My children have lived all their lives in slums and inner cities and I'm pretty sure one day they’ll thank me for it.
Our initial move into a Cambodian slum more than 15 years ago, was motivated by the example of Jesus who according to Christian teaching, left the most exclusive “gated community” in the universe (heaven) and moved in among the people he was seeking to serve.
Jesus especially sought out the prostitutes, the panhandlers and the people with nasty diseases and he shared his life with them.
The gospels record that Jesus was often moved to compassion by his interactions with the poor and in fact framed his mission on earth as one of bringing good news to the people at the bottom of the heap in society (Luke 4:18).
For those who chose to follow in his footsteps he prayed, “Father as you have sent me into the world, so I send them.” (John 17:18). Taking those words seriously all those years ago led us to quit our jobs and move to Asia, renting a tiny shack in the middle of a sprawling slum.
After six years in Cambodia we relocated to Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood with the most concentrated area of drug addiction in North America.
As we have lived alongside the poor, first as neighbors and now as friends, we have seen that there are tangible benefits of such a lifestyle: lessons and gifts that will continue to bless our children throughout their lives. To describe all those blessings would take a book, and this is a blog post so here are just four:
1. Seeing drugs up close
Firstly, my kids are learning the true effects of drugs and alcohol, giving them a unique and healthy perspective as they face the temptations of adolescence.
“Why is that man lying on the ground shaking like that Daddy?” my son asked me on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street one day. I told him the truth, "That man is strung out on drugs, son...." We don’t bother to hide most of the realities of this sad place from them. Instead we use them as a helpful 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 Hollywood diet of celebrity “heroes” Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan and their jaunts in and out of prison and rehab.
Check out the video below (jump in at 4:56 if you don't have time) and you'll see the kind of insight into drugs that our kids have. It's quite fascinating!
2. Learning that everybody matters
Secondly, they are learning that God loves everybody, even those that society has rejected.
A friend with mental illness once told me, “Never forget: everybody matters. Everybody matters, not just some people.” And I have tried to pass this little piece of wisdom on to my kids, because it’s at the heart of what the Kingdom of God is all about. As a result, my children treat everyone who comes into our home the same, whether they are dirty or clean, housed or homeless (James 2:2-5).
I remember the day I found Leanne* shivering and homeless outside our church and she ended up staying with us for a while. She had been through years of addiction, prostitution and homelessness.
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 me 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 many years.
3. Learning that the poor are not just our beneficiaries
Thirdly, my kids are learning that our poor neighbors have a lot to offer. They are not just passive victims or beneficiaries.
Jesus brought our attention time and time again to the poor who gave so much. 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. This is a counter-cultural message in a society fixated on wealth, fame and power.
Living on the margins of society, we have plenty of opportunity to teach our kids those same lessons.
One day a homeless women 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 even people on the margins have something beautiful to offer in God’s kingdom.
Our neighbors in the Cambodian slum where we live now, teach us about ingenuity, perseverance and careful use of money. Their spending habits are so thrifty, that they put our own consumerism and affluence in a hard light. We have learnt deep lessons from them.
4. Getting their priorities straight
Finally, our kids are learning what’s important in life.
I have to admit we haven’t bothered to make sure our children have the latest Apple product, playstation or xbox. We've never even owned a TV. They don’t need that stuff to learn, grow and develop. All they need is the care, nurture and attention of their parents and the surrounding community.
In fact, we hope they will learn that life is not about success as portrayed by the media, but rather that life is about significance and love. We trust that they will grow up comparing themselves to those who struggle with poverty, rather than those above them on the ladder. That is a crucial perspective for a life of gratitude, service and joy.
My kids have lived their first decade on earth surrounded by people who love them, including other members of our missional community who are committed to nurturing them.
Yes there are challenges. But as I tuck my kids into bed each night I ask them what they are grateful for. And each and every night they have something to thank God for.
We are truly blessed.