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Andrew Hui: I’m 32 and I’m Dying

Editor’s Note: Andrew passed away peacefully at 11:25 p.m. (Singapore time) on 31 August 2019. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

 

Images By Andrew Hui
Written By Janice Tai, Singapore 

At 32, Andrew Hui now has an estimated two to three months left to live.

His latest treatment option of radiation was ceased a month ago after it was deemed no longer effective in controlling the spread of the cancer cells in his body. Since then, the tumor has been growing rapidly, and the lymphoma has spread to almost every critical organ and is pressing against important blood vessels.

Despite having just a month or so left where he would still be conscious and lucid, Andrew enthusiastically made time for this interview  at the hospital before being discharged back home to be made comfortable on palliative care as death looms.

“I want to encourage people to trust in God during the darkest points of their lives,” he said.

 

A Shocking Discovery

Andrew hadn’t always viewed his condition this way. It took months of wrestling before he was able to reach this stage of peace and acceptance towards his prognosis—which came as a bolt from the blue last June.

Doctors had found out about the cancer in his body during a visit Andrew had made to the hospital’s emergency department one night because he was running a high fever. X-ray tests showed signs of a tumor growth in the upper part of his chest. Further biopsy tests identified it as Stage 1 Aggressive Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Yet, doctors were confident that his was not a complicated case and had even told him that 90 per cent of people who had this cancer at this stage have been cured.

So Andrew put his hope in probability and medical science, presuming that his treatment would be like a few months of “holiday”, and confident that he would recover soon enough.

But he was in the 10 per cent.

Undergoing six rounds of R-EPOCH therapy, a form of chemotherapy, did not help him.

So doctors gunned for a stronger form of chemo—RICE therapy. This time, they said, some 70 to 80 per cent would successfully have their cancer treated by it.

Again, he went for four rounds of treatment but was found to be in the 20 to 30 per cent of people for whom this treatment did not work.

He was next put on immunotherapy which was deemed to be suitable for 99 per cent of patients.

Andrew, however, once again found himself in the one per cent deemed unsuitable for the treatment due to the severe side effects that emerged.

“This is as straightforward a message you could get from God, don’t you think so?” Andrew said matter-of-factly, with a laugh and a glint in his eye.

“I had placed my faith in medical science and when that failed, He has shown me I need to drastically change my perspective and fall back on Him totally,” he added.

 

A Time of Questioning

Despite being a believer from young and one who actively served in church as a musician and leader, Andrew wrestled with God over his sickness earlier this year.

Why me? 

Andrew was not one who was careless with his diet or lifestyle.

The young banker did not drink or smoke. Instead, he would have salads for lunch five days a week and frequently head to the gym after work.

Why now?

His questions to God piled up thick and fast. “I have barely fulfilled 10 per cent of my dreams and I thought You would be able to use me to a greater extent. I have been serving in church for 20 years and this is the way I am to go? This is how You tell the world that you care for Your servant?”

In his anger and disappointment with God, Andrew also lashed out at other Christians.

“They proclaimed or declared healing on me as they believed that by His stripes, God has carried our pain and bore it all (Isaiah 53:5). But I can’t reconcile it with the fact that I am not only not healed but also getting worse. It gave me false hope. So I scolded them and shut them out,” said Andrew.

“The way I see it, if He chooses to heal me, then his task for me on earth is not done. If I am not healed, then it is time for me to go home, so either way it is a win-win situation.”

Part of Andrew’s struggle and despair also stemmed from the fact that he was in a lot of pain.

He had to deal with nausea, lethargy, and hair loss, and many a time he would throw up so violently that his stomach contents would hit the wall.

Bad coughing fits would leave him curling up into a ball on his bed and his heart would shatter whenever he saw his mother crying by his bedside.

 

Andrew with his mum in Jeju in December 2018. This was his last overseas holiday. 

Andrew with his family members, including his niece Naomi, in April 2019.

 

A Turning Point

However, a profound sense of peace and acceptance of death came when Andrew’s view  of God shifted.

