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The Intersection of Work and Faith

Avis Buchanan.jpg

Avis E. Buchanan is the director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where she works on behalf of people who need a lawyer and cannot afford to pay for one.

Washington DC’s Public Defender Service is regarded as one of the best public defender offices in the country — local or federal. Other public defender systems often measure themselves against the benchmark of the DC office.

PDS has a staff of 220, roughly half of whom are lawyers, and about half of those work in the trial division.

Director Avis Buchanan is also a Seventh-day Adventist.

Where work and religion mix

She feels that her work and her Adventist faith complement each other in many ways.

“These are people who are disadvantaged in society – they don’t have the money to hire high-profile attorneys,” Buchanan says. “We are set up to provide access to high-quality legal defense work.”

PDS attorneys are known for doing very good work for their clients. They don’t meet the client for the first time the day of the trial; they do careful investigation before a trial and always keep their clients informed about what is going on.

PDS was set up to make society more equitable, Buchanan says. “We give people a fighting chance, just as rich people have. . . We are helping people at a very crucial time in their lives. We are dealing with victims of scornful, judgmental attitudes.”

This is a very Christian approach, Buchanan believes. Maybe someone did what they were accused of doing, but that is not all there is to that person. Our faith teaches us to look around and see the people – and that is how God looks at us, Buchanan says.

That is what the attorneys at PDS do: they force the system to see people as human beings – not just criminals, or bodies moving through the system.

Where work and religion conflict

Though Buchanan sees her work and her faith intersecting, some people believe her work must create a conflict with her religion. They ask how she can defend someone she knows is guilty.

But Buchanan strongly believes that every person has the right to a fair trial.

“For me, the conflicts are different,” she says. The places she feels her work and her faith co-exist less comfortably are with Sabbath issues, and with sharing her beliefs.

Buchanan says that her office is not a place to proselytize. “There are boundaries,” she says. “You don’t want your client making decisions based on things like that – or thinking you will be more helpful because of your religious beliefs.”

But at the same time “you are human, and sometimes the client reaches out to you,” she says.

Buchanan feels she walks a fine line – she doesn’t hide her Adventism, but she doesn’t advertise it. She keeps on her guard and makes sure that whatever her behavior is in any given situation doesn’t harm the client.

When it comes to the Sabbath issue, Buchanan works on the “donkey in the ditch” principle.

In DC, people can be arrested and brought to court six days a week – even on holidays. When she was a practicing attorney, she asked not to be put on the schedule on Saturdays. Instead, she worked other days that her colleagues were less keen to work, like Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays.

“If I were to do it again, I might make a different decision,” Buchanan says. “People don’t choose to get arrested. And many of them really have to be taken care of quickly – they need to get out because if they don’t turn up at work they may lose their job, or some other urgent reason. And someone has to be there to help them. The situation has some urgency.”

As the director, Buchanan can more easily not work on Friday nights or Sabbaths. She says she has occasionally got involved when a situation needed to be addressed right away, sending messages on her Blackberry or speaking with one of her attorneys. But she says she is not in her office working on budgets or other everyday work.

Buchanan attends the Dupont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in southeast DC. She is on the church board, the board of trustees, the school board, and serves as the church legal officer. She says her work is sometimes directly related to church, because she gets called when a church member gets arrested!

The Dupont Park church has about 1,200 members, and has been part of the community since 1959.

Buchanan has attended the church since she was a child.

Growing up and becoming Adventist

Avis Buchanan is a first-generation Adventist. She grew up near Dupont Park in DC.

When it was time for her to start attending school, her parents sent her to the Dupont Park Adventist School. It was a quality school - a black school - and convenient to where her family lived. Also because Buchanan’s birthday fell late in the year, the local public school said they wouldn’t take her until the following year. Her parents didn’t want to wait to send her to school, and the Adventist school would let her start early.

So as she grew up, Buchanan was exposed to Adventism through the school. She attended worship and picked up the Adventist culture. Gradually, she started adopting some of the peculiar Adventist lifestyles in her own life. At the age of eight, she stopped eating pork, and started scolding family members who smoked and drank.

