Subverting with Craig Greenfield

“Subverting” with Craig Greenfield

~ing podcast Season 3, Episode 21
Full Episode Transcript

Season 3, Episode 21: “Subverting” with Craig Greenfield was released on May 23, 2023. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In today’s episode, producer Ben Wideman sits down with Craig Greenfield, a guy who calls himself “an outsider who helps insiders become alongsiders!” During two decades of living in slums and inner cities, Craig founded a grassroots youth movement called Alongsiders International, now reaching thousands of vulnerable children across 25 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. In our conversation with Craig, we learn about what that all means, and explore themes from his new book, Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need.

Craig Greenfield, Ben Wideman, Tamara Hill Murphy

Ben Wideman  00:00
It’s season three of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus?

Craig Greenfield  00:09
I’ve made every mistake in the book, and we can learn from our mistakes. But you know, I think God’s grace is there with us. By God’s grace lives are still transformed. And we owe it to ourselves not to, you know, have allowed the sense of perfectionism to stop us from, from doing something.

Ben Wideman  00:36
Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Our conversation begins now, join us as we journey together.  Hello, friends, welcome to ~ing Podcast. I’m really excited today to be sitting down with an author, by the name of Craig Greenfield. I was given Craig’s name from Jason Porterfield, who’s been on the podcast before, as someone who might fit in with this podcast… ongoing podcast journey that we have here… thinking, growing, being, here at the ~ing Podcast, in part because Craig has a new book out called Subversive Mission. We’ll get to that in just a little bit. But in digging around and trying to figure out who you were, Craig, I found on your website where you say, you describe yourself as “An outsider who helps insiders become alongsiders.” And I, I thought there’s something really interesting and compelling about that. So I’m excited about today’s conversation. First of all, just want to say thanks for being here with us on ~ing Podcast.

Craig Greenfield  01:50
Thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Ben Wideman  01:52
I should also say for our listening audience, Craig is located in Cambodia, so we have a few time zones here between us. It’s morning for me, evening for Craig, and we’re we’re going to hopefully have a wonderful time together despite that geographic difference. For those who don’t know, you, Craig, can you give a little bit of your background here? Just who you are, and how you wound up in Cambodia?

Craig Greenfield  02:20
Sure, well, I guess I’ve been a bit of an outsider for a lot of my life. My parents were immigrants to Canada, where I was born. But then I grew up in New Zealand. And for most of my adult life, I’ve lived here in Cambodia, based out of Cambodia, where I’m very much an outsider. I look like an outsider, although I’m fluent in the language and culture. But I guess that’s been part of what I am grappling with in this next book. What is the role of outsiders? And the world in which we serve is, we live in a world full of need. But yeah, like you’d like you mentioned, I call myself an outsider who helps insiders become alongsiders. And one of the things that that kind of grew out of our life and ministry here in Cambodia was this grassroots youth discipleship movement called Alongsiders, and we challenge and equip and inspire young Christians starting in Cambodia, to walk alongside those who walk alone. So young children in their own communities in their own slums or villages. And really just come alongside them, disciple them, encourage them, mentor them. And we call those young people, Alongsiders, very simple, but powerful commitment. And that movement is now spread to over 30 countries around the world that 22,000 children and young people involved in at this time, and growing very fast. So watch out, Alongsiders is coming!

Ben Wideman  03:55
That’s awesome. I think it’s probably important to take a step back. Subversive Mission is not your first book. It it follows a book that you wrote called Subversive Jesus. So maybe, instead of talking about how you got to Subversive Mission, can you tell us a little bit about the book that came before it? Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy and Faithfulness in a Broken World.

Craig Greenfield  04:22
Yeah, sure. So after about so we moved to Cambodia moved with my wife now and we, we actually moved into an urban slum community and lived for about seven years. Amongst the urban poor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. After about seven years we were actually being evicted for the second time – our whole slum was being evicted by government officials all tied up with corruption. And what we had the kind of ministry that we had started was in local leadership pants. And so we just senced God calling us to move somewhere else. And we were open to move anywhere and seemed like all roads lead… lead to Vancouver, BC, Canada. And so we actually moved into the downtown, east side of Vancouver, BC. And if you’ve ever been there, you know that is very intense place full of issues of homelessness and drug addiction and prostitution. And that’s really where we felt comfortable after coming from the slums of Asia, was in a place that was so vibrant and chaotic. And we started a Christian community, there called Servants. And that’s really where this book came from – Subversive Jesus. Whose… What does it look like to serve Jesus? In our own kind of backyard? In Western countries? What does that look like? And, you know, I love the word subversive. I’ve used it in two of my book titles, because it kind of comes from these words that mean to turn things around from the from, from the under, from below from underneath. And I really believe in grassroots transformation and change. I believe that there’s a reason why Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” because so often, they are the ones who see the change that we need in our societies.

