By Michelle D
It’s a place where justice often takes a backseat to survival; a place wrought with chaos and hurt; a place where rape is commonplace, but often leaves women with broken spirits and bodies permanently damaged. This place is Goma, in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
(Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters) (Photo from here)
Goma, along with many other African cities and villages, has seen violence and corruption that has shaken the very foundation of the justice system that was designed to protect it. The conflicts in Congo and nearby African regions are causing a loss of life quickly approaching that of the Holocaust.
There often seems to be no hope for such a war torn country, but hope is very present in a group of American lawyers thousands of miles away from this small African region. Hope that justice would be in the hands of men and women devoted to protecting those left in their care.
(Photo from here)
A group from Watermark Community Church in Dallas was well aware of the injustices in Goma and were looking for ways to help. Van Beckwith, a leader of the Watermark Justice team and the Watermark Operations team, didn’t imagine he would be packing his things and traveling to one of the most dangerous places in the world to buy a group of African lawyers dinner. But in the fall of 2006, he was boarding a plane with a group of Watermark elders with plans to do just that.
In the months before the trip, Van had spoken with a friend about issues of justice and Christianity, and was pointed to a book by Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, entitled [The Good News About Injustice](https://secure3.convio.net/ijm/site/Ecommerce/1528637136?VIEWPRODUCT=true&productid=1241&storeid=1101)_. IJM’s focus is on working with local governments to seek justice for those who have fallen victim to slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.
“I started reading about how God is a God of justice, and I immediately began seeing the parallels between that principle and being a lawyer,” he said. “Gary talks about the fact that God doesn’t have another plan other than us being here on this earth. There is no Plan B. We have to be the hands and feet of justice.”
When invited to accompany a group of elders going to Goma, Congo, on an exploratory trip, Van did not accept immediately. The team’s purpose was to see the needs in Goma and to pray about how and if Watermark should be working with the leadership of the country. He didn’t know much about the region, so he did some research.
“It seemed like a very far off, mysterious kind of place,” he said. “I went to the U.N. and State Department websites and found out that Goma was not really a place you should be going. At the time, the largest U.N. peacekeeping force was there. 17,000 of what they call ‘blue helmets.’”
After his research, and despite the danger involved, Van accepted the invitation to travel to Goma – on one condition. He wanted to meet with judges and lawyers there to talk about what they could do to improve the justice system in their country.
“It seemed like a very lawless place,” he said. “And it seemed very logical that if there were Christian lawyers and judges – or even nonbelievers – that would stand up and be about justice, it would make a huge impact. It would perhaps make a bigger impact than anything else.”
With the help of ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministry), a group of local lawyers and judges gathered for dinner. Van’s hope was to encourage them to take a stand to right the injustices occurring in their country, and to let them know they were not alone.
He didn’t know what to expect when he walked into a room of about 40 young Africans looking at him with eyes full of discomfort and skepticism.
“They had their arms crossed and were just looking at me like, ‘What’s he trying to sell?’ or ‘What’s he trying to take?’” he said. “I told them flat out, ‘I don’t have a book. I don’t have a video. I don’t have anything to sell you. I just wanted to buy you dinner.’ And you could see they all started to relax.”
Van and others presented the Gospel to this group of justice professionals. They talked about how God loves justice and how Christians are called to care for orphans and widows.
“In the course of a few hours, we saw these people come alive and realize that they could make a difference in this lawless land,” he said. “These are people who are laying their lives on the line if they’re going to do what we’re asking them to do.”
This was the first time these judges and lawyers had been brought together to talk through some of the issues they faced every day. It was a breakthrough that was needed to spark a conversation about what it means to be a lawyer and a Christian.
When Van arrived back in the states, he approached several other lawyers in the Watermark community, including Rick Howard and Jeff Ward. He spoke with them about his experience and encouraged them to start thinking about going to Africa to build on the progress that was made.
“We needed to get another group of lawyers over there and see if we could build something that will out-sustain us,” he said. “We want Africans to run Africa.”
In the fall of 2007, another group of lawyers traveled to Goma to shepherd the men and women struggling with their faith in a broken system. Jeff Ward, Watermark’s director of external focus, was stirred by Van’s experience and traveled to Goma on a second trip. Jeff practiced law in Dallas for about 14 years before joining the Watermark staff. He was just as passionate about encouraging young African lawyers to be about God’s calling for justice.
Jeff met with members of the International Justice Mission’s field office in Kingali, Rwanda, and spent some time with a group of Christian lawyers.
“We talked through some of the things that they struggle with on a daily basis, like bribery,” he said. “They struggle with what it means to be a Christian and a lawyer when your clients expect you to bribe the judges and the judges expect to be bribed. If you’re not part of that practice, you’re practicing law behind the eight ball.”
In response to their questions, Jeff said they told them what they knew was truth.
“We were diving into scripture and what God has to say about justice issues and how we want to be passionate about what God is passionate about,” he said. “We know from Micah 6:8 that there’s a short list of what God wants us to be passionate about, and at the top of that list is to promote justice. That’s something we can do as Christian lawyers, whether we’re in Africa or Dallas.”
After seeing for himself the need for dialog and instruction, Jeff came back to the states and began planning the next trip to Goma. In March 2008, six Dallas lawyers went back to Goma to continue their work with the judges and lawyers in the trenches of a war on the people of Congo.
“The people of Goma inherited a lot of turmoil from the Rwandan genocide,” Jeff said. “They got the refugees and the rebels who perpetrated that genocide, but they don’t have the leadership to resolve the conflict.”
The group assisted with leadership development training and conflict resolution training in an effort to equip African lawyers and judges to maintain and uphold justice in their courtrooms and in their country.
While important work is being done in Goma, Van and Jeff agree that it is Africans that should be leading Africa.
“To me, part of what I want I want to be remembered for is building into men and women who, over there, can be leaders,” Van said. “The reality is that Dallas lawyers – lawyers with Watermark Justice – are too far away to affect daily change over there. But we can build into people’s lives and tell them that their lives matter and that we love them and that we’re going to equip them. And then we have to leave it up to God to do whatever God is going to do.”
Jeff said he sees in these men and women a group who will do what is necessary to right the wrongs in their country.
"It really is a group of highly-passionate, motivated, strong-believing guys and gals over there with a heart to transform their country for Christ," he said.
(Photo from here)