The Opposite of Poverty–It’s Not What You Think.

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A toothless, one-eyed man named Billy who lived on the streets offered me his last gift card. My own self-centeredness was assaulted by the reckless kindness of this stranger with a scruffy beard. Who was this man and why would he do this? I was learning lessons on true wealth and doing justice from what appeared to be the most unlikely of teachers during my week living on the streets of New York City. Talk about not being able to judge a book by it’s cover…


In the book Just Mercy, author Bryan Stevenson says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Poverty is not just the simple absence of wealth. Poverty is the social condition of being disfavored.”

Being poor isn’t just being broke. Being poor is something you are branded with by society or even yourself as a negative identity. It is being stamped with a scarlet letter that defines your worth by your current situation.

It is human nature (the bad part of human nature) to wonder why a person is poor and then surmise whether they deserve our help or not. We reason that maybe people who struggle financially are just getting what they deserve. We know that we ourselves have gone to great lengths to avoid poverty: studying hard in school, then working hard to move up the career ladder. We immediately assume the person in poverty must not have the same values or work ethic as we do, otherwise they wouldn’t be poor. In other words, we find them to be undeserving of our assistance and consider that helping them might even constitute enablement.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day once said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Author and Pastor Tim Keller wrote,

“Because there are a number of potential causes of poverty, a distinction is sometimes made between the deserving poor (the oppressed and the unfortunate) and the undeserving poor (behavioral). There are a number of reasons why such categories are illegitimate.

“First, the complexity of the interrelationship between the causes does not always make it easy to discern who is “deserving” and who is “undeserving”.

“Second, God, who shows mercy to the undeserving, is our model in showing mercy to others. Christ might have said, “They are wicked rebels…shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But that is not what he did. He left the ninety-nine and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving.”

The Bible is quick to affirm the dignity of the poor and condemn those of us who dishonor them by showing favoritism to others who we deem more worthy. It even goes to the extent of telling us that we could learn a thing or two from the poor who, are in fact, more wealthy than we are in the things that really matter-in matters of faith:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” James 2:5-6, 9


I learned firsthand how much I had to learn from those who are poor when I spent a week living on the streets of New York City in March of 2018. I did this because I felt led by God to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage. It was an extreme experience in which I saw Jesus up close and personal in the lives of many people challenged with homelessness.

I was shown great generosity by a man named Billy who, although he sleeps on a piece of cardboard every night, offered me his last Dunkin’ Donuts gift card that a stranger had given him. This angel in disguise was the one I described as “a toothless, one-eyed man from the streets.” He told me that what he really desired in life was to be surrounded by friends. His wisdom made me wonder who was rich and who was poor.

Another man named Jacques who I met at a soup kitchen offered to teach me a trade painting houses and give me work. He also showed me how to sleep in the Port Authority bus terminal without getting arrested. Instead of judgement, these men offered me kindness and assistance when I had done nothing to deserve it. This changed me. Coming close to people fighting to survive will do that. Coming close to Jesus will do that.

One of the stigmas that go along with poverty and homelessness is the assumption of addiction. You might assume that most people experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and while that is definitely an issue, according to the most recent annual survey the top three causes of homelessness among individuals were not addiction but 1. lack of affordable housing, 2. unemployment, 3. poverty. (Survey by U.S. Conference of Mayors) This paints a completely different picture for why people are living on the streets.


Bryan Stevenson describes poverty as a condition of disfavor-of being looked down upon and judged as undeserving. As followers of Jesus we are called to be agents of justice standing up for what is right and standing up for the weak. We know that the blessings God has given us are not only for us but for others in need:

“Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”-Psalm 82:3,4

Our job is not only to assist people in escaping poverty, but in escaping the stigmas that go with poverty. We do that by associating with them and showing solidarity in our common humanity. That is why at the organization I work at, New York City Relief, we set up chairs and tables to break bread together with our friends who are unhoused. Rather than just giving out charity, we offer community.

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Jody Wood, the creator of Beauty In Transition which gives free hair styling to people experiencing homelessness says, “The stigma of homelessness is such a learned cognitive error and it’s so easy to undo once you just have face-to-face contact between two humans in a tactile, intimate setting and a hair salon can create this.” This is the very truth we see displayed at every outreach operated by New York City Relief.

In many cases it is true that people have made bad choices that have contributed to their poverty. Our flesh finds it difficult to have compassion on someone who has rebelled against wisdom and embraced foolishness. We find people like that to be harder to love. Maybe that is why the great philosopher Socrates said, “Those who are hardest to love need it most.”

Of course, everyone has made foolish choices, but not all of us have had security nets such as stable family, education or a network to fall back on.

Bryan Stevenson goes onto say, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” This idea is echoed in the life of Jesus who, rather than judge and condemn the sinners he met, offered mercy. Where others saw trash, he saw treasure. More than just offering assistance or lessons, he offered relationship. Jesus knew that one way to destroy stigmas and crushing labels is to draw near to those suffering from them.

Jesus drew near to us, though we were undeserving and hard to love. He laid aside fairness to give us what we didn’t earn. This is how he calls us to do justice-offering the same grace we were given. By sharing our blessings, we destroy the poverty of a lack of housing, employment or resources. By loving those who are struggling we destroy the condition of being disfavored. Maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he said that he came “to destroy the works of the enemy.”

Despite being challenged with homelessness, my mentor Billy taught me a powerful spiritual lesson through his actions. He lived out the truth of scripture in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Thank you Billy, for showing me how to love like Jesus does.



This Thanksgiving, please consider loving people who are living on the streets by making a gift towards New York City Relief. We need your help to feed the hungry and offer hope and connections to vital resources. Give at: THANK YOU!


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