It's midnight. A homeless man is silhouetted against the brightly lit window of a convenience store on Hennepin Avenue, as anonymous as a shadow.
Allan Law hands him a bottle of chocolate milk and a pack of the cheapest cigarettes he could buy inside. "Take your medication," he says.
They're Michael (Sonny) Portlance's alternative to drugs. The sleeves of his sweatshirt hide arms scarred by needles. He thanks Law and says he's doing better at staying straight.
"He's a good man," Portlance says, pointing at Law. "This is the next Jesus Christ. This guy has got no condemnation against anybody."
Every night of the year, Law, 64, is on the streets of Minneapolis in a van packed with sandwiches for the homeless. The painted words "Love One Another" festoon the red van. While Law doesn't preach, he takes his born-again Christian beliefs seriously.
"I truly believe that God put me on this Earth to help the poor," he said. "I will do that until the day I die."
Last year, the retired Minneapolis schoolteacher distributed 85,000 sandwiches to hungry people. This year, he's on track to hand out 170,000. Because of a serendipitous encounter with a former student, volunteers at more than 100 Twin Cities churches will make 200,000 sandwiches this year for Law.
It is what Law does, and who he is. The kitchen of his Edina condo holds two freezers. Three more sit in the living room. His bed is covered with coats he is collecting for the homeless. He says he makes 70 stops a day on his mission to feed and help people, stealing an hour or two in the middle of the night to snooze in the van and napping at home before he hits the road again.
"He is as big a character as you will ever find," said Tony Zosel, the former student who set up 363 Ministries, the group that coordinates sandwich-making. "He has a network of people who rely on him. Everyone knows to call Mr. Law."
The man in black
It's 12:35 a.m. Law pulls up to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light shelter downtown and pops the van's doors.
"Hey, Mr. Law, how are you, sir?" asks employee Steve Austin, pushing a battered bin on wheels to the curb. "You are looking mighty fine in black."
People at the mission tease Law about his new black shirt, which he is wearing with black jeans and sneakers with worn-down heels. They load bottles of water, sandwiches and doughnuts into bins.
One bin goes to the third floor, where women lie on narrow mattresses that line a brightly lit hall. Before the sun is up, resident advocate Annette Sharp will clear space on an office desk for the sandwiches and put bottled water on a cabinet. Women will line up for the food before they hit the streets as the shelter closes for the day.
"I'll put it out at 4 o'clock, real nice and pretty," Sharp says.
Downstairs, snores rattle off the walls where 130 men sleep sprawled on the floor. But not everyone is inside. Across the street, a man sits slumped in a wheelchair that is parked on the sidewalk, bandaged leg stretched straight. His companion squats on some steps.
"You want something to eat?" Law calls out. The able-bodied man hurries to the car.
Law hands him sandwiches and water. "Thank you so much," the man says.
"I love you. Take care," Law answers.
A chance meeting
Zosel had finished an early morning run in 2006 when he stopped at a Bloomington convenience store.
"An old guy pulled in next to me and said, 'Hey, how are you doing?'" Zosel recalled. "I thought, 'I don't know you.'"
But the voice rang a bell. Zosel, who is 41, realized it belonged to Mr. Law, a charismatic teacher he remembered from sixth grade at Anwatin Middle School.
They talked, and Zosel called him later to ask if his Bible study group could donate 150 bologna sandwiches.
The next week, another member of the group volunteered to buy supplies, and the donation was repeated. Soon, dozens of churches were making sandwiches. 363 Ministries -- the name refers to feeding people on days other than Thanksgiving and Christmas -- has a website but no nonprofit status because members want to keep things simple. They now have freezers in Woodbury, Lakeville, Minnetonka, Plymouth, Edina and Minneapolis.
But Law is the sole delivery person. He's the guy with connections, the one who knows shelter folks and where to find homeless people who don't use shelters. He's the one whose cell phone number countless people call when they need help.
"Our goal is not to have Mr. Law do anything," Zosel said. "He's getting old. He's got health problems. His health will quit before he quits."
Saw need early on
When Law was growing up, his parents taught him and his three brothers that they had to work to get what they wanted. When Law was 9, he did odd jobs to buy a bike. As a high school student at Minnehaha Academy, he paid for half of his tuition and bought all of his own clothes.
He says he accepted Jesus at a Billy Graham meeting when he was a teenager. But he rarely has time to attend church.
Law says his concern for the homeless grew out of his teaching. He had students who were homeless or hungry. The more he tried to help, the more he saw the need. His all-night forays to help people began when he retired 10 years ago.
Law lives in the same condo building as his parents, who are in their 90s. He was married for a while in the 1960s but never had children. Not having a family of his own is a good thing right now, though, he says. It allows him to concentrate on his work with people who need his help.
When shelters are full in the winter, Law gives people $2 to ride the bus all night so they can stay warm. He fields special requests for financial aid throughout the night. But his help doesn't come without strings. He tells healthy people they need to get a job. If he gives money to people who have had drug problems, he tells them he wants a receipt the next time he sees them to prove the money was spent as intended.
Money for a dance
By 1:10 a.m., Law has dropped off 400 sandwiches at the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities shelter and is on his way to the North Side.
His phone rings for the fifth time in an hour.
"Hello, who is this please?" he asks, and a woman with a daughter who has drug problems says she has an apartment full of kids and no food. "Give me 45 minutes," Law says, stopping first at a house on a dark street near Farview Park.
A girl and her mother come out, and the smiling teenager leans on Law's open van window. The girl, a recently diagnosed diabetic, was on the school bus that was on the Interstate 35W bridge when it collapsed.
She wants to go to a high school dance but can't afford the $5 ticket. Law pulls out his wallet and gives her money for a ticket, plus $50 for a dress, both from his own money. They joke about Law having the first dance. He tells her he'd step on her toes.
The girl's mother worries about Law wandering around Minneapolis all night. But the girl says there is no reason for Law to be worried.
"My mother said you got all these guardian angels," she says.
At 1:40 a.m., Law's phone rings again. "How much is the water bill?" he asks. "Is she in school? Does she have shoes? Give me half an hour."
Five minutes later, he stops outside an apartment building in Northeast. The grandmother who called about the hungry kids is waiting behind the lobby door. Law carries bags of sandwiches and some water up the steps and opens his wallet.
'Doing the Lord's work'
Law has been recognized by the McKnight Foundation, the city of Minneapolis and the national Points of Light program for his work with kids through the nonprofit program he founded in 1967 called Minneapolis Recreation Development (MRD).
One of the conditions he set as founder of MRD was that no one be paid for the work. While he still runs some activities for kids during the day, tight budgets mean the days of big field trips are over. He uses MRD money to buy clothes and backpacks for kids and to help the homeless. He has sold some of his own property and uses his teacher's pension to keep his homeless food project going.
"The board keeps asking, 'Who will replace you?'" he says, turning the van onto Lake Street. "And I said, 'Who will work for nothing? And at night?'"
He pushes a CD into the van's player. Gospel music blares from the speakers.
"This keeps me going," he said. "It's a strange life, but I think I'm doing the Lord's work. I'm happy.
"If everyone just helped a little, said a kind word to everybody, the world could be a better place."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380