There’s no such thing as the “deserving poor”

My neighbors were evicted.

I came home to find their worldly belongings – a couple of dirty sheets, a filthy pink pillow and assorted clothing – piled in a puddle outside my front door.

They had previously been living crammed together in one of the tiny, windowless rooms that line our alleyway.

Apparently our landlord (the same tough old lady owns a bunch of the housing around here) decided that their drunken arguments were too much to put up with. So mother, father, and four kids ranging from ages 1 to 12 were thrown out on the street. They were gone before I even realized it.

A bleak existence just became bleaker.

But here’s the dilemma. There’s no doubt that the mother’s relentless drinking and fighting contributed to the situation they now find themselves in. She was hard to like and even harder to help. She neglected her kids in order to sit drinking and playing cards with the neighbors. She would scream at her daughters when they forgot to cook the rice or wash the clothes, while she sat around doing nothing.

So, why should I help her?

Have you ever noticed that there’s something in our human nature that seeks to divide people on the margins into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”? On the one hand, a trash-talking alcoholic who neglects her kids in order to play cards all day is easily deemed “undeserving,” while the four innocent children affected by her behavior are clearly “deserving.”

I bet I could raise a ton of money to help those kids. But I’d be hard-pressed to get folks to open their wallets to help that woman.

What I want to suggest to you today, is that asking whether people are “deserving” or “undeserving” is the WRONG question. And when you ask the wrong question, you’ll get the wrong answer – every single time.

Interestingly, Jesus dealt with this problem. In those days, disability and poverty were viewed as the result of sin. Much of the world today believes this way. It’s called Karma – the idea that your sins in previous lives directly impact this life. But Jesus rejected that analysis.

When the disciples came across a blind man, they wanted Jesus to tell them whose sin caused his predicament. They wanted Jesus to allocate blame. Instead Jesus chose to pivot to the more important truth:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:1-3)

Jesus is making it clear that God’s work in transforming lives is more about God’s love than whether the beneficiaries are deserving or not. For no one is worthy. That’s why we need God’s grace.

In Matthew 25, Jesus does not categorize people based on whether they had sinned…or not. Nor did He judge them by whether they had already had multiple chances…or not. His call was simply to reach out to those whose needs are unmet and love them: “I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was unclothed. I was in prison. I was sick.”

So, here are 3 principles to keep in mind as you engage with those who might be viewed as “undeserving” in your own life and ministry:

1. Extend the same grace you have for yourself, to others

The words of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you” are beautifully applicable in this situation. After all, we ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards for our lives. If we measured how much each of us deserve grace, forgiveness and love, you and I would BOTH fall short.

By a mile.

When I talk about extending grace, some assume that I am saying we should ignore sin. They wonder if I am advocating that we “enable” people in their destructive behaviors.

Please hear me clearly on this: I am not advocating enabling anyone. I am passionate about transformation. 

But I recognize: “There, but by the grace of God go I.”

I don’t know what demons my neighbor is seeking to escape. I don’t know what trauma or abuse she has suffered at the hands of others. I don’t know how her mother raised her (or more likely didn’t, since much of her childhood would have been during the Khmer Rouge years). I don’t know her enough to judge her. Only God does. So my role is simply to love and serve, and pray for change.

2. Seek to understand, rather than to judge

I find it SO tempting to judge. We’re quick to label those we view as undeserving, using terms like “Welfare Queens,” “dole-bludgers,” and “layabouts.” And in doing so we judge them unworthy of our love and effort.

I don’t believe this type of mean-spirited attitude reflects the love of Jesus.

Instead, seek to understand what happens at an individual level to a person who is demoralized, engaging in destructive behaviors, or seeking to meet their needs in unhealthy ways.

Marshall Rosenburg’s work on Non-Violent Communication has revolutionized my thinking about why people behave destructively, with the simple idea that everyone has valid needs. But we don’t always use healthy strategies to meet those needs.

For example, a person who drinks themselves into a coma every day may have a valid need for companionship and healing from the pain of their life. But their strategy to meet those needs (excessive drinking) is not healthy.

Secondly, seek to understand the systemic reasons for poverty and how people end up being marginalized and shut out of the system (and thus demoralized and engaging in destructive behavior).

For those of us from privileged backgrounds, seek to understand your privilege, so that you can then understand poverty better. Recognize that it is much easier for someone with resources to get help with an addiction or hide the problem. This is a blind-spot for most people from affluent and educated backgrounds, but it’s absolutely crucial that we engage in this kind of hard thinking, or we will end up doing more damage.

3. Finally, ask the RIGHT questions

So, the question is not, whether this person is “deserving” or “undeserving.” Dig beneath the surface and you quickly realize that no one, including you or me, is really “deserving.” But instead, the question is this:

How can I best extend God’s love to this person today?


What action will be the most loving and transformational in this person’s life?

These questions invite us to step away from judgment and towards transformation. These questions allow us to respond with the kind of grace Jesus first offered to us.

One night a few weeks before my neighbors were evicted, I heard the sound of sobbing outside my front door.

I switched on the lights and opened the door to find my alcoholic neighbor lying shivering on the ground, weeping and moaning. She’d had too much to drink and was nursing a swollen eye. She’d had another argument with her husband and was settling down to sleep it off outside. To top it off, she was in the advanced stages of her pregnancy.

Not a great combination.

I kneeled down beside her, trying to avoid the filth she was lying in: rat’s droppings, trash, and mud.

And I listened to her talk about her problems for a while.

She was at rock bottom, and she knew it. But she couldn’t see a way out.

From almost any perspective, people could easily label her “undeserving.” The list of her sins would be almost as long as the list of my own. But I know God doesn’t see her in those mean-spirited categories. He only sees a beloved daughter who desperately needs love, and grace, and forgiveness, and transformation.

My calling in that moment, and in every interaction with her since, is simply to extend love and grace, and try to help her find a better pathway.

I know that Jesus can heal her and set her free.

She may not be what most folks would think of as “deserving.” And neither am I.

And that makes us the perfect candidates for grace.

Originally published here.


craig1Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of Subversive Jesus (to be published by Zondervan in 2016). During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up

Partnering directly with poor churches is a promising way to do mission for affluent churches. Skip the middleman and Go Direct is the mantra of this internet age.

I personally like the idea of this approach because of the possibility it holds for real, long-term, mutual relationships to emerge between rich and poor. But if you’ve been involved in one of these “Church-to-Church Partnerships,” you’ll know that they are FRAUGHT with difficulty. Fraught.

I feel your pain. Maybe you started out thinking you had a Partnership of Equals and somewhere down the track realized you had become some kind of benevolent Santa Claus in a wildly unbalanced patron-client relationship – complete with the once a year visit and bags of toys for children.

So, it’s not surprising that churches who have experienced these pitfalls turn to concepts like Empowerment to help guide their way through this minefield. But words lose their meaning through overuse. And Empowerment is one of those words we love to abuse – an idea that started out as an important concept and deteriorated into a noxious cliché.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone working with the poor who doesn’t “believe in Empowerment.” But when you add in cross-cultural complexity, and mix in some serious power imbalance because of how much money you bring to the table – you have a recipe to make everything worse. Much worse.

Face it. You’re going to screw this up. I know because I have, many times.

It’s going to take more than rhetoric to be truly empowering.

I visited an impoverished community on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A group of well-meaning Christians from Western countries had come to bless these poor Cambodians by building them houses. Each of the houses they built had a solid tile roof and concrete block walls, a cute front door and a brass plaque on the front – stating who had worked hard to come and build it.

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Built for the breeze

The only problem was, poor Cambodians build their houses on stilts so they can sit underneath during the heat of the day and enjoy the cool breeze. So, no one wanted to live in these ill-conceived foreign monstrosities. They stand empty and abandoned on the edge of the village — a testament to another failed partnership.

A stone’s throw away, there stands a rusting pump and well that had been installed by a different group of foreigners that had fallen into disrepair and also lay abandoned – for multiple reasons that I won’t list here.

Each group had good hearts and probably were deeply impacted by their trip. They probably went back to their home church bursting with amazing tales of miracles and encouragement.

But Jesus says we should judge a tree by its fruit, and I’m having trouble seeing the fruit for the poor in this scenario.

So, here’s an alternative approach, straight from the life of Jesus. It’s found in Luke chapter 9, a passage in which Jesus gathers his team together for an inspiring chat.

Imagine you are part of that team. Because, you know – you’re a disciple too. So, it’s not that weird.

There are twelve of you, and sorry to say, so far you’ve proven to be a pretty lackluster bunch gathered mostly from the margins of society – fishermen and outcasts.

But Jesus figures it’s time to send you out on your own to do some ministry. So He gives you Power and Authority to go kick some demon butt and heal some sick people. That’s all you need, and you’re set to go.

But then Jesus gives you one final instruction that blows your mind. It just seems too hard. Too crazy. Get this – Jesus commands your team to take NOTHING for the journey:

  • no stash of Dr Pepper or peanut butter or any food at all
  • no Northface backpack with built in compartment for a sleeping bag
  • no Visa card or even any local currency
  • no change of clothes…


Read it for yourself in case you think I’m making this up:

He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. (Luke 9:3,4a)

Hmmm. This is a hard one. I mean, you’re going to need a change of undies at least, surely!?!

Before you write this one off as simply too tough, let’s grapple with it for a moment shall we? Here’s my suggestion of how to understand what Jesus is doing here:

In stripping your team of their basic resources, Jesus is forcing you to rely completely on the local resources of the villages you visit as you do ministry.

He is forcing you to empower local people by your posture of dependence. Matthew put it even more clearly:

“Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for a worker is worthy of his food” (Matthew 10:9-10).

This is actually an incredibly IMPORTANT principle.

You see, bringing outside resources to help solve problems, without the ability of local people to copy that same strategy is the opposite of empowering – it’s immensely DIS-empowering. It sends the clear message that problems can only be solved by well-resourced outsiders.

Sure, those resources you bring will make an immediate difference. They will solve the problem. For now. But what happens the next time those people face a similar problem? They will be forced to turn back to you (or someone like you) for help again, thus setting in motion the inevitable patron-client relationship that we all know and love to hate.

So, Jesus is laying a foundation for an approach to ministry that is built entirely on working within the limitations of local people and encouraging reliance on God rather than you.

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An Alongsider praying for her “little sister” (who is also her neighbor)

Let me give you an example. I was visiting a poor family in a rural village a few months ago and they asked me to pray for their sick child. I had never met them before, but I had been taken there by an Alongsider (young Christian mentor) who was their neighbor.

Now, imagine I have a powerful gift of intercession – imagine I can pray for folks and they are healed. Imagine I was the most equipped candidate to pray for that boy that day. And now imagine I did pray for him and he was healed. Where would they turn next time someone fell ill? To the magic white foreigner of course.

I didn’t want that to happen.

So instead, I asked the Alongsider to pray for that boy. The Alongsider, a 17 year old local Christian girl, became a local resource person who they could turn to for help in future. Ultimately, the goal is for them to know they can turn to God directly for healing.


I know, I know, it feels awesome to be the one that poor people look to for help and to be able to provide that help so easily. I’ve felt that power. It feels awesome to report back to your church about all the people you “saved.” But it’s not about you. It’s about what God wants to do through local people and particularly your local church partner.

Jesus is saying – leave your resources behind. Strip yourself down and come only to offer a way that relies on God and what He has placed in the people’s hands already.

Strip it back. Give up the posture of benevolent donor. Stop being a White Savior.

You’d think the disciples would have learnt this important principle by the time they get back from their mission trip. They had been reliant on God. They had taught reliance on God. They had seen miracles…

When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. (Luke 9:10,11)

This is the point where the stakes are raised. And maybe it’s the type of scenario you have in your mind when you complain to me that this stuff just doesn’t work in the real world of massive needs. They face a bunch of hungry people. 5000 of them.

And here’s what Jesus says to them: “YOU give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).

