Cliff Nellis: Combining Law and Urban Youth Ministry
by Amy Sherman and Kelly Givens
Cliff Nellis, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s School of Law, became a Christian near the end of his clerkship for a federal judge in Colorado. He took some time off to bike cross-country, studying the bible with all the delight of the brand-new believer. During the trip, Nellis reports, “I started feeling called to ministry. I started thinking about whether I’d stay in the law or not.” Looking back, he sees that as a young believer, he “had this very narrow view: ministry is pastors in a church doing church work. I thought I was leaving law permanently.”¹ During that trip, Nellis stopped in front of a guard shack in front of a boys’ correctional facility outside Springer, NM. After striking up a conversation with the guard, Cliff was alarmed by the number of times the guard told him the kids in the facility had no hope. The guard said most of the teenage children there would go on to spend the rest of their lives in adult prison. The conversation made a lasting impression on Nellis; he began to pray for youth in juvenile correctional facilities and asked God to give him a vision for serving them.² At the end of his bike trip, Nellis promptly enrolled in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to learn how to be a youth pastor.
Thankfully, pastors Michelle Prentice-Leslie and Wayne Gordon helped this talented young attorney see that “ministry” and “law” were not two separate entities. Prentice-Leslie introduced Nellis to the Cabrini-Green Legal Aid Clinic in Chicago’s infamous housing project. Gordon sowed vision into Nellis about how young people in the Lawndale neighborhood were more in need of good lawyers than another youth pastor. Today, Nellis is combining his love for the law and for urban youth in a creative new venture, the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. It focuses on providing low-cost criminal defense services to juveniles and young adults—who agree to receive Nellis not only as their attorney, but also as a spiritual and vocational mentor. Lawndale has a juvenile justice program and a young adults program, both geared toward court advocacy, helping these youth navigate the judicial system and being there for them during their time in custody.³
1 Cliff Nellis, Lead Attorney, Lawndale Christian Legal Center, interview with Amy Sherman, June 29, Chicago, IL.
2 Lawndale Christian Legal Center website, “About Us,” www.lclc.net/about.html. Accessed 10/4/11.
3 Lawndale Christian Legal Center website, “Programs,” www.lclc.net/programs.html. Accessed 10/4/11.