By Thomas Sanders

Kimberly (Kimi) Dement Dean, T’13, sometimes reflects on her unexpected path to faith and justice which began with a law and theology pilot partnership between the University of Tennessee (UT) Law School and the University of the South’s School of Theology in 2013. In Dean’s view, the promise of that pilot was worth considering, so that she might one day be the first of many law and theology students from Sewanee to enter public life in Tennessee.

“I began law school knowing that I was interested in public service, but without a clear vision of what that would look like,” she says. “I selected a public law school, University of Tennessee, which was an affordable option for me in the state where I attended college. I was also interested in pursuing a theology degree, but I was not aware of dual law and theology dual degrees being offered in partnership with any public law schools in the Southeast at the time.” Dean thought she might have to put her goals of pursuing theological studies on the graduate level on hold. When Dean discovered that Sewanee had a divinity school, a new plan began to form in her mind.

“My first year of law school, I approached Fr. Brownridge and explained my idea of a partnership law and theology program between UT and the School of Theology.” The Rev. Walter Brownridge, who is now associate rector for parish life & formation at Christ Church Episcopal in Detroit, was a good person to approach. He, himself, earned a J.D. from Georgetown University and worked as an attorney for 10 years prior to seminary training and entering the priesthood. 

Despite the compatibility of vision, Brownridge was, at first, discouraging. He couldn’t see a good way to accomplish what Dean had in mind. But Brownridge, who was the dean of community life at the time, went to work considering the various scholarship opportunities at the School of Theology that could make Dean’s plan a reality. “Much to my surprise, Fr. Brownridge called me back a year later” explains Dean. She laughs, “As they say in seminary, ‘I got the call.’” Brownridge also helped set Dean up with a work-study opportunity as a law intern with the University of the South’s general counsel.

Taking only a year off from law school, Dean was able to complete almost all of the two-year program in one year. In the second year, she took one independent study with the Rev. Dr. Robert McSwain, meeting him in Chattanooga to discuss C.S. Lewis, and worked on her portfolio thesis while back in Knoxville completing the J.D. She earned both the J.D. and M.A. in Theology in 2013. As a student, Dean had the sense that understanding pastoral care (her area of concentration with the M.A.) might be useful for someone with a law degree, but at that point she did not know completely where that understanding might lead her. 

Now seven years later, Dean has several years of experience as a practicing attorney, working for a private firm and two years in family law for the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. And for the past three years, she has been the pro-bono coordinator for the Tennessee Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts. In that role, one of her main jobs is administering a statewide Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance, and her M.A. in theology is a key credential for that work.

While the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance has programming that ranges from free legal clinics to referral services and community education, one of the key elements of its work is training faith leaders to have the tools needed to guide their parishioners when legal troubles strike. Dean explains, “Most of the time when people have to see a lawyer, nothing good is happening.” People often only call a lawyer as a last resort, waiting as long as possible until a legal problem has become a crisis before finally scheduling an appointment. That dynamic is not the same with a faith leader. People often reach out to a pastor to schedule a meeting when things are going wrong, but their relationship with that faith leader is much richer. The person in trouble will gladly see them again at weekly worship or a baptism or wedding or marriage.” 

A big part of Dean’s work is training faith leaders to know how to help. A pastor or priest or rabbi can’t give legal advice, but with a little training and orientation, they know the best way to access that advice. “From a practical standpoint, it’s so important for faith partners to be involved,” says Dean.

In 2018, Dean brought the program to Sewanee, organizing, in partnership of the Beecken Center, the first Tennessee Faith & Justice Summit. A variety of speakers, including the Honorable Cornelia (Connie) Clark, one of Tennessee’s Supreme Court Justices, and the Rt. Rev. Brian Cole, bishop of East Tennessee, helped a roomful of faith leaders learn more about how they can be a partner to parishioners when they encounter the legal system. “If a faith leader is going to walk with someone as a trusted partner, then they need to know some basic legal options, and where a person can find resources, especially if they are needy.”

On April 21, 2020, Dean will return to campus for a second Faith and Justice Summit, this time co-sponsored by the Beecken Center and the Office of Civic Engagement. While the first summit was mainly a general introduction to the role faith leaders can play during a legal encounter, the second summit will focus on legal issues and resources that are present on the Cumberland Plateau. For example, Grundy County, which neighbors Sewanee, has one of the state’s few “Safe Baby Courts.” The court system is often the focal point for ensuring the safety of minors and may rule for state custody in cases where the home is not appropriate or safe for the children. The Safe Baby Courts follow up on the custodial ruling with intentional and structured education that helps the parents and the babies and accelerates (it is hoped) reunification of the family.

When Dean chose to combine a theology degree and law degree some eight years ago, she had not chosen the easiest, nor the most lucrative, path. “It wasn’t financially easy for me to go into public interest law, even though both Sewanee and the University of Tennessee were generous with financial aid,” she says. “But I think it is important to put what you believe in first, even if that comes with a cost.”