Only by the Grace of God by Diana Ortiz

My admission into Pomona College is a blessing that constantly gives me gratitude. But years ago, I remember feeling hopeless and worried about going to college. My worries were not about grades or activities, but about a deeper fear of being rejected as an undocumented immigrant. I constantly felt the pain of exclusion whenever colleges and scholarships required me to be a citizen or permanent resident before applying for financial assistance. With all of my heart, I wanted to achieve my dream of attaining a higher education; but, as a Christian, I felt the real heaviness of my status weighing down my trust in God.

During the first few years of college I did not look forward to going home for the breaks. I did not want to return to my family’s financial problems or hear about my stepfather’s alcoholism. Being away from home had suddenly given me the privilege to not deal with these problems. But deep inside, even as I was sheltered by the “good life” at Pomona College, I was still hurting for my mom’s inability to buy groceries. I was hurting for my brother’s need to commute three hours by bus to UCLA without access to financial aid, a meal plan, or a place to sleep during the nights he missed the bus.

My family’s situation prevented me from rejoicing in God’s provision for me. For a long time I felt more guilty than grateful for living in a comfortable dorm with access to a dining hall, while my family worried about paying the rent without much money left for food. At times, I was consumed by sadness and could not focus on my academics. Though I did not blame God for my family’s problems, I did feel like it was unfair that I had to help my family financially while some of my peers never really had to think twice about going to Yogurtland. These burdens prevented me from rejoicing in other’s people’s blessings. At that time, I did not yet see my life as an instrument of God’s love for others.

Fortunately, this fragmented view of my life as a helpless victim of poverty took a significant shift when I decided to put all my burdens in God’s hands. The verse “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) had never felt as real as the summer of my sophomore year during that day at LAUP[1] when I cried about everything that could possibly make me cry. In midst of all my worries and harrowing doubts about my future, I felt God’s gentle presence fill my heart and mind with a comforting, incomparable sense of peace and love.

Although today my family still struggles with financial instability, I now see my struggles more as experiences that have enabled me to reflect the love that God has repeatedly shown me. Although I couldn’t see it years ago, I now realize that these experiences have enabled me to reflect the love that God has repeatedly shown me. Although I couldn’t see it years ago, I now realize that these experiences have enabled me to share in the struggles of others and to comfort those who deal with rejection, doubt, and fear. I am reminded of this word from Scripture: “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

For instance, my experiences growing up poor have given me compassion for the poor and the oppressed. As a faith-rooted activist, I have concluded that there is a real tangible purpose behind all the painful experiences I had growing up. Because my mom was working so hard to make a living, I had to take responsibilities around the household, such as cleaning, cooking, translating, and budgeting. I started working since I was twelve years old cleaning houses, packing newspapers, and tutoring. Working motivated me to do well in school, and it relieved my mom’s stress as it allowed her to be proud of me. Memories about my mom working day and night while my brother and I struggled to learn English in school still shape my value for education and my support for labor rights.

My life’s struggles have also inspired me to make a tangible difference in the lives of others while I am here in college. I co-founded a club called Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS) for undocumented students and allies to support and collaborate with each other. I co-organized two alternative Spring Break service trips to Los Angeles where students were exposed to homelessness and hunger, gang violence, and educational and environmental inequity. Additionally, some of the most meaningful educational experiences I have had did not come from writing papers or reading books. Rather, they came from conducting oral history projects with an undocumented high school student and from my conversations with workers fighting for labor justice.

In light of all of my family’s struggles, I thank God because these experiences have made me a more sympathetic and justice-oriented person. I have grown to love the poor and the oppressed, including the exploited worker, the recent immigrant, the single parent, the homeless, the struggling student, and the broken-spirited, because I see my family in all of these people.

Although people can accomplish great things without God in their lives, I believe that only God’s infinite grace–and nothing in this world–can sustain me during my struggle for justice. While the world tells me to target oppressors and be angry at the system, God clarifies the need to show compassion to everyone. God gives me an alternative not only to love the poor, but also to pray for Him to change the hearts of oppressors. In Matthew 5:44-47, God says, “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. If you love only those who love you, what good is that? If you love only those who love you, what good is that? If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?” I believe it is only through this sort of love that I can make a difference in this heart-breaking world. And though it is not easy to pursue justice out of love, I thank God for my spiritual community that encourages me to persevere and not grow weary.

Anyone can be grateful for life and people we love. But I have personally come to realize that my gratefulness only ultimately has meaning when I direct it towards my creator and provider. I owe all that I am, and all that I will be, to God’s immense grace. God took me out of my darkness and brought me into a marvelous light of hope. God changed me from the inside out and called me beloved daughter.  With all the temptations to pursue a secure financial career, God’s work in my life is a daily and conscious reminder that I must remain humble and full of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

I hold on to a poem that reminds me of this commitment of faith:

“Walking in the Spirit means living every day,

Looking up at Jesus and following His way.

And when I give Him all of me, just like a mighty tree,

My actions will become sweet fruit for all the world to see.”

Eventually, though it took a lot of patience and love, God managed to conquer my mind and broke my heart for what breaks his: injustice and suffering. For all this, I am eternally grateful. And I pray, just like the Apostle Paul prayed, “that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, you may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge and be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).


[1] The Los Angeles Urban Project (LAUP) is a six-week summer mission sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. This program allows college students of faith to develop a heart for the poor by living in community with inner city low-income residents. LAUP also encourages participants to pursue transformative justice via a foundation of faith that promotes hope, peace, and love.

Posted on June 8, 2015 .