Balancing a 40-pound box on his shoulder, Pastor Randol Davis and a few members from his church knock on the wooden door of a random residence of inner-city St. Paul, Minn.
"Yah?" a man says, opening the door a small crack.
"We're from Hope for the Nations Church," says Pastor Randol, "and we brought you this box of food."
Ideally, the man would invite them into his home, and Pastor Randol and others would give him the Box of Love, filled with enough food to concoct a holiday meal. Perhaps they'd get to know him and pray for him. That's how it almost always goes, but it didn't happen that way this time.
"Not interested," the man says gruffly, closing the door.
Pastor Randol shrugs and he and his church members pile back into 2 vans and head to another house represented by a pin on a map.
The door-to-door visit was part of an annual event sponsored by Here's Life Inner City. The week before Thanksgiving that year, more than 46 churches and 5 ministries in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area -- the Twin Cities -- handed out Boxes of Love to residents in the inner city.
Across the nation, a total of 26,564 Boxes of Love were distributed in 16 different cities around Thanksgiving.
In St. Paul, the outreach helps Pastor Randol's church fulfill its mission, which is to bring hope to the unchurched. Pastor Randol knows about the search for hope. Growing up in St. Paul, he was a troublemaker who stole and fell into heavy drug use.
"I felt like a reject of society, a lost ball in the tall weeds," he writes in an autobiography.
But that changed in July 1978. "I surrendered my life into the hands of Jesus Christ," he writes. "The emptiness that had once overtaken me was gone."
That's why the Boxes of Love are so important -- a tangible way to bring hope to others.
Located on Maria Avenue, Hope for the Nations has participated in the Boxes of Love outreach the last 3 years. In 2006, 9 church members deliver the boxes on Friday, and 10 do so on Saturday.
Pastor Randol's cell phone rings. He picks it up, meanwhile using his left hand to steer the van down a dimly lit street.
"She said across the bridge and where now?" he says.
Traversing obscure neighborhoods, the scavenger hunt ends at the right house.
Visiting the homes of strangers is not something new for Pastor Randol and his church. When Hope for the Nations started in a Holiday Inn ballroom in 2003, he and the other 2 members often went door to door and invited people to church.
Currently, there are more than 75 people who attend each Sunday; three-fourths of them have become Christians in the past 2 years.
Hope for the Nations is predominantly an African-American church, but they seek to include all races.
When Pastor Randol's group stops at random houses in St. Paul, it's like rolling a racial dice -- they never know what ethnicity they'll find. The Twin Cities are incredibly diverse, including American Indians, Hispanics and even Hmongs -- a people group mostly from Laos. In fact, the Twin Cities area has the highest concentration of Hmong of any U.S. city.
"The Lord has given me a vision to reach out everywhere," Pastor Randol says. "I don't try and reach a certain kind of person."
Hope for the Nations helps people battle life's problems, including unemployment, homelessness or drug addiction.
"We try to be an encouragement to people," says Pastor Randol. "Even though people have been rejected, we have a place where they can be accepted."
In a time when people are increasingly wary of door-to-door visits from strangers, Boxes of Love help melt suspicion.
"It shows that we don't just care about their spiritual needs," says Pastor Randol, "but their physical needs too."
A stark sign outside an apartment complex reads: "No soliciting, loitering or trespassing."
Standing on the steps with 4 other members, Pastor Randol rings the intercom.
"This is a transitional house," a woman tells them sternly. "There's only women in here, and that's the way we want to keep it."
"We only want to drop off some food," says Pastor Randol. "We're from a nearby church."
The woman opens the door and lets them in.
Besides Boxes of Love, Pastor Randol has joined with HLIC for other events too.
"My heart is so connected with them," he says. "They are really out for souls. I tip my hat to them."
Other events include clothing giveaways, evangelism training and an Easter bag outreach similar to Boxes of Love.
During that outreach in 2005, some volunteers from Hope for the Nations met Johnnie Harris, 51.
"Let's just say they came at the right time," she says. "You could feel real love from them."
Because of a brain-tumor operation that still gives Johnnie headaches, she hasn't been able to work in 10 years. She didn't refuse a free meal from kind strangers. She attended church that Sunday, and became a member the next week.
"They are my spiritual family," she says. "They have given me the inspiration to help somebody else."
This is the mission of the church.
"The main purpose of Boxes of Love, outside of evangelism, is that it opens the door for the church to be relevant," says John Sather, director of Here's Life in Minneapolis. "It meets an immediate need near the holidays."
Pastor Randol and his church handed out more than 100 boxes. Combined with what other churches did, more than 2,000 boxes were distributed that weekend. And 10 percent of the families who receive the boxes will become involved with a church, says John.
A recovering drug addict named Darrell House helps with the Thanksgiving outreach. "I didn't attend church for seven to eight months," says Darrell, 46, who works as a diesel mechanic. "But now I'm getting back into it."
Late on Saturday night, Pastor Randol and some people from his church meet a single mother of 3 named Stephanie Doss, who bundles short dreadlocks with a blue bandanna.
"What do you need prayer for?" asks Laqueesha Watson, one of the church members.
"Anything and everything," she says.
Soon the members huddle in a circle and pray for her.
"I could feel comfortable in your church," says Stephanie afterward. "I'll come if it is the Lord's will."
The next day in Sunday service, Pastor Randol, whose father was a famous jazz performer, rolls a few organ chords.
"How many of you are thankful to be in the house of God today?"
"Amen," the crowd says.
Earlier, Pastor Randol asked how many people came to church because of Boxes of Love. Four people raised their hands.
"You ain't got to wait until Thanksgiving," he tells the crowd. "You ought to thank God every day."
The crowd cheers loudly, as if the home football team just scored a touchdown.
Sitting quietly in one of the pews is Stephanie, the single mother from Saturday night. Less than 24 hours ago members from this church came to her home as strangers; now she attends the service and knows a few of them by name.
Pastor Randol begins to play a popular worship song.
"While I was praying, somebody touched me /
It must've been the hand of the Lord."
Stephanie stands up with the rest of the crowd and begins to sing along.
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