Ben Wideman  06:13
It’s a unique thing that we’ve arrived at this place where, especially for American Christians, we… many of us come from places of privilege and power and not necessarily the roots of, of the Christian movement. So although certainly there have been times where it’s been co opted by powerful politics. But yeah, I really, I really appreciate that, that angle in that perspective that you’re coming from. So we have this Subversive Jesus, and it leads us to your newest book, called Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need. Was there something… a step, I guess, from from one to the other?

Craig Greenfield  06:56
Well, I guess there was. There was a few years in between where we actually sensed God calling us back to Cambodia, and we moved back here about 9, 10 years ago. I guess the the kind of the, the thesis behind this book is we could trace it back to the birth of Jesus where, you know, Jesus comes, he could have come as a king. But instead, he comes as a, you know, a little baby that is very, very vulnerable. And he’s born in the UK in the context of the census. And censuses are generally kind of run by the leaders of an empire, in order to figure out how much taxes and how many soldiers they can co-op. And so it’s really… Jesus is born in the shadow of these twin pillars of empire, money, and power. And Jesus comes in the very opposite posture. And his upside-down Kingdom is very much the opposite posture of not using money and power for change, but using other things and seeing the Kingdom of God bubble up from underneath the Subversive Kingdom. And so really, where we have gone wrong very often as Christians, and I guess I’m speaking from the context of missions, or serving or ministering is where we have kind of got tied up with money and power. And so throughout history, whenever we’ve done that, we’ve really gotten off track. And we know the sins of colonialism in those have been tied up with missions work, as well. And so I guess I was kind of at this point where COVID hits and very much an inflection point for many, many sectors, but also permissions. And in fact, it really accelerated what’s been happening for a number of years now. And that is just a real sense of paralysis around what is our role as outsiders as people of power and privilege in the world. Nobody wants to be a white savior, everybody’s read when helping hurts everybody. And so what that has led to is much more awareness, which is great, much more awareness of the injustice and colonialism and racism, but also a deep sense of paralysis around what is our role in the world. And so I really wrote subversive mission to lay out a framework which I think is very, very helpful for us to grapple with as a way of being in the world without continuing to perpetuate those so those same sins and problems.

Ben Wideman  09:29
It strikes me as you’re talking that there are so many different parallels, in many different kinds of of awakenings. I guess I was thinking just the other day with my spouse about growing up… at times in spaces where our faith was categorized by a – you don’t want to go to hell, so here, so you should be a Christian It was sort of this like fear-based, pushing towards, towards embracing embracing that, that religion or that that movement. And as parents, we know what not to do more so than we know, what really to do. We know, we know what that we don’t want that for our children. But then what? So how do we fill in that that void? And I think what you’re saying is true, I think most of us can very quickly list a long number of reasons for, for how mission has been done poorly in the past. And instead of just dwelling there, you’re offering us a step beyond just the critique into into something a bit more active. And that’s absolutely appreciate it. Yeah.

Craig Greenfield  10:41
Yeah. I mean, I believe God’s still calling us to love our neighbor, whether they’re across the street or across the oceans, we simply cannot get away from that central command and invitation of Jesus. And so paralysis is actually not an acceptable response.

Ben Wideman  10:57
Yeah, it may be causing less harm, but it’s, it’s not actually being proactive, yeah. Before your book even begins, there’s a par, a paragraph that outlines that this is a work of creative nonfiction. You’re right that though it’s a true story, you’ve relied on your own memory, unpublished writings and past blog posts of events and conversations. You’ve taken some, I guess, creative liberty, with timeline and things like that, to really tell a story. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the choice to really create a narrative here in your writing?

