I never wanted to live in a slum. I'm a total outsider to slums.
Growing up in affluence, I wanted to be rich. Live in a mansion. And drive a fast car.
And as a corporate executive in a successful technology start-up, I was well on my way to achieving those things and much more. But somewhere along the way, Jesus interrupted my trajectory.
Traveling in Asia, I came face to face with Jesus in the "distressing disguise of the poor". This Jesus claimed that whatever I do for those at the bottom of the heap - I would be doing for Him. In fact, He described His gospel as being truly Good News for the poor (Luke 4).
I realized that Jesus left the most exclusive gated community in the universe to move in amongst us.
Cambodia Part 1: Immersion in the slums
Deeply impacted by what I was reading in the Gospels, I first moved into an impoverished Cambodian slum community 19 years ago with my wife Nay (a former refugee from the Khmer Rouge regime who has her own incredible story), and together we began to walk alongside vulnerable children there in the slum.
Frustrated by how few kids we could reach on our own, we developed a ministry to help Cambodian communities care for their own orphans, eventually reaching hundreds of vulnerable children and sparking a mentoring movement, Alongsiders International, that by God's grace has spread throughout Cambodia, into a dozen countries across Asia and Africa.
Cambodians have a proverb, "It takes a spider to repair its own web," and our growing conviction is that local people in the developing world (insiders!) are themselves at the center of whatever God is doing in a place (I have also grappled with and written on the Biblical role of Outsiders who relocate into a community as missionaries or development workers.)
This alternative approach to orphan care that we birthed in Cambodia, led to the publication of my first book, The Urban Halo, which has influenced missionaries and humanitarian organizations around the world to find community-based alternatives to the traditional orphanage. [Grab a free copy of that book here.]
For these next 7 years I was also leading Servants to Asia's Urban Poor, a radical mission focused on helping outsiders relocate into slums and inner cities around the world to seek justice and transformation.
Canada: Inner City Community
After living many years in Cambodian slums and facing our second slum eviction, we moved to inner city Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside: a place described by the UN as “a 2km stretch of decaying rooming houses, seedy strip bars and shady pawnshops."
We wanted to challenge the false dichotomy between "home" and "field" in missions and see whether the things we were learning from God about justice from Asian slums might resonate in an affluent Western context. We observed that Christians often romanticize the distant poor, while demonizing the poor on our own doorsteps - thus giving up the very opportunity to become alongsiders that God has given each of us.
In Vancouver, we founded an intentional Christian community called Servants Vancouver, opening our home to folks struggling with homelessness, prostitution and addiction, motivated by the radical hospitality of Christ. This turned into a ministry of freedom for drug addicts – who needed a place to detox and get back on their feet. We called it "prehab" - a kind of bridge from the streets to rehab. Here's a glimpse of our family life in the inner city during those years:
The Downtown Eastside brought us into contact with more radical thinkers, theologians, activists and practitioners who helped me go deeper in my commitment to the God of justice and mercy. Drawing inspiration from the prophets of old, who walked around naked and buried their underpants under rocks as performance art, we instigated the Pirates of Justice flash-mobs of 2010 and 2011.
A serious brush with cancer led me to seriously question what I wanted to spend my final years doing. We knew that each of the men and women struggling with addiction and homelessness or prostitution that we had walked alongside started out life as a vulnerable child longing for someone to love them.
Cambodia Part 2: Global Movement
So, early in 2013, compelled by God to re-engage directly with the needs of the world's poorest and most vulnerable children in the developing world, we moved back to live in an impoverished Cambodian community and, together with a very talented team of visionary practitioners, we have been establishing Alongsiders International as an international movement spreading beyond Cambodia, into Asia, Africa and beyond.
The vision of Alongsiders is to see a grassroots youth discipleship movement to reach the world's most vulnerable children by asking young Christians to make a simple but powerful commitment - to walk alongside those who walk alone - to choose one child each from their own community to visit, encourage, mentor, and disciple.
All that is simply to say, I help insiders become alongsiders.
I am happily married to Nay, a Cambodian-New Zealander and we have two confident and thoughtful teenagers: Jayden and Micah.
Zondervan (Harper Collins) published my second book, Subversive Jesus - an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world. Grab a copy. It’s my best work to date.