In 1964, Buchanan’s family moved away from the Dupont Park neighborhood and out to Prince Georges County – the suburbs – just as many other black families did at that time.

Three years later she went to a new local school – public school – but by this time she felt very connected to the Dupont Park church, so she traveled off and on into the city at the weekend to attend services on Sabbath. She went to a crusade held by the church, and was baptized into the Adventist church when she was in the 12th grade – and has attended church regularly ever since.

Buchanan decided to go to Michigan State University for college. She had heard good things about the university, and she knew she didn’t want to attend an Adventist university – she knew the world was not Adventist and she wanted a more rounded view. She wanted to go somewhere completely detached from her existing world, to give her a new start.

At Michigan State, Buchanan studied criminal justice and Spanish, and graduated when she was 20 years old.

Buchanan had always been ahead of the curve, but she didn’t feel ready for a full-time work commitment when she graduated. So, almost by default, she decided on law school.

Becoming an attorney

She was accepted at Harvard Law, where she was the only Adventist in her class of 550 students. While at Harvard, Buchanan’s brother was studying nearby, at MIT. They managed to find three other Adventist students in their respective institutions, and every Sabbath, the group of students would decide where to go to church that week.

“We were a big enough group that we didn’t get many lunch invitations,” Buchanan says.

Buchanan faithfully attended church throughout college and graduate school. Sometimes, depending on her schedule, Buchanan was able to get involved with the church she was attending. “I needed the church – but my level of involvement changed depending on how much time I had,” she says.

After finishing law school Buchanan says she was still trying to avoid commitment. Instead of a permanent job, she got a prestigious position clerking with a federal judge for a year in St. Louis – the one black judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit at the time. But Buchanan is modest about that appointment. “Everyone wanted to go to New York or DC – students were not breaking their necks to get to St Louis,” she says. “That’s one reason I applied there.”

After the clerking stint was over, Buchanan was invited to join the public defender’s office in Washington, DC. (She had clerked there during her first law school summer.) Soon she found that working on real cases was a lot more interesting than learning theory in law school, and she began making her way through the ranks. First, she had to complete six weeks of training. Then she worked in juvenile court, followed by adult misdemeanor cases, then lower-level felony cases, and then serious felony cases.

Buchanan left the public defender’s office to join the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in 1989, where she stayed for 13 years, working on long class action discrimination suits and individual discrimination cases.

She returned to the public defender office as deputy director in 2002. She was named as director in 2004.

Working for the public interest

Buchanan says she had always wanted to work for the public interest. That sense of mission came from her father, more than the Adventist church. “It was the message of the oppressed,” Buchanan says.

Buchanan doesn’t know what her next move might be. She is passionate about PDS and is happy there. She says that anywhere else she would probably hate the administrative aspects of her job, but because she cares about the Public Defender Service so much, she doesn’t get bored. She especially enjoys the people she works with. “They are committed, bright, creative, and talented,” she says. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort to try to keep up with how fast and how well they think.”

In the past, Buchanan has been fortunate enough that jobs have found her, and she hopes that string of blessings will continue.

In the future, a variety of options could open for her. Her predecessors have gone into academia, private practice, or become judges.

“Academia is the obvious one,” Buchanan says. “But I am not keen on the publish or perish atmosphere. And if I were teaching, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to teach law – it’s so boring! At best I tolerated law school. It was a means to an end.”

And that is always Buchanan’s advice to law students: Hold on – it gets better. Working with a client has an immediacy that parsing out a holding in a textbook case will never have.

Buchanan is both a formal and informal mentor to law students. She has served as a mentor through Harvard’s public interest program, and has volunteered to be mentor at Georgetown University. She also reaches out to younger people at church, or takes time to help young people that friends or colleagues send to her for advice. “I have them come down to the office, introduce them to attorneys and take them to do court-watching,” she says. “It de-mystifies the job, and shows them it is within their reach.”

She tells students: “Get exposure to different things, do a clerkship, and summer jobs. Try to become best legal writer you can. I hire so I know what we are looking for.”

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