Now my Grandfather, a conservative Baptist minister in the North Carolina foothills, knew and liked to tell the story of the Salvation Army: Preacher William Booth and his wife, Catherine, started soul saving in England, a street preacher outside the more formal methods of traditional churches, taking The Word to the people and all. But he was a man with a gift of powerful tonsils and a righteous spirit, yes he was.
The Salvation Army’s history notes proudly that Booth’s “first converts” were thieves, prostitutes and addicts. Some churches snubbed such troubled folks for membership, but Booth took them all in. He called what he was doing “The Christian Mission,” though at some point, after assuming the moniker of “General,” he dubbed what he’d created the “Salvation Army” and the members of what still is a church were to call themselves “Salvationists.”
Yes, they still try to bring people to their church, which has about 1.5 million members now, but in the 164-year history of the Salvation Army it’s been a multitude of things to its members and its admirers: It’s known for its bands, its missions, its kettles at Christmas, its life-risking service to soldiers in all wars, and on all front lines.
And even some who don’t serve the Army all their lives are changed for the better: the late John D. Loudermilk of Durham became a famous songwriter (“Tobacco Road,” “Abilene”) because his mother, serving the Salvation Army, taught him the instruments in the band.
The poor and those in need at times of emergencies aren’t the only true believers. In 2004, Joan Kroc, widow of former McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, gave the Salvation Army $1.6 billion, one of the largest private gifts to a single organization, ever. Her confidence was well-placed not just because of mission; the Army has maintained a strong reputation for financial management and humility in its leadership.
And that’s one reason this is a good time of year to remember the Salvation Army, in spirit and in tangible expressions of good faith in all it does.
My old man, as with many military veterans, always told me to direct the charity I could muster each Christmas to the Salvation Army. (Give to all, of course, as life allows.)
For he remembered those three Christmases thousands of miles from home during World War II, when the Salvation Army poured coffee and served doughnuts and sometimes provided simple supplies “the boys” ran out of, like toothpaste. Seeing those uniforms, and hearing the gentle voices within them, wasn’t like being home again, but it was as close as a soldier could get. Millions more remembered those things, too, always.
Year after year, decade after decade, when we’d pass some of the bell-ringers outside stores, later at malls, my father would nod to them. “World War II guy,” he’d say. “I can tell. I’m going tomorrow to volunteer to ring a bell myself.”
They didn’t forget, and the others in later wars (and in previous ones) didn’t, either.
“They were everywhere,” my father said. “That’s what we knew. Front lines, in the back, didn’t matter. You’d see their signs and you didn’t have to worry about having money for coffee and doughnuts. Nice folks, too. They made conversation and they’d talk about religion if people wanted to.”
As for the preacher back in the foothills, when the son got home from the war, he listened to the stories of the Salvation Army. They’d helped his boy far from home, so he’d encourage his own flock to visit the bell-ringer at the kettle in his small town, and they’d all chip in.
He never passed a kettle again, no he didn’t.
And that faith in grace and generosity, generation after generation, has been well-earned and still is.
So it’s time again, to make that gift for the old man, and for none of us to ever to pass a kettle without emptying the loose bills and change into it. “Thank you!” they always say, with a hearty ring.
No. Thank you.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org