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Christmas dinner came a day early Monday for about 450 Buffalo residents in need.

They came in all ages, shapes and sizes. Some of the elderly used wheelchairs or walkers. Some of the homeless came in from the cold city streets. And some young mothers came with babies in their arms.

They all came to the Buffalo Christian Center at 512 Pearl St. to share in free, full-course turkey dinners prepared by organizations called the Buffalo Dream Center and Hearts for the Homeless.

The Rev. Eric Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, said donations for the Christmas Eve dinners came from people and organizations in 17 states and Canada. Johns said volunteers for his Boxes of Love project also wrapped and distributed 5,000 gifts this month at 17 sites in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and Amherst.

“Our guests’ immediate need is that they need something to eat,” the pastor said. “But we also try to feed them spiritually by bringing them closer to God.”

Ten young people from the Dream Team Dance Troupe performed a religious narrative before the food was served, driving home this message, “Jesus conquered sin; he conquered the enemy when he died on the cross so you can be free. Right now is an opportunity to bring Jesus closer to you.”

Johns said about 150 volunteers from local churches, businesses and organizations helped to serve the meals. “We have all worked hard for the entire month of December,” he said. “We have been wrapping gifts and packing thousands of boxes of food. This meal is a great way to end our Boxes of Love campaign. This is what Christmas is all about – serving others.”

The Buffalo Dream Center, now in its 19th year, has been serving Christmas dinners to the less fortunate for the last eight years, the pastor said. He is perhaps best known, however, for his annual custom of spending all of Thanksgiving week each year living on the streets with the homeless, crawling into a sleeping bag each night beneath an expressway underpass, or sleeping in a local shelter.

The Thanksgiving week tradition is intended to raise consciousness about homeless people and money for Christmas dinners, such as the ones served Monday.

One of Johns’ most satisfying success stories is the journey of Tomaine Jordan of Riverside, who first came to the Buffalo Dream Center by himself 14 years ago at age 9. Jordan needed help while his single-parent mother was looking after his five brothers and sisters as they faced the imminent loss of their home.

“We were homeless,” Jordan said Monday. “Through the generousness of Pastor Johns and his church, we stayed in the church building until we found another home.”

Inspired by the help his family was given, young Jordan stayed on with the Dream Center and now is an employee there.

“I would like to become a pastor and share my good fortune with others,” Jordan said. “I preached my first Sunday sermon here five months ago, and I have a commitment to give the principal inspirational sermon next month at a church in Lockport.

“My message will be that, despite your struggles, you are worth something in God’s eyes: you can do it; you can make it!”

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com