Editor’s Note: This week Grizel Ubarry shares how faith has sustained her commitment to a career in community development. She offers another concrete example of how faith and the commitment to serve others and work for justice are connected. Grizel’s decades of commitment and service in the face of relentless prejudice and racism, even when she wasn’t thinking much about faith or what motivated her choices, is a powerful lesson.
I don’t think much about how faith has driven my 40-year involvement in community development and social justice work. But indeed, faith is what keeps me going.
I began doing community development work my first year in college when I was given the opportunity during the summer months to help a community group open a community center. They had received a significant grant from several funding sources to open the first Latino community center in Camden, New Jersey in the early 1970s. I was asked to set up primarily youth programs for the summer until they could hire a full-time executive director. That was my first exposure to operating a nonprofit. I had absolutely no experience other than my belief that this was important work to do and I was being challenged to do it. Decades later, that Center continues to serve as an early childhood development center serving pre-K in what still remains a very poor community, primarily black and Latino.
Thanks to my mother, I had a stronger background for this job than I realized. She was a very strong and proud woman who really wanted more for her children than what she could offer. She was outspoken about finishing school, going to college, making something of herself. She was a woman with less than a sixth-grade education who learned English on her own as she advocated for her children and for others in the community. She was involved in the local PTA and church mission work and never thought of not volunteering when asked. She always wanted us to learn our culture and history and to be proud of being Puerto Rican and speaking Spanish – proud regardless of the discrimination that we experienced every day. She taught me to have faith in the possibility of a better life for myself and for others.
I think most people who are in community development and social justice work don’t second-guess the reason why they do this work. Thus, they may not need as much fuel to sustain it. I think for some of us, it’s the instinctive thing to do based on what we see every day through the lens of social and racial justice. I think as long as there are inequalities and suffering, I will always want to do something about it in any way that I can. I and people like me can’t do it all, but we can always do something.
I think observing what people do for others strengthens my faith in humanity and my commitment to wanting to do anything within my reach. When I see what people of all age groups, nationalities, gender and walks of life do for others, this becomes awe-inspiring for me and for others. More people want to step up and partake. For me, it is not so much about changing the world as it is about helping others. I don’t believe most people think about the big picture of how to change the world. I think my faith is strengthened by the personal rewards that come with helping someone really in need.