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James Green cooks breakfast

Profile: James Green, breakfast MVP

Added on Monday, May 11, 2015

It bothered James Green that he couldn’t see the homeless woman’s eyes. Every time he saw her waiting in line for a hot breakfast at the West 7th Salvation Army in St. Paul, she used a hat to cover most of her face.

“Someone, or something, was making her feel invisible,” said Green, 35, who this month is celebrating 10 years as head cook of the breakfast program.

Breakfast program at West 7th Salvation ArmyOne morning, he decided to approach the woman. He left the kitchen and walked up to her as she stood in line. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully.

She looked down, attempting to hide.

“It’s important for me to see your eyes so I can acknowledge you,” Green pressed.

She still didn’t want to be seen. Green respected her wishes and let her be.

To his surprise, she tracked him down after breakfast.

“She wanted me to re-explain what I’d told her,” Green said. “We went out into the lobby and sat down. I told her, ‘I see you. I want you to know that you are seen and that you are important. You are seen by me and you are seen by God.’”

At that moment, the woman looked up and smiled a gargantuan smile.

“Ear to ear,” Green recalled. “You know the moment the Grinch isn’t a Grinch anymore? Like that smile.”

Say hello to James Green, a man who embodies all the good The Salvation Army strives to spread.

Three things in common    

Every weekday morning, Green and volunteers cook eggs, pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast favorites for an average of 200 people experiencing homelessness, unemployment or underemployment.

breakfast plateInterestingly, Green would have ended the previous sentence after the word “people.” To him, there are no homeless people, or poor people, or unemployed people. There are only people.

“Society comes up with too many reasons to be divisive – this person is this, this person is that,” Green said. “But that doesn’t explain or define any of the individuals. There should be no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are serving each other – other human beings.”

Looking through that prism, Green believes all humans are exactly equal, with exactly three things in common:

  1. We are all created by God.
  2. We all have a heart that depends on every beat.
  3. We are all in need of love.

Approaching life with those three things in mind, and his love of Jesus Christ, is a necessity for Green given how complicated his job is. Every weekday at 5 a.m. begins a new and difficult morning of spreading love to people in short supply of it.

There are many challenges, including fights to break up.

“One time I had to rip a screwdriver from a guy’s hand – he was trying to jam it into another guy’s head,” Green recalled.

There are staffing issues to resolve. With Green as the breakfast program’s only paid employee, his work depends on the help of many volunteers. (Sign up to serve breakfast with him.)

James Green with volunteers“A comfortable crew of volunteers is eight to 10 every morning, but we only average five to seven,” he said. “At least two dozen times, we’ve had to serve the entire breakfast with just me and one or two others.”

There are insults to deflect. One morning, while Green was leading breakfast guests in a short sermon before their meal, one of the guests started shouting the n-word at him.

“I was offended and people were offended, but I didn’t respond to him,” Green said. “I wanted to show everybody what it looks like to show love and let God have control. I told them, ‘You know what, guys? This is when you know God is real.’”

God’s armor hangs heavy on Green. It’s a good thing, because the devil is equally real: “It seems like every time I preach about love, somebody at breakfast wants to fight,” Green said.

Path to the Army

In a roundabout way, Green wound up working for The Salvation Army because of earrings.

James Green serves a mealHe got his ears pierced when he was a teenager living with his mom, step-dad and siblings in Chicago. Until he got his ears pierced, he and his step-dad had played basketball together every Sunday. But his step-dad all but disowned Green after the piercings.

“At that point we stopped playing basketball on Sundays, so I decided to go to a local church,” Green said, adding that his relationship with his step-dad is fine now.

At church he met a youth pastor who became a close friend. So close, that when the pastor moved to Minnesota, Green followed at age 21. Both began working at Lutheran Church of the Master in Brooklyn Center. Green worked there for several years while going to school at Northwestern College, and working other part-time jobs.

“I started school for general ministry, then switched to business management, then did culinary arts – it kept, like, reshaping,” he said with a laugh.

Whatever his path, he knew that it would somehow involve the ministry. His passion for Christ was so strong that when he was living in Chicago, he often ministered to people on the street, by himself, just because.

“I kind of freelanced,” Green recalled. “I’d go out, find people, and see if they needed anything to eat. I was looking for anybody who wasn’t getting help.”

Napkin dispenser on breakfast tableIn 2005, a friend told Green to apply for a job as lead cook at the West 7th Salvation Army. He got the job, having worked plenty of food service jobs before and having attended culinary school. But none of his past experiences quite prepared him for the rigors of cooking breakfast for up to 300 guests with serious life challenges.

“I was intimidated,” Green admitted. “I thought I was out of my league.”

Ten years later, he’s the league’s MVP.

“In a stormy and rough world, James is an anchor of stability to world-weary people,” said Captain Geffory Crowell, West 7th Salvation Army administrator. “He makes great food and creates a safe atmosphere.”

Bright future

Green is satisfied with his job because it feeds his soul.

James Green shopping for meal ingredients“The guests here encourage me so much – they pour it back to me,” he said. “They say they’re grateful for what we do, that this place is a blessing and a refuge.”

Green is not only satisfied, he’s hungry for more ways to spread Christ’s love: Last fall, he started a suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention nonprofit called Suffer No More. Among other things, the program connects people in crisis with professional counseling and financial support.

“These individuals are often living on the edge, deciding whether to keep living or to quit,” Green said. “We want to help them. It all gets back to the fact that these are human beings, who depend on every heartbeat, who need love.”

Between his nonprofit, The Salvation Army, and another side-job, Green sleeps only five hours a night. But he doesn’t mind sacrificing himself for the good of others.

James Green cooking“I’ve allowed my vision, focus and mission to be more important than my personal care,” he quipped.

He’s also allowed somebody other than himself to be in charge of his life.

“Ten years ago, I thought that by now I’d own my own restaurant and have a cooking show,” Green said. “It’s amazing how even if you have a good plan, God will show you His will is better.”