
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think part of it starts with being open. And there was actually a class I took here that was really good for me before I moved into North Lawndale. It was “cross-cultural ministry.” I can’t remember the professor, but he wrote—

Pierce
Dr. Cha?

Nellis
No, it wasn’t…he wasn’t here yet.

Pierce
Oh, okay!

Nellis
It was…man, I can’t remember. He wrote a book called Cross-Cultural Ministry. And basically, he showed how, like—

Pierce
Ott?

Nellis
Who?

Pierce
Ott? Craig Ott? He’s very tall. I’ll get in trouble with Craig. [LAUGHS]

Nellis
I…maybe. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think it was him. I can’t remember now, but I’ll find the book and I’ll email you guys.

Pierce
Yeah, please.

Nellis
So…but it basically was like a study he’d done where he’d bring people from any two cultures across the world—you know, any of them. You’re going to have conflict over six different areas: “time” versus “task,” “people” versus “event”­—or “people” versus “task,” “time” versus “event”…different orientations in culture. And so, but the big picture was “suspend judgment,” “be open.” So I would say the first thing is suspend judgment: as a White guy from Lake Zurich, I have been enculturated in White culture in America, with all the things and the assumptions about life, and pulling yourself up by the boot straps, and working hard, and blah, blah, blah. You’ve got all of this stuff that you’ve got to be open—you’ve got to be open to challenge everything you thought was true.

do Vale
Yeah. Are you a “Ted Lasso” fan, by any chance?

Nellis
Who?

do Vale
“Ted Lasso.” The T.V. show?

Nellis
No.

do Vale
Aw. It was a gamble. [PIERCE LAUGHS] It was a shot.

Nellis
I don’t really watch T.V.

do Vale
Oh, that’s alright. He’s got a line where he says, “Be curious, not judgmental.” And it reminded me a lot of what you’re saying.

Nellis
Oh, yeah. I think that’s a good start. Then after there, I would say, you know, there’s a lot of good books. I mean, Bryan Stevenson’s done some great work—of course, the movie just came out: “Just Mercy.” I would say go visit EJI in Montgomery. He’s got a museum there from—what’s it called?—“From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.” It’s an experiential museum. It will move you. I went there for…they also have this monument for…National Monument for Peace and Change, or something…Peace and Justice. And they did this coordinated project where—it was very moving—went with the Sojourners group, and they had documented through historical societies the locations of lynchings all throughout the South. And they had groups of people that were wanting to participate go to those sites, gather soil, put it in a jar with the names of the people lynched there, and hold a memorial service—like, in honor of their life.

do Vale
Wow.

Pierce
Wow.

Nellis
And then they bring that jar back and they put it in their…so now, there’s a room with just jars. And then the National Monument for Peace and Change is slabs of concrete, similarly, marking sites—I think of all lynchings—but they’re suspended from the ceiling so that it looks like they’re hanging, which is, of course, an experiential part of the piece. And there’s a corollary piece that is being set up on the site where they were lynched—on that slab. So…I don’t know…I mean…boy, the Evangelical Covenant Church, Debbie Blue—Sankofa journey. Sankofa journey was very powerful. So the Sankofa journey—Alvin Bibbs from Willow Creek was doing something called the “Justice Journey.” Very similar, I understand. I didn’t do it. I did the Sankofa one. But you get paired cross-racially. You can’t go with somebody of the same race. So I went with, actually, one of the young kids that I represented. You get on a bus, you start in Chicago, you go all the way like the freedom riders, you go down south to all of these Civil Rights landmarks, you’re watching documentaries and videos about the Civil Rights Movement, and you’re having guided conversation about race with people on this bus—all of various…very powerful. No dry eyes the whole time. Very hard. But now, because now, it’s like you’re taking people out of their head, and you’re giving them the experience of…it changes you. I helps people become more open. I mean, like, living in North Lawndale has helped me become way more open to lots of things that I didn’t think were true before, because now, I have people I love. It’s a different equation.

do Vale
[00:34:26] Yeah. It sounds like what you’re saying is it’s one thing to learn about these things in a sort of propositional, factual way, and it’s another thing to get firsthand experience. Because you have names and you start loving people concretely. I keep thinking of that verse, right? “Love your neighbor as yourself” and the needs around the neighborhood.

