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Alongsiders: Wasting Time as Jesus Did

January 29, 2018 by

Woman and child smiling
Photo courtesy of www.alongsiders.org

Craig Greenfield and Andy Gray’s The Alongsiders Story is part history of their successful international children’s organization (that began in Cambodia in 2003) and part how-to manual for anyone dreaming of emulating their vision. With Jesus’ words to “let the children come to me” as their guide, Gray, Greenfield, and their international network of Alongsiders have established a template that successfully improves the lives of children in developing nations.

Alongsiders is similar to the Big Brothers / Big Sisters programs widely used in the United States in urban areas. Such programs have typically not had great success in the international area, where bigger, more well-known and well-funded NGOs such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse tend to dominate. Without discounting the good those groups do, Alongsiders has veered sharply from their path, and it’s worth examining their trailblazing methods.

They’ve done it by flipping the script of a Western Christianity they deem mostly “head knowledge,” lacking in heart. Gray and Greenfield (Gray is Alongsider’s chief editor; Greenfield is the founder) posit that “Christianity has become increasingly focused on personal salvation and piety rather than the whole life of a person, including his or her lifestyle and relationships.” This admonition reminds me of nothing so much as these words of Eberhard Arnold, spoken in 1934: “There is a lot of talk about the common good; but in fact this ideal has not penetrated the practical life to the extent that the true goal of humankind – mutual help, full community, and complete reciprocity – can really override self-interest, let alone merely help to reduce it.… It is true that personal piety has become very widespread, though unfortunately only in the so-called purely religious sphere of the individual, something that does not exist, of course, in God’s eyes.”

This may sound harsh and judgmental, but there’s a pretty good precedent for this: Jesus himself. As Greenfield and Gray write,

When Jesus proclaimed “the reign of God,” he invited his followers into a new way of being in relationship with God and one another and called them to “repent,” which means to change the way we think.… [H]e gave system-breaking commands, such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.…” [H]e demonstrated the Kingdom by eating with sinners and tax collectors. When people tried to clear paths for him through the “human clutter,” he noticed the marginalized ones at the edges: a blind man calling out to him, a chronically bleeding woman who secretly touched him, and children who were being pushed away. He stopped and “wasted time” with them, attending to their physical, spiritual, and social needs.… All along the way, people missed the fact that people and relationships mattered more to Jesus than doing what people wanted or expected.

In keeping with the Cambodian proverb, “It takes a spider to repair its own web,” the Alongsiders team quickly learned the value of using mentors who already live in the same communities as their “little brothers and sisters,” unlike other aid organizations that rely extensively on the support of “outsiders.” Hence the name: Alongsiders. They learned that rather than assigning pairs of children and young adults, it was better to provide guidelines and let mentors choose their own companions. And they encouraged mentors to spend their own money on food and activities rather than organizing dinners and trips. (Using outside money to solve financial problems is done, but only in extenuating circumstances.)

“When people tried to clear paths for Jesus through the human clutter, he noticed the marginalized ones at the edges.”
—from The Alongsiders Story

In short, rather than questioning the capacity of youth to solve problems, and setting up external programs, they mobilize and empower youth. It has borne good fruit. Referring to Ezekiel’s vision, Gray and Greenfield write that they “are seeing dry bones spring up with new life again as Alongsiders at the margins of their societies take up the call to love and serve their little brothers and sisters as disciples of Jesus. The world may see them as poor children and youth, but they’re doing restorative work that, by God’s grace, should humble and inspire the rest of us.”

In explaining the Alongsiders approach, Greenfield displays the same wisdom as in his previous book, Subversive Jesus. He’s got vision, but he’s not idealistic. Several very nuts-and-bolts chapters describe the “leaderless” model of Alongsiders and how they motivate their mentors to become Alongsiders in the first place. There is much to learn here for any church hoping to be effective not only overseas, but even in its own backyard. And they’ve wisely included a whole chapter on “Protecting Children,” enumerating the need for policies of child protection and laying out their methods of effective training, protocols, and systems of accountability.

In their final chapter, the authors list their three guiding truths: “The kingdom of God is here!” “Authentic and lasting transformation starts locally,” and “Slow and steady.” While the last point echoes the idea of “patient ferment” from Alan Kreider’s 2016 book examining that concept, the first two remind me of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, who preached, “How good it is that the rulership of God does not depend on the flaunted abilities of a few people who are at the top. No, his rulership first seeks out the sick, the poor, the abandoned. God’s blessing is not a matter of improving the surroundings and decorating the houses of those who already have it made. This is why each person must become poor and remain so, so that it can never be said to anyone: ‘First you must acquire this or that, or else we can’t make use of you!’ In God’s kingdom only one thing is required: a complete about-face.”

That challenge coupled with the vision of old bones being restored to life is certainly humbling and inspiring. If such work for the kingdom excites you, grab this book, educate yourself, and then go find someone to walk alongside.

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Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman lives at the Woodcrest Bruderhof and is the editor of Bruderhof.com.

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  • How wonderful the Alongsiders are, not belittling or "knowing best", but encouraging the growth from inside so everyone can share their knowledge and love. Must get more information.

    Jacquie Watson
  • Thanks for your work! I used to receive Bruderhof emails, and then I lost contact. Glad to have found you all again. Thanks for the review of the Alongsiders.

    Sharron Blezard