“I have always viewed His sovereignty over my life as something that can’t be questioned. He can do as He likes and pleases, and we have no right to ask for, say favor, unless He gives it. I saw His sovereignty as judicious and high and mighty,” said Andrew.

“But later I realized that the way He expresses His sovereignty is through love. What is happening to me may not be good but He is good and His sovereignty is seen in how He carries me through the storms in life,” he added.

One of the verses that has helped Andrew arrive at this understanding is Ephesians 3:17-18, which says, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”

His trust in God’s love and sovereignty has cast out any fear he used to have in facing his mortality.

“I have zero fear of death now. When I close my eyes for the last time, I am more certain about being with Him than I can have in boarding a plane and being assured of reaching my destination,” said Andrew, who worships at St. Matthew’s church.

“That is the certainty I cling on to. Without that, if God or Jesus didn’t exist, I would have committed suicide because then all my hope is gone and there is no point or meaning to life,” he added.

He is also immensely grateful for having a church family who fasted, prayed, and cried with him throughout his period of illness. Many volunteered to buy food for him or to drive him to and from his home and the hospital.

 

Andrew with his accapella group, reaching out to grassroots organizations during one of their carolling sessions.

 

A Dying to Self

Though Andrew was born into a Christian family and grew up in church, he only truly “came to faith” or owned his faith when he was 16.

He was in a Boys’ Brigade service in chapel one day and the lyrics of the song “So You Would Come” touched him immensely:

Nothing you can do
Could make Him love you more
And nothing that you’ve done
Could make Him close the door

These words pierced Andrew’s heart as he used to throw himself into doing good works or serving in church to try to atone for his sins.

The lyrics of the song gave Andrew a sense of freedom as he began to realize that God loves him and that he did not need to do anything to earn it. It also gave him the hope that despite his sins, God will never close the door on him.

But the journey since then hadn’t always been smooth-sailing.

Though he majored in communications and media studies, he joined the banking sector after graduation as it was more financially lucrative.

The number-crunching did not interest or excite him, but he had put money above fulfilment then as he loved to travel to experience different cultures and food. He also wanted to support the church by funding its missions work.

So Andrew worked long hours to climb up the corporate ladder and 12-hour workdays were the norm. His last position was as a manager in private banking.

But what he learned at the age of 16 never completely left him. The peace that comes with being convicted of God’s full acceptance and love for him, said Andrew, is the same peace that guards his heart now that he faces a larger battle of faith in confronting death.

Andrew and friends helping to plant a children’s shelter in Banchang, Thailand.

 

A Blessing Through Faith

Besides having the assurance of peace and knowing that he will meet Jesus in heaven after he dies, Andrew said his faith also makes a difference in mitigating his present pain.

“When I call out to him for help at night because of the pain, I find that the pain lessens when I focus on God and I will fall into deep sleep after that,” said Andrew.

Andrew’s faith has also enabled him to see the blessings that have arisen out of his illness, such as being able to know when he is going to die, and to be able to die without pain.

“This is so that I can prepare for death and say what I need to say and do what I need to do.

The pain medication and palliative care also enables me to be comfortable and die with a smile on my face,” he said.

Lately he has been able to talk to his parents about topics such as what they would be doing when he is gone and what they would use his room for.

“It is a blessing to be able to have such conversations because then there will be closure for them as well,” said Andrew, who is preparing a “death box” that contains all his farewell messages to his loved ones and friends.

“I don’t believe in having sad funerals. I want mine to be happy and I also want to have a gathering now when I am around to thank and affirm people who are important to me and enjoy good food together,” said Andrew, who enjoys cooking, and used to cook anything from kaya to sambal to mooncakes for church fundraisers.

These days, he finds himself not really thinking about death, but about “short-term” things such as his craving for tulang, or bone marrow soup.

One unrealized dream he has is to set up a soup kitchen with his two close friends for migrant workers or anyone who needs a meal.

“If I were to live my life again, I think the only part I would change is perhaps going into social service because that may bring more of a difference to the lives of others. But then again, I don’t know. I am who I am today because of all the moments in the past that shaped me,” said Andrew, who has a father with polio.

 

A Final Wish

His greatest wish now is to reconnect with people in his life, such as his primary and secondary school friends whom he has lost touch with.

When asked why he prioritizes his precious time with people he is not close to, Andrew said his heart is for them to come to know the peace that they can have through Christ.

“Whether they are busy working adults or battling their own problems, I want to share this peace that I have with them. So that when they come to the end of their lives, which may happen any time, they would know of a peace that money or toil or relationships or health or wealth cannot bring,” said Andrew.

“I want them to not hear of me as just someone who died, but a person who is waiting to welcome them in heaven and who desires to see them again in heaven.”

 

Screenshot of Andrew’s Facebook status on 16 August 2019

Want to let Andrew’s family know how his story has impacted you? Leave a comment below with a prayer or word of encouragement!

Zakaria Zhou: From Drug Dealer to Gospel Bearer

Written by Janice Tai, Singapore

Zakaria Zhou Zhao Zong.

The alliteration of the ‘Z’s in his name catches one’s eye and ear.

Learn about his life and it is no less explosive as the syllables in his name.

In Primary 5, he smoked his first cigarette.

In Secondary 1, he was gambling hundreds of dollars online on soccer matches.

In Secondary 2, he became an online gambling agent, responsible for helping his peers start online betting accounts.

He also joined a secret society, befriended prostitutes and began selling methamphetamine (Ice) to them.

When the time for National Service* came, he continued gambling and drug dealing. It was also then that he first tasted Ice in the toilet of a shopping center in Orchard Road, a street in Singapore.

“I still remember the person who introduced me to Ice telling me that the drug was very addictive and warning me from using it each time I took it,” says Zakaria, now 32.

When people close to him got caught for drug possession, Zakaria became fearful of his own safety, and told his father he wanted to start life anew by going to Australia to study. By then, his parents had already helped him clear about S$100,000 in gambling debts.

However, in Australia, he fell back into his former hedonistic lifestyle. Once after winning a sum of money at the casino, he hailed a cab and told the cab driver to drive him to the dodgiest place he knew. He landed up at Kings Cross, a red light district filled with drug peddlers.

Drugs in Australia cost about four times more than in Singapore. To finance his gambling and drug use, he began applying the business “model” he learned back in Singapore. He bought drugs from dealers at Kings Cross and resold them to addicts, prostitutes and transvestites at the notorious inner city.

During this period, he dropped out from one university only to apply to another so that the school would not report him to immigration and revoke his student visa. Each time, he made half-hearted promises to his parents that he would buckle down and study hard.

After paying for him through three universities over three to four years in Sydney, his parents became fed up. They agreed to pay for his course in the fourth university on the condition that he move to Brisbane to study instead, where he would live with a family friend who agreed to keep an eye on him, and go for regular urine testing to make sure he was clean from drugs.

Things were fine in his first year in university at Brisbane. But all hell broke loose in his second year there.

Instead of smoking drugs, he started injecting them into his bloodstream. Drugs were expensive and since he could only afford a few milligrams of Ice, he needed to inject it directly into his blood to feel its effect. He shot himself with so much drugs that many of his veins collapsed and were clogged up.

His parents learned about it and sent him to an expensive rehabilitation program that lasted a month and cost S$30,000. Staff at the private hospital counseled him and showed him how to overcome the triggers to his behavior. Yet three days after he completed the program, his drug habit relapsed.

Concerned, his family friend told him to move out as they had young children around the house.

Once Zakaria had free rein at his own place, he linked up with other criminal groups and his drug dealing operations expanded. His drug habit also fed and funded his gambling lifestyle.

“I enjoyed the thrill of making easy money from gambling, it’s even easier than selling drugs. Even if I lost, I didn’t care as I could always sell more drugs,” says Zakaria.

However, his gambling spiraled out of hand. He found himself unable to pay the debt he owed the mafia and resorted to cheating other international students of their money.

“I felt remorse about taking advantage of their naivety but such feelings did not last long because I needed the money,” he says.