What? Can you believe this guy? Remember, they have just gotten back from a trip where they were forbidden to carry food or money, so they are highly unlikely to be carrying the resources to feed 5000 people. Highly. Unlikely.

On the surface, Jesus’ command to feed 5000 people seems pretty ridiculous. UNLESS, you had just been learning how to have eyes to see the resources that local people have.

Unfortunately, it seems the lesson was still sinking in, as the disciples struggle to grasp what Jesus is doing here.

And that’s where once again we see Jesus patiently demonstrate the principle of Local Ownership and Local Resources. This time it’s a little boy with a handful of tuna sandwiches who gets the ball rolling. So often it’s the young and vulnerable that we tend to overlook, and yet have the faith to trust in God. And we see the immediate need being met – 5000 hungry people fed – in a way that every single person there could replicate in future if they have the faith.

Now, not everyone is going to be down with this approach. Some people are looking for church partnerships because they have an agenda that is not a Kingdom agenda. That’s why Jesus says, “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5)

It seems a bit harsh to me, but Jesus is making the point that not everyone is going to have the faith to see this as a good thing. In that case, don’t be discouraged.

Just. Move. On.

So, there it is. How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up. At the heart of this approach is a willingness to come empty-handed and open-eyed, just as Jesus did (Phil 2:7), and in humility and solidarity, point people towards God and the resources He has already blessed them with.


This is a pretty radical way to approach church partnerships. But one which we need to seriously consider. There is a lot more complexity to it, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. So, if you are left with questions or difficulties, feel free to raise them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to engage with you.


Originally published here.

craig1Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of Subversive Jesus (to be published by Zondervan in 2016). During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.


Don’t Shun the Small Things


Often in community development work we focus on the big things – the massive ideas that will transform the local economy, the construction of classrooms or strategies for improving local human rights. The challenges are not small, so our work efforts expand to meet the needs – we make our best, biggest attempt, anyways.

Today I was thinking of the small things.

We started a school last year. It took the better part of the year to secure the land, design and build the school, decide on curriculum and recruit teachers. I got to make one small decision – the color of school uniforms. Most of the students in Burundi wear khaki uniforms, but technically olive green and blue are also acceptable options. Khaki – the color of the dry dirt that covers the hills of this community and a drab green were immediately ruled out. I wanted bright blue for these boys and girls, vibrant and saturated with life.

Bright blue uniforms for kids with bright futures. It’s a small decision, but not insignificant.


My husband also decided this summer to make a small addition to the school grounds. He hired a friend to make a swing set for the kids. He wanted the kids to be able to swing and slide during recess and reclaim some childhood joy. A small choice really, but these smiles say otherwise.


Over two years ago we opened a bank in the capital city of Bujumbura, a hybrid of a microfinance program and community bank model. This year we responded to the growth by building two new branches, one in a rural community and the other in a hard-hit urban neighborhood. My husband made a decision early on – these buildings would look beautiful.

He decided that the signature feature of both buildings would be stonework, something that cost a bit more but also communicated much more. He believed that the unbanked people of these neighborhoods deserved a bank they could be proud to enter. He wanted them to know, just from looking at the building, that this was a place they would be valued and well served.

This week we had a grand opening… and it seems the community got the message. Stonework is a small aesthetic choice, but it says loudly what is in our heart for these families.


This past summer we celebrated the five-year anniversary for our first community development project in the green mountains of Matara. We thought it would be a great idea to do professional portraits of the men and women of this community to mark this landmark occasion. This is not something that is part of community development protocols or best practices – studio shots. But we thought it would be fun.

It turned out to be profoundly significant for these men and women. Their posture changed and smiles reached across their faces as they saw their images through the eyes of the camera lens. This small photo shoot conveyed such dignity to our friends. You can see this small thing mattered…





I just want to remind my fellow practitioners out there – don’t ignore the importance of the smaller things. Choices about beauty and bright color communicate value and worth. Choices about swing sets and photo shoots bring back some humanity to young and old alike. The simple and small kindnesses we extend to one another always matter. Let’s not shun the smaller things.

