Back in November we got the chance to sit down with UNUM’s founder and executive director, Josh Chamalé, to hear more about his start in ministry, the heart behind UNUM, and the process of how it came to be! This is part one of his interview.
How did you get started in ministry?
I grew up in a Christian family, and my dad is part of a ministry called “Athletes in Action”. I grew up playing sports and still love playing sports, and I would go with him to different mission trips in Guatemala when teams would come.
I loved playing with the children (in the communities), but at the same time it was really clear to me the difference of opportunities (between me and the children), and the reality that I lived in- my day to day. So that’s where the fire started- just wanting other children to have opportunities to do something different with their lives than what their families had established for them, and have different dreams than what their reality locked them in to. If your parents don’t know how to read and write, or your parents have been farmers for generations and they don’t really care about education or nutrition, then your future and your options are really limited. I was so blessed that that wasn’t my reality, but at the same time it gave me the fire to do that for other people.
Would you say there’s one moment in particular, looking back, where you thought “I want to dedicate my life to this.” ?
I can think of different times when we would go out in the villages and my parents would just suddenly not see me and it’s because I would be hanging out with everybody. In Guatemala, there are different languages spoken, and even with that language barrier, we would just play. So from a young age I knew I wanted to work outside of Guatemala City, but I would say that “moment” wasn’t until I started college. I did four semesters of public health- learning all the ins and outs of the health situation and the health needs in Guatemala.
Something that has always struck me is that the five most common causes of death of children in Guatemala are preventable diseases. I was set that I wanted to be a doctor and I thought I was going to use that to serve people, but those classes really opened my eyes to the actual need in Guatemala and I thought, “if I devoted my talents and my passions to being able to prevent these diseases, I would be able to help the communities a whole lot more rather than just being a doctor.” Being a doctor is an amazing thing, but that is when it clicked- what I had to do, and I love doing it.
So now, you’re working for UNUM International- you founded UNUM International. What happened to get from that passionate kid who wanted to dedicate his life to ministry to now running an organization?
So, this is obviously when I’m older, but I read an article – a shocking article. It talked about how many nonprofits work in Guatemala, specifically in one sector of Guatemala that is known for long droughts and losing a lot of crops. I can’t remember exactly, but the amount of money spent in that area (by non-profits)… it was a lot of money. But the actual impact there was almost as if no one had worked there before.
Being in the nonprofit world and involved in different ministries, I started to see the division between nonprofits and the work they did. There could be one nonprofit that only focuses on education, another one on malnutrition, but if you know the ins-and-outs of Guatemala, you realize we need a holistic approach. It’s not just about education, it’s not just about health. Christ is important. God is sufficient for our spiritual life, but also during our time on earth we need other things (like food, water, shelter) to be able to develop fully and change our surroundings, and that is when the dream of UNUM came.
That’s why UNUM, the name, means one. It stands for unity, the body of Christ. I’m always the first one to say I don’t know it all! So if you know something I don’t know, let’s work together! Let’s make an impact! That’s the dream of UNUM- our target is holistic care and sadly I still think it’s not a common way of seeing things. Some people still get weirded out about working together, but I believe this is the way forward. If we come together, if we each play our part, then we’re able to have a meaningful impact in the lives of these children. That then ripples into their families, and communities, and that’s how you really make generational change.
What year was UNUM founded?
We were incorporated in December 2018, and it’s kind of a funny story. I can be a procrastinator, and I had been thinking about doing it, wanting to make it happen, and one day in December I just said “I need to do this before the year ends!”.
I remember being in my living room and I was like, “I just have to do it.” so I sent a couple of emails to the lawyers to confirm, “hey, we’re doing this!”. And so it was very late 2018, but that’s how it happened!
Why then? What was the pressure of “it’s December 2018 and I have to do this”?
I had met different people throughout the years and we would have this ongoing conversation about holistic transformation (the dream of UNUM) and working in partnership, and each time they were like “yes! when you do it, let us know!”. 2018 was the year I decided I was going after that vision and the dream God had trusted me with, so I quit my job and I turned in my resignation letter in July. In August I was closing a few different projects, but I still had one project that was on-going and I started procrastinating (the incorporation process) and it just never got done. But in December I was like, “I have to do it today, because if I don’t do it today it’s going to be months again, and this cannot wait.” I was excited, other people were excited, but more than that, it was that pressure of “people need us”. It’s a cool concept of working together with the hope of working towards a better Guatemala in the future. So, it was an impulse moment of “it has to get done today”. That was the one last step that started all of what UNUM is today.
From that to where UNUM is now- UNUM has grown a ton. You’re working in four different communities, alongside lots of people. Tell me a little about how that happened; how did you get from that moment to today?
(Jokingly) I don’t know how it happened!
I mean, it’s kind of true, but not really. About a month ago it struck me that next year we’re going to be serving our one millionth meal – and I just got chills right now when I said it out loud – because our first partnership truly started in 2019, because of the December story. So to think about the size of the organization we are- it’s been four years, and we kind of started backwards because we started project oriented instead of building an organizational structure, which I’m glad we have now- but thinking about how in less than five years, we’re serving our one millionth meal… how did that happen?
I just think of God. I think God brings people together and I believe that the fact that He gave us a clear vision of being his body and doing ministry in a holistic way really opens doors.
I wish I had a strategy to share, but I don’t think it’s anything short of miraculous what is happening. Yeah, (in 2019) I knew some people and would email them, but if I’m fully honest, a lot of emails that I sent that first year, they were never answered, or throughout the pandemic we lost contact and those conversations never happened again. A lot of the people we’re working with right now, I didn’t even know of them then. Some people I knew, some people just came along, but the only way I can really explain it is it was just God bringing people in a miraculous way, and them sharing our passion of working together to be of testimony to other people that Christianity, that God, is one- it’s unity, it’s fellowship, it’s really wanting the best for everyone no matter where you’re at, and I believe that God has blessed that. I don’t know how, but we’re here!