“Gustavo Gutierrez’s provocative words rang in our ears: ‘You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?’
– Subversive Jesus
Craig Greenfield is a man who has made a lot of remarkable decisions. A living embodiment of Jesus’ instruction to practice table fellowship with the poor, Greenfield has dedicated much of his adult life to caring for and empowering children, especially orphans of AIDS and systemic injustice. Greenfield decided to spend six years living in the slums of Cambodia, and then when he needed a break from having his family’s home demolished repeatedly by the Cambodian government, decided to spend six years practising fearless community in the infamous “drug ghetto” of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Along the way Greenfield became the leader of Servants, an international fellowship of people dedicated to living in community with people in some of the world’s toughest places. Greenfield then went on to found Alongsiders International, an organisation which follows that mandate according to his own vision. More recently he wrote a bestselling book, Subversive Jesus; and has become a social media presence as a loving critic of mainstream charities. On Mayday 2016 I sat down at a Tim Horton’s, Canada’s iconic working class coffee shop, in East Vancouver, to talk with Greenfield.
The Tim Hortons on Commercial Dr is cramped, plastic, and opens into a mall. Inside Craig Greenfield was doing what he does, bringing life regardless of surroundings. I found Craig seated at a table with a friend, John Baird. John had tattoos on his face and hands, and his warm brown eyes paid close attention from under his scraggly grey hair. He was wearing a neck brace from a recent bicycle accident. John is a resident of the downtown eastside who became a member of the Servants community Greenfield co-founded in Vancouver more than a decade ago. “When Craig was here”, Baird said, “Craig and his wife, three days a week I went to the community for dinner there. We would sing songs just before dinner. It was the best time of my life, the best time ever.”
John stayed to join in the conversation, complementing it with his thoughtful presence. Craig looked like a friendly pirate, with goatee, broad, open face, and sunglasses perched on his greying hipster mohawk. In fact, Greenfield spent a few rare moments in the spotlight in Vancouver for his Pirates of Justice flash mobs where protesters decked out like swashbucklers shone a light on slavery-like working conditions on the cruise ships that pull into the city. Greenfield played Jack Sparrow to a tee, and you could see it wasn’t that much of a stretch.
Craig’s new book is doing well, #1 in it’s category on Amazon. “It’s been a really positive response. I’ve been waiting for the pushback.” He laughs, and adds, “There was a line in one of the reviews that I loved, ‘Greenfield veers into leftist economics at times, but we can forgive him that’.” Craig points out that John is in the book too.
“Without Craig and his wife Nay I wouldn’t be here today”, says John. “I wouldn’t have lived.”
Greenfield’s work in Cambodia, which continues today, centres on empowering Cambodian youth to walk alongside younger children, forming mentoring relationships and offering love in a way that saves lives and changes futures. “The children’s needs are so great”, says Greenfield. “Half of their mothers are sex workers. They are thrilled just by the sight of a piece of bread. They will fight over slices of cucumber.”
Craig sees the root causes of poverty in Cambodia and Vancouver as both similar and different. “There is systemic injustice in both countries and poverty that flows out of that. The details are different- war there, the residential schools here (where the government attempted to forcefully integrate Indigenous children). The similarity is that poverty flows out of multiple generations of systemic injustice.”
Greenfield is critical of institutional charities. Echoing the sentiments of activists like Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Workers Movement) and Gustavo Gutierrez (Peruvian liberation theologian), Greenfield argues that instead of advocating for justice, a lot of charity work stops at taking care of the victims of injustice. “I critique it because I want us to go further”, he says, “It’s done with a good heart and I don’t want to discourage people, I want them to think deeper and more structurally. What transforms lives is mutual relationship, not just hand-outs.”
I pointed out that a friend of mine who works at an institutional charity had said something almost identical to me. “Well, I still have to critique those institutional charities, because they may say that, but within their policies the relationships they can have with people are limited. I believe we need to invite people into our homes. People long for change, people have a sense that they want to do things differently. But systems are there to stop us and set us up as benefactors and beneficiaries.”
Living in community with the poor, instead of hiring other people to be charitable for us, is at the heart of Greenfield’s mission. The scriptural heart of Greenfield’s vision is Luke 14:12, which reads: When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. “It’s so funny”, says Greenfield, “because, how clear is that passage? People don’t even try to reframe it or interpret it so it says something else, because they can’t. No one applies it!“
Craig frequently mentions a Cambodian proverb at the heart of Alongsiders:, “It takes a spider to repair its own web.” The vision at the heart of Alongsiders could be summed up as the intersection of Luke 14:12 and this Cambodian wisdom: it is about empowering others through fellowship, not practising charity toward them.
Greenfield says that he grew up with a domesticated image of Jesus. In his teenage years, he rebelled against that, walking away from the faith for years. His parents, though, practised radical hospitality and lived in “a very radical way”. Greenfield seems to have imbibed his parent’s way of life while rejecting the “Jesus meek and mild” of the conservative Church he grew up in. Greenfield prefers the Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.
Despite Greenfield’s passion for his own mission, he is not calling all people to imitate what he has done. “There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book”, he writes in Subversive Jesus. His advice for those inspired by his message is simple: community. “Wherever you are, find ways to bring people together. This is my advice: live together more.”