Urban Ministry

A Rooted Gospel

NOEL CASTELLANOS is the CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities restored spiritually, economically, physically, and mentally. In order to nurture that holistic work, committed CCDA practitioners move into under-resourced neighborhoods and try to foster community. Castellanos’ experience with CCDA and a lifetime of missional community has informed his new book, Where the Cross Meets the Street: What Happens to the Neighborhood When God Is at the Center (IVP Books), a powerful testament to the necessity of externally focused ministry. He was interviewed via email by Dave Baker, who is responsible for school accounts and diversity initiatives at Baker Book House.

Dave Baker: You write that in terms of diversity, the evangelical community is far behind the rest of society. In what ways?

Noel Castellanos: Most evangelical denominations and organizations are not very ethnically or culturally diverse in leadership. With the amazing demographic changes that are happening in our country, how can we possibly be in a position to effectively reach and disciple people of color if the leadership on boards and in executive positions is all white?

What is your biggest challenge as CEO of CCDA? CCDA is a broad and diverse family held together by a core commitment to be a witness of the kingdom in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. My biggest challenge is to create an environment where everybody feels valued and respected in spite of our racial, theological, and denominational differences. Our call is to love one another across racial and class lines and to demonstrate that God’s people can be at the forefront of loving the poor.

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New & Noteworthy

Everyday Saints
St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, is not a collection of sentimental greeting-card-style verses; instead these literary works wrestle deeply with the human condition and the yearning for holiness, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. Ave Maria Press

City Missions
For nearly 30 years the Christian Community Development Association has been a resource for people seeking to do prophetic, non-paternalistic urban ministry. In Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, CCDA co-founders Wayne Gordon and John Perkins, and other veteran and emerging leaders, revisit key principles and lessons learned. IVP Books

A Narrative Ark
Noah’s Flood: Ancient Stories of Natural Cataclysmis a new website with essays, visual media, and conversation on Genesis, other ancient flood narratives, and the resonance of Noah’s story in contemporary culture and climate change. It was started by Ingrid Esther Lilly, a Pacific School of Religion visiting scholar. www.floodofnoah.com

God and Our Devices
Author, filmmaker, and cultural commentator Craig Detweiler explores the gifts and curses of our social media frenzy and teched-out society from a Christian perspective in iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives. Brazos Press

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The City of God & The City of Cain

MY FIRST GUIDED tour of Indianapolis was with a real estate agent, crisscrossing the city in his gleaming black Lexus. He spoke as he drove, filling the air with phrases such as, “Now, this is a terrific neighborhood,” and “You’ll want to steer clear of that one over there.”

As you’d guess, he focused on amenities, or the lack of them: hip restaurants, nearby shopping, nice parks, great schools. Security and consumables, good neighborhoods and bad. A mental map of the city took shape as we drove.

My second tour, just a few days later, was quite different—so different that it changed my life. This time the guide was one of the faculty members at Christian Theological Seminary, the school where I had just been appointed president. She’d lived in the city for more than 20 years, and on her tour, consumables came up now and then, but they took a definite back seat to the creative, groundbreaking ministries going on around town.

Her remarks frequently echoed the real estate agent’s, but from an entirely different angle. She’d say, “Now, this is a low-income neighborhood and a food desert [a section of the city where nutritious, affordable food isn’t readily available]—and right there on the corner is the amazing little church that’s started an organic community garden ministry.” Then a few minutes later: “Now, this is a middle-income neighborhood—and there’s the mosque that’s making a tremendous difference through its youth program.” And so on.

That tour took more than six fascinating hours, and it still only scratched the surface of the creative ministries alive and well throughout the city. Those six hours redrew my mental map of the city entirely and gave me my first glimpse of what it might mean to be a thriving seminary in the 21st century.

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A Testimony of God's Grace and Love

MARRIAGE IS A wonderful thing. Yet it seems to be taking a hit in our society, and I must say it is taking a hit in my community at rates I am very uncomfortable with as an African American.

My wife, Donna, and I have been working in ministry and missions for a long time, and we see our marriage as a key to our work. We live and work in the city in a mostly black neighborhood, and the percentage of married black couples is extremely low. Modeling a great marriage is something we take seriously and make very public. If we didn’t make our marriage and relationship public, some of the young people we know and work with would not know personally any happily married African-American couples.

It is our intent to live out our lives as a couple and family so others can see its beauty and challenge. Our community has upwards of 90 percent single-parent homes, with few dads present and even fewer marriages. Marriage is one of our greatest “testimonies” of God’s grace and love in our lives. How we love each other and our children is a important part of our work, so we are very intentional about the health of our marriage. This has given us the opportunity to love each other well.

