Craig Greenfield knows a thing or two about kids and downward mobility. He recently shared this video with me via twitter and it made me sob my ever-loving guts out. We find ourselves in a similar situation to Craig and his family–surrounded by a shocking amount of single people, most of them mired in both economic and relational poverty. Watching this video was a transforming experience–within a moment, I saw how I had been missing all the blessings that were right in front of my eyes. Two days after I saw this video, a neighbor asked my husband if he could come over for dinner. “You guys are the only family I know,” he said, and he offered to bring over some shrimp. God’s party is so good, I can’t even handle it.
Do me a solid and stop what you are doing for the next 20 minutes. Watch this video, and be amazed at the beauty of mutuality and vulnerability, of the spaces made available for everyone to come to the table. And then read Craig’s words, born out of both experience and passion, but which are written out of a true spirit of joy. He writes like he forgot how to grow up, which makes his view of Jesus that much clearer.
Taking a child, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
My daughter is a princess and my son is a prince. They dare to walk where the wild things are. Where police and upright citizens and people with nice shoes fear to tread.
Prince Jay, nine years old, carries a scepter – the fallen limb of a tree that still sprouts green. Princess Micky, seven and a half, is a big girl now. She wears a crown made of purple cardboard, stapled into a circle and thrust upon her knotty hair.
The Prince and Princess parade down the street, each in proud possession of one of daddy’s hands. They are almost oblivious to their subjects, the street vendors and addicts of East Hastings Street. The children hold court with tales of tomorrow’s spelling test and their class photo shoot.
Their subjects huddle in doorways and hunch in shop-fronts. They search in vain for a healthy vein. They crouch in corners and solicit the scorners. Crack, Rock, Up, Down, T3s and Oxy – whatever you need. Whatever you want.
But something happens as royalty sweeps into view. A scarred woman looks up and smiles. The forgotten princess within her reaches out to the princess passing by.
A harried man turns his head. He straightens up, suddenly more regal, an important announcement to make. The call is made, “Kids on the Block!” It echoes down the street, and town criers take up the call, “Kids on the Block!”
Needles are hidden and crack pipes are palmed. Deals are forgotten, suppressed till the Prince and Princess pass. A scuffle breaks out and then disperses. For the moment, swearing is banned. Those who dare to transgress the unwritten law of the jungle are scolded: “Shut the fuck up man. Can’t you see there’s KIDS on the block?”
Surely the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. The Prince and Princess of East Hastings Street.
My children have lived all their life in slums and inner cities – from Asian mega cities to the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC. Occasionally people pluck up the courage to verbalize their unspoken thoughts: “Is it a good idea to bring up your kids in some of the world’s worst neighborhoods?”
Some folks suggest that we must be putting our ministry before the welfare of our children. It’s an issue Nay and I have thought long and hard about, examining our motives and grappling with scripture. Of course we love our kids and we want the very best for them. But ultimately, we want them to grow up in a family where God comes first – before comfort, before affluence and even if necessary, before safety.
There was a time in the past when certain missionaries did go too far in exposing their families to danger and suffering. But now I believe we have swung back to the other extreme where for some of us, our children have become idols.
The Israelites faced this same question of allegiance and they used the safety of their children as an excuse not to obey God and enter the Promised land (Numbers 14:3). The result was 40 years in the wrong place (a safer place perhaps, but nevertheless the wrong place) and it was their children who ultimately entered the promised land anyway. But sadly without their parents.
We have learnt that as we trust God with our family we will begin to see him at work, not only in our neighborhoods, but in our own lives and the lives of our children. So here are just three of the many ways we have seen our kids blessed from living in impoverished neighborhoods:
They are learning that God loves the people at the bottom of the heap.
I remember the day I met Leanne* shivering and homeless outside our church and she ended up staying with us for a while. I had to smile when, not long after she walked through our door, the kids climbed onto her lap and thrust a book into her weary face, “Can you read us a book Leanne?” You could almost see the healing taking place right before our eyes as Leanne was treated like a normal person for the first time in ages. My children treat everyone who comes into our home with the same mixture of childish impertinence and feistiness, whether they are dirty and homeless or cultured and well off (James 2:2-5).
A friend who struggled with mental illness once told me, “Never forget: everybody matters. Everybody matters, not just some people.” And I have tried to pass this beautiful piece of wisdom on to my kids, because it’s at the heart of what the Kingdom of God is all about. We try to show them by example that Jesus preached an upside-down kingdom where people others write off as worthless, have great value.
They are learning the real effects of drugs and alcohol.
“Why is that man lying on the ground shaking like that Daddy?” my son asked me one day. I told him the truth about the poisons that had ravaged that man’s body and mind. We don’t bother to hide most of the realities of this sad place from them. Instead we see them as a helpful life lesson.
So, rather than growing up watching the subtle endorsement of drug and alcohol abuse by celebrities on TV, my kids are learning about the real effects of drugs from our friends on the streets here, whose lives are being ravaged by drugs before our eyes. As a consequence, they harbor no illusions that drugs are fun or safe to use. Not quite the message you get growing up on a steady diet of celebrity “heroes” Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan and their jaunts in and out of prison and rehab.
They are learning that the poor have something to offer.
One day a homeless woman rushed up to me as I pushed my daughter in her stroller. “These are for your daughter,” she grinned and thrust a pair of slightly used sandals into my hands. “Sank yoooou,” my then two-year old smiled up at her. My kids are growing up seeing that people marginalized by society have something beautiful to offer in God’s kingdom. They see everyone pitching in to make a community meal, they see our friend who has been on and off the street fixing our car or installing lights or working on a building project with us. They see them for who they are – not recipients of charity, but friends and family with gifts and passions and faults and struggles.
Jesus brought our attention time and time again to the poorest folks who gave so much. To Jesus they were not beneficiaries or clients. He went out of his way to make certain that we would take notice of the widow and her two mites, the prostituted woman with her bottle of perfume and the little boy with his fish sandwiches. These poor folks are stars in the gospels, examples of people of faith and generosity. Living here, we have plenty of opportunity to teach our kids those same lessons, rather than reinforce the idea that we, the rich, have everything together.
There are more blessings too numerous to mention, as well as new and different challenges. Our dream is that our kids will grow up to love and serve this Jesus who loved the poor and the marginalized.
We hope they will learn that life is not all about comfort and success as portrayed by the media. But rather about significance and love. They are surrounded by people who love and watch out for them, including other members of our missional community and neighbors who struggle with poverty and other challenges, but still find it within themselves to care for our kids.
And for any child, there could be no better place to grow up than in the midst of love.
Craig Greenfield is the founder of Alongsiders International – a movement to reach the developing world’s most vulnerable children (www.facebook.com/alongsiders and www.alongsiders.org). He is the author of The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor and he was a part of establishing the Servants Vancouver intentional community in inner city Vancouver, BC. Craig and his family are currently in a Cambodian slum in Phnom Penh (where they previously lived for 6 years). You can find Craig on twitter here.
For more information on the Downward Mobility series, click here.
For the rest of the posts in the series, click here.