I believe that small things, small as mustard seeds, can bring large dividends beyond our wildest imagination.


Do you tend to focus on the big picture or the small details?

How do you balance the big and small matters in a large scale project?

What are small things that have made a massive impact in your own life?


Kelley Nikondeha | community development practitioner in Burundi

Twitter | @knikondeha           Blog |


A Land Flowing with Milk & Honey

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The dark-soiled land was rich with promise. As they stood on the property line looking across the verdant valley carpeted with cabbage and hills of slim trees whispering with the breeze, the 30 Batwa families could scarcely believe this was their new home. Each man had a plastic grocery bag with the family’s belongings – a cooking pot, some salt, maybe the metal head of a rusted hoe or some cups. Other than that, they had only what hung on their thin frames, like picked over clothes left on a clearance rack. Their eyes were hungry for this sweet land.

The first six months of our combined community development efforts wore us all down. Land cleared for homes, loam planted with cassava, sweet potatoes, carrots, ground watered with new irrigation pipes across the hills. The families rotated through the local clinic for malaria treatment. We faced leadership challenges and all manner of novice pitfalls. But they harvested their first crops and had enough to share with equally famished neighbors.

The next growing season came and they tried new crops – potatoes, corn, even mushrooms. Many families planted gardens with tomatoes and beans on their plots. Soon we noticed banana trees and other local fruit varieties planted and growing. By the end of the second year this community had reached food security. (And they continued the habit of sharing the surplus with their neighbors.)

Eventually the community saved enough money to invest in livestock like rabbits and goats. They wanted cows, but on the eve of purchasing one they realized they needed grass to feed the cows. So they held off on the cow and planted grass instead. It wasn’t long before they were ready for three cows. Our Batwa friends love their cows; it runs deep in their blood.

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For these friends, this was the first time they ever tasted milk. In the life before Matara, where they lived like slaves to other landowners, they were lucky to get dirty water to drink. Now they stood on their own land, rich with vegetation, and drank milk from their own cows.

The women brought their bright colored plastic cups forward and the chief of the cow-milking poured from a pitcher into each cup. The cups went into the hands of the youngest children to give them strength. Mothers and fathers circled around, watching with pride as their children drank milk.

Once the children finished their portion, the remainder was divided among the same cups for the parents to share. The milk mustaches looked stunning across their chocolate skin. I vowed to never take a glass of milk for granted again after witnessing this stable-side ceremony.

Only a few months later when we visited one Saturday morning did the leaders show us their most recent innovation – seven bee hives. They decided to cultivate honey. Very carefully my husband followed them toward the buzzing hives and listened to their plans for taking the honey from hive to market.

I stood back a more reasonable distance and marveled at their determination to try new things and contribute to their local community. Then it hit me on the steep incline of Matara, my feet deep in the dirt, Matara had become the land of milk and honey!

I stood on Promised Land.

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It was the third year of collaboration when cows came – and milk. Hives to generate honey. These things were considered luxury items by community development standards. Water was a necessity; milk a bonus. Honey was a sweetness we never imagined. But these families had arrived to a place of super-abundance, a land literally bursting with milk and honey.

For the first time I saw with my own eyes a land flowing with milk and honey. I finally caught a glimpse of what a lavish gift God promised to the slavery-weary Hebrews. I was humbled God gave the same abundance to my Batwa friends.

I also recognized that such goodness grew gradually over time, it didn’t happen overnight. The land had promise from day one. But it involved hard work, partnership, generosity and lots of sweat to make it to that third year. All the while, milk and honey were coming to Matara.

Maybe this is my way of encouraging all the practitioners out there to savor the goodness you see, cultivate it diligently over each season. And know that in time, abundance will arrive. It doesn’t come quick or easy, but that sweetness you can taste and see does come.

God still gives us land flowing with milk and honey. Trust me, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. 

Have you stood on a land flowing with milk and honey -(a super-abundance of some sort)?

For fellow community development practitioners out there – when did milk or honey come to your enterprise? When in the life of the community? Any stories to share… spill!

Kelley  Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi

Twitter: @knikondeha  |   Blog: