“Girls today they have all the stuff; they have it inside of them. I’m not talking about opportunities or access, but an inner strength to change the world. It’s in all of us. It has to be tapped.” ~ Reverend Damaris Whittaker
The Conference of Churches, a faith-based non-profit serving the greater Hartford area, has chosen their 2014 Catalyst Award Winners, and among them is a Latina who was selected for leading a career characterized by altruism, justice and inspiration. She is Reverend Damaris Whittaker, one of this year’s five winners who will be recognized for their “extraordinary leadership and transformation in Connecticut’s communities” at the Churches’ second annual fundraising Water to Wine gala on Thursday, Oct. 30.
“Rev. Whittaker is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She is a thought leader, peacemaker and courageous catalyst for change,” said the Rev. Shelley Best, president and CEO of the Conference of Churches.
Of the award, Whittaker says: “It seems unfair to get an award for doing what you have been called to do. I think that if we all do what we love and what we are called to do things will happen in the world, and that’s more important than anything else, that change happens.”
As minister since 2012 at the First Church of Christ in Hartford, known as Center Church, Rev. Whittaker sees herself as a voice for the voiceless, and is in a prime position to fight for justice. Something she says she will do until she dies: “I want to work for justice until I die. Whatever that is, and that may change with time, our issues will change, but I will continue to work for justice until I die.”
Some of the issues that Rev. Whittaker tackles — as part of her calling — are women’s leadership, domestic violence, social justice and health reform. She has been active on a grassroots level for these causes, and many more, throughout her courageous career.
“One of my goals is to continue to bring awareness to issues that are pertinent in the world,” says Rev. Whittaker, “Not only in the community but beyond that. My goal is to continue to do what God calls me to do.”
She can’t recall a specific moment when she realized her calling. She says that she found it along her journey in the form of guidance.
“I was naturally gravitating toward things. It was a development of my own person and my understanding of God that clarified what I think I am called to do.”
Rev. Whittaker says the fact that she does not come from privilege may have played a part. She says,”I had a very humble beginning and I have had to work very hard.”
She is a native of Humacao, Puerto Rico, and now resides with her husband, Sabas Whittaker, in Marlborough, CT. She has a master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy, and a doctorate from New York Theological Seminary.
Rev. Whittaker mentions another powerful woman theologian that had a profound impact on her: Ada María Isasi-Díaz, and describes her as “an amazing projector of our experience as women of faith in the U.S. of America.”
Isasi-Díaz, who died in 2012, wrote an essay called A Hispanic Garden in a Foreign Land. Whittaker summarizes that essay, saying, “Ada María Isasi-Díaz says ‘I did not inherit a garden from my mother, but I inherited some cuttings, and it takes a special skill from the gardener to develop roots in cuttings of flowers,’ and she says, ‘so I have to develop those roots on my own, and try to plant my own garden here in the U.S.,’ and then she describes la lucha — the struggle — the struggle is to pray. And so she developed the theology that prayer is at the center of every Latina woman’s heart, regardless of their denomination or their belief, there is a yearning and a center of prayer in their hearts, because they are seeking to plant their flowers in a garden, but they did not inherit one. So, you see, it is quite a journey.”
It is with this kind of deep understanding and awareness that Rev. Whittaker leads and inspires.
It is in people like Isasi-Díaz where she finds her own inspiration, as well as in Julia de Burgos, a poet from Puerto Rico who died in the ’50s. Whittaker mentions specifically de Burgos’s poem Yo Misma FUi Mi Ruta (I Am My Own Route). She says the poem is about finding your own journey and defining your own self.
“I would say to the young women today that we can’t be what others want us to be; we are full of now and that cannot be contained or redefined by anyone else but yourself. That, and that alone, will lead us to God, to whatever people choose to find in their lives. We cannot be what others want us to be. We are full of now.”
Two other women have also inspired Rev. Whittaker to be the woman she is today. And those two women were her grandmothers: Josefa Soto and Lucrecia Vazquez.
“And I will have to add one more person, my husband,” says Whittaker regarding her list of those who inspire her. “My husband. My husband is the strongest most wonderful man I have ever met. I know the struggles he has surpassed in his life. I am inspired everyday by him.”