Among the many warm and welcoming cultural hallmarks reassuring us that the Christmas season is upon us, is the friendly jingle of the Salvation Army bell-ringer. Anchored faithfully outside of area retailers with their fire-engine red kettles, their cheerful music invites us to remember those less fortunate than ourselves during a season that commemorates selflessness and giving. And while the bell ringers and their kettles have become emblematic of the organization, the Salvation Army salvages so much more than loose change, old clothes, and unneeded housewares.
The Salvation Army is a Christian organization with something of a military structure and leadership protocol. Founded in 1865 by William Booth, a British Methodist preacher who became the group’s first general, its ranks have swelled into a global movement that has become known as one of the largest brokers of humanitarian aid on the planet. It is recognized by a number of distinctives such as the Christmas “bell-ringers” that collect donations during the holiday season, its almost dumpster-sized collection bins which are strategically placed throughout municipalities and help stock their countless thrift stores, and (speaking of thrift stores) the celebrated thrift stores themselves that recycle all kinds of hand-me-ups-and-downs and offer fantastic deals on everything from DVDs to furniture to music to clothing (designer and otherwise).
Though things have changed with the times, General Booth’s rank-and-file have not strayed all that far from their moorings. For though they are most often associated with thrift shops and second-hand merchandise, the Army’s vision remains intact. Make no mistake about it, Booth was passionate about his mission and the mission of the Salvation Army saying, “To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a university education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labor. You must in some way or other graft upon the man’s nature a new nature, which has in it the element of the Divine.”
According to Major Douglas Hart, Director of County Operations for Monroe County, the heart of today’s Salvation Army beats with the same passion. “When a child talks about how he lost his parents and is living with his grandmother and he’s excelling in school despite the tragic circumstances,” Hart says excitedly, “to hear him share his story about that those are the rewarding things.”
Continuing he says, “When we hear of how the Lord is using the officers and the lay people at the Salvation Army and of course, our staff and our volunteers — and every once in a while we hear these kinds of stories that get back to my wife and myself, it makes me wonder how many stories are told or are shared that we never even hear about because our officers and staff are just going through their daily routine and they hear these kinds of things, so that’s a rewarding thing to me.”
He goes on, “It keeps me going to know that we’re making a difference and that it’s part of God’s orchestration of His will and to see how we’re a part of that. You know, there are those God moments, you say ‘thanks.’ My wife and I, we thank God when we hear these things, when we experience them ourselves, we take time and thank God for helping us to be encouraged by that and we know that in certain circumstances, you know it’s from Him! It’s just unmistakable. And so we thank Him for those rewarding moments when He makes us aware of that. He reminds us it’s from Him, you know.”
And if those “rewarding moments” didn’t make heaven’s DNA unmistakable here on earth, the sheer growth that enables God to reach through their hands, speak through their voice, and embrace through their arms is undeniable. “In Rochester, we have three worship and service centers, here and downtown; it’s all one complex,” Hart explains. “The ministry here is more to street people and people who are more hard core — really having tough times.”
He goes on, “In contrast to the ministry on North Clinton Street, it’s Hispanic; it’s for Spanish speaking people. Each ministry has its special areas of compassion that they’re operating under. On North Clinton, we have the Spanish speaking ministry while the service center on West Avenue, that’s more for families, but it’s very diverse, the population there is as diverse, as it is downtown. That’s more geared towards families with children and whereas the ministry here in is for the homeless or people who have a heart for the homeless. It’s not really a great environment for children to be in. We have different ministries for different groups of people.”
Major Hart, however, has no qualms about sharing General Booth’s vision or passion for Christ and the Gospel, “It’s all touching on people’s hearts. That’s what it’s all about, meeting them where they’re at, introducing them to the Lord and then the Lord implements the change, but uses all of us too in that process to change lives.”