During his time in Australia, Zakaria had a Korean girlfriend. They broke up because of his drug habit and she went back to Korea pregnant with his child.

In 2014, his student visa expired and he had to return to Singapore without getting his degree. He moved back home, got a job as a waiter in a hotel and yet persisted in gambling and taking drugs during the weekends. Not before long, loan sharks and moneylenders began hounding him. Once again, his parents paid off a $30,000 debt for him.

“My parents were a safety net for me and so I always tell them it’s the last time I am asking them for help even though I kept slipping back into old patterns of behavior when things got better,” says Zakaria.

This time, his father gave him an ultimatum to move out and rent his own place.

 

The Turning Point

At the age of 29, he found himself homeless after he could not pay for the second month of his rent.  By then, he was attending a gambling support group once a week at One Hope Centre after he saw their hotline on a billboard at a bus stop and called them up out of desperation.

“I had no other option. I felt lonely, condemned and useless because I couldn’t crash at my friends’ homes for long and my family had cut off contact with me,” says Zakaria.

One Hope Centre referred him to The New Charis Mission, a Voluntary Welfare Organization that runs a Residential Rehabilitation Program.

“My life was a total mess. I was desperate and everything seemed hopeless. Who can save me now?” thought Zakaria.

In 2016, he admitted himself into New Charis’ residential program because he was at the end of his tether and needed a roof over his head.

While he was in there, some of the other residents shared with him how their lives were transformed after they found God. They kicked their addictions, reconciled with family members and were earning a decent wage.

Zakaria wondered: “Are you sure God is so good? Who is this God?”

As a young boy, he used to follow his mother to church on Sundays. His father traveled for work most of the time and Zakaria went to church because he wanted to please his mother, who he knew loved him.

At that time, he was not interested in God and all those “Christian stuff” and would take smoke breaks during the church service and wait for his mother outside.

At New Charis, Zakaria was intrigued by this God because of conversations with Johnny, a staff and mentor there.

“You wouldn’t understand my situation,” he told Johnny. “All of you only smoked drugs but I was the hard core one injecting myself for years.”

Johnny related to him his own life story of being a drug addict who shot himself with drugs for over 20 years before encountering the love of God.

Zakaria then knew that if someone like Johnny could do it with God’s strength, he could too.

On the third day of the rehabilitation program, one of the residents there shared Revelation 3:20 with him, telling him that Jesus was knocking at his door and all he needed to do was to let Him in.

Sick and tired of his life of debauchery, Zakaria told God, “If you are real, please change my life. I promise to give you this one year of my life and I would either kick my addiction and walk righteously with you or fail and give up trying to quit.”

The next day, Johnny led Zakaria in the Sinner’s Prayer and Zakaria invited Jesus into his heart.

 

A Life Restored

Things did not improve immediately. The first month was torture for him as he had to endure withdrawal symptoms, such as battling extreme fatigue and having bulging veins that continually tempted him to fall back into his old habit, while following a regimented timetable.

At New Charis, everyone woke up at 6am for morning devotion, breakfast and then chapel service before starting work. He worked as a mover, though that was the first time he had to do hard, physical labor. At night, residents did their quiet time before heading to bed.

“It was hard and I couldn’t sit still for one hour to read the Bible but I felt so much brotherly love because everyone was from the same background and working towards the same goals,” says Zakaria.

Even though there were strict rules in place and residents could not use their mobile phones, Zakaria felt their love for him when an exception was made so that he could make nightly calls to his partner and daughter in Korea.

While singing worship songs to God, Zakaria would feel God’s presence and His peace. He also experienced God answering his prayers by turning the heart of his daughter back to him. Initially, there were times when she ignored him. However, he persisted in calling his then girlfriend, now wife, and daughter every single night for one year to get to know what was happening in their lives and tried to make his little girl laugh. Eventually, his daughter was won over by his sincerity and perseverance.

 

Zakaria with his wife and daughter.

 

When temptation struck, often in the wee hours of the morning, he would pray and the desire to consume drugs and get the euphoria that came with it would leave as fast as it came.

