BOOK REVIEW: Where the Cross Meets the Street

Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, recently wrote a book entitled Where the Cross Meets the Street: What Happens to the Neighborhood When God is at the Center. You should get it, read it, and share it with those with whom you work.

On a very cold day in Chicago, Noel took a break from his training walk for an upcoming pilgrimage to talk to me about his book and share his thoughts about how people like us can detoxify charity. First, a quick overview of the book, and then a few reflections on it's implications for Charity Detox.


Much like John Perkins's Quiet Revolutionwhich was highly influential in Noel's journey, Where the Cross Meets the Street is a memoir-like introduction to CCDA ministry. The book contextualizes the theology and practices of the CCDA in the pain and joy of his own story and the story of his barrio. Noel expressed to me that one of the main reasons he wrote the book was to remind practitioners that there is no "silver bullet." To the contrary, he says, we must engage our under-resourced neighborhoods with a "holistic approach" that is "complex and multi-dimensional." He contends that no one method, no matter how healthy and legitimate in it's own right, is capable of transforming a community. 

Noel's book is structured around the following diagram: 

Noel models well what he calls a Latino approach to theology because it integrates personal narrative, theological reflection, and contextualized practice. The book begins with Noel's story growing up in a nominally Catholic, immigrant family in Texas. This lays the foundation for his calling not only to a deep, personal faith but into ministry. From there he seamlessly weaves together stories about his own life, discussions of CCDA philosophy, and compelling narratives about La Villita, or Little Village, the barrio in Chicago where he and his family have lived for 25 years.

Noel's integrative teaching on theology and ministry begins with Incarnation, which refers to moving into the neighborhood among the people society has placed on the margins. Incarnation is what he considers the "linchpin to all effective ministry." He then gives one chapter each to the four other parts of the diagram: Proclamation and Formation, Demonstration of Compassion, Restoration and Development, and Confrontation of Injustice. 


I recommend this book whether you have never heard of CCDA, are brand new to it, or have been implementing its philosophies for years. It offers a healthy and honest critique of the primarily white, Westernized theology that has undergirded toxic approaches to charity and mission for years. Where the Cross Meets the Street has many implications for the process of detoxifying charity. Here are but a few:


Detoxifying one’s work may not be about strategy as much as it is about relationship.
— Charity Detox

I asked Noel why moving into the neighborhood is not just important but vital to the work of transformation. He spoke of the value of knowing people by name and being immersed in their stories over the course of many years. This alters the way one understands and responds to presenting needs. Charity, benevolence, or what Noel languages as "Demonstrations of Compassion" are often toxic because they suffer from a proximity disorder. If we are not rooted in people's lives and in the contexts in which they live, then we are always going to be limited in how we understand the path ahead. The way we label the problems, define solutions, and build strategies will miss the critical elements that only the long, hard, and quotidian work of neighboring can reveal. Noel's life and his book model the transformative power of knowing and being known as a neighbor rather than a service provider. Proximity allows us to be able to treat crises like crises and chronic issues like chronic issues. Detoxifying one's work may not be about strategy as much as it is about relationship.


One of Noel's most important critiques concerns how a truncated Gospel leads to unhealthy ministry. For example, he says that when "everything else is seen as a hook for proclamation" it reveals our underlying assumptions about the nature of the Gospel. His concern is that when one treats acts of charity or efforts to develop a community as bait for evangelism, it sets up toxic relationships and ultimately unhealthy models of engagement. He warns, "people are treated like projects, and no one wants to be someone else's project." Though Noel affirms that Proclamation and Formation as an indispensable aspect of biblical mission, it cannot stand alone or apart from the other elements. The same rule applies to the other pieces of the diagram. Therefore, the path toward responsible charity is not just about critically examining our programs. Detoxification requires us to look carefully at some of the biblical metaphors that define our work and see if their are other texts, images, passages that invite us into a more robust approach. EVERYONE needs to regularly recalibrate their theology with a vision of a Jesus on the margins who preached and healed, who compassionately fed the hungry and prophetically confronted the systems of power. 


Do what you are called to do, but do it with the recognition that your approach is not all that is needed.
— Noel Castellanos

Since responsible and transformative work in a community requires this holistic approach, I asked Noel what advice he would have for people who look at all these parts and wonder how in the world they can focus on something so big and complex. This is why, Noel affirms, that "collaboration is so important," which the stories in his book model really well. He reminds us that "there is no one person or church who can do it all well." Therefore, Noel advises, we have to develop relationships with people who can help us to mature in those where we struggle or lack experience. He shares about his own passion having been centered on Restoration and Development over the years and the importance of joining with others in recent years to do immigration reform advocacy. Noel's corrective to our one-dimensional tendencies is to "do what you are called to do, but do it with the recognition that your approach is not all that is needed." Detoxifying means knowing your strengths and developing partnerships with people, churches, and organizations that can help you participate in God's work in more holistic ways.


One of the great quotes from the book is when Noel writes, "When demonstrations of compassion reach their limits, you have to move toward development for people to find real freedom." I asked him to talk about how practitioners can know when they have reached those limits and what to do about it. He shared at length about the need to be honest with yourself if people in your ministries are simply becoming dependent or if they are being empowered to move forward. Noel challenges us to remember that we have to have less interest in promoting and sustaining our programs and more interest in seeing people flourish. This, I am learning, is one of the great challenges of detoxification - having the vision to set better objectives and the courage to let those objectives subvert our well-established methods. Noel advises that we place "measuring sticks" around the things that matter like dignity, interdependence, empowerment, and the like.  We have to let go of our affection for the types of things, like the good feeling we get out of giving things to others for free, that do not promote a more redemptive model. Otherwise, Noel warns, we end up with "bad compassion" that perpetuates problems. He says that we have to "be willing to admit where we are wrong and that we have areas to grow in."  Humility and confession, in turns out, are part of the necessary ingredients to start, sustain, and bring to completion the kinds of radical change many charity efforts need to go through. Detoxification is not just the process of transforming models, it is about being willing to be transformed ourselves.


As Noel reflected on the challenging process of changing long-held philosophies of ministry and well-established rules for operation, he offered some wise caution for people beginning that journey. He expressed concern for people who look at large, established organizations, like Lawndale CDC in Chicago or FCS in Atlanta, who are doing community development well. As important as seeing other, more successful models may be, it is easy to get discouraged at how big and successful they seem to be and how small and unsuccessful we feel. He reminds us that they were all small at one time, and they grew at the only pace that healthy things can grow - slowly! Detoxifying charity means we are committed for the long haul. Although it will come in slow and in small - painfully small - increments, change will come.


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Noel Castellanos has worked in full-time ministry in Latino, urban communities since 1982. He has served in youth ministry, church planting, advocacy and community development in San Francisco, San Jose, and Chicago. After serving on the Board of the Christian Community Development Association for many years, he established the CCDA Institute, which equips emerging church leaders in the philosophy of Christian Community Development, and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of CCDA. Noel was appointed to serve on President Obamaʼs Council for Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships, and is a highly sought after speaker, motivator, and mentor to young leaders throughout the USA, and has a deep passion to serve and invest in the lives of leaders committed to serving the poor. Along with Where the Cross Meets the Street, Noel is the co-author of A Heart for the Community, New Models for Urban and Suburban Ministry, and has contributed to various other books and publications, including Deep Justice in a Broken World, A Heart for the City, and Crazy Enough to Care (see below). He and his wife, Marianne, have three children; Noel Luis, Stefan, and Anna, and make their home in the barrio of La Villita in Chicago.

Posted on March 2, 2015 .