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Noel Castellanos: A heart for justice

The CEO of the Christian Community Development Association ministers to underserved communities from the inside out, becoming part of the fiber of a neighborhood.

August 3, 2010

Inspired to serve the poor according to Christ’s relational model, the Rev. Noel Castellanos teaches young leaders the importance of long-term commitment in order to effect significant social change. “Almost all effective ministry takes time,” he said.

Since 1982 Castellanos’ full-time service in the Latino community has included church planting, youth ministry and community development in San Francisco, San Jose and Chicago. He is chief executive officer of Christian Community Development Association and was the founding pastor of Chicago’s La Villita Community Church. In addition to being a popular speaker, Castellanos mentors young leaders across the United States. He also directs the CCDA Institute, training emerging leaders in the Christian Community Development philosophy.

While teaching at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute, Castellanos spoke with Faith & Leadership about developing leadership in underresourced communities. The video clip is an excerpt of the following edited transcript.

Q: What’s Christian about your community development work?

Christian community development we describe as a biblical philosophy for working in underresourced communities. The key components of CCD are based out of study of the Scriptures related to how God treated poverty, how God treated empowerment, how God looks at our responsibility as individuals on this planet stewarding the resources that he has put on this earth.

John Perkins began to articulate what he called the three Rs: reconciliation, relocation and redistribution. He was in a little rural town where basically as soon as a young person could leave, they left. The town was devoid of leadership. The church operated as an entity within the four walls of their little faith community.

After leaving northern California to become a successful businessman, John returned and felt called to work there as a pastor. And the conversation with his wife was, “We need to stay here long enough to raise up young leaders from within the community, get them educated, and give them a vision that’s big enough to come back to the church and let it be a change agent in the neighborhood. Relocate back into the community. Let’s don’t escape and then leave it to decay.”

The reconciliation value was very pertinent to a situation of great divide. Does the gospel have the power to reconcile blacks and whites that in society are divided? In the church can that be different? His conviction was that it could.

Redistribution came out of this belief that everything in the Bible leads to justice and God has a heart for justice, and for the poor and for the marginalized. A manifestation of justice is economic redistribution. There are enough resources on the planet, but how we distribute those resources needs to be looked at. As Christians, we ought to do it differently. It isn’t handouts -- John really never believed that. He believed we need to give people the tools to work out of poverty themselves. And the church is the one community where rich and poor can sit side by side as equals.

Q: How do you raise up leadership from within a community in practice?

In most urban communities and poor communities, as soon as you can get out, you leave. So you have two choices. You import leadership and they become more indigenized. They become part of that neighborhood; it takes years for a leader coming in from the outside to become part of the fiber of that neighborhood. Or they say, “Build your own leaders.” That takes years.

In Paul’s writing to Titus and to Timothy, it was a long-term mentoring process. And we found that the tougher the neighborhood is, the more time investment we need to make. There’s no easy solution to leadership development.

Q: You mentioned Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. What are other sources of guidance when you think about this task?

The model of Christ himself. If you listen to Luke 4, the declaration where [Jesus] says, “I’ve been anointed to preach the good news to the poor; I’ve come to preach the release of the captive, the opening the eyes of the blind” -- the jubilee idea. That’s a pretty radical kind of mission statement.

And then if you look at Luke 5, he takes his disciples through this whole process: I’m going to make you fishers of men and realign your life priorities. And it wasn’t just about proclamation. It was really about aligning to that mission -- how he dealt with that leper, the personal interaction, the touch.

One thing that we say is poor people don’t even know the program. They need relationships. They need the incarnational presence of Christians.

Imagine if the church were to be in the neighborhoods of great need, loving their neighbor. One of our board members says they go to these great Bible institutes and they ask the students, “Now, what’s the greatest commandment in the Bible?” And they say, well, “Love God and love your neighbor.” And how many have ever taken a class in seminary on loving your neighbor? They don’t offer that class.

The process of discipleship is personal interaction. It’s healing the paralytic that’s brought down by friends, and he looks up, and they want him to be healed physically, but [Jesus] says, “Your sins are forgiven.” And then he says, “But you know what? I’m not just going to heal his sins. I’m going to make him walk.” There isn’t a division between the practical, personal, what we might term the social gospel, and the need for heart change. They’re both there. The encounter with Levi in the party -- there’s a lot of criticism for interacting among nonbelievers. That’s a lot of our ministry in the city. We take these young leaders, they might be gang bangers, they might be addicts, they might have all kinds of problems, but we recognize leadership potential in them, and we stay with them, and we actually use their circle of influence to begin to transform that neighborhood.

Jesus uses the analogy about the new wine needs new wineskins. That’s what I think CCD has brought to the church, a new approach to how we work in communities. We work from the inside out. We work long term. We’re not trying to offer overnight solutions, a weekend blitz into a neighborhood to just pass out fliers and do a Bible study blitz or whatever.

We say move into the neighborhood; stay there for the next 20 to 30 years. Let’s do life with our neighbors, and let the gospel permeate it, in everything we do. It may result in starting a medical clinic if there’s a need for that. It might be a new school. It might be a rehabilitation program for drug- and alcohol-abused individuals. That’s the approach that’s used all over the country in CCDA.

