Georgetown director discusses faith and law

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FAIRFIELD — When Amy Uelmen was 16, helping underserved families in the Watts section of Los Angeles, she had an experience that changed her life and helped define her career in law.

“As I was pulling out of the trunk some bags of clothes to share,” she recalled, “I felt the voice of God very strongly from within: ‘I don’t need your stuff. I need your heart.’”

And she has spent her life, focusing on the intersection between faith and her law career, trying to discern the presence of Christ in day-to-day activities and encounters.

“What has it meant for me to keep my heart in, and connected to, my work as a lawyer?” she asks. “How has this awareness of the presence of Christ in each neighbor permeated my professional life?

Today, Dr. Amy Uelmen is the Director for Mission & Ministry at Georgetown Law School. She recently shared her vision with her colleagues in the legal profession, following the annual Red Mass of the Diocese of Bridgeport.

She credits the Focolare movement, which she was introduced to at 8 years old, with her spiritual growth and the search for God’s presence in the commonplace. The worldwide community is a “Gospel-based ecclesial movement for spiritual and social renewal.”

“My Catholic formation was enriched by a strong sense of community with kids my age and by an abiding presence of adult mentors, who modeled how Gospel-based values could transform ordinary tasks, relationships and decisions,” she said.

Dr. Uelmen stressed the importance of the “transformative power of Scripture” to help stay focused on Christ’s presence in our routines and encounters.

“I realized early on that this can go a very, very long way in shoring up my heart from letting work, or the chase after success, or simply wanting to be liked by others, sneak into my heart as an idol,” she said.

In this process of discernment, she often relies on passages such as, “Your Word, O Lord, is a light for my path,” “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Some of that “fear” pertained to meeting deadlines or expectations and what others might think. After her fear began to dissipate, she said, “I was also able to maintain with calm — even in the midst of a busy litigation schedule — a long-held practice of attending daily Mass, so that all of these commitments could be sustained and nourished by the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”

In 2001, she began working in legal education at Fordham Law School and later went to Georgetown Law School, where she is currently Director of Mission & Ministry, which gives her an opportunity to witness “the joys, hopes, questions and anxieties of young adults.”

What she has observed is that “some of them are reluctant to even listen to others with whom they strongly disagree because they are fearful this stance will be perceived by their colleagues as a validation of the other’s perspective.”

These insecurities, when confronting a difference of opinion, are manifested in a variety of ways, including a difficulty in communicating, which she attributes to social media and the need to be “liked.” Social media, she said, can also be a troublesome distraction that inhibits making contact with one’s “interior voice.”

“All of these tendencies stand as serious obstacles on the path to becoming a mature legal professional, who is able to serve our community in any role or capacity,” she said. “They also stand as obstacles to a capacity to witness to the dignity of each person as made in the image of God, and to welcome the presence of Christ, even in those with whom we disagree — even in those who may have done something terribly wrong.”

Dr. Uelmen encouraged her colleagues to honor the presence of Christ in each person and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In addition, she said young adults, in particular, can benefit from the practice of “pairing,” which provides an opportunity to have conversations with someone whose convictions are different from your own. This can lead to less defensiveness and the ability to recognize that the other person is similarly made in the image of God, regardless of what they believe.

She said: “Cultivating a kind of ‘buddy system’ relationship with someone who holds a deeply different perspective — making time to be with this person for meals, outings, going to the theater or other cultural events — can create a setting where we can practice communication across these differences…”

Dr. Uelmen ended her presentation with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, who she said is the source of truth and understanding: “Come, Holy Spirit, infuse our work in the legal profession with your light and healing balm. Generate us as a people of hope, strengthen our capacity to see how the Lord of History is at work, a protagonist in all of our work for reconciliation, healing and accompanying our young people, even in the most difficult times.”