“I know that this God is real because one month passed, then three and six months and I was clean. I can’t do it on my own strength and I have failed many times in the past,” says Zakaria.

Zakaria was successfully rehabilitated after a year.

“I was so thankful to God that he helped me fight temptations when I couldn’t in the past so that even a hard core addict can still manage to stay clean throughout the year,” he says.

Seeing the change in him, his father also decided to go to church and came to know the Lord.

His girlfriend forgave him and flew back with their five-year-old daughter to Singapore last year. The couple got married in September and Zakaria was baptized shortly after at Bartley Christian Church. Since then, they have found a home at that church, and serve and worship God there together. His wife attends the Korean service while Zakaria attends the English service.

 

Zakaria getting baptized at Bartley Christian Church.

 

Looking Ahead

Today, Zakaria is getting to know God better by studying His Word at a school of Theology in the mornings.

“I am a new believer so I need to strengthen my foundation in God so as to build on my new identity in Him,” he says.

In the afternoons, he works part-time as an administrator for The New Charis Mission in Eunos to earn his own keep. Every Wednesday night, he volunteers his time with the elderly living at Ang Mo Kio. He makes house visits, befriends them and occasionally cleans their homes.

 

Zakaria spending time with an elderly.

 

“I know what it is like to be lonely and without support so I feel for the seniors. Relative to their plight of being abandoned by family members and having poor living conditions, I feel fortunate about my own situation,” says Zakaria.

His dramatic turnaround has surprised not only his family and friends, but also shocked him.

“I still struggle with feeling guilt over my past but I know God does not condemn me but loves me,” says Zakaria, whose favorite verse in the Bible is Psalm 1:1-2, which reminds him to delight in and meditate on the law of God:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.

Every day, he is reminded of God’s grace and mercy in protecting him.

“I am grateful I am able to help other druggies now but I am also cautious because the urge to consume drugs or make fast money still come,” he says. “But now I have learned how to be content, channel my thoughts elsewhere and trust that God has a plan for me.”

 

Zakaria helping out at The New Charis Mission.

 

After his Bible studies, he intends to finish unfinished business—since he dropped out of school in Australia—by getting a degree in hotel management. Through his service in the hospitality industry, he hopes to spread God’s love to others.

It is his dream to bring the love of God beyond the shores of Singapore. He wants to open an orphanage and reach out to homeless children in Indonesia, to teach, feed and clothe them.

“I hope to get to them when they are young and let them encounter God’s love,” says Zakaria. “My story went awry very early on so if I get to them when they are young enough, they will have a greater chance of living life right.”

 

* National Service (NS) is compulsory duty in the uniformed services for all Singaporean males upon finishing their tertiary education (but before any higher education). This usually includes two years of full-time service.

Hannah Yeoh: Becoming Malaysia’s First Woman Speaker

Written By Janice Tai, Singapore

Despite being the minority as a Christian Chinese female in Malaysia, Hannah Yeoh became the country’s first female speaker in a state parliament—and its youngest—at the age of 34 in 2013.

 

To date, Hannah has seen the faithful hand of God guiding her through a decade in politics as a representative for the town of Subang Jaya and five years as the speaker of Selangor State Legislative Assembly.

The former lawyer’s unlikely foray into politics started with a dramatic love story.

During a supper with a pastor friend in January 2007, he dropped a bombshell prophecy on her: You will get a marriage proposal in June.

“It seemed quite far-fetched then, as I was single and not seeing anyone. Even up till May, there was still no romantic prospect in sight,” Hannah tells YMI.

She continued to go about her daily life, helping her father and friends with his event management business and serving God in church. By then, she had stopped practising as a lawyer.

In June, Hannah, who was then serving in her church’s ministry for new believers, preached from the pulpit for the first time. Unbeknown to her, fellow church member Ramachandran Muniandy, an IT engineer, was sitting among the congregation and listening with rapt attention.

She had caught his eye, as God had been giving him visions in the last few months of his future wife preaching in church.

