I grew up as a white child raised by middle-class parents in a suburb so idyllic that it was named the safest city in America for three years running during my elementary and middle school years.
After I graduated from high school, I went to a small Christian college in an area so rural and so thoroughly Wesleyan that students were more worried about getting jumped by a deer than by another human (and rightly so – my car actually did get attacked by a buck on the highway, and had the antler marks to prove it).
I graduated from college having never personally known anyone accused of a crime.
I was 24 years old and in my second year of law school the first time I went to observe a day in a criminal courthouse. One of my classmates and I sat down in the gallery area occupied by defendants and family members waiting for their cases to be called. I realized sometime after I sat down that we were the only white people in the gallery.
We sat in court for about an hour, watching an assembly line of black and brown men being brought out from the lockup area where the prisoners were held. During that hour, we did not encounter a single white defendant.
I knew there was something very wrong with what I was observing. But I also knew that I didn’t know enough.
I couldn’t have told you much of anything about the neighborhoods these men grew up in, or the schools they were educated in, or the laws that penalized their alleged conduct, or the political influences that drew the focus of law enforcement to these men and their neighborhoods, or really any of the other root causes of the phenomenon I was observing.
I began to realize in that moment that I had much to learn.
Today – 10 years later – I teach at the University of Denver law school, in the Criminal Defense Clinic. My job is to teach law students how to defend people who have been accused of crimes, and we do that by representing real people who are facing real criminal charges but who can’t afford to hire private attorneys.
I’ve realized that I still have much to learn.
But here is what I do know: our criminal justice system is often cruelly unjust. We cycle so many people through the system that it’s almost impossible for judges or prosecutors, or even defense attorneys, to pay any individual person the attention she deserves. We obsess over punishment to the point where we incarcerate people at a higher rate than any other country in the world, but rarely concern ourselves with the systemic problems that cause most crimes. We too often devalue the lives of the poor, the mentally ill, and those whose skin color doesn’t fit our stereotypes of prosperity and legality.
I have a deep conviction that we as Christians are called to enter into and bring light to darkness, not to turn our backs or shy away or remain blissfully ignorant of what we’ve never had to encounter for ourselves.
Christians are often a naïve people, and I include myself in that category. I love my job because it exposes me to worlds I may never have encountered otherwise, and forces me to wake up to the realities that many others encounter. But it is a sad job in many ways, and even a depressing one.
That is where the 5280 Fellowship comes in.
I have an unholy tendency to act and think as if I am doing this alone – as if I am the only person who cares deeply about seeing their faith play out in their work and trying to impact the people and culture around them. My cohort of 5280 fellows includes an accountant, an architect, a PR and marketing specialist, an entrepreneur who has started several businesses, a coordinator for ESL students in the Jefferson County School District, an engineer, and a few people in finance whose jobs I don’t understand at all.
It’s hard for me to describe how heartening it is to meet with people who care deeply about their work and think carefully about how to bring the gospel to the world around them, or how humbling it is to be reminded that of course I am not – as my pride tempts me to think – the only one trying to live this faith well.
Readings from authors like Augustine, Dostoevsky, John Stott and Tim Keller are a weekly reminder that Christians for centuries have faithfully wrestled with and prayed through what it means to carry Christ’s good news into a world that does not always recognize its desperate need for grace.
One of my favorite readings in the fellowship came from a book called “The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society,” by Lesslie Newbigin. I’ll close with an excerpt, which encourages me greatly when I consider my own work, but also speaks to our cultural moment and the role that we as Christian have the privilege to play during this time:
“[T]he gospel offers an understanding of the human situation which makes it possible to be filled with a hope that is both eager and patient even in the most hopeless situations . . . If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society . . . It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ . . . that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”
Rachel Moran is the Clinical Fellow in the Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. She graduated with High Honors from Chicago-Kent College of Law and spent much of law school working in the Criminal Defense Litigation Clinic. After graduating she began work at a private criminal defense firm, representing clients on trial for offenses ranging from misdemeanors to first degree murder. Rachel then became a public defender, and from 2010-2015 worked for the Office of the Illinois State Appellate Defender, representing indigent adults and juveniles appealing convictions for serious felonies. In that capacity she argued numerous cases in Illinois appellate courts and the Illinois Supreme Court. She attends Denver United church and is an alumni of the 5280 Fellowship.