Craig Greenfield  11:56
Well, that’s a interesting question I haven’t had before nice one. Well, you know, I just don’t like my books to be like doing homework. I want to read something that, you know, is gripping, that is exciting. There’s a story unfolding, what’s going to happen next. And it certainly is a true story, in the sense of it’s our unfolding story of how these various ministries of birth. But at the same time, it’s also this framework. And so a framework could be very dry. But I think that’s really where the meat is whether whether the takeaway is in that framework, but it’s couched in and in this beautiful, unfolding story, which I think people will find both exciting and inspiring.

Ben Wideman  12:44
I like that, did you have a particular audience in mind as you were writing?

Craig Greenfield  12:51
I did, I’m, in many ways, you know, like, a missionary writing a book. There’s, there’s a sense in which there’s an older generation that I kind of get to enjoy that the missions committee, that kind of thing. And really, I’m not writing for those people. In fact, what I’m saying is, and you you’ll also see this in some of my blog posts about why we actually need to get rid of the words missionary and missions is not going to resonate greatly with the older generation, because they, you know, they grew up in different times. There’s a different perspective on that, well, I really wrote this for people, perhaps in their, you know, 20s 30s 40s, who have a sense of, you know, they love Jesus, they want to love their neighbors. They’re passionate about justice. This generation is passionate about issues of justice. And so how do we how then do we find new wineskins? For this very old, beautiful invitation to love our neighbors?

Ben Wideman  13:55
As you’ve been moving through this project? Did anything surprise you along the way? When you’re trying to reimagine a different kind of posture? Sometimes surprises are really where things crystallized. Can you you say a word or two about that?

Craig Greenfield  14:09
Well, the probably the biggest surprise was I started writing it right at the beginning of COVID. What I didn’t realize was how prescient this book would be, because COVID just completely accelerated all of the things that I was saying. Yeah, so I’ll give you an example. Jim Elliot. Many of us have heard of the, you know, the famous missionary killed by a spear on a beach in Ecuador in 1956. And very much hailed a hero around the world. He was featured in Life Magazine, he was considered a martyr for the faith. By about 60 years later, another young person is John Allen Chau. Killed in a very, very similar way, also killed by a spear on a beach in the Andaman Islands killed by the people he was trying to reach with the gospel And apart from small pockets within the church, John Allen Chau and I don’t say these words to be flippant, but I am quoting them. Because they were quoted by the New York Times, he was labeled a fool and a flag bearer for colonialism. So this is 2017. And so this is a couple of years, three years before the pandemic, and the pandemic only accelerated that sense, is many, many missionaries returned home. In some cases, their ministries did not continue on because they had not served in a way that was going to be sustainable. And they’re not being replaced, the younger generation not being replaced. And so COVID is really very much accelerated, that I didn’t I was, I was surprised at how fast things collapsed around the world.

Ben Wideman  15:56
It strikes me too, that your book might have something to offer an increasingly polarized world as well. Because I think polarization has also led to some of the paralysis you were talking about. I wonder, I wonder if you would be able to say a word or two about some of the fear of making mistakes that is so so in that polarization right now. And yeah, maybe maybe building out a little bit more of what you were saying about still being willing to take a step, even, even if you’ve realized some of the missteps of the past.

Craig Greenfield  16:34
Look, I’ve made every mistake in the book, in the book, and we can learn from our mistakes. But you know, I think God’s grace is there with us. By God’s grace, lives are still transformed. And we owe it to ourselves not to, you know, have allow the sense of perfectionism to stop us from, from doing something. I’ll give you an example. You know, like I said, we’ve been evicted from slums twice to two massive slum evictions by the local authorities. And we journeyed with many of our neighbors through there. And one of the young women that was being evicted, young woman named debt bunny, and she and four of her young friends who were being evicted, decided to drag their beds into the middle of the bamboo beds into the middle of the busiest intersection in the capital city of Cambodia. And you can just imagine the horns honking the dust flying the shouting, and then the sound of the soldiers boots as they run towards these vulnerable little women. And grab them violently and push them into van into a van and take them off and arrest them and put them in prison for for a year. Now, what’s my role there as as an outsider? And in the book, I kind of go through the fivefold ministries and talk one by one, you know, evangelists, Apostle, and the role of the Prophet. And what I want to suggest is the role of a prophet. It’s someone who’s prophetically gifted somebody who’s passionate about justice, like me, is to come not as a prophet like Tep Vanny, very much was speaking truth to power. That was her role to speak truth to power in that context, my role is to come as an ally and amplify her voice in her story. That’s why I’m telling it on this podcast, so that people can know what situation Vanny is facing in Cambodia. Now, there’s so many ways I can do that wrong, I can tell the story wrong, I make all kinds of mistakes. But at the end of the day, debt bunny is in prison. And she very much counts on those who are willing to get the word out for her for justice for her. And so these are some of the, you know, honestly, just unjust and oppressive and exploitative situations around the world. Are we honestly willing to say, because I might make a mistake, I’m not willing to get involved. I would suggest and invite people to say no, I’m willing to get started and try something.

