Monday, December 10, 2012

The Salvation Army, Discrimination, and Reality

Last week, while shopping in Harris Teeter, I was wandering down the cereal aisle when I came across a small pile of cash lying on the floor.  It was a ten-spot and four ones, not exactly a found fortune but still real money.  I looked around.  There was no-one nearby.  It had probably just fallen out of a pocket, Lord knows how long ago.

So I picked it up, and set it aside from the rest of my cash.  Yeah, things have turned a little harder for my family financially over the last week, but I wasn't going to spend that found money.

A day later, while in another shopping center, I heard the bright ding-a-dinging.   I walked over to the elderly Korean gentleman ringing his bell by the red kettle, and put the fourteen bucks in.

I have a significant soft spot for the Salvation Army.

Years ago, I'd found myself in something of a hard place.  I was just out of college with a freshly minted bachelor's degree.  I was living in Williamsburg, VA with my fiance, and I was completely unable to find work.   We were deep in the thickets of the Reagan recession, as the crash following the debt-driven sugar high of 1980s greed and voodoo economics came back to unfairly haunt George Bush Senior.

For months, I diligently applied for every last thing I could find.  I even stopped mentioning that I had a degree, as the gas stations and convenience stores for which I was trying to night-clerk viewed that as a liability.   Nothing, for months and months.  My meager savings were running perilously low.

And then the Salvation Army hired me.  It was forty hours a week, driving a van to distribute bell-ringers throughout the Williamsburg area.  I was also the errand boy, running to and from the bank with money collected and doing odd jobs as needed.  It was minimum wage with no benefits, but it was honest work, and it paid my share of the three-hundred-and-forty bucks rent for the tiny townhouse we inhabited.  

As I worked with the Salvationists, I really came to appreciate the ethos of that evangelical community. The local Major was a cheery soul, always nattily dressed and always very busy, but he lived an astoundingly humble life on a wage not much different from what I was being paid.  In later years, as I worked in the field of nonprofit research, I'd discover that the payscales in the Salvation Army are amazingly low.  With the executives in other large nonprofit organizations being paid in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars, the head of the Salvation Army...a three billion dollar a year organization...makes only a little more than a cashier at Costco.  For all of its organization and diligence, its ethos is far more like a monastic order than a business.

I was so taken with the depth and authenticity of the Salvationist commitment to service that I briefly looked into joining it...and soon realized I couldn't.  I was a liberal, progressive young Christian-ish person, and I was engaged to marry a Jew.   That wasn't going to fly.  I just couldn't be part of that movement and be in an interfaith marriage.  Ah well.  So it goes.

Among leftist folk, there's recently been a thread of activist-driven resistance to giving to the Salvation Army.  They don't accept gays among their number, and that makes them hateful discriminatory bigots who shouldn't be supported.   I don't share that theological perspective, which is why I'm not a part of the Salvation Army.  But I also know that it in no way informs how the Salvationists treat anyone.  Those who imply that giving to the Salvation Army somehow is encouraging injustice are not meaningfully representing reality.  Reality is considerably more nuanced than the binary thinking of radicals.

Salvationist theology and their practice of it requires relentless commitment to the direct care of those in need.  Period.

I've seen, first hand, the good that the Salvation Army does in the world.  Here was the kind of conservative evangelical church that..while I worked for them.. would regularly send me to pick up a gay man living with both AIDS and poverty.  They'd pay for me to drive him to the clinic for treatment, and were helping pick up the tab for that treatment.  They couldn't have cared less about his orientation.  They knew he was sick, and poor, and that he needed care.  So they provided it.

Sure, I couldn't be part of the Army.  But neither could I be Amish, my beard notwithstanding.  That does not mean I can't appreciate the real Gospel good they do in the world.