A public manifestation of our marriage means we celebrate one another with friends as much as possible. We announce our date nights and trips we take together, and we publicize special days and anniversaries. We let people know how much we enjoy it being just the two of us, and we even disagree publicly so people know we are individuals and have our own opinions. It is our opinion that black children need to see and interact with healthy black couples.

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Urban Legends: Rethinking Inner-City Ministry

Chicago skyline,  rSnapshotPhotos / Shutterstock.com
Chicago skyline, rSnapshotPhotos / Shutterstock.com

I used to lead and organize inner-city mission trips. Churches, youth groups, non-profit organizations, and well-intentioned philanthropists would excitedly arrive within the diverse and fast-paced world of Chicago and enthusiastically dive into whatever tasks we gave them. The work they volunteered for made a huge difference in people’s lives, but more importantly, it dramatically challenged — and changed — their own way of thinking about urban ministry.

For years “The City” has been the pet project of Christians throughout America. Billions of mission trips have been made to homeless shelters, food pantries, and poor neighborhoods, all in an effort to “clean up,” “rehabilitate” and “evangelize” in Christ’s name. Unfortunately, the inner-city isn’t as stereotypical as we want it to be, and our missionary zeal can often cause more harm than good.

Here is the most common myth that Christians mistakenly apply to urban areas: The Inner-City is Morally Bankrupt.

When Radical Welcome Gets Messy

Photo: Downtown Portland, DRGill / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Downtown Portland, DRGill / Shutterstock.com

It’s easier to guide the vision and mission of a church you start. It’s another thing to help a 135-year-old congregation reimagine what it means to be a downtown urban church in a world that has changed dramatically all around it. At Milagro, the church we founded in our living room some nine years ago, we set the course for what we wanted that community to look like: a refuge for the spiritual walking wounded, safe haven for questions, doubt, and a culture of mutual encouragement, support, and accountability that would allow people to explore their own relationship with the Divine. We have since set that community free and already, it is becoming something different.

As well it should.

Now we find ourselves at First Christian Church in downtown Portland — a different animal entirely. In some ways, the two communities are very complementary, in that one has what the other tends to lack. But we’ve discerned that, first and foremost, our job is to help cultivate a spirit of radical openness and welcome. But what does this mean, and how do we even begin to change the makeup of an institution that has exited for more than five generations before us?

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that say the most. We had a tradition at Milagro of “mugging” people when they came for the first time. This meant one of our hospitality stewards (AKA, “muggers”) would approach them and give them a coffee mug filled with candy and some information about the church. With First Christian, however, most people know we’re here; the bigger question lingering in the public mind is why.

In this case, instead of a brochure describing programs or institutional history, Amy included the welcome statement that follows, which she borrowed and adapted from a Catholic community.

Mission: Transformed

ON A FLIGHT from New York City to Guatemala some years back, I met a woman from Oklahoma on her way to visit her soon-to-be internationally adopted daughter. “I just found them, the Guatemalan children, on the internet and thought they were so beautiful,” she said. She beamed, her blue eyes, carefully painted lips, and cross earrings all sparkling.

Guatemala’s landscape, where wistful clouds cruise above fertile fields and past rumbling volcanoes, reflects the volatility of the country’s tragic history. That history includes a decades-long civil war, ending in 1996, in which more than 200,000 people were killed, mainly by U.S.-backed government forces. To visit the country is to experience not just that history, but also a culture that pioneered astronomy, devised an intricate written language, and erected engineering miracles. But, asked whether she intended to preserve her adoptive daughter’s ties to her homeland, the woman I met on the plane said, “If she wants to see it, we’ll bring her. But really, there’s nothing there.”

The attitude that “there’s nothing there” is, all too frequently, the attitude of missionaries en route to Guatemala. But when Joel Van Dyke arrived in 2003 from Philadelphia, he suspected there was plenty there—there in the country’s slums and in the cities’ bursting garbage dumps, where thousands of people find sustenance every day. He set out to find what was there by learning to ask the right questions of gang members, slum dwellers, sex workers, and the local faith leaders who work with them. To do this, he told Sojourners, he had to adopt the attitude “let’s go see what God is doing in the world and let that color and shape the theological discourse.”

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Five Questions for Rev. Efrem Smith

Bio: Author of The Hip-Hop Church; Senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis.
Web site: www.sanctuarycov.org

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Sojourners Magazine February 2010
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