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Garlain Johnson scoops scrambled eggs, hot sausage and buttery biscuits onto white Styrofoam plates. In his hands, the steaming plates become Christmas spirit for a line of hungry men wearing thick winter coats.
Johnson is not a guy who gives to the less fortunate because he has plenty. He's 63, recently widowed and lives on disability payments for painful back problems. He gives because that's what he and the people of Shiloh Temple International Church do.
"Regardless of what I'm going through in my life, I still feel good about taking time out and doing things for other people," said Johnson, a longtime member of the north Minneapolis church. "I wish I could do more ... not only because it's Christmas, but because I'm a giving person."
With little money to buy gifts, Johnson is giving of himself. His culinary talents. His heart. He finds great joy in cooking breakfast for people who are homeless, jobless, addicted or alone.
At Christmastime, the members of Shiloh intensify their year-round work of helping the needy. They donate toys to poor kids, hold a special banquet for seniors, and give gifts to children whose parents are in jail.
The fact that they have their own needs, well, that just makes them acutely aware of the value of human kindness.
"We have many people here ... who are either low income or no income. And really just living paycheck to paycheck," said Tim Brewington, an associate pastor at the church. "But they're faithful in their volunteer service to the church. They give what they can."
A force for good
With close to 1,000 members, Shiloh ranks as one of the largest predominantly black churches in Minnesota. After moving to their current location at West Broadway Avenue and Fremont Avenue about eight years ago, congregation leaders looked around and felt a pressing need to address some of the problems facing the neighborhood.
Every Sunday, starting around 6:30 a.m., church volunteers load up in a van and drive the streets and to a nearby Salvation Army, looking for homeless people and others in need. They bring them back to the church and give them a hot breakfast, new haircuts, clean clothes and invite them to stay for worship.
Then there's the Genesis Project, a 12-step addiction recovery program with a spiritual emphasis. And a program dealing with the high rate of diabetes in black communities. And another that helps families of people who are getting out of prison.
There's also the "Shiloh Zone," a 100-block area where church members have helped more than 450 households deal with issues they may be having with their kids involving education, food and clothing, said Brewington.
"Instead of waiting for individuals to come here to let us know what their needs are," he said, "we go out to them ... and say, 'Did you know we can help you with this?'"
Cassandra Dean arrived in Minneapolis in August, escaping an abusive relationship in Indiana. She has moved around with her four sons, ages 11 to 18, staying at different shelters and hotels.
At a bus stop one day, she met Chris Johnson, a barber and one of Shiloh's volunteers (no relation to Garlain). He steered her to the church, where she has found food, shelter, clothing and help to find a permanent job and housing.
"I just thank God for them," Dean said. "They take the time out to really go the extra mile to help people and to treat others as they would want to be treated."
Thanks to the generosity from Shiloh, her boys will have Christmas presents.
Gaining while giving
When he's not volunteering at Shiloh, Chris Johnson faces his own challenges. He's a single father to two boys, ages 8 and 9, and cuts and styles hair out of his apartment near Target Field. For more than a year, he's suffered from a painful wrist injury brought on by a bicycling accident, which has caused him to miss some work. But he still looks forward to his weekly shifts at Shiloh. He's there every Sunday, giving free haircuts.
"If I can cut their hair and make them feel good by a simple good word from the Lord, I don't mind getting out of my bed every Sunday at 5 a.m. to do this for them," he said. "These guys make me happy when I see them. If I can cut their hair, say something kind to them, that's good for me."
Carl Nelson is president of Transform Minnesota, a network of nearly 160 evangelical churches, and lives about six blocks from Shiloh. He's seen firsthand the positive impact the church has had in the community -- even when many of its members are also striving to make ends meet.
"I think it speaks to a deeper spiritual vitality when you see Christians who are charitable and who are serving, not out of their abundance," said Nelson. "It speaks to me of a different kind of spiritual vitality, a purposeful intent to really kind of live out the practice of their faith ... even when it hurts a little bit. Even when there's sacrifice."
Bishop Richard Howell, senior pastor at Shiloh, says the church tries to live out the Christmas spirit of giving every day.
"If you want to be great, serve," he said. "It's not about being famous or popular or trying to be rich. ... Yeah, you may be doing well, but what about the person sitting next to you? What about the person living on your block?"
Rose French • 612-673-4352