Go to the people…
The past 12 months have been a crash course for me on the realities of doing ministry in rural areas and small towns across America…
For example, even though I’ve traveled regularly to Jackson, Mississippi to see my friend John Perkins, it wasn’t until last year that I met with a group of leaders from the Mississippi Delta. We gathered to talk about ways that churches and CCDA ministries could address the growing poverty that has affected this region over the decades. As I took a tour of various communities in the Delta, I was struck by their isolation and their lack of access to basic services or resources like libraries or community centers. I was also impressed with the thought that poverty is no respecter of persons as I observed Whites and Blacks struggling side by side.
A few months later, I traveled to Fort Defiance, Arizona to stay with my friend Mark Charles, who lives on a Navajo Reservation six hours from Phoenix. My views about community development were stretched again as I spent an evening with a Navajo couple on their sheep farm, accessible only by miles of dirt roads. I wondered what it would mean to love my hard-to-access neighbors. I also learned more about the injustices caused by our nation’s treatment of Native Americans, which has rendered the native population almost invisible to their fellow countrymen, and especially to the church. I found myself asking questions like, “How can we repair the damage that our treatment of Native Americans has caused their communities and how can CCDA be a friend to the Native leaders?”
This past summer, I traveled to Prescott, Washington to visit one of our National Conference speakers, Cheryl Broetje. Cheryl and her husband, Ralph, operate the largest family owned apple orchard in the world. In eastern Washington, close to Walla Walla, the Broetjes live and work with over a thousand men and women (of mostly Mexican descent) and have created a unique model of Christian Community Development (CCD) that leverages business enterprise. Through this CCD business model, they have birthed a nonprofit school for extremely at-risk students, and funded agriculturally-based development efforts around the world, employing many of their own apple farmers as the teachers and consultants. Imagine my total amazement, as I saw all of these incredible ministries flourishing—not in a huge urban center—but amidst hundreds of miles of rolling hills and apple trees!
And then there’s my most recent episode. Earlier this month, I spent three days in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, teaching Church-Based CCD and Empowerment with Mary Nelson. The day before our class began, one of our very own committed CCDA leaders, Tim Olsen, took me on a 50-mile road trip to Worthington, Minnesota, a small town of about 10,000 residents. But I was not prepared for what was in store. While I fully expected to see a mostly White middle America, what I encountered instead was a community where over 50 languages are spoken, and where immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America mix with former farmers of German and Swedish descent. The community they have forged is no less diverse than more popular but distant urban centers like Chicago or Los Angeles! In one small elementary school we visited, Native Americans, Latinos from various countries, Africans and a few African-Americans were all learning Spanish together in one classroom. I was quick to point out that in Chicago, this kind of diversity in one school was extremely rare. We may have representatives of many nations in our 77 neighborhoods, but we are mostly segregated by class and race. Here, everyone was together.
As I drove back to Sioux Falls, I knew I had to rethink my preparation for class the next day. How could I contextualize the principle of Church-Based CCD for folks who see and experience church in an entirely different way? I felt very aware of my “urban-ness” and my total lack of understanding for the needs of our small town and rural communities. While I could see the connection and commonality of issues and needs, I was more aware of the vast gap that marked our worlds and our realities.
Even though I still have much to learn about the needs of these communities, I have emerged from the last year of rural encounters with an expanded vision and heart for the needs of the poor in nonurban settings. I have new faces, names and stories to draw into the CCDA family. I have a deeper commitment to making sure that CCDA fully embraces our rural roots, and learns how to provide resources and opportunities for rural and small city leaders to help educate and inform us about their own unique needs and challenges.
Throughout our world’s ghettos and barrios, cities and rural counties; in urban centers and border towns plagued by violence and despair, we have an opportunity and a mandate to call the church to involvement, to love, to engagement, and to partnership that will result in changed lives and transformed communities for the glory of God.
Noel Castellanos is CEO of CCDA.