Profiles in Prophetic Voice - Bonita Grubbs ’84 M.Div

Frank Brown

Reverend Bonita Grubbs works in two realities. The first consists of some of New Haven’s poorest neighborhoods, a place where gunshots ring out nightly and the number of murders in 2006 is poised to top twenty. The second is a state that ranks as the nation’s richest, and where Grubbs’s clients are often treated as disposable. As the head of Christian Community Action for eighteen years, Grubbs negotiates both worlds with a deceptive ease, channeling the moral authority accrued from her work among the poor to poke and prod those in power as the city’s leading figure on poverty issues.

As the head of an organization that simultaneously depends on government and businesses for funding and aggressively lobbies them for social change, Grubbs is keenly aware of the line between aggressive engagement and alienation. “The notion of survival is important. When one looks at survival, one looks at whether or not to speak. There is funding to think about,” says the American Baptist clergywoman, adding, “There is the collection plate to think about.” Perched on a rolling office chair in her tiny, windowless, impossibly cluttered New Haven office, Grubbs seemed to savor a recent invitation to pause and look beyond running an impressive set of CCA programs ranging from transitional housing to health care reform advocacy to job training to Thanksgiving food baskets.

“This is not just a job, this is God’s calling upon my life. There’s a certain amount of confidence that comes when you know that you’re in the place that God wants you to be,” says Grubbs, whose girlish face and flyaway hair belie her 51 years. “The prophetic part of what I do is really trying to grab hold of this vision of what community ought to be, what society ought to be, trying to help us grasp the prophetic in a way that it becomes real, it becomes tangible, visible before our eyes. It moves us from the reality of the human condition to the vision that we have for society that people so desperately need to hear in these times.”

In New Haven and in the capitol in Hartford, Grubbs’s voice is clear and loud—but rarely shrill—on issues affecting the homeless, jobless and working poor. In the early 1990s, Grubbs helped make the unpopular case for a state income tax that would bring stability and consistent funding for state programs. A decade later, she fought and lost a battle to halt the construction of a new high school in New Haven that displaced poor residents. Nowadays, she is focusing on health care reform, all the while managing a constellation of CCA programs and initiatives.

Through it all, she says, faith is essential to maintaining context, staying in touch with her base and obtaining God’s guidance on when to speak out and on which issues. This, Grubbs says, is key to being heard, to maintaining a discourse with those in power and not slipping into the margin. As she hones her skill of listening to the divine, church becomes less important.

“My faith has matured to the point where I spend much less time in the local church. Folk in the church take way too long to get involved in the activity of improving the human condition,” says Grubbs with characteristic directness. “The calling is not to have a fish fry.”