Campus Assets: Two lawyers opt to work for peace

By Randi B. Hagi | July 20th, 2015

Lindsay Martin and Daryl Byler

Lindsay Martin ’05 is chief fundraiser for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP); J. Daryl Byler ’79 is CJP’s executive director. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

J. Daryl Byler ’79 and Lindsay Martin ’05 both have law degrees, are certified to practice law in states other than Virginia, and instead work for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Experiences with Mennonite service in early adulthood instilled in them a deep-seated commitment to advocate for others and promote nonviolence and community development. Those values led them to law school in different states and eras, through various careers, and, eventually, back to the Valley and CJP.

Byler’s motivations

Shortly after Daryl Byler finished high school, he spent a year at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) headquarters, assisting photographers and ferrying people to and from the airport. In that setting, he was immersed in stories about MCC’s work, which he says planted seeds that were nurtured at EMU.

After graduating in 1979, he moved to Mississippi with four friends with whom he’d worked at a church camp. There, his ideals coalesced in an intentional community that would eventually spawn Jubilee Mennonite Church. Byler reflects on that time as a high point in his faith journey, where he felt “an incredible amount of support.”

There in Meridian, Mississippi, Byler encountered many elderly citizens who were being taken advantage of by insurance companies. “That experience convinced me that there were a lot of justice issues that would be interesting to address through the legal system,” said Byler. He attended the University of Virginia’s School of Law, and also became licensed to practice in Washington D.C.

Martin’s law education

Lindsay Martin’s interest in law school began during her time with Mennonite Voluntary Service after graduating from EMU. While working for a small nonprofit, Martin noticed skills she lacked that would support her aspirations for peace and justice work. Law school would provide a broadly applicable education, so she applied to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Part of Martin’s application included a personal statement essay, in which she expounded upon a definition of justice discussed in an EMU classroom. The essay earned her a public interest scholarship and encouraged her to continue “thinking of justice in a more holistic context.”

Byler and Martin passed the bar in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, respectively, and set out to practice in their field.

After doing some cases pro bono while working for MCC in Washington D.C., Byler became a staff attorney with the federally funded East Mississippi Legal Services program, while simultaneously pastoring at Jubilee Mennonite Church.

As a lawyer, he dealt with civil cases, representing clients around or below the poverty line. Consumer law, bouts with used car dealerships, food stamps issues, and impact litigation all came through his office. He learned about the systemic nature of poverty, but was inspired by his clients’ resourcefulness and networks of support.

A friend joked that Byler’s “two professions were law and grace.” Rather than seeing conflicts of interest, he saw law and religion as compatible callings to justice and peacebuilding.

“I saw both the dark side and the light side of human behaviors,” said Byler. “The brokenness, but also the potential to be community for one another.”

In Martin’s first position after graduation, she clerked for a federal judge in Philadelphia. She’d had internships in criminal defense, employment law and civil rights – where her true passions lay. As a clerk, she spent much time in the courtroom as a neutral observer, which helped her to realize that she preferred an advocacy role.

“After that year, I was eager to be on the other side of the judge’s bench,” said Martin. However, at this time, the recession decimated funding for her vein of work. At the same time, a personal crisis prevented total zeal for the legal world: Matthew Styer ’05, the man she married, was diagnosed with cancer. After her clerking position, she cared for him full-time until his death in December 2011.

“The plan crashed and burned. There was no longer any kind of plan,” said Martin.

Byler’s exit from practicing law came when MCC approached him to direct their Washington D.C. Office, where he focused on public policy, poverty issues, and U.S. policy in the Middle East. After 13 years, he and his wife Cindy transitioned to roles of regional representatives in the Middle East. Based in Jordan, they also worked extensively in Iran, Iraq and Israel-Palestine. Again, Byler was struck by the work, vision, resiliency and ingenuity of the locals with whom he worked.

Return to Harrisonburg

Byler’s main takeaway from his time as an attorney came from reading countless court decisions, both the majority and dissenting opinions.

“That really is a powerful reminder . . . that getting to the root of issues is always a little more complex than one person’s story,” said Byler.

This understanding of perspective aided Byler as he interacted with conflict in the Middle East and, when he and Cindy were ready to return to the United States, as he joined EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). “In peacebuilding, you are working among multiple narratives,” said Byler. Thus listening to each other’s stories is crucial for sustainable peace.

As CJP’s executive director, Byler’s position is one of listening. Whether in D.C. discussing workshops with fundraising organizations, contacting graduates to learn from their in-the-field experiences, or networking with a Fulbright-winning Palestinian alumnus over lunch, Byler relies on relationships to improve and expand CJP. One of the most rewarding parts of his job is “meeting with students and talking with them about their dreams.”

After the death of Matthew Styer, Martin moved back to Harrisonburg for friend and familial support. The prospect of working at CJP became “the light at the end of the tunnel.” The opportunity to work for former CJP executive director Lynn Roth became available, and she seized it, becoming his assistant.

“It helped me realize I did still have a passion to work for what I believed in,” said Martin. She became Byler’s assistant when he succeeded Roth.

In January, Martin moved to EMU’s development office, where she became an associate director in charge of fundraising for CJP. Her excitement to advocate for people and causes now manifests itself in promoting CJP. The core tenets of a law education, “reframing the way you think about things, and honing your analytical and logical skills” aid her in networking and planning.

“I want to live in constant gratitude,” said Martin. “CJP has been a very healing place for me, in a number of aspects.”