Christmas arrived a week early at Brooklyn Center's Spiritual Church of God, and it was tasty.
On Sunday, Dec. 18, the Rev. Harding Smith thanked God for the 40-degree weather and welcomed his "small but powerful" flock with an overview of what awaited them after an hour of scripture:
"We've got spare ribs, we've got Pastor's signature pork chops, African collard greens and rice, mac and cheese and meatballs. Everybody can have a good time today. Amen!"
Smith was up the night before until 3 a.m. cooking all the food himself in the small kitchen of his nearby apartment. He was late to his own service, driving his donated red Chevy Blazer to pick up a family from a Minneapolis shelter. He wanted them, too, to enjoy prayer and fellowship in the transformed community room.
But the most astounding transformation is the pastor himself.
Ten years ago, Liberian-born Smith, 43, was a homeless alcoholic and diagnosed schizophrenic. "I would see him downtown and I wouldn't even believe he was my brother," said Arving Smith, 49, a church member.
If Arving offered Harding a ride in his car, Arving watched his wallet.
"Then, boom! He changed," Arving said.
"God told him to be a pastor," said Arving's wife, Aissatu Jallah. "He turned 360 degrees."
"How many of us are restless wanderers?" Smith asked, dressed in a dark blue suit, his deep voice rising as he stepped away from his podium toward his mesmerized flock. "If they would just slow down for a minute, they would notice the presence of God."
Smith's church (www.spiritualchurchofgod.org) began in his apartment with three people. It has grown to more than 70 members. Many are homeless, catching the bus to a nearby transit center.
Smith tells them that he, too, was once in their situation. "But," he said wistfully, "not really."
When he was growing up in Monrovia, Liberia, life felt safe. His father was the chief of police.
Smith skipped school sometimes to go fishing. He walked 14 miles round trip to sell bread to workers in the iron mines, using the money to buy his school uniforms.
In 1980, the country's president and a family friend, William Tolbert, was assassinated in a coup d'etat. Smith, only 12, was among many enduring torture by the new regime. His little toe was cut off with a dull knife. A needle was inserted into his penis. He was forced to watch a mother and son shot dead.
"I suppressed it all," Smith said. "I tried so hard to put that behind me."
He came to the United States in 1988. He married and had two children, but crawled into a closet at night, hiding under a blanket, shivering. He heard voices. His wife left him. He lost jobs. Drugs and alcohol helped him forget.
He moved to Minneapolis in 2000 and lived under a bridge, finding a place to shower every three days. And he prayed for a different kind of life.
Soon after, Karen Anderson and Chris Roman found him. Working for St. Paul-based People Incorporated's ACT program, which serves homeless people with persistent mental illness, they got him to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where he remained in the psychiatric ward for two years.
Two years ago, Smith said, God spoke to him. "I could feel the sun beaming down on my shoulder. Drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, all those burdens were lifted off of me. Since God moved into my life, I'm no longer on anything. I told the Lord, 'I'm going to do whatever I can.'"
These days, Smith is in bed by 8 p.m. and up at 2 a.m. to pray and begin his day. He often starts at the Brooklyn Center Justice Center. He attends hearings, then pulls aside men accused of domestic abuse or other offenses to offer them spiritually based mentorship.
"I look in their eyes and I can tell there's no father," Smith said. "No structure in their lives."
"Put away the old self. This is the new self now."
Some say they'll call him, but don't. Others show promise, then disappoint. Twenty-three-year-old Antoine was "a humble man, eager to learn." But Antoine missed his sentencing date, and Smith, waiting in the courtroom to support him, shook his head in dismay.
"I sincerely feel he was framed," Smith said, "but if he's guilty, part of what we do is have people take responsibility for their actions." He heard later that Antoine fled the state.
Others, though, call Smith a lifeline. Amir Sanford, 55, hit "rock bottom" as a drug addict. The former Chicago chef is rebuilding his life, largely with Smith's help.
"If you don't have money, he'll help you find work," said the soft-spoken Sanford, currently living in a shelter. Despite a hole in his foot due to diabetes, Sanford walked from St. Paul to the Salvation Army in Minneapolis to help Smith serve 11 trays of ribs to 200 homeless men, women and children the day before Thanksgiving.
His foot is now healed, which he attributes equally to modern medicine and prayer.
"He's the only person I know who does exactly what he says he's going to do," Sanford said of Smith. "I love the way he talks."
"You cannot serve both God and money. You have to decide which one you are going to serve."
Smith's sermon is delivered. It's time to eat. The community room TV is switched on for the Vikings game. He invites members to fill their plates to overflowing.
"I want you to eat," Smith said with a hearty laugh. "Praise be to God."
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