Interestingly, his roots reach back into the Salvation Army as both of his parents were officers. He surrendered his life to the Lord under his father’s ministry, and while he worked for Wegmans in their merchandise warehouse, Hart felt led by the Lord to pursue a call to serve in the Salvation Army. “It was just something that happened,” he explains. “I didn’t become a Salvation Army officer because my parents were officers. Of course, they influenced me through my life, but it was an individual decision.”
While at the training college he met the woman he would later marry — Judy. They have a daughter who is also a Salvation Army officer along with her husband, and along the way, Doug earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in in Organizational Management from Nyack College.
The Salvation Army of Greater Rochester provides a vast array of services to those in need. “People come to us in a time of crisis so we see our role primarily as getting them sort of over the hump and getting through that time of crisis and helping them with the essentials,” says Major Doug, “the basic human needs at that time.” He continues, “There are some people who, that takes longer than others to help. Some people will come to us once and that’s what they needed while some will come multiple times — but our goal is to get them independent once again. We serve about 15,000 un-duplicated people in that program alone. That represents all the men, women and children and individuals in the households that are served. That’s 15,000 un-duplicated people per-year.”
The services they provide and ways that they reach into the community are too many to list. For example, they operate four shelters which help women, youth, and also two men’s facilities. “Each one of those programs are different,” says Hart, “the funding streams generally involve the government granting contracts. The United Way is a key partner with us; Food Link is a huge partner… They all make these services possible through funding and through resources. There’s some great relationships here in the community.
Additionally, they have worship and service centers to strengthen the hearts and the faith of those they serve. “We have church services every Sunday at all three locations,” says Hart. “There are Bible studies. There are after school youth programs as well as a summer program for youth which runs five days a week, eight hours a day throughout the summer months to keep kids active and engaged.” Going on he says, “We take them on field trips, all kinds of activities so that they don’t lose that connection, just being stimulated mentally, intellectually, socially while they’re out of school. Plus, they’ll get fed there, literally, and of course, we have our Bible schools — our weeks of Bible schools, it works well during the year.”
At Christmas there are Food & Toy Distribution programs and their Adopt a Family program. “We provide food and toys to more than 1,300 families,” Hart says. “In addition to the
funds raised during the Christmas Season, our partnership with Toys for Tots and Food Link are critical to making this possible. Our Adopt a Family program primarily serves families who have a family member suffering with cancer in the hospital.”
While there are literally too many ministries and programs to describe, only eternity will be able to unveil to ripple effect in the lives that have been changed by the Salvation Army of Greater Rochester. As with any matrix of ministries like this, its challenges are complex and many. However, the nexus they all seem to be a part of is financial.
“Well, without sounding too cliché, the fundraising challenges and sustaining the programs that we have brings its own set of challenges,” notes Hart. “The government funding has just not been meeting the needs of especially, the shelters. It’s presenting a specific challenge for the Salvation Army to run those programs because we just don’t have adequate funding. But to be honest, the government’s having its own challenges even meeting their own budget so it’s no surprise that all of us are having these moments of angst.”
The challenges may be many, stressful, and beyond the scope of canned, manmade solutions, but the rewards outweigh them hands down. “The most rewarding thing is when someone comes to know Christ,” Major Doug says. “Above all, when I experience that, when I hear stories of that, it just makes it all worth everything that everyone goes through to provide services.”
And yet it is a two-edged sword, reaching through deeply human need to touch a broken heart with the love of God. “Equally rewarding,” notes Hart, “not equally in the same way but equally from a human standpoint. For example, my wife provided a brand new coat for an adult recently and she told my wife that, it was the first brand new coat that she had had in over 25-years. That brought tears to my eyes, it brought tears to my wife’s eyes and when she told me that, I was tearing up as well. I can’t imagine 25-years without a brand new coat.” Experiences like this characterize the Salvation Army, and as they do, Matthew 25:40 can’t help but come to mind, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
To learn more about the Salvation Army of Greater Rochester, visit their Website at www.rochesterny.salvationarmy.org or call them at (585) 987-9500.