Q: Why is it that tent-pole type ministries aren’t enough and you actually need to start with bricks-and-mortar institutions based on people’s needs?

In our association, we have two kinds of memberships. We have individual membership because we know a lot of times you’re the one person in your church that has interest in this kind of work. But then we have organizational membership.

We focus there, because we say the Lone Ranger model in the city doesn’t work. You’ll never survive if you go into a city by yourself or into a tough neighborhood. If you live there and you really want to see something happen, you need a team.

The church-based component of our philosophy says find a community. It could be a megachurch. It could be a small little house church. It could be a traditional church. It doesn’t matter. We’re not telling you the ecclesiastical kind of model that you use, but if you don’t have a community, you’re probably not going to do much.

What we have also found is not all communities of faith in the neighborhood can sustain the beginning of more organized community ministry. What might happen is they recognize, hey, there are four or five little churches in the neighborhood. What if we come together and establish The Resurrection Project in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago? Ten congregations coming together -- we all form part of the board of directors, and we establish the work of neighborhood revitalization as a group.

There are a lot of models like that. Sometimes it’s one church that says, hey, we’re going to focus on five blocks around our neighborhood, because it would be overwhelming to do more than that. Then they begin to establish organizations that give them a little buffer between the church and congregation, and this entity is used to serve the community.

Q: A lot of young people want to go into CCDA to change the world. How do you reshape that ambition into something patient and durable?

That’s a very real dynamic. You do something for a weekend, a year, you’re dabbling. But when God calls you to do something, usually you hang in there for a very long period of time, and that’s almost all effective ministry takes time to be effective. In the city or in poor communities, what you’re dealing with is the deep level of mistrust that these neighborhoods have experienced over and over again: people promising we’re here to help, we’re here to do something good, and then people leave. And especially think about the damage that can cause with young people, when kids are usually the target of our ambition. You know [chuckle]? We’re here to do some really great stuff until something else good comes along. So we really have seen that part of our job as elders is to help just bring them that dose of reality.

Like I said, when I came to Chicago, the pastor there told me, hey, if you’re not willing to come for 15 years, it probably would be better for you not to come. That was a real hard thing for me to hear, because I didn’t think I was ready to make a 15-year commitment. But I was excited about going to Chicago.

And so, I think that also the transparency of leadership. I share very honestly. Hey, all the bumps and bruises, and the failures and the struggles that I’ve had pastoring this church, or trying to lead, or raise up leaders; three steps forward and a couple back. And we had as many stories of failure as success, and you have to be honest about all of that. Families -- OK, how are you going to raise your kid in the ’hood, and what’s the price?

There is an idealism that’s tempered when your kids begin having to face gang problems and educational challenges. Many of the families in CCDA, they live in the neighborhood but they have to find ways to care for their family, maybe sending your kid to a private school or maybe going to a charter school or a magnet school instead of that neighborhood school that just … you just know that if you send your kids there, they’re not going to do well. And, at the same time, you commit yourself to work to rebuild that school in order to raise up the quality of that school.

Our ministry is really based on a relational model. We’re an association of relationships -- that I think is what is attractive to CCDA. We mentor people, we come alongside people. We walk with people for years. I’ve been in this thing for 20 years, and those kind of long-term friendships have been a sustaining deal for me.

And so, as CEO of this movement, OK, we’re moving from a small core group of lifelong friends to opening it up so others can engage in the same kind of relational bond. That’s really my biggest task, [to] create an environment where we can really invite new leaders to come into that. But [they] are going to hear the kinds of things that I’m talking about.

And so the ambition is not bad, but is it an ambition for the kingdom? Is it an ambition for the kind of things that we would value as Christians, or as just some hot-shot young guy that needs to be tempered a little bit? I’m glad folks have come alongside me over the years and said, “Hey, slow down. You don’t need to kill yourself and sacrifice your family.”

Q: How is what you do as a CEO similar to and different from a CEO in a secular organization?

Our board has to steward the vision and the integrity of our mission. As a board they chose a person [for CEO] who has lived this for 25 years and been around CCDA from day one. Even though my title is chief executive officer, ultimately my responsibility is to make sure that the organization serves our members, and is financially viable to be able to do that.

I work with our board to be held accountable to all the questions of the integrity of the organization, but a lot of my work is to build a team of people who can teach the principles of CCDA. Some are ministry people. We have educational staff. Some are financial people that make sure that we are doing everything well in terms of managing our money. My approach is that I’m building a team of great people that love the mission, believe in the mission, but are competent in those areas.

And then my big job is to advance the movement of CCDA by communicating this vision to engage people through our institutes, through our conferences, through our website. Over 20 years we’ve discovered, hey, this is how we can operate in a good fiscal way, and well-managed way.

I’m a pastor, youth worker, but I have a great passion for that organizational leadership side. That’s been learned from running organizations since I was 22 years old. I think I’ve learned a lot over the years.