Noel 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 he currently serves as chief executive officer of CCDA.
Noel is a highly sought after speaker, motivator and mentor to young leaders throughout the United States and has a deep passion to serve and invest in the lives of leaders committed to serving the poor. He and his wife, Marianne, have three children, and they make their home in the barrio of La Villita in Chicago.
How does Christian community development differ from secular community development?
Community development focuses on transforming the physical environment of a neighborhood as its primary goal. Christian Community Development is also committed to that process. However, it begins with the premise that not only the neighborhood, but also the people that live in it are important to God and deserve to live in a healthy, flourishing community.
What can churches do to help every child in the community get a fair start in life, and a good education?
Historically churches have started Sunday school programs to supplement the educational needs of children. Today it may mean that every church makes a commitment to adopt a local school, and have not only a goal to help the families and kids to come to know Jesus, but also the goal of helping them achieve academic excellence.
There are many ministries that churches can focus on — evangelism, discipleship, children’s programs, overseas missions. The list is long. With all these things, why should churches focus on community development, inequality and injustice?
The only reason that a church would make these things a priority is because they see in Scripture that justice and loving the poor are at the center of God’s concern. It’s our theology that drives us to focus our ministry on the margins. Caring for the poor and dealing with injustice are rooted in God’s word, and as such, the church has no option but to engage in these areas.
What should be the first step for churches that desire to engage more with the needs of their community?
It has to begin with being present in, listening to, and establishing relationships with the residents of the community. Once we do that we can get a better idea of what God is already doing in that community, and how we can partner with his work there.
What advice would you give to suburban churches that are starting to notice their demographics shifting to include more poverty and economic disparity?
First they have to decide if they are serious about reaching out to their new neighbors. If so, they must consider how they will have to adjust to be able to effectively incorporate people into their faith community. An example is a large suburban church on the west side of Chicago that has replaced all their old signs with new signs in both English and Spanish because of the growing Latino community in the neighborhood and their church.
How can urban and suburban partnerships work?
At the heart of our Christian Community Development philosophy is the belief that indigenous leaders are best equipped to solve the problems of their community. In order for partnership to work with a church outside its community, the financially resourced church (often suburban) has to trust that investing in the (urban) ministry and its leadership is the most effective way to engage, rather than trying to dictate from the outside how things ought to work. The relationship must be reciprocal, where both sides give and receive something.
What new Christian Community Development initiatives are you most excited about?
With all the social uprise that is happening around the country related to race and economic inequality, the emergence of business development as an essential element of Christian Community Development has risen to the top of our list of priorities. If a community does not get empowered economically with jobs and businesses, we will always be putting a Band-Aid on people’s ability to live a sustainable life.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.