It might have been enough to give volunteers a bad name: someone making off with a load of donated food instead of delivering it to the church food shelf for the Christmas Eve giveaway.

But parishioners, strangers and corporate neighbors stepped up Wednesday to replenish what might have been lost at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis.

"It restores my faith in our community," said Tchaikovsky Rogers, administrative director for the food shelf, as she and dozens of others unloaded more than a ton of groceries sent to the church to cover the disappearance of hundreds of pounds of food. "People are stepping outside themselves to help others in need."

Gethsemane's pastor, the Rev. Jeff Nehrbass, said the donated food disappeared Friday between a dance school where it had been collected and the church, where volunteers had been expected to deliver it.

"Some of it arrived and some didn't," Nehrbass said. "I was heartbroken and angry that someone who had signed on to help signed on only to take. But truthfully, in these past days, the heartbreak has turned into an overwhelming feeling of amazement as so many people have come forward with gifts of food and money to not only make up what we lost, but to give way beyond."

Police said they have identified a suspect but have not found the missing food -- or a motive. They're continuing to investigate.

Meanwhile, what had been a room at the church lined with nearly empty shelves, depleted after a recent giveaway, was transformed Wednesday into a scene of modern but biblical plenty. Bags and boxes filled with canned food, pasta, potatoes, crackers, juices and even sauerkraut crowded the floor so densely that only a small walkway was left open. Volunteers couldn't stock the shelves nearly as fast as food was arriving. Rogers and another staffer, his forehead damp with perspiration, jammed so many hams into a cooler that Rogers had to double-check to make sure it closed.

The food shelf, known as Camden Promise, is operated by the three congregations that share Gethsemane Lutheran Church -- a black Baptist church, a Hispanic Seventh Day Adventist church and the Lutherans.

Nehrbass said the number of food shelf clients has grown from 16 to 164 in the year and a half since it opened. He described them as mostly single mothers, or unemployed, or working poor in the Camden neighborhood, where many residents are also still struggling to fix homes damaged by the May 22 tornado.

Most of the food that arrived Wednesday will be given away Saturday -- after a service for all Gethsemane's diverse congregations -- in packages designed to provide a Christmas Day meal for a family.

"There's no reason anybody who lives in Camden should not have a Christmas meal," Nehrbass said.

Major donations in the rapid-response food drive came from Cub Foods, Coborn's Delivers, Hunger Solutions and KARE-11, which recently carried a story about the apparent food theft.

"We know how much people have been relying on food pantries," said Cub Foods spokesman Mike Siemienas. "We want to make sure these families have a happy holiday season."

Coborn's Delivers general manager Dave Hartmann noted that one new customer responded to her introductory offer of $25 off of a $100 purchase by donating the entire $100 worth to the Gethsemane food shelf.

"This was truly just a great community come-together," Hartmann said.

Indeed, the outpouring grew out of more than just Christmas spirit. Laura Monn Ginsburg of Minneapolis showed up to stock shelves the day after celebrating the beginning of Hanukkah with her husband.

"I had the time and the energy and I was capable," Ginsburg said. "There was no question for me that if somebody in my community needs food, here I am."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646