IJM Justice Series (Part One)

This blog is part of a special series released jointly between Baptist21 and International Justice Mission (IJM). May these posts serve as an encouragement to you and your congregant as you deepen your commitment to ending slavery.

I first heard of IJM the summer before I started law school. A friend gave me a copy of Gary Haugen’s book, The Good News About Injustice, and it was the first time I’d become aware of the horrors of human trafficking and the mundane violence the poor and vulnerable face every day of their lives.

As long as I can remember, I have wanted to stick up for the underdog and those who are vulnerable and unprotected. Some of this has to do with experiences I had growing up, some of it has to do with the work of God in my life. I served the poor through a few different ministries in college, but my assumption was that I would continue to do so while working a normal job.

My first job out of law school was with a large law firm in Austin, Texas, where I practiced energy and regulatory law. It was great experience with interesting and important work. I loved the lawyers I got to work with, but I had the sense that something was missing vocationally. A few years in, I left my firm to join the staff of the Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. I started out splitting my time between leadership development and the For the City Network, the nonprofit started by the church. Over time, my work shifted away from community development as I became one of the church’s executive pastors. And again, I felt that something was missing and that God was calling me to use my legal gifts vocationally.

My leadership team was gracious and patient with me and gave me some space to explore this. At the same time, I had been building relationships with IJM. I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya to support a 6-week capacity building program for Kenyan prosecutors, focused on rule of law, criminal procedure, and trial practice.

In Nairobi, I saw the impact of IJM’s work first-hand. IJM’s staff in Kenya – almost all Kenyans – were some of the most gifted and smartest lawyers I’d ever worked with. One lawyer I worked closely with remains the toughest boss I’ve ever had. She helped me grow as a lawyer and leader in ways no American could. I’m still humbled when I think of how much patience she had for me, a western lawyer who thought he had all the answers.

IJM’s team in Nairobi poured out their lives for their clients and achieved real results. This is true of every IJM office I’ve interacted with over the years. IJM’s focus is strategic as well – they are working toward systemic reform and a better future in the countries where they work.

My experience in Nairobi also developed my understanding of my place in the fight against injustice. Like most of the Christian lawyers I know who have read Gary Haugen’s books, I had dreams of kicking down the doors of brothels and standing in foreign courtrooms arguing cases. I would have never said that out loud, but my dream was to be a hero and save the world.

I have come to see that those brothel doors aren’t mine to kick down and those courtrooms aren’t mine to stand in. If Kenya is going to become a better place for the poor and vulnerable, it will only happen when Kenyans have owned the problems in their justice system and government and resolved to solve them for themselves. This is the very thing I saw firsthand in Nairobi: Kenyan lawyers working within their own system to make their country a better place.

My experience serving in Kenya served as a catalyst toward further international work. I eventually left the Austin Stone to open the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s first international office focused on international religious freedom and justice issues. Leading our work in the Middle East allowed me to strengthen relationships with talented and committed lawyers and advocates all over the world, just like the ones I worked with in Kenya. Today, I lead ERLC’s policy team in Washington, DC, and we take a similar approach to international advocacy.

When we focus on a particular country – our current focus is on Malaysia– we work with local church leaders, lawyers, and government officials to support their work and help them realize their vision. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role to play. We consult with local leaders, leveraging the experience we have working in other countries. We train local leaders on how to motivate Western governments and intergovernmental organizations to come to their assistance. And we build capacity on advocacy skills and government relations best practices.

But the Malaysian lawyers we work with are the heroes. And rightly so, because they are the ones standing in Malaysian courtrooms, appearing in Malaysian media, and fighting from within the Malaysian system for religious freedom for all. Like the Kenyan lawyers I worked in IJM’s office in Nairobi, these Malaysian lawyers are some of the most gifted advocates I’ve had the honor of working with. The future of Malaysia is bright because of their dedication to their work.

So, what role is there for the church to play in all of this?

IJM’s work – and ERLC’s work for that matter – can’t happen without support from local churches. The first component of this support is prayer. Every year, IJM hosts a conference dedicated entirely to prayer for its work in the field. This year, IJM is bringing all of its staff from around the world for its Liberate Conference, a special gathering in Dallas to celebrate 20 years of IJM’s work.

We take prayer seriously at ERLC as well. Each month, we feature the persecuted church in a specific country and offer ways that we can join them in prayer.

Second, IJM’s lawyers, who are almost all local nationals, are supported financially by churches in the West. Local churches are rising up to join in the do their part, but in the meantime, IJM’s work can’t continue to expand without financial support from Churches and individual families. The same, of course, is true for ERLC. We are generously supported by Southern Baptist churches through the Cooperative Program, but we would welcome your support if you are interested in advancing our international religious freedom work.

There are certainly other ways for creative and enterprising churches and individual believers to get more engaged with our work and IJM’s work on the ground. Please feel free to connect to us or to IJM’s church mobilization team if you’re interested in exploring these.

All of this means that we don’t get to be the heroes. But that’s okay. There are lots of real heroes out there, giving their all for the fight against injustice in their own countries. And these heroes deserve our prayers, encouragement, and support.

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.