Where the Cross Meets the Street

Where the Cross Meets the Street: What happens in the neighbourhood when God is at the centre.
By Noel Castellanos
Reviewed by Darren Cronshaw
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015. 182 pp)

It is one thing to espouse a holistic theology of mission, but another thing to practice it in churches and urban ministries. Where is community engagement motivated by love for God and people happening at its best? What is good practice in empowering people out of a cycle of poverty, beyond mere handouts that cultivate dependency?

With these questions, I have been eager to learn from the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and the principles Dr John Perkins and his collaborators have developed. CCDA begin with relocation, reconciliation and redistribution, and are committed to developing and empowering local leaders and responding to local needs, and keeping programs church-based.

Noel Castellanos is a Latino-American youth worker, pastor and church planter and now CEO of CCDA. In his autobiographical Where the Cross Meets the Street, he narrates his conversion to Christ and his conversion to the poor and ministry on the margins, beginning with serving Laotian refugees in Washington, and developed with Young Life, CityTeam Ministries, La Villita Community Church and in broader training and advocacy with CCDA.

Castellanos’ foundational paradigm is that the cross is not simply a “bridge to God” but an incarnational framework that broadens ministry beyond evangelism and discipleship to embrace compassion, restoration and advocacy for justice:

“One the scandalous cross of Golgotha, our Galilean saviour … not only sets us free from the penalty of death but also from a life of hatred, envy, racism and indifference to the suffering of others. He sets us free to become champions of justicia (justice) in our broken world. Having received such a great salvation, we can no longer be content to perpetuate or preach a one-dimensional gospel that is only concerned about securing people’s immigration status in heaven as redeemed citizens of the kingdom. Now, we go into the world as agents of the kingdom of God.” (p.74)

The book offers examples of holistic mission, grounded in engagement with biblical inspiration and Christian Community Development principles and especially the “moving into the neighbourhood” of the incarnation:

“There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the deep issues of poverty and racial injustice in our neighbourhoods. There is no way to offer real hope without entering into the pain of our communities. Working from the outside rarely brings lasting change and today, more than ever, we need to embrace an incarnational approach to relating to the poor.” (p.163)

Castellanos offers lessons in local contextual theology and appreciation for what he has learned from seminal authors such as John Perkins, Orlando Costas, Virginio Elizondo and Gustavo Gutiérez. He outlines a biblical vision for fostering wellbeing in cities, inspired by the city restoration work of Nehemiah and his need for partnership with the Ezra’s priestly function.

I appreciated reading about the sources of Castellanos’ philosophy of community development in his Latino heritage and the strengths that brought his leadership. His educational and ministry journey included overcoming challenges of expectations, lack of role models, language and educational access. Key parts of his ministry have included championing leaders indigenous to their local area, and advocating for reform around immigration, mass incarceration and education – including attentiveness to cultural discrimination. In grappling with intercultural tensions of urban mission, it is imperative to listen to prophetic voices of different cultures.

Where the Cross Meets the Street is a thoughtful and imagination-grabbing memoir. But it is also a useful introduction to the theology and practice of community development that deserves to be in the hands of every urban mission student and practitioner to encourage them in best practice and perseverance.

This review was originally published in Mission Studies 34 (2017), 141-142.