Richard Bahr's plan was to spend the rest of his working life as CEO of his manufacturing firm. Grow the business. Retire early. Enjoy more nice things.
Here's what he didn't see coming: One morning, he served grits and oatmeal out of a friend's van in front of a homeless shelter. That act of feeding others would fundamentally alter his path and worldview.
More than a decade later, Bahr, 59, has since left his business but continues to dish up those meals. Now a pastor, he leads a volunteer-run ministry, 2.4 Ministries, that serves breakfast to homeless people every morning at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis. He'll do it again on Thanksgiving for the 16th year in a row.
"I like to say God ruined my plans, but he bettered my life," said Bahr.
We all know about the "thanks" in Thanksgiving, but Bahr's example reminds us about the "giving."
Over the years, he's invited some of his unhoused friends from shelters to share the holiday dinner with him, his wife and children. It was a chance for them to get a break from the streets and underpasses, eat turkey and watch football. His four kids, now all grown, wondered every fall whom Dad was going to bring home for Thanksgiving.
Bahr felt so strongly about what the homeless taught him that he wrote a book called "Those People." The title was a play on the snap judgments we often make about individuals we see in encampments or on street corners, and how incredibly wrong we are. Bahr says he has seen reckless generosity among homeless people, as well as faith, love and tenacity.
"When you think of the block you live on, there are amazing things about your neighbors you don't even know," he said. "There's also people on your block that are complete knuckleheads. The homeless community is a microcosm of all of that."
One person he got to know as a volunteer chaplain at Harbor Light was George Floyd, who worked security there months after arriving in Minneapolis. The first time they met, Bahr observed Floyd kicking out a man who appeared to be inebriated.
"He wasn't physical, but he was riding this guy," Bahr recalled. "He throws this guy's bag out in the street and marches right back into the shelter."
Then Floyd, all 6-foot-4 of him, put his face in his hands and cried. He felt he had been too harsh on the man he had just evicted.
"I shouldn't have said those things. I was nasty," Floyd told Bahr.
With Bahr's arm wrapped around Floyd's shoulder, the two men shared stories of their pasts. They discovered they were both in recovery. (Bahr has been sober for 42 years.) After Floyd was killed under the knee of Derek Chauvin, Bahr often wonders whether he's using all of his advantages — as a college-educated white man — to level the playing field for others.
But he'll die trying. The nonprofit Bahr founded, Threshold to New Life, works to keep people housed. The group is on track this year to help more than 600 families avoid homelessness, typically through small grants that cover rental application fees, utility bills and other costs.
It hasn't always been an easy ride for Bahr. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and describes his mid-teen years as one of juvenile delinquency. His ice-breaker at parties is that he's probably the only person you've met who's been ticketed for more moving violations before he got his driver's license than afterward.
One formerly homeless man who asked not to be named in in this story — we'll call him Mr. H. — met Bahr eight years ago at the Catholic Charities Higher Ground shelter in Minneapolis, when Bahr was giving out socks and stocking hats. Mr. H. found in Bahr a good listener. That blossomed into a friendship and occasional trips to McDonald's together.
Mr. H said he mostly told Bahr about how miserable and exhausting it was to be without a home.
"What I learned from that experience was that I'd do everything to not get back into that situation again," he told me.
He eventually was able to rent an apartment. When he fell behind on payments, Bahr's nonprofit helped cover the rent. He's been housed for seven years now.
Bahr hasn't completely stepped away from his executive world. He coaches about 20 CEOs who've been inspired by his lane changes in life. "I've gotten a lot of things right accidentally, and I try to help people get things right intentionally," he said.
When I spoke to Bahr last week, he had just completed a day that started well before dawn serving breakfasts and ended late at night handing out socks. He was exhausted, and a mystery illness that had been bothering him for the past few weeks made the day stretch even longer. Ironically, the chaplain who gives socks to the impoverished can no longer put on his own socks due to sudden inflammation in his hips and shoulders.
"Are you OK, Pastor?" one of the men at the shelter asked him. The gentleman prayed for Bahr right on the spot.
That gesture brought Bahr to tears. He was the pastor serving people at a homeless shelter, and yet who was praying for whom? Moments like that fill Bahr with gratitude.
And when you're grateful, he says, it's easier to give.
If you'd like to serve breakfasts through 2.4 Ministries, reach out to Bahr on his website, richardbahr.com. You can also check out other volunteer opportunities through the Star Tribune's Inspired calendar at bit.ly/3G4QqGM.