Ramachandran and Hannah were already friends at the time, but from then on, he saw her in a different light. He told her to pray about the next stage in her life. That same month, he proposed to her and she accepted the proposal 10 days later after praying about it. The prophecy was fulfilled. But God had even greater plans for the couple.

Hannah was then co-leading a cell group with a former schoolmate, Edward Ling. He had a keen interest in politics and believed in its role in effecting change.

Hannah, in contrast, had neither inclination for nor knowledge of politics. She was not even a registered voter. But she wanted to give him her support, so she joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an opposition party, with Edward.

In the meantime, God had spoken to Hannah and her fiancé and told them to get married in January. They did not understand what the rush was for, but obeyed Him and tied the knot on January 5, 2008.

 

Becoming Malaysia’s first female speaker

The reason for a contracted dating and marriage timeline soon became clear. Elections were called a month later and the DAP chose Hannah to contest the Subang Jaya state seat. They believed she would appeal to the young, middle-class professionals there. Edward became Hannah’s campaign manager.

“I had no political ambitions so it came as a surprise. But God provided me with a husband who prayed with me about it and supported me even though I felt ill-equipped to speak at rallies during the campaigning period,” says Hannah.

Hannah needed as much support as she could get. She was up against a seasoned female politician. During the campaign period, her opponent distributed a booklet containing a long description of her political experience; all Hannah had was a leaflet with her passport photo printed on it.

Many mocked her for being young and inexperienced but Hannah persevered and leveraged on her youth. She even came up with a tagline that said, “Yes, I have no experience, I have no experience in corruption!” At rallies, she also brought in young people to share their ideas and vision for the country.

Though she could cough up only RM700 (about US$170) from her savings for the election campaign, her supporters and friends raised more than RM100,000 to support her campaign. She won the seat with a majority vote of 71 percent in 2008; she was only 29 then. Hannah was re-elected in 2013 and also sworn in as speaker—out of the 56 state assemblymen in the state assembly—to preside over the proceedings of the House that year. 

 While elated and grateful for the honor, the ex-lawyer nevertheless found the post-election road a lonely one. Young people her age were free to hang out with friends after work, but her weekends were taken up by community events and other obligations.

“God led me on this path and I obeyed, but I also felt discouraged because I felt far away from my own dream to be a preacher,” she recalls.

Press Conference on introduction of Opposition Time in the Selangor State Legislative Assembly

Pressing on in Politics

However, Hannah persevered because she believed God had given her a larger platform to fight for honesty and integrity in Malaysia. Her party’s battle against corruption and race-based policies also resonated with her.

In the last five years, Hannah has pushed for more checks and balances in the political system by strengthening the role of the opposition in her state, though her party is the governing party there. For example, she introduced “Opposition Time” for the Opposition Leader to speak in the State Legislative Assembly before each adjournment of the House. She also saw through changes requiring the Opposition Leader to chair the Public Accounts Committee inspecting the state government’s spending.

In Malaysia, race, religion and politics are often intertwined. But Hannah, while a Christian, sought to institute fairness in land allocation matters. During her term, she successfully fought for land for places of worship for other faiths, representing the different stakeholders in her constituency who entrusted her with the mandate to be their spokesman.

At the same time, she remained passionate and vocal about her own faith. Three years ago, she launched her biography, Becoming Hannah, which traced the hand of God in her life.

Her detractors, however, used her book to play up religious sensitivities. In May last year, a university lecturer lodged a police report accusing Hannah of attempting to “coax, influence and instigate” people to convert to Christianity through her book. It came right after a well-known Christian politician in Indonesia, Jakarta’s former governor Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison over comments about the Quran.

Hannah was questioned but no charges have been pressed so far. “My opponents usually attack me by playing the religion card, especially in the online space. I have learned to respond by setting the record straight on false allegations immediately and by keeping my hands clean so that they don’t have anything to use against me,” she says.

While numerous duties such as overseeing committees and hosting diplomatic visits as a speaker fill her days, Hannah still manages to run a home. She and her husband—now a pastor—take turns to pray with their two daughters, aged four and six, before putting them to bed every night.