Nellis
Yeah. Well, and we’re so segregated around here, that it’s like, to really get outside of your bubble does—I would never…I would not be who I am today, or my faith wouldn’t be…I don’t even know. I’d be unrecognizable to myself if I had not moved to North Lawndale, for sure. I mean, I would say it’s as much of a change if, well I can’t say “more,” but as much of a change as my conversion.

Pierce
Wow. Yeah, thank you. Those are some really great recommendations, so we’ll try to put some links in the show notes and everything for our listeners.

Nellis
The New Jim Crow, too, is also another good book—Michelle Alexander’s book—that’s a little older, Color of Fear, well, there’s a bunch. But anything where you’re going to learn about the criminal justice system and be open to the idea that perhaps it isn’t a vehicle of justice. I mean, if you can’t accept that, then you’re going to have a hard time listening to anything I have to say. Because I have oftentimes called it instead of the “criminal justice system,” the “criminal system of injustice.” Because it’s not helping.

do Vale
Yeah. God’s Law and Order as well—Aaron Griffith’s new book. I don’t know if you’ve come across that.

Nellis
I haven’t.

do Vale
It’s quite good.

Nellis
Ok. I’ll take a look. Who wrote it?

do Vale
Aaron Griffith.

Nellis
Ok.

Pierce
Well, I would love to continue to learn—even just for me personally—but continue to connect you with our listeners, but we have one more question.

Nellis
Sure, sure.

Pierce
What concrete steps can churches take to benefit their own communities? So, how can they do something like what y’all have done in Lawndale to benefit?

Nellis
Yeah. I would say it’s tough. I get this question a lot. The answers are tough, because, yes, read some books, come open, all that—and that’s great. But the challenge is that we are so segregated that the world in which we live and read this, and then interpret it and apply it, is still—for example, if I were out in Lake Zurich, or where I’ve been most of my life, it would still be predominantly White areas where it’s just not…it’s very hard to apply with just kind of a head knowledge. So it’s always tough, because, I mean…and then also, you don’t want to just—you know, people joke around a lot—you don’t want to just go “adopt” a Black friend. You know what I mean? That’s not what we’re saying either. So it’s tough, but I do think getting outside of your world and building relationships with people who don’t share your experience of our country, or our local society, or local communities, or whatever you want to say, is really important. I think it’s not just—and yes, many churches have their peace and ministry groups, their social justice bible study groups, their Black Lives Matter groups, or whatever kind of…the usual language of like, “These are the people in this church that care about this.” One, I would say let’s not put it as a little pocket—it should be the whole church. Let’s get that in the pulpit—let’s get that everywhere—so that that’s just “Sunday morning.” But then, how do we get…I mean I think the question, then—I would rephrase that question—is “How do we get a segregated church to live in community with each other?” Because I feel like that gets us a long way if authentic, real community of equality, listening, learning—and yes, there’s mutuality. It’s not like I don’t bring anything because I’m a White male, but I’ve got to recognize that I’ve got a lot of handicaps—a lot of handicaps. And it’s not just race. It’s gender too. We’ve got to own that. I mean, our country is not a shining light on race and gender equity at all. I mean, not even close.

Pierce
Thank you so much, Cliff, for that. Well, that’s just the Foreword, though. If you’d like to learn more about Cliff Nellis and the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, have a look at their website—which we’ll link. They’re always looking for willing hands to help in any capacity. So at this point, as we close, we want to think our producer, Curtis Pierce, our graduate assistant, Lauren Januzik, and last but not least, those of you who are listening at home. So thank you so much. I’m Madison Pierce.

do Vale
And I’m Fellipe do Vale. Thank you for joining us, Cliff, and thank you for listening.

Nellis
Thank you.

Pierce
Thank you.

Outro

Foreword is a podcast hosted by faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The views expressed by the hosts and guests of Foreword do not necessarily represent the views of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can subscribe to our newest episodes on your preferred podcast app or at forewordpodcast.com. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook @forewordpodcast to get updates and additional links to content. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is located 25 miles north of Chicago, with extension sites across the country and online. Trinity educates men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world by cultivating academic excellence, Christian faithfulness, and lifelong learning. You can find more information at teds.edu.

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