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Matthew Barnett arrived in Los Angeles 17 years ago hoping to turn around a nearly dead church. When not one soul showed up for a Sunday-night service, he decided that perhaps that church wasn’t the cause he was supposed to take up.

When he reached out to the people who lived desperate lives in the streets nearby, he learned their needs were much more basic. Once he could help them survive to the next day, day after day, he won them over.

The result was the Angelus Temple, a now-thriving church that serves Los Angeles and the nearby Dream Center, a 400,000-square-foot facility that provides food, clothing, shelter, rehabilitation and other services to thousands of people most others just want to pass by.

His book, The Cause Within You (Tyndale; $24.99), tells about his experience and urges others to take action in their own backyards. Barnett recently took time to talk about the economy, finding your cause and staying inspired.

Q: Your approach in L.A. has been to reach people through your actions first and words second. Are you surprised at the depth of need that is out there?

A: I’ve never seen anything like this day and age we live in. We used to get two to three requests a week to help families; now we get six to eight a day. The numbers are staggering. I think the church is becoming awakened, whether they like it or not, that we have to mobilize beyond what happens on Sunday morning. If there’s any silver lining in this economy, it’s that churches are learning they are a tremendous answer to society’s needs.

Q: Plenty of churches do mission work in Third World countries. Would you like to see more reach out to desperately needy people in their own cities?

A: Absolutely. Churches can solve every problem in America. We can solve homeless problems and adopt orphans. We can make such a big dent in every situation … . We can forever redefine this country. This recession is a wonderful time to look at our country and the needs here.

Q: Who or what inspires you to do all of this?

A: I put myself in a place where God speaks to me — on the food trucks, in the projects, in the kitchens. If I don’t do that I’ll lose my inspiration. Our dreams are not on the mountaintop, they’re in the valley.

Q: Which of the Dream Center’s services most engages you as a individual?

A: Honestly, it’s usually whatever need we’re not filling. Shelter for victims of human trafficking has my attention now. After that, a home for emancipated minors. The foster care system kicks them out, and they’re dumped off on skid row in Los Angeles and have nowhere to go. Every one of them is so close to my heart.

Q: Your efforts in L.A. have inspired 120 more Dream Centers across the country and even more around the world. How are people being inspired by your experience?

A: People ask what they’re here for. I tell them that once you serve with what you have, a cause will find you. And your cause will be shaped by the people influenced by your compassion.

Q: I imagine you get a lot of celebrities at your church and center. Do the people who show up ever surprise you?

A: All of the time. Lindsay Lohan came by and was inspired; she gave away purses to kids in the program.

Patricia Heaton is one of the most amazing people. She comes by once a week to help out and goes to church here.

It’s funny, the reason they go to church here is that we bring in the guy who sleeps on a cardboard box. It’s a cause that allows them to leave Beverly Hills and go to downtown L.A. It’s the most bizarre thing – we don’t have a Hollywood ministry or a Hollywood Bible study. Somehow those people have decided that’s what they want to be connected to. They say that once you reach the people nobody wants, God will give you the people everybody wants.

Q: What’s the most important advice you give people who want to do something … to get started?

A: Don’t think about everything that could go wrong. Think about everything that can go right. Build your cause from an aspect of faith rather than fear.