Center for Faith and Vocation

Josh Abel 2012

Josh Abel '01, executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, gave the keynote speech at the annual CFV dinner in April 2012. In it Mr. Abel highlighted the connections between faith and service and shared inspirational stories with his audience.

 

Read Josh Abel's speech ~ Show

April 17, 2012

Joshua W. Abel

As a freshman living in Ross Hall, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. If someone asked me why, I would have probably said because I wanted to help people. But inside, my real answer: because I wanted to drive a shiny black Mercedes; I wanted to live in a cool hip condo in the middle of a popular downtown neighborhood; and I wanted to work in a great big high-rise where I could view the world that I wanted to conquer.
Now, 15 years later, I do drive a black foreign-made car… but it's a 1997 Volvo with 225,000 miles on it that my dad gave me, with cracked leather and no AC, and it shakes when you drive it.
I do live in a well-known downtown neighborhood…but it's a neighborhood that is well-known because of its crime and the high number of abandoned houses.
And instead of working in a high-rise, I work near the corner of 38th and Meridian, where I see more panhandlers and prostitutes than high-powered men and women in business suits going to important jobs.
Despite these differences between what I once envisioned for my life and the life that I'm now living, I wouldn't change it for the world. I love my life. Almost daily, my wife and I look at each other and say how blessed we are-we love our family, our house, our neighborhood, my job, our church.
There are many reasons my wife and I feel so blessed and are so happy… but I think that one of the big reasons for our contentment is because we have wrestled with questions about how our faith impacts our vocation. In other words, as Christians, how should we use our talents, networks, careers, knowledge, position, skills, and passions, to advance God's kingdom (which all throughout the Old and New Testaments, is characterized as a kingdom of justice and peace)?
I'm honored to be able to share a little of my story with you tonight. And I'm excited to do so, here at Butler's Center for Faith and Vocation, because it was here at Butler-between my first day as a freshman living in Ross Hall to my last semester as a senior living in the Phi Psi house-that my heart became sensitized to issues of faith and vocation.
When Judy asked me to speak at tonight's dinner, I asked her who had spoken at this dinner in the past. When she told me that past speakers had included Bobby Fong, the Honorable David Shaheed, and Father Thomas Baima, I told her, "Whoa, you've got the wrong guy. I'm not at that level, I'm not as esteemed as your other speakers." She assured me that it was okay, and as I thought about it more, I realized that, if anything, perhaps my relatively recent experience of being a student at Butler and pondering questions of faith and vocation would be of some benefit. So I speak to the students tonight, and I want to encourage you to continue asking those questions about vocation and how your faith tradition calls you to care about the world.
But I also want to speak to the administrators and professors. Issues of faith on campus, especially campuses that place a high priority on multiculturalism and inclusiveness (which Butler does and should), can be really thorny issues. I don't know if it's still happening, but I know that when I was in law school, there was a movement across many campuses where faith-based student groups that required its student leaders to profess certain beliefs were no longer able to hold meetings on campus, and they were no longer allowed to receive a portion of student activity fees. That kind of backlash against faith-based student groups is unfortunate. One of my premises tonight is that active faith-based student groups can play a tremendous role in helping shape future graduates who will hopefully leave the university not only with the capabilities to have a tremendous impact for the common good, but also the desire to use their career to serve others.
And finally, I speak to the friends and supporters of the Center for Faith and Vocation. Would that this center existed when I was here at Butler! In college, my experiences with nonprofits serving people very different from me were extremely limited; and I had few places to turn to for guidance for the inner struggles I was having as I was trying to reconcile what I was learning in my business classes (such as corporate finance and protecting shareholder interests and using marketing tools to shape public perception) with what I was learning about Jesus' call on his followers to "serve the least of these." The Center for Faith and Vocation does important work in equipping students to deploy their talents to serve the greater good. And speaking as an Executive Director of a local nonprofit, we are extremely grateful for the student interns they send our way-the students have been a significant help in ensuring that justice is provided to the marginalized in our city.
As a freshman and sophomore, although I'm ashamed to admit it, I was incredibly selfish and ego-centric. And not that I don't continue to exercise those traits (all you have to do is ask my wife), but it was not until I became involved in a Bible study through my fraternity, of all places, that I began to look at the world through a lens of seeing others' needs. In fact, the fraternity brothers who invited me to their Bible study-Jim Warrerner, John Dunn, Pat Moor, and Andy Knopfmeier (men with whom I still have regular contact)-had a profound impact on my life. Through them, I saw an example of other-centeredness and humility that was incredibly attractive to me… and it also helped that they were really fun guys to be around. I began to understand that the faith that I expressed as a child-understanding that Jesus died for my sins and inviting Him into my life-was about much more than attending church with my parents on Sundays and trying not to do really bad things. Instead, through my fraternity Bible study and by getting involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, my faith began to deepen, and I began to experience true joy and peace.
I was starting to understand this "divine paradox" that when you look away from your own needs and desires and instead focus on the needs and desires of others, then you start to find what Paul calls "life indeed" (1 Tim 6:19). In fact, during this time of spiritual growth-especially where I was wrestling with the message that you should only care about yourself and you should try to accumulate as much wealth and prestige as possible-I discovered and found much comfort in Jesus's command to his followers that "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?" (Luke 9:23-25). That last verse was significant to me, and it helped me realize that my pursuit of significance through building up my own wealth and my own fame was, at best, an ultimately unfulfilling way to live life, and at worst, a waste of a life and a waste of any gifts, talents, or abilities that I may have been blessed with.
I share all that because, for me, a real understanding of vocation is first rooted in a mature relationship with God. But for a deepening relationship with God where I can start to see His care and compassion for a hurting world, my only "vocational" goals are to serve myself and my own selfish interests.
Needless to say, this spiritual journey during my college years was significant for me. In fact, by the time I was preparing to graduate, I had already applied and been accepted to law school, but I was facing a dilemma: now that my motivation for pursuing a law degree had completely changed, I no longer knew what I was going to do with a law degree.
So I deferred my law school acceptance for one year in order to sort things out, and I completed a one-year full-time internship with Campus Crusade, working within the fraternity system at IU. I was trying to figure out whether my vocational calling was into full-time ministry or into law or into business or into something entirely different.
And this brings to me to two additional thoughts about vocation. First, I think that, for many people, vocational stewardship is an evolving process. It takes time; deliberation; seeking wise counsel; evaluating your gifts, passions, background, life experiences; and, if faith is an important component, then it also involves much prayer and discernment. I was really glad to take a year off between college and graduate school, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It gave me the additional time to discover how to live a life of meaning.
Secondly, you may have to persevere through some trials in order to pursue your vocational calling. Toward the end of the summer prior to my senior year, I told my parents that I was thinking and praying about what to do after college, and I may even go into full-time ministry.
My father, a lawyer himself, not only paid my way through Butler, but also paid for my younger sister to go to Butler (who was only one year behind me). But I'm a triplet, and my father was also paying for college for my two triplet sisters. And my dad said that if I was going to pursue full-time ministry, then he wanted me to complete my senior year at Indiana State University where I could live at home with my parents and save them a lot of money. Completely understandable, although at the time, devastating. I did not understand it at the time, but now that I have my own children and realize how expensive they can be, I get it. So I was seriously considering staying at home (even though I loved Butler and didn't want to leave) if that's what it meant in order to be available to pursue full-time ministry.
Fortunately, my father relented and decided that I should complete my senior year at Butler. However, the lesson I learned about persevering in the face of difficult decisions would continue to serve me, even later in my career as more lucrative job offers came my way and I had to make more difficult decisions.
During my year-long stint with Crusade, I continued to deliberate and pray and evaluate what I should do next. I was looking for the place that Dr. Amy Sherman calls the "vocational sweet spot." Think of a Venn Diagram: That's where our gifts and passions intersect with God's priorities and the world's needs. Dr. Sherman states that, to the greatest extent possible, Christians should seek to work in that sweet spot. (By the way, Dr. Sherman's book is called "Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good." It's a new book, published last year by InterVarsity Press, and I'm reading it right now. For Christians who are considering issues of vocation, I highly recommend it).
After much prayer and discernment, I felt like God was still calling me to law school. And so I somewhat reluctantly followed. I remember walking around the law school the night before my first day and praying to God. I was saying,
Lord, did I hear you correctly? Am I really supposed to be here? If so, then I don't know what you want me to do with this law degree, but help me to use it as an instrument to advance your care into the world.
That brings me to another point about faith and vocation. If we believe that our faith should impact our vocational choices, then we should get to the place where our hands are empty: where we're willing to go anywhere and do anything in order to advance God's kingdom-His justice and peace. It may mean that you take a job that pays less; it may mean that you live in a disadvantaged neighborhood rather than in the suburbs; or, it may mean that you make a lot of money, but you do different things with that money than others would do. And this practice of continually emptying ourselves is a continual journey for my wife and me-we are constantly dying to our own wants and needs, and instead trying to look to God's priorities and the world's needs.
So here I am, walking into my first day at law school, and I vividly remember my feelings. A mixture of nervousness and excitement, bewilderment (what am I doing here?) and adventure. And as Dean Lauren Robel gave her opening remarks to the incoming 1L class that year, her comments calmed my soul and helped confirm that yes, I think this is where the Lord wants me to be.
During her talk, she explained the etymology of the word "advocate," and she said the following:
"The root of the word 'advocate' is the Latin word 'vocare,' which means 'to call.' The word 'advocate' comes into being through the addition of 'ad' to 'vocare', changing its meaning from 'to call,' 'to summon to one's aid.' Advocacy has the same root as vocation-meaning a calling away from ordinary life, a summons from God to undertake a place of service to others. And advocacy shares its root term- 'vocare'-with the word 'voice.' The roots of the word 'advocate' break open its true meaning: advocates give voice to the people they are called to serve, which has at its center a deep and awesome responsibility, as well as at its best, a touch of the divine."
This is what I wanted to do with my legal career: to serve others. And as I advanced through law school, it became clear that I really wanted to serve vulnerable and low-income people-by giving them a voice, by undertaking a place a service to them. This is what the staff and volunteers of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic do every day. And this is why I feel so blessed and honored to work where I do.
And so we come to the present. At this point, my "vocational sweet spot"-the intersection of my gifts and passions with God's priorities and the world's needs-is leading the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic as we provide free legal services to low-income vulnerable people throughout Indiana. And it's incredibly fulfilling work.
At the Legal Clinic, justice, service, and compassion are our hallmarks, and our 35-member staff team and hundreds of volunteers seek to carry out these values:

By assisting Burmese refugees-who are here fleeing the brutal regime in their home country-to secure work permits and transition to becoming U.S. Citizens;


By negotiating deals with banks, working to keep homeowners in their homes--homeowners who have fallen victim to predatory lending and/or manipulation by scrupulous financing firms;


By advocating for people who mistakenly claimed an incorrect tax credit on the advice of a so-called tax professional, and who now face severe fines and penalties from the IRS;


By ensuring that fathers who have been improperly denied their visitation rights can have meaningful relationships with their children; and


By helping ex-offenders petition to restrict access to their criminal histories so that they can secure long-term employment.


We get to spend our day fighting for people like "Rose." Rose is a citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Our immigration attorneys represented her in her asylum petition. Part of every asylum petition is an affidavit that
we prepare, where we outline the person's story and try to explain why the person should not be deported back to
his or her country of origin. The affidavit for Rose's asylum petition begins with an introduction of her, and states
the names and ages of her six children, who range in age from 2 to 16. It then reads: "My husband was killed and,
currently, the whereabouts of my children are unknown."

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world and is currently being devastated by
the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. The U.N. says that the prevalence of rape and torture being used
as weapons in this war is the worst in the world. And indeed, this is exactly what Rose has suffered. Hers is a tale
of heartache, as she tells about the disappearance of her medical doctor husband, their children, her multiple
arrests and rapes, and her eventual escape to the U.S. Her asylum petition ends with the following statement:

I know that I will be the target of persecution if returned to the DRC. The only way I will continue to live is if I am granted asylum in the United States.
The prophet Isaiah commands us to "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow." I can think of few things more worthy of my time, talent, and treasure than trying to live out this command in service to people like Rose.
And I'm so thankful for the experiences that I had at Butler, experiences that helped steward my education, skills, background, and passion into not a mere job, but a vocation. Or, as Dean Robel explained, "a calling away from ordinary life, a summons from God to undertake a place of service to others."