Craig Greenfield moved his family to a Cambodian slum. But don’t call him a missionary
From living in open community with drug addicts to raising his family in a Cambodian slum, Craig Greenfield has spent decades living in some of the poorest places on earth. It has caused him to wrestle with weighty issues around money, mission and multiculturalism
Craig Greenfield has spent most of his adult life between the slums of Cambodia and Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside – the latter was once described by a Canadian newspaper as “four blocks of hell”.
The New Zealand-born social entrepreneur (he prefers the term to ‘missionary’) didn’t do it alone; his wife and two small children came along for the ride. It takes a certain type of person to make their home among some of the most disadvantaged people in the world, but to do it with your young family? Is that God, or insanity?
The 49-year-old has previously written about his experience of living and raising a family in places that many would fear to tread. Now, having served cross culturally for more than two decades, he is reflecting on the changing landscape of overseas mission, and how we share our faith with others.
A third-generation missionary kid, Greenfield’s experience is very different to that of his parents and grandparents. For all the amazing work that generations of missionaries may have done, there is also growing unease about past practices. Greenfield is aware of negative perceptions around “pith helmet-wearing colonialists – forcing their culture and religion on people who don’t want it”.
Despite his discomfort with the term ‘missionary’, Greenfield’s own faith is, largely, a result of his parents’ missionary lifestyle. When he rebelled against faith as a teenager, it was his parents’ example of radical hospitality that drew him back. “I realised there’s no way to do this halfheartedly. You’re either following Jesus with all your life – or you forget about it.” Eventually, aged 21, a radical encounter with Christ turned his life around. Soon after, he set off for Cambodia.
Since then, he has been advocating for empowering local leaders. This means eschewing both white saviourism and strategies that are predicated on throwing money at the problems. That message may be hard to hear, and its not without complications.
The Bible tells us to be generous and share with those in need – surely giving money to projects in the developing world should be encouraged, not frowned upon? Yes, he concedes, but money and power are dangerous companions, and we must be on our guard against the latter corrupting the former.
After seven years working in Cambodia, you moved to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with your family. Can you describe what that was like?
If you’ve never been, it’s quite hard to imagine: people openly doing drugs, smoking crack, shooting up, dealing, prostitution – all out on the streets. It’s absolute carnage. These are the people who are pushed to the margins, who have fallen through every structure that society sets up.
Very soon after we arrived, me and a friend spent a bit of time living as homeless men in Downtown Eastside. There’s no lack of food – there’s soup kitchens, homeless shelters – but there is absolutely no sense of social connection or community. People just ignore you; it’s like you don’t exist. There are no children or families; nobody would live in that neighbourhood except those who are forced to.
IN GOD’S KINGDOM MONEY AND POWER ARE NOT CENTRAL
So if that’s the bad news, perhaps the good news looks like the radical welcome of Jesus into family and community. And that’s what we set out to do – to set up a Christian community who would welcome those who are not welcome in Canadian society. Our motto was: cook too much food, invite too many people. Five nights a week, we would open up our home for dinner. Sometimes there were 40–45 people there. It was an incredible time.
For most people, that would seem scary and exhausting. How did you deal with that?
When we see poor people, we think they’re dangerous because we fear what we don’t know. There’s a very tiny number of genuinely dangerous people. Actually, in Downtown Eastside, fear was never really a part of it, but exhaustion certainly was – and the intensity and spiritual darkness. For an introvert like me, being in a very relationally orientated environment was tiring.
It wasn’t just an absolute free-for-all 24/7, though. We would shut the door, have times of community prayer and alone times. You maintain some boundaries and exclusivity so that at other times you can be very inclusive. But it was an intense atmosphere. People were sleeping on our balcony, in our front yard, on our couch.
How did your children cope?
I think they actually changed the dynamic in a really positive way. It encouraged people to not swear. I mean, they did – but they tried not to!
Our kids are 17 and 19 now, but they were two and three when we arrived. They never knew any different. They’ve grown up with a very strong sense of justice and a very interesting perspective on the world!
How did your time in Vancouver come to an end?
At the end of seven years in Vancouver, I was diagnosed with cancer. I cried out to God and said: “Lord, I’ve served the poor and the fatherless most of my adult life, are my own children now going to be fatherless?”
God didn’t answer me, but I felt like he was asking me a question: “If you only had five years left, what would you do with it?” In Downtown Eastside, there are very few children. But most of the adults are there because of what happened to them as children. If I only had five years left, I wanted to work with vulnerable children.
We had started something in Cambodia that was bearing a lot of fruit, and that’s what we sensed God was pointing us towards. While we were in Cambodia in the early 2000s, we’d seen communities devastated by AIDS. Children were being abandoned, but we sensed that the answer was not in orphanages.
As we worked on community-based care for the children, we recognised that they had emotional and social needs that their extended families were not able to meet. We thought: We’ve got all these young Christians in the church. What if each one took on one of these kids, like a big brother or sister?
