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Candler graduate heeds calling to serve across borders

By Claire Asbury Lennox | Emory Report | May 2, 2017

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Master of divinity student Ruth Ubaldo will follow her faith to Texas, where she will direct a church community center created specifically by the mostly white congregation to build relationships with the Latino neighborhood next door.

Looking back on her time at Candler School of Theology, Ruth Ubaldo sees a theme emerge: crossing borders.

A moment in her first year as a master of divinity student still stands out. “I remember walking with a group down to Emory Village, looking around, thinking, ‘When will I be around more people who look like me, who have some shared experience with me culturally?

“And I felt like God said, ‘I have not forgotten who you are,'" she recalls. "That gave me a lot of peace; that I wasn’t forgotten, and that God saw it all.” 

Ubaldo’s family is from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. But growing up in Portland, Oregon, she attended all-white schools and a predominantly white college. When the service organization Mission Year placed her in Atlanta in 2011, Ubaldo was caught off-guard. “I didn’t know anything about Atlanta," she says. "I literally googled ‘Atlanta.’”

It was the city’s diversity that won her over. “I saw people of color in leadership positions, as CEOs. That was huge for me," she explains. "I say that because I don’t think I really had a good grasp of my own identity growing up. It felt like I was crossing worlds a lot.”

During Mission Year, Ubaldo served at a health clinic for uninsured patients, where she used Spanish, her first language, more than ever before.

“It’s only been in the last five years that God has really brought me back to my identity and language," she says. "I realized that this matters, that I have these valuable skill sets that I can share.”

Cultivating community

After Mission Year ended, Ubaldo felt inspired to stay in Atlanta, working as a waitress, table busser and law firm assistant before Candler came calling. In her time here, she’s continued to explore her identity in a number of settings — often ones that cross borders.  

On campus, she’s a founding member of the Candler Latin American Community (CLAC), which has allowed her to foster Latina identity not only for herself, but also to serve others. 

“Atlanta is the most diverse place I’ve ever lived, but I’m still not around a lot of Latinos in general," she says. "It was important to me to cultivate that community and to be a resource. It’s been a core part of my time at Candler.”

As a first-year student, Ubaldo took the course “Church on the Border” with Candler scholar-in-residence Marie Marquardt and associate professor David Jenkins. Over spring break, the class traveled to the U.S./Mexico border with the organization Border Links, based in Tucson. They spent nights in Arizona and Mexico, walked through the desert and met with advocacy groups.

It was a formative week then, but even more so now, Ubaldo says, given the current political climate around immigration. She calls her peers from the class her closest friends from Candler.

Ubaldo also had a chance to travel to South Korea with Candler’s Laney Legacy in Moral Leadership in 2015, which included a visit to the DMZ. Those travels set the stage for her 2015-16 academic year as an exchange student at the University of Göttingen in Germany — another place where, Ubaldo says, the former divide between East and West is still “very present to people.”

“People ask me how I chose Germany, but a lot of times, I felt like Germany chose me,” she says. “I was surprised a lot by myself, by the world, by people — and by how God showed up.” 

Ubaldo lived in the university’s theology house and took classes in German and English, including “The Bible from an Intercultural Perspective.” She befriended students from Ghana, Hong Kong, Slovakia and beyond.

An invitation to serve

Her time in Germany also offered a chance to reflect on her next steps, thanks in part to the more relaxed European pace.

“Everyone studied a lot—but they also took time to go for walks, go to coffee shops and cake shops," she says. "It’s a different structure. That allowed me the space to be listening.”

During a jog one day, Ubaldo’s listening paid off.

“I felt this strong invitation to go and serve immigrants at the border, and to enter the process for ordained ministry as a deacon in the United Methodist Church," she says. "I didn’t expect the invitation to come in that moment — it was so mundane! But once I felt it, so many things made sense.”

And so her calling to cross borders starts a new chapter. After graduation, Ubaldo will join the staff of Faith United Methodist Church in Richmond, Texas, as director of the church’s community center, a space created specifically by the predominantly white congregation to build relationships with the Latino neighborhood next door.

But first, she must say farewell to Candler.

“During orientation, I heard God say, ‘These are your green pastures,'" she notes. "I’ve really experienced Candler that way — it’s been such a fertile place for me to grow and explore and question. It’s bittersweet to leave.”