Ask her if she intends to stay in politics for the long haul, and her reply is: “One day at a time, one election at a time.” Her desire, she says, is to stay in politics not one day longer than what God intends. For now, at least, she has discerned that God still wants her to contest the next elections.

Her parting words for young people: Never lose hope in God’s plans and purpose for your life.

Hannah says: “People have told me that it is impossible to stay clean in Malaysian politics and that the system will swallow me. But Nehemiah sought to rebuild broken walls despite the desolation and ruin. No task is too great if one trusts and hopes in God.”

 

Speakers’ Conference 2017 held at Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia, May 2017

Craig Greenfield: Family in the slums and urban fringes

Written By Janice Tai, Singapore

Seven-year-old Jaydan and his sister Micah, 5, bounded down the streets of Downtown Eastside in inner-city Vancouver.

The people hanging around those roads saw them and shouted to each other: “Kids on the block!”

Those who were using drugs started keeping their needles. Those who were fighting and swearing immediately quietened down.

But Jaydan’s eyes were sharp. He saw a needle packet discarded at the foot of a fence and pointed it out to his sister, who shrunk back in mock horror.

Later, the kids would tell the adults that they knew what the needles were used for—“to put poison into them”—and why people turned to them—“it makes them think about other things and nothing about the bad day.”

Jaydan and Micah are children of Craig Greenfield and his Cambodian-Chinese wife Nay, both 43. The parents were not afraid of bringing up their young children in the midst of drug addicts or former convicts. In return, the community was transformed by the presence of the children and altered their addictive behavior.

 

Sharing lives in Canada

Back in 2005, the family had moved into one of the poorest areas in Canada, where they began a radical social experiment by opening up their home to people struggling with homelessness, prostitution, and drug addiction.

Before moving to Canada, Craig had grown up in affluence in New Zealand. There, he had met his wife Nay, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge regime. After marrying, both of them had answered God’s call to serve and live alongside orphans in slums in Cambodia for seven years. They had made their home in two different slums there. Jaydan was conceived in one and raised in another, and Micah was also born in the second slum. Craig and Nay then felt led to apply what they had learned in the Asian slums to an urban area in an affluent, Western country.

While it seemed to be the exact opposite of where they had previously served, they saw that inner-city Vancouver had its share of physical and emotional poverty. There was rampant drug addiction, it had the highest Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection rate in the Western world, and four in five people lived alone.

“There are plenty of charities and soup kitchens there and people can get fed every half an hour. But such a charity model fosters a one-way relationship and a taking mentality,” says Craig. “We believe that people’s hurt and brokenness occurs in the context of relationships and often their families, and so healing and transformation will also come in the context of relationships—healthy ones.”

So, instead of handing out donuts in a charity line, he and his wife went to line up with everyone else to get the free donuts. As they got to know people, they invited them back to their home for meals or for a temporary roof over their heads. This was the basis of their Christian community, called Servants Vancouver which they founded.

The Greenfields now have two adjourning houses and two apartments. At any one time, they can house up to three families, four singles, and five children. “When people laugh together, do the dishes together, work together, play together, share lives together, we believe that there is something transformative about that,” says Craig.

In such a community, the children bring joy and companionship to the singles or drug addicts who have had their own children taken away from them. The adults are less inclined to indulge in addictive behaviors in front of the children, and become mentors to the young charges. “We want to practise radical hospitality, welcoming those who are not normally welcomed in this society, into our lives, into our homes, into our families,” says Craig.

One of the lives that was impacted by such a community was John, a former gang member who had been in and out of prison. He found a place where he was safe and able to stay clean from drugs, as well as a church family.

When asked if he was ever worried about his children being in such unusual company, Craig replies: “I would be more fearful bringing my children up in the midst of affluence and the kind of consumer society where they don’t get to mix with people of different socio-economic backgrounds and their only exposure to drugs is seeing Britney Spears and Paris Hilton on TV, glamorizing the drug using lifestyle.”