So we started to train and equip young Christians to walk alongside those who walk alone, to disciple, love and encourage one child each. The movement began to spread, and it was in the hands of Cambodian leaders by the time we left for Vancouver. But as I dealt with the cancer, I sensed God saying: “This is not just for Cambodia, this is for the children of the world.” So we moved back to Cambodia and launched Alongsiders International.
Alongsiders is now in 25 countries and has nearly 20,000 children and young people. My role is to nurture it in a way that gives local leaders real ownership. It’s not to create some kind of charismatic leader figure that people think is central; my goal is that most people have no idea who Craig is. I’m in the background, helping to figure out: How do we scale up? How do we fill in the gaps that arise as the movement grows?
In your book, Subversive Mission (IVP), you examine the Ephesians 4 ministry gifts (apostle, pastor, evangelist, teacher and prophet) and how they work in a cross-cultural setting. What inspired the book?
The working title of the book was: How not to be a white saviour. But the publisher rejected that! Some people said to me: “If you call it that, I will refuse to read it.” But it gives you a sense of what it’s about.
There’s a lot of paralysis around missionary work. Even the verse: “Go into all the world…” (Mark 16:15) is problematic now because of our colonial history. Let’s look instead at the command to love our neighbour, not just across the street, but across the ocean. People are still called to that but, because of colonialism and the way that things have worked out, even in missions, people don’t know how to serve.
Jim Elliot was martyred in 1956; a missionary who was hailed a hero. In 2017, John Allen Chau was martyred in almost exactly the same way and hailed an absolute fool; a flag bearer for colonialism. That’s how society has changed. So let’s get rid of those words ‘missions’ and ‘missionary’; they have way too much baggage. We need new ways of understanding how we serve in the world.
Obviously, as a white New Zealander in Cambodia, you’re not saying people can’t serve outside of their birth country?
I’m not saying that the idea or the calling doesn’t exist, I’m saying we need new labels.
When we come as outsiders [from wealthier countries] with power, money and resources, our goal is to raise up insiders because they’re the ones who are going to take this forward. If it’s not owned by local people, it’s not going to work. We saw that during Covid-19. Talking to mission agency leaders, my personal observation was that around 80 per cent of missionaries went home and most of their ministries collapsed.
We know that the Bible tells us to be generous and share our resources. But we also don’t want to cause harm by throwing money at a problem. How do we balance that?
Jesus was born in the shadow of the twin pillars of empire: money and power. In missions, when we come to other places, we come yoked with money and power. And that’s where we go wrong.
In Luke 3, after Jesus is born, John the Baptist calls two groups to repentance: the tax collectors and the soldiers. Money and power. And that represents what the upside-down kingdom looks like. It’s a place where money and power are not central.
It’s not that they don’t exist, but we don’t use them to force change. We use the Holy Spirit, and the resources of the community. Those are the things that offer people dignity.
When we bring in outside money, it says: “You can’t solve this. Your only hope is an outsider coming in with money and power.” In contrast, Jesus sends out the disciples two by two [see Mark 6] and says: “Don’t take any money.” When they come back, they’re faced with another huge need: 5,000 hungry people.
Their first response is paralysis: “You’d better send them away, Jesus.” Their second response is money: “Should we take half a year’s wages and buy bread for all these people?” Finally, they see that there are those in the community who have something in their hands; and it’s the most vulnerable: the young, the poor, this little boy with virtually nothing. And that’s when Jesus is able to work miracles.
So does God never answer people’s prayers with financial provision from outside the local area?
I’m not going to say never, but it shouldn’t be our first response. If you’re building a bridge, or there is an emergency, these are situations where outside resources are appropriate.
IF IT’S NOT OWNED BY LOCAL PEOPLE, IT’S NOT GOING TO WORK
But if you plant a church using outside resources, you have told all the people in that church that the next church they plant will also need outside resources. So you’ve created something that will never grow beyond what you’re doing.
Lots of charities in developing countries are embedded in their local communities and have a positive impact, but also raise funds from elsewhere. Is this wrong?
I guess the reason I state this so strongly is because we are so capitalist in our mindset. We need more people who are willing to say: “What if we didn’t use money? Or didn’t use much money, or used money in a very careful, background way [that enabled] the real machine for change [to be] people, relationships and local resources?”
That’s not to undermine the need for redistribution. But we need to find ways to redistribute that are meaningful and just. I’m not in any way speaking out against generosity. We just need wisdom as well.
What would be your message for Christians who are wrestling with this?
God is still calling us to love our brothers and sisters around the world, in ways that are wise and humble.
Don’t allow yourself to be paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong, or being a white saviour. But also don’t be ignorant. There are ways to educate yourself. There are ways to serve that are really beautiful and healthy and that will completely change your life.
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