Ben Wideman  19:20
You’re dealing with some of the biggest challenges of human injustice, I guess, in the spaces you’ve chose to call home. What what gives you hope or reason to continue on when you’re faced with some of these really difficult hardships?

Craig Greenfield  19:40
You know, one of the one of the things that I have come to really believe about us westerners, is that we desperately often lack perspective. I spent a year back in my home country, New Zealand last year and honestly, it was sad. And I’m talking about the kind of polarization that conspiracy theories are the things that people upright preoccupied with. So we desperately need to get out of our contexts to rediscover hope. And very often that hope is found amongst the least likely people, the poor, the marginalized, those who are struggling. I think of Rachel in Malawi, who’s in Alongsider, and I asked her how she chose her little sister. So they each have one little sister or one little brother from their own village. And Rachel said to me, Craig, I come from a village that’s notorious for prostitution and sex trafficking. And when I heard about this idea of becoming alongside or at my church, I went back to my house and decided to pray and ask God to show me who should be my little sister. And as I was praying, I looked out my window, and I saw my neighbors teaching a little girl, how to dance seductively for men, little girl named Esther. She’s about 10 years old. And I knew in that moment, she said to me, that should be my little sister. And so Rachel took on Esther and her little sister helped her get back into school helped her join the church community, protected her in many ways. And a few months ago, I wrote to Rachel… actually, I met up with her quite recently, and its such a beautiful reunion. But she said, I said, “How’s Esther doing? You’ve been walking alongside her for about six years.” And she said, “Craig, Esther has just graduated from high school. And now she wants to go and become a nurse, and trained to become a nurse.” And I’m like, these are people who are in very desperate situations. I mean, probably nobody’s heard about Cyclone Freddie, which literally just wiped out a lot of Malawi last month. So they’re in very, very difficult situations. And yet, they are able to get outside their bubble outside their comfort zone and reach out to another person. So how much more so those of us who have so much privilege and so much power and resources.

Ben Wideman  22:07
That’s, boy, that is such a powerful fuel to continue on with, with some something that sometimes feels helpless or hopeless to hear those stories of breakthrough like that.

Craig Greenfield  22:20

Ben Wideman  22:21
Craig, for those who are intrigued by these words, today, beyond your book, are there places where people can follow what you are up to?

Craig Greenfield  22:32
Yeah, so I have a blog at And you can actually take one of those little online quiz tests to find out your missional type for free on my website. So just go and check that out on the website. And you go through a few questions, and then it will give you a free PDF of the framework that I cover in the book. Obviously, I go into much more depth in the book.

Ben Wideman  22:55
Oh, thanks for sharing that. Thanks for… Thanks for your optimism, I guess is what I will say today. It feels like a real gift to be reminded of some of these things, some of these truths in this moment in time, especially, you know, as we continue through the realities of what COVID has done to our world to to continue to try and make a difference, despite so many things that have have crippled us or have flipped upside down in the last few years.

Craig Greenfield  23:26
Yeah, for sure. For sure. Well, I battle cynicism as well. So holding on to that optimism and hope.

Ben Wideman  23:36
Thank you, Craig. For those who are interested, I really do encourage you to go check out his new book, Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need. Craig, thanks again for being here with us.

Craig Greenfield  23:50
Thank you so much for having me. Great time.

Ben Wideman  23:57
Next week on ~ing Podcast, we’re sitting down with Harold press author, Tamra Hill, Murphy, to talk about her new book, The spacious path, practicing the rest of the way of Jesus in a fragmented world.

Tamara Hill Murphy  24:09
Because of the way I felt led into writing about this project, and the ways that it created humility in me, and a sense of being in over my head a lot… I, even in writing this book, I’m living my everyday life, I realized I I am not alone. And I can’t do this alone, and I don’t want to be alone.

Ben Wideman  24:32
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at