“My kids walk down the street and they see a guy lying there in the gutter like a down-and-out person, and they have no illusions on what drugs do to a person,” he adds.

The Greenfields continued to reach out to the drug addicts in the community for six years, giving them a place to detox and get back on their feet. Many of them needed a refuge while waiting to get into drug treatment centers, which had long waiting lists.

In 2012, a serious brush with cancer led Craig to think about what he wanted to spend his final years doing. Knowing that each of the men and women struggling with addiction, homelessness, or prostitution had started out life as a child longing for someone to love them, he decided to work with children, to try to address the problem at the roots.

So, in 2013, the family moved back to Cambodia, as they felt God’s leading to re-engage directly with the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children in the developing world.

 

(From left) Nay, Micah, Jaydan and Craig.

 

Convicted in Cambodia

It was a return to the place where Craig had first discovered the value of setting up a Christian community. His calling to the urban poor in Cambodia grew from a short-term mission trip in Phnom Penh which he did during a six-month break from university in New Zealand. Craig, who majored in commerce, had been raised in a Christian family who freely opened their doors to the vulnerable in society.

During the mission trip, young Craig befriended people who were dirt poor and homeless and were not interested in an abstract theology that seemed to be disengaged from their physical needs. “I am very poor. What can Jesus do for me?” one of them asked Craig.

Craig, then 22 years old, also remembered coming across a beggar outside a genocide museum. The beggar leaned on a wooden crutch and thrust an upturned baseball cap in his direction. A faded and filthy red T-shirt hung from his body, and on the front of the T-shirt were four huge, peeling block letters: “W.W.J.D.”

Those letters haunted the young man. “When I was growing up, those letters were etched into fluorescent green rubber wristbands sold in Christian bookstores or printed on the front covers of upbeat Teen Bibles. But I had never seen those letters on the tattered T-shirt of a beggar,” he says.

Shortly after graduation, Craig met Nay at a church gathering and married her. Nay knew that one day she would go back to her home country and help her people. Similarly, Craig remembered the first stirrings to fulfill the Great Commission in Cambodia that God had placed in his heart during the mission trip. After some deliberation, he quit his job as a corporate executive in a successful technology start-up, and both of them moved into an impoverished Cambodian slum community called Victory Creek in 2002. Their aim was to serve Jesus by serving those in the “distressing disguise of the poor”.

A two-room shack, barely tall enough to stand upright in, with only one window and one door to let light in, was their castle. Craig and May lived alongside the poor, listened to their concerns, and tried to meet their needs.

In their time there, they realized that many children were put in orphanages because their parents had either died from Aids or did not have the resources to raise their children. In his work with international humanitarian workers and consultants there, Craig learned that orphanage care could actually be harmful for the children. For instance, research has shown that institutional care has a negative effect on the psycho-social development of children. It also fosters a sense of disconnectedness, as the community is not involved in the care of the orphans.

 

Craig and Nay in Cambodia

 

Equipping locals in Cambodia

So Craig developed a ministry to help Cambodian communities care for their own orphans, and it eventually reached out to hundreds of vulnerable children and sparked a mentoring movement called Alongsiders International.

The basic concept of Alongsiders is getting extended family members or local volunteers to foster or mentor orphans in their midst.

“Cambodians have a proverb, ‘It takes a spider to repair its own web’. Our growing conviction as outsiders is to equip the locals or insiders to become alongsiders in journeying through life with the vulnerable in their society,” says Craig. He has seen orphans who had benefited from the love and support of others become “wounded healers” and extend the same love and support to others.

Today, the Alongsiders movement has spread into many provinces of Cambodia, as well as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, and beyond.

Craig and his family are still in Cambodia leading Alongsiders international, which now has thousands of young Christians making disciples in 15 countries. He says: “Mother Teresa once said that loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is truly the most terrible poverty. Our mission is to train and guide young Christians in poor nations to walk alongside those who walk alone.”

 

Check out Craig’s latest book “The Alongsiders Story” or join the movement at www.alongsiders.org