The first person in his family to attend college, Bert Jara ’85 enrolled at Westmont because a high school counselor helped him fill out an application and a financial aid form. Today Bert seeks to provide the same kind of assistance through LAUP, Latin Americans United for Progress, a non-profit organization he directs in Holland, Mich.
“Hispanic students have the highest high school dropout rate of any minority in the United States,” he says.“My own parents couldn’t help me with my homework; many Hispanic parents don’t understand how the education system works.” LAUP offers ESL classes, computer training and mentoring through the efforts of more than 50 volunteers.
Bert thinks the best way to inspire students to consider college is to expose them to successful people in their own community. At a conference he organized this year, 233 students listened to the stories of local Hispanic residents such as the owner of several McDonald’s restaurants and a reporter for an NBC affiliate. “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” they said. “We did, and so can you.” With a grant from the League of United Latin American Citizens and AT&T, LAUP will enroll 50 high school students in a year-long program focusing on leadership skills, career development and community service.
In his life and work, Bert seeks to combine his faith, intellect and social conscience, something he learned to do at Westmont. He majored in religious studies and worked for the department, so he knew the professors well. “They encouraged me to ask questions about my doubts and engaged in conversation with me,” he says. He also participated in outreach programs like Potter’s Clay.
After earning a master of divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, Bert became a youth pastor in Coopersville, Mich. “The young people there had such a mono-cultural experience,” he says. “So I organized trips to Mexico, Los Angeles and Chicago, where they could encounter different socioeconomic groups and develop a social conscience. It was a stretch for some people in the church; parents asked, ‘You want to take my kid where?’”
After seven years in Michigan, Bert became the pastor of a small urban church in Denver with a more diverse congregation. Then he answered a call to plant a new congregation for a church in Wyoming, Mich., to reach out to the people of color moving into the church’s downtown neighborhood. He left that ministry after four years when he went through a painful divorce.
Bert then worked for Goodwill Industries for two years, teaching a job-education program. “I had never encountered people on welfare before, and it gave me a new perspective on life,” he says. “One of my clients overheard I was having problems paying rent after the divorce and offered to let me stay in her basement. She has five children with five different men, but she opened her home in a way no one else had done. I learned that middle class people don’t know everything about hospitality and caring for someone in need. The job at Goodwill leveled my perspective and humbled me. I’m not proud of the divorce, but it has made me a better person.
“The church needs to provide a balance of compassion and justice,” Bert says. “Americans have been privileged all their life, and most have never been hungry. They don’t always understand the needs of the poor — but Christ does, and we need to reflect his heart.”