Being challenged can be, well, challenging. It can be a challenge that helps sharpen where you stand or it can be a challenge that is unfruitful. The Urban Halo by Craig Greenfield provides the former kind of challenge.
This book seeks to challenge Christian believers in two areas. The first is to live incarnational lives among the urban poor. The second is to reevaluate how we do orphan care. These challenges come at a very opportune time for me, as I am about to move to Kampala, the capital and largest city in Uganda. I am moving there after spending time at a children’s center studying for 5 months. So I am the perfect audience for this work.
Greenfield was a well to do New Zealander who gave up his plush job to live in a slum in Cambodia with his wife, Nay. The book tells the story of this journey giving the rationale for his radical move. It also depicts how he came to work with orphans.
The stories told make one lift his eyes to heaven and praise God for His power and His love. The author’s heart to serve Christ was gripping. The story of his wife’s childhood escape from the murderous communist regime in Cambodia was especially moving. There is no doubt the author has striven to serve Christ with his whole life.
Greenfield also writes with an authenticity that identifies with the reader. For example, when he had just moved to a slum in Phnom Penh, he was frustrated with some aspects of life there, and so he wanted to punch anyone who annoyed him. This honesty can only come when you realize Christ is sufficient for you and you do not need to seem perfect to others. Christ’s grace is sufficient. This dependency on Christ’s grace is refreshing and encouraging.
The author’s quest began when the options he saw for ministering to the poor in Cambodia seemed insufficient. The options he saw other missionaries attempting were:
- Ignore the poverty and “preach the gospel of salvation from eternal damnation”
- Combine preaching with ministering to physical needs and creating “rice Christians”
- “Carry out social work. . .without using any words about Jesus”
He wanted a “more integrated spirituality where proclamation and demonstration went hand in hand” (p 12).
These observations led Greenfield and his wife to move into the slum of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He had discovered a ministry, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, which encouraged missionaries to live among the poor. So he joined their work in Cambodia. This decision was also fueled by his view of Jesus’ incarnational ministry. If “Jesus left his privileged position to join us in our human condition, suffering alongside us,” then this would be the model for ministry for believers (p 37). I discuss the validity of his conclusions below.
While serving with Servants he became familiar with its ministry to people with AIDS. He began to realize that the children of those with AIDS would soon be orphans. So he thought he and Nay would start an orphanage. However, as he researched the issue, he found that having an institutional orphanage was not the best model for caring for orphans. His research included numerous studies of the various models for caring for orphans including community based orphan care. Greenfield’s conclusion is that community based orphan care is the best for the child. More on this model below.
So this book offers two challenges. The first is helpful but ultimately falls short. The second is a wake up call to all those working with orphans.
DOES LIVING INCARNATIONALLY MEAN LIVING IN A SLUM?
This is the premise of the author’s first challenge. Certainly Jesus’ ministry was by definition incarnational. Jesus did leave a position of privilege and came to live in a low estate. However, does this reality merely describe Jesus’ ministry or does it prescribe how believers are also to minister.
Greenfield asks this very question. He answers that, in fact, it does prescribe our ministry methods (p 37-38). He believes his living in a slum was “modeling a kingdom way of life that values the poor and underprivileged” and his prayer was others to follow him live like he did (p 53). The author admits to having to repent for feeling superior to other missionaries not living in a slum (p 42). If he is just presenting one model for believers then that is one thing. However, he wants others to follow his example which he bases on Jesus’ example. So this book serves as his challenge to most if not all believers.
But just what does incarnational mean? Does it mean that you must find a poor area and live there like those there live? I think it does not for 3 reasons:
1. The criteria are arbitrary
It is one thing to say you should live among the poor. I agree with the author that to ignore them would be sinful. But how does one decide who are the poor and who are the not poor. Where is the line drawn and who draws it there? For example, why does the author not live as the homeless do? They are surely poorer Cambodians than those that lived in shacks near him in Cambodia. If Jesus’ ministry is a literal prescription then believers should also live without homes just as Jesus did (Matthew 8:20).
2. The Bible’s view is for the rich and poor to live and serve together, not for all to become poor
Had it not been for rich and poor divides we would not have one of the two passages about the Lord’s Supper outside of the Gospels. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul chastises the richer Corinthians for hoarding and not sharing their food with the poorer brethren. He does not chastise them because they are not living like their poorer brothers and sisters. In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul charges the rich of the world to be generous and ready to share. He does not command them to live among the poor.
3. It is a non sequitur to say that you must be like those to whom you minister
One of Greenfield’s arguments is that you must be like the poor in order understand and effectively minister to them. His wife had a ministry to prostitutes in Cambodia. Must she become a prostitute in order to understand and minister to them? Of course not. What it takes to minister is a willingness to understand where they are coming from and how the gospel impacts their life. It would be helpful to listen to them, to be near them, to read about that lifestyle, and many other things. But being exactly like them is not necessary. Besides, he had money, a guest house to escape to rest, and many other accommodations that his neighbors would know nothing about having.
We Should Live Incarnationally!
I say all of this because I agree with the author that we should live more incarnational lives. I agree that the current ministries to the poor largely seem insufficient. Too many people ignore the poor or just throw them a handout. Instead, believers should engage the poor and live with them and alongside them. They should bring the good news of Jesus Christ in a relational and holistic way. But this does not mean Christians should necessarily become poor.
Incarnational living is being able to identify with others so as to bring the gospel to them in a way they will understand. This is why Paul can say that he became as one under the law but was not under the law himself (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). So we see Paul able to identify with some but did not actually become like them.
Rightfully, Greenfield laments that the problem is that the church is “preferring instead to keep the poor at arm’s length” (p 169). This actually supports my view of incarnation. Instead of keeping them at arm’s lengths we should invite them and welcome them with open arms.
With this in mind I concur with Greenfield that more should be done in ministry to the poor. I agree with him that ministries of “word and deed are inseparable” (p 169). I agree that there should be more interaction between the poor and the rich. Churches should be intentional to invite the poor into their midst. People should not consciously or unconsciously avoid the poor or distance themselves from them. But this does not necessitate living as a poor person in a poor area. To be sure it is more than drive by mercy ministries. However, the biblical call is not to act poor but to be “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).
ARE WE HURTING OR HELPING ORPHANS?
The author’s second challenge is important for the care of orphans in the coming years. The fact that the Bible commands the care of orphans is not in doubt (James 1:27). But how does one go about doing this? He answers this question well.
Greenfield goes on a mission to find out the best way to love orphans. He scatters the research and findings throughout the second half of the book. His conclusion, after sifting through copious amounts of research, is that no matter how you slice it, community based orphan care is better for children than institutional based orphan care.
This is a very helpful discussion for a novice like me. I just assumed you put all the kids in a big building and call it an orphanage. However, it is not quite that simple. For sure, some orphan care works like that. But the other end of the spectrum is to find a home for the orphan to become a member. Usually this home is that of the nearest relative but could be someone else from the community. There is a continuum of models between these two options.
Greenfield’s team in Cambodia oversees this finding of relatives and homes for the kids to live. They also provide encouragement, training, and a little financial support to the adoptive families. This model has several positive features:
- The child gets to know his family
- The child gets to know her heritage and culture
- The child has a lifetime support network and does not “age out”
- The cost is significantly reduced
- Studies show kids are better adjusted to life in this model
The research is impressive. Being ignorant of the different options for orphan care this community based model strikes me as very biblical in that it emphasizes family. It is also a low investment but high impact way to love orphans.
Since reading this book I have come across two articles (this one and that one) arguing for something similar. Greenfield takes a more graceful tact than the articles. He praises God for those loving on orphans for the fact that they are at least doing something to care for those in need. He even provides some steps for those wanting to move towards the community based approach and away from the institutional approach.
While I will not live in a slum when I move to Kampala, I will visit one and get to know poor people. I will also know how to think about caring for orphans. This book will help move the discussion forward on how to care for those without parents. The call to live incarnationally should be heeded by all believers everywhere. Besides being a good biography of a faithful servant of the King, the book is a must read for anyone working with orphans. It serves as a good challenge to check our methods and our heart when we serve others. I praise God for Craig Greenfield and thank him for his service to our Lord!