In early spring 2012, I was in Nashville to speak at Belmont University. The trees were beginning to flower, and the warmth in the air was a nice break from Minnesota. A friend told me there was a young man there, a student at Vanderbilt Law School, who wanted to meet with me.
That young man was Kent McKeever, who sat down on the other side of a rickety table in a coffee shop on the fringe of campus and told me his dream. As he described it, I immediately came to admire him. In a world where we lawyers too often open ourselves to ridicule for greed and unfairness, his vision was striking, pure and good.
A Baylor grad, he had gone on to get a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary before entering Vanderbilt’s top-flight law school. His credentials could have opened the door to many high-paying jobs, the kind of work (and pay) that students dream of. But his hope was for something very different. He wanted to return to Waco and provide legal services to the poor.
When he finished describing his vision, I leaned forward and looked up at him. I told him that he would make less money than he could working in a restaurant. I told him that the need was overwhelming. I told him that fundraising would be a constant challenge. When I was done with my cautions, he gave me a confident smile. He knew all that and still he wanted to move to Waco and provide legal services to the poor. I had met very few people with such selflessness.
Kent McKeever was true to his vision. Law degree in hand, he moved his family to Waco and opened Mission Waco Legal Services. They have three areas of specialization: immigration, housing and employment. In their first year, they served more than 130 clients, coordinated volunteers for a “First Monday Legal Clinic” and became a part of the community. Dozens of poor and working-class people got answers to their legal questions.
Kent’s project addresses a desperate need. In McLennan County, like most places, poor and working people have a difficult time getting legal advice. Lone Star Legal Aid is not able to bear the full burden and routinely turns down over half the people who come to them because of a simple lack of resources. This is not glamorous legal work, either —most of it is examining situations relating to simple wills, immigration documents, rental housing and similar matters. Yet, to those who need the assistance, Kent’s work is a true gift.
I have learned in my own work that much of the labor of helping poor clients is simply to hear their story. It takes patience and humility, and very often the ability to tell people that they don’t have a legal right to something that they want. Not many of us lawyers have the combination of attributes to do that kind of work, making the skill set Kent McKeever brought to Waco all the more valuable.
Though Mission Waco Legal Services is affiliated with Mission Waco, it must do its own fundraising. As a new organization in town, that has been a struggle. However, Kent is determined to build on the success of his first year. Fortunately, he has a wonderful story to tell when he asks for support.
I have a lot of heroes in Waco, some of whom I have described in these pages. Kent McKeever is now one of them. He took a real risk to start something new, which he sees as an imperative of his faith. His clients do not offer him fame or travel or wealth. He embodies some of the values I most admire in Texans: independence, strong commitment to family and community, and the willingness to combine faith with work.
Waco is lucky to have him, and he is lucky to have Waco.
Mark Osler, a former Baylor Law School faculty member, is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota.