Joseph L. Castleberry grew up in the segregated South during the civil rights movement. During his childhood, an equal number of Blacks and whites comprised the 7,651 residents of his hometown of Demopolis, Alabama. Federal officials sent representatives to the town to ensure enforcement of the Voting Rights Act passed by the Congress in 1965.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 had outlawed racially separated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, de facto division between African Americans and white locals continued in Demopolis until 1969, when Castleberry was 9 years old. Federally mandated busing involved the practice of integrating schools by transporting students outside their neighborhoods.
His parents decided to drive him 1½ miles to and from school every weekday rather than risk potential violence on a bus.
On the school playground one day, two larger white classmates pummeled Castleberry in a fight. A Black kid named Eugene intervened, stopped the fisticuffs, and defended the smaller white boy. The pair became fast friends, and at the end of the school day, they left the grounds with their arms around each other.
Castleberry’s father, Jack, didn’t believe what he saw. Jack, a paper mill worker, cautioned his son not to play with African American boys because they would hurt him. But Joseph knew differently: Eugene had put himself at risk to help him.
“For the first time in my life, I knew my dad was wrong,” says Castleberry, 61. “That was the first crack in my heart of overcoming racial prejudice. Many white people in our Alabama community at the time believed they were superior to Black people.”
Even earlier, at the age of 5, Castleberry had determined he would enter one of two careers: pastor or comedian. He admired how those engaged in both professions influenced others with their words.
Castleberry indeed sensed a calling to ministry at 12 and went on an Assemblies of God Ambassadors in Mission youth ministry trip to Honduras four years later. A 20-year career as an AG world missionary to El Salvador, Ecuador, and as a Latin America educator eventually resulted.
Along the way, Castleberry earned a bachelor’s degree from the AG’s Evangel University, a master’s from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a doctorate from Columbia University.
“The best education I ever received was at Evangel,” Castleberry says referring to the school in Springfield, Missouri. “It was an incredibly formative time intellectually and spiritually.”
For the past 14 years, Castleberry has been president of the AG’s Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. Before his election as president, Castleberry served as Assemblies of God Theological Seminary academic dean. He is the fourth generation of his family to belong to the AG.
As a newly credentialed AG minister in 1985, Castleberry resonated with the Mission America program adopted by the Fellowship a year earlier.
“It really established the Assemblies of God as an inclusive church that evangelized people from different racial and ethnic groups,” Castleberry recalls. “The Assemblies of God missiology for a more inclusive church flowed out of our historic priority of reaching the lost no matter where they are found, no matter what it may cost.”
The two decades spent ministering in Latin America only heightened Castleberry’s appreciation for those who didn’t look like him.
“The reality is, immigrants have made a tremendously positive impact on the United States,” Castleberry says. “God is the One sending so many immigrants to our country.”
He expounded on that belief in his 2015 book, The New Pilgrims: How Immigrants Are Renewing America’s Faith and Values. He notes that the great majority of immigrants in recent years have been Christians, and their robust spiritual outlook is responsible for driving church planting efforts across multiple denominations.
Castleberry’s concern for others prompted him to ask the Northwest University board of directors to adopt an official statement of mourning that he wrote after the death of Ahmaud Arbery. The 25-year-old Black man was fatally shot in February 2020 while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. Three white men have been charged with felony murder. A trial is set for February 2022.
Hundreds of people nationwide signed the document published by the school. Subsequently, Scott Dudley, senior pastor of the influential Bellevue Presbyterian Church, received Castleberry’s permission to broaden the statement into a letter of lament and repentance. In all, 192 white evangelical ministers from the area, including Castleberry, signed the statement, printed in the Seattle Times and elsewhere, expressing grief over Arbery’s death and their commitment to not remain silent following future episodes of racial injustice and hate.
Five days later, African American George Floyd died in Minneapolis when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over 9 minutes. Castleberry attended Floyd’s memorial service, held at the AG’s North Central University.
LOCAL UNITY EFFORTS
Since then, Castleberry has been part of Next Steps, a group of Seattle-area ministers working to bring about unity in the body of Christ across ethnic lines. The group meets biweekly in an effort to build relationships — based on the gospel, not secular ideologies.
Castleberry earlier recruited two African Americans, James D. Croone Sr. and Rowlanda Cawthon, to teach at Northwest University.
Croone met Castleberry six years ago, after the Seattle Urban Bible College he founded closed due to a lack of financial resources. Castleberry, impressed with Croone’s passion for ministry, offered him a presidential scholarship to Northwest University. Croone received a master’s degree in theology and culture in 2013.
The two have been friends since then, and collaborators on various efforts to bring about understanding between races.
“Dr. Castleberry has a genuine heart for reconciliation,” says Croone, who also pastors Risen Church, an AG congregation in Seattle. “As busy as he is, if there is something to do with unity and reconciliation, he’s there.”
Croone, the only African American church planter in the Northwest Ministry Network, says Castleberry is a good sounding board for theological ideas. While he considers Castleberry a mentor, Croone appreciates that the college president respects his input and seeks his advice. Croone, 56, is an adjunct professor at Northwest, teaching courses on New Testament history and literature as well as faith in society.
Lately, the two have been brainstorming on ways to bring more diversity to AG churches in the region.
“Dr. Castleberry does things from a standpoint of really caring about the situation,” says Croone, who also serves as northwest regional director of the AG’s National Black Fellowship. “He’s easy to gravitate to because he’s so down to earth.”
“I want to help people get past racism,” says Castleberry, who retains more than a trace of his Alabama accent. “It’s a curse on our lives to believe we are superior to anyone of another race.”
Castleberry’s father embraced change before he died in 2004. Jack Castleberry ended up pastoring a church in Sumter, South Carolina, that had more Black than white adherents.