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Church brings hope to homeless

The Rev. John Shelton waves his Bible in the air and smiles as he addresses his ragtag congregation.

As he speaks, Shelton paces over the glass shards that cover the asphalt floor of his church, a parking lot located in the shadow of a pungent trash bin and several boarded-up liquor stores.

He looks into the eyes of the prostitutes, drug addicts andhomeless people who make up his flock and explains how it'll take time to turn their lives around.

On this Sunday morning, about 30 people have gathered for the free food and Gospel messages they will receive at the Church on the Lot, nestled deep in one of the worst neighborhoods in south Dallas.

"A lot of these people are drug addicts and prostitutes, but they're real people and they have real needs and real hearts," said Shelton, a 40-year-old white Southern Baptist minister known as "Brother John" in the predominantly black area where he works.

Shelton has been ministering to the poor in the area for about three years. He's been shot at, threatened and ridiculed. But he's also gained a certain degree of acceptance.

"Nobody fools with him, because we won't let nobody hurt him. Brother John, he's our friend," said Nathan Royal, who says he has quit smoking crack cocaine in the two weeks he has been coming to the Lot.

During the brief sermon, most of the congregation watches intently and nods in agreement. Others stare into space. Some peer into Shelton's car, eyeing the boxes full of sandwiches they know they'll receive at the end of the service.

It's obvious that some _ like the woman who arrived halfway through the sermon and immediately began filling a plastic sack with fruit _ care more about the food than the message.

"That's true, but they also have physical needs. They need the food and to see that it's a message of love, that someone cares about them," said Shelton. "They don't have to listen to the sermon. But if they come to get the food, it gives me the opportunity to know them and maybe minister to them later."

Shelton spends a few hours before the service crisscrossing south Dallas, visiting and recruiting children for curbside Sunday school services.

At one such stop, about a dozen small children gathered in the cramped apartment that Maxine Coleman and many of her seven children call home.

"I feed all these kids. Their mothers are on crack and I worry about them," says Ms. Coleman, a part-time cook whose apartment has served as Shelton's Sunday school classroom for about two years.

After reading them a Bible story and leading them through several songs, Shelton asks them if there's anything special they'd like to pray for.

One little girl prays for her uncle to get out of jail. A young boy asks God to help his father get out of jail so he can take him to school.

But after three years in south Dallas, threatening incidents are rare, says Shelton, who can be seen during the week walking the streets with a backpack full of oranges for the hungry.

"A few are strung out, and the gangsters are still real coldhearted, but I have more friends there than I do in my own neighborhood," Shelton said.