McCaulley, an associate professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College, delves into race, religion, and poverty in How Far to the Promised Land (Convergent, Sept.).

You write that “the disheveled masses weren’t always noble. We could be as callous as the wealthy.” What did you mean by that?

The book is trying to humanize the people we often dehumanize. When I first started working on it, I read a lot of what I call Horatio Alger stories dipped in chocolate—these stories of Black people who go from poverty to success and then it becomes a question of how they overcame it. It’s kind of like the Hunger Games—because the Hunger Games allows people to think that if one person makes it in the system, the system isn’t broken. I really wanted to write a story with people who aren’t simply plot points in the hero’s narrative. So when I said “the disheveled masses” aren’t always noble, I was saying that yes, the poor are poor for societal and cultural and political reasons, but we also are moral agents who make our own decisions.

You also make the point that it’s important to find beauty even in dark places.

People see the beauty in my story, potentially because I grew up in one place and I ended up in another place. But how do I tell the story of my childhood without casting the entire thing as a wash or a write-off? In order to do that, I had to try to tell the story of the joy that was there. In the book, I describe a basketball game I played with a bunch of drug dealers. And that was a genuinely happy moment, but I also knew that those same drug dealers were destroying our community. It was a question of talking about that complexity, and how both joy and difficulty can arise from the same place.

How does your faith figure into the narrative?

My Christian faith has been one of the means by which I survive all of the things that America does to Black people. That’s the tricky part. Black boys in the South don’t always get to tell their stories, the things that we’ve seen on our journeys, and the role that God plays in all of it. We either get boxed into religious memoirs, or it’s a memoir about race politics in America. But what’s important to me is that I’m not just one of those things, but all of those things. Poverty’s a part of the story. Race is a part of the story. Religion is part of the story. I really hope that readers will allow a human life to be as complex as it is. People ask you to sum up a book, but how do you sum up a life?