Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Messenger: '90 Alum


Plans to return to Gordon for Homecoming this year (20th reunion is not until 2010 but some of his closest friends were in the class of 1989).

Featured in “The Society Record,” the law society in Nova Scotia where he speaks about his decision to leave law practice and return to World Vision.

Volume 26, No. 2, April 2008, www.nsbs.org

Lawyers don’t often talk about love, at least not professionally. Justice, of course, but not love. So I chuckled when I found myself proofing the 2007 annual report for World Vision, where I now work as vice president for public affairs. The theme of the report is “What does love look like?,” referring to St. Augustine’s quote that poses that question and then answers: “It has hands to help others. It has feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of humankind. That is what love looks like.” A chance to use my legal skills in pursuit of this idea of “love” is the reason I left the daily practice of law and took the leap from being a volunteer to joining the staff of an international relief, development and advocacy organization.

When I attended law school, I had worked for five years in Toronto and Geneva for World Vision, focusing on government relations and public policy related to international development. I had a passion for social justice, but I realized that without a deeper understanding of the workings of the policy-making that I would be less effective in influencing laws and practices that could affect the children, families, and communities we partnered with in the developing world. My decision to study law did let me look at policy from the inside, but it also unexpectedly unearthed a love for legal argument and the excitement of trial advocacy.

So, instead of returning to the non-profit sector, my family and I moved to Halifax, where I spent nearly nine years as a litigator as part of the firm of Cox & Palmer. I was fortunate to work with talented colleagues and enjoyed varied work from a range of clients. I also found satisfaction from volunteering. I tried to contribute to the profession as president of the Nova Scotia Medical Legal Society, by volunteering at the bar skills course, and by mentoring younger students and clerks. My community outside the law was also important, and I sang with the Symphony Nova Scotia Chorus and was a lay leader in various roles at St. Paul’s Church. What was common among all of these areas of involvement was that I always learned and received so much more than I ever contributed. Volunteer work was not a distraction; I felt it made me a better lawyer and a better person.

My passion for working for international issues was reignited when I was invited to join the board of directors of World Vision in 2003. I soon found that my heart had never really left this work with children overcoming the grip of poverty. Soon after I joined the board, my wife and I had a chance to see World Vision’s work firsthand in a trip to Rwanda and Uganda. While I’d visited many of the organization’s international programs as a former staff person, this was the first time I’d visited since I had become a lawyer, a husband and a father. What I saw moved me. While seeing the terrible ravages of HIV and AIDS on African families and talking to orphans and other vulnerable children, I was struck by the injustice of poverty and oppression, and began to wonder how best I could stay involved.

In 2005, I was honoured to act as lead counsel to the Nunn Commission of Inquiry. While working with Justice D. Merlin Nunn, I had the chance to step outside the day-to-day work of civil litigation and re-engage directly with issues of public policy. It was a powerful and eye-opening experience in its own way. I soon began to consider whether there was another path for me that might bring my legal background and passion for social justice closer together.

And so, when I was invited to consider applying for a management role at World Vision, I knew I needed to explore the option seriously. Today, I am trying to use my legal skills not to focus on resolving disputes, but in the pursuit of justice of another kind. And not just justice, but love, as St. Augustine thought it looked like. Love that has hands and feet to bring relief and hope to those in need; eyes and ears to see and speak out against the symptoms and causes of child poverty around the world.

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