Open Book With CCDA President Noel Castellanos

Note from the Clinic: 

Recently, Noel Castellanos stepped down as the President of the CCDA after being accused of abuse and manipulation in his leadership position. Although we still believe there is value in the content of this interview and are therefore leaving it intact on our blog, we stand in opposition to the abusive actions perpetrated by Noel. We also admonish those in positions of power at the CCDA who for so long willfully dismissed repeated complaints by those victimized under Noel's leadership, contributing to a toxic and harmful work environment. We stand with the people--largely women--who have suffered and we support them in their pursuit of justice.


1. How did you first come to faith and subsequently get involved with the work of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) in Chicago?

I first came to Christ through a Young Life Ministry that was really designed and came out of a context of white suburban, evangelical Christianity. And it was a little radical because the founders said, “Hey, kids aren’t coming to church anymore. We gotta go to them!” By the time I got involved, I went to a camp where there were 300 kids and maybe only five or six were not white or not from the suburbs. I remember after hearing about Christ, on the way home, I asked my counselor, “Is this thing just for white people?” because I just wasn’t sure. For me, as I began to really grow in my faith, I asked questions about who is included in this opportunity to be impacted by the love of Christ. And so that whole racial dynamic was always interesting to me.

As a result, I felt called to work in poor, urban, Latino communities. I was glad to get a kid to go to camp, like I got to go, but there were a lot of issues in their home and in that neighborhood, and we really weren’t talking about that. Those are the personal experiences that created in me a hunger to figure out if my faith informed this in any way.

At that point, I began to interact with Dr. John Perkins and a number of others that have been a part of CCDA for a long time. And that opened up a whole new world of how to look at the Bible, how to get the power to bring about not just salvation in the afterlife, but also justice in this life.

Everywhere I’ve gone, I see people working together, crossing political divides and CCDA is kind of a good testament to that. But it’s not what makes the news. They’d rather report on a group of folks that are totally on the left or totally on the right. But I believe those [bipartisan groups] are there. In the midst of our troubles in Chicago, that reality has kept people working together. We’re right on the border of the black and Latino community and our two communities—and it’s really fueled by the Christians—are working together in so many ways to address the needs of both communities. That gives me hope that it can happen other places.

2. In your opinion, what is the most important thing currently happening in your field and why is it so important?

The affordability of cities is a huge issue and once you talk about affordability then that means that you have to talk about so many other issues: employment, education, healthcare, safety, etc. And I think the racial divide or strife that we’re feeling in our country today—it’s happening all over America, but in big cities it’s a big question. And you go to the Northwest—cities like Portland and Seattle are so white and wealthy that anybody who is not those things is pushed out.

San Francisco is being transformed by Silicon Valley and the tech industry and I know that there’s a push in Indy to have tech become more prominent—that’s everywhere. But that creates an even wider equity gap in terms of being able to have the means to raise a family in a city. So that has a lot of ramifications for what churches do. Some of the smaller, inner-city churches, how are they going to continue to function? If membership is declining and people aren’t able to live there any more, then what happens to that church? Also, ministries that used to be in a predominantly poor community now are experiencing widespread gentrification; the people they’ve been working with no longer live there. So do they follow that group of folks or stay where they are?

More and more Christians need to take responsibility by just being present to recognize that the disparity isn’t just God’s blessing. There is a lot of injustice that results in that. We need to think about, to really ask the question, what does it mean to be a great city? Or a great community? Does it mean certain people can make the city their playground or is it a place where everyone has an opportunity to participate and to be part of the rising tide of what’s going on economically? Ultimately, are we being advocates for the kingdom of God and its purposes over and above American values? Most often, that’s not going to happen from the context of the rich because they are too enmeshed in the system. It’s going to have to be some kind of voice like the prophets, who were always living on the edge of society. So that prophetic role is one that is not easy, but I think it’s always been a part of the way that God tries to keep the church and his people close to his priorities.

When you realize that Jesus was forced to be a part of a very unfair judgment and just kind of railroaded to death and execution, that’s the experience of the poor in this world.

3. What are some of the most encouraging changes you’ve seen? What are you looking forward to for the future, as well as for your work through the CCDA?

We’re celebrating 30 years of being around and so I think it’s a very reflective time. Probably the biggest shifts have been when I first came to that initial meeting and it was a black and white discussion. Like, how do black and white Christians get along? And how do we work in those African American communities? Since I was one of the only non-white and non-black leaders there, I just stuck around long enough in my role that it’s very diverse now. The discussion goes to every kind of community now, things like gender have become a big issue. CCDA has been places where women have been given the freedom to preach and to teach and many of the best community developers in the country are women. So that’s also been an added dynamic. And then the role of advocacy on behalf of the poor—especially in the evangelical world—has also become much more prominent. We saw it more in the Life Movement—the right to life and abortion—there was an activism in the white church mostly. 

All those things are things that we know have already marked us. Now, it’s not just how do we create more resources to help groups that have adopted our philosophy, but now how do we come alongside to actually help them do it effectively?

4. What resourcesbooks, TED Talks, articles, you recommend to those who are interested in learning more about and engaging with these issues?

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins. Jenkins wrote this book that began to chronicle the fact that the church is really growing and vibrant in the southern part of the world. Not in the West anymore.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.