I thought I was here to meet people’s physical needs. Jesus showed me I’m here to meet spiritual needs too.

by Joseph

“What’s the point in helping people materially if there’s no change spiritually?” Our intern had been observing our work in a north Indian slum for a month or so. His question put words to something that had been bubbling in my subconscious mind for some time.

For the past few years I’ve been very busy helping my neighbours. My primary role is in literacy. My Indian colleagues and I have been able to assist several hundred children to become literate in Hindi, their mother tongue. This enables them to participate in schooling much more effectively – as they say, you need to learn to read before you can read to learn. We also started helping many people access government services – things like bank accounts, pensions, and gas connections. The government has many schemes for the poor, but those who are genuinely destitute are often unable to access their rights due to a combination of lack of knowledge, complex bureaucracy, and corruption.

Then Covid hit. Crematoriums and cemeteries were overwhelmed: the pandemic killed an estimated five million in India. Covid saw our education and development work take a back seat so we could respond to a more pressing need – food. Many of my neighbours live a hand-to-mouth existence, and the strict lockdowns meant cutting from three meals a day to two, then one, and, for some families, none. We were able to raise money from friends and colleagues in the West to distribute 30 tonnes of dry food (rice, flour, lentils, etc.) to 3,000 families during the worst of the lockdowns. It was a huge effort, but it helped many people get through.

During the last few years, we’ve seen an enormous number of people helped materially. However, our intern’s critique had some validity: we had brought much needed short-term help, but not longer-term or deeper change. I could point to hundreds of kids who had become literate and thousands who had benefited from our relief programs. But I could count on one hand the examples of significant attitudinal, social, and spiritual transformation – changes in the way people think about themselves, others, and God.

Such changes are less tangible, less controllable, less measurable. They are much harder to foster. My task-focused personality finds it easier to run a project than sit down and have a deep conversation.

Reflecting further, I realised that I’d been under a naïve impression that since ‘actions speak louder than words,’ I didn’t need to use words at all. I further realised that I had been reacting against a watered-down Christianity which ignores the hundreds of passages about God’s heart for the poor and economic justice. I think about verses like Matthew 25:40 (“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”) and Luke 18:22 (“Go, sell all your possessions, and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.”) and how we fail to follow them. But God loves us as wholes – body and soul, individual and community, humanity and creation. In reacting against one narrow reading of the gospels which emphasises words over deeds and spiritual over material, I was perhaps imposing my own bias.

This year, after returning from a break in Australia, my family and I started inviting close friends for conversation over a meal. I had already followed Jesus quite literally in feeding thousands (Matthew 14:13-21); now it was time to adopt Jesus’ model of dinnertime fellowship. I don’t know any tax collectors, prostitutes, or Pharisees. Instead, our evening guests are ricksha wallahs (tricycle pullers), mochis (cobblers), and widows.

Our friends love coming out for dinner and often dress up in their finest clothes. Our one-room house, which Western guests struggle to adjust to, is like a palace compared to the dingy, flimsy shacks our neighbours call home. Mum (I grew up here as a TCK and moved back after my university years) makes the dinner, cooking up treats to add to the sense of celebration. We are often astonished by the amount of food our scrawny friends put away. They have learnt since an early age to tuck in when free food is available, as lean times are likely not far away.

After dinner, I ask my parents to share a little as to why they made the decision, some 27 years ago, to leave potentially lucrative careers in Australia to live and work in a slum. They talk about a turning point: the invitation from Jesus to forsake the pursuit of wealth for the sake of something greater. Our friends often recognise this idea, having heard similar exhortations in the Quran or in the Hindu scriptures. We agree with them that every major faith has similar injunctions to serve others, though few adherents actually do it. This leads to nods of agreement.

I sometimes tell a contextualised rendition of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a powerful story to illustrate our understanding of God not as a distant, angry ruler (a common view in Islam and Hinduism), but instead as a caring father who is very ready to receive us ‘home’ should we be willing to turn around and come to Him.

The story is even more remarkable in this honour-based culture where the younger son’s insolence to his father is a crime beyond forgiveness. I asked one twelve-year-old kid to put himself in the story and imagine what his father would do if he had wasted all that money and then came back home. Prateek replied honestly, “He’d beat me with his belt.” Prateek’s dad looked sheepish but didn’t deny that it was indeed what he would do. In this context, our heavenly Father’s forgiveness is all the more remarkable.

Talking about faith with my Muslim and Hindu friends takes me out of my comfort zone. It is easier to give bread than to talk about the Bread of Life. Sometimes, though, it’s important to use words as well as deeds, to prioritise relationships not just tasks.

It’s hard to think about how to help address people’s spiritual needs in a context of overwhelming material need. As James writes, spirituality is empty without social action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Yet over a meal, in the context of a lasting friendship, there is space for spiritual discussion even with those facing the direst circumstances.

I’m not expecting to ‘convert’ anyone, but I hope I’m able to show some of Jesus’ love for my neighbours just as I also experience Christ in and through them. Sitting on the floor with our friends, I feel I am living the words of Jesus: “When you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; and you will be blessed.”


Joseph (a pseudonym) was born and brought up in India by his Australian parents. He is part of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, and he lives incarnationally in an urban poor community while volunteering for a local literacy NGO. In his spare time, you’ll find him on the soccer field or engrossed in a book.


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.