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