THE Salvation Army's familiar Christmas kettles and bells have been put away for another year. As usual, Americans responded generously, pitching in an estimated $35 million to fund a ministry known more for its works than words. To the public, the Army is a respected social servant, if not always a well understood one. A national survey conducted earlier this decade to celebrate the Army's centennial in the United States revealed an almost 99 percent recognition rate, but only a 17 percent knowledge of what the Salvation Army does.
Commissioner James Osborne, who heads up the Salvation Army in the US, says people ``may not know much about what we are doing, but they think whatever we are doing is right.''
Although the Army is above all a Christian church committed to moral and spiritual regeneration, it is most widely known for service to people in need, regardless of creed. While many social-welfare agencies focus on one need, the Army provides a diverse menu of services. It has programs of disaster relief, homeless shelters, and alcohol rehabilitation centers. Correctional services, family counseling, youth and senior camps, day-care centers, fuel-assistance programs, and soup kitchens are among other offerings.
What Commissioner Osborne calls a ``long-running love affair'' between the Army and the American people has grown out of these activities.
In a Fortune magazine article on America's best-run charities, the Salvation Army was listed as one of only four major organizations that spends 85 percent or more of its revenues on programs, according to figures supplied by the charities in 1986. The others are UNICEF, CARE, and Volunteers of America.
Part of the reason the Army can plow 86 percent of its revenues back into social service is the organization's inherent frugality. The maximum a husband-wife team of full-time officers can make is $278 a week. They are provided transportation (car or van) and housing, but furnishings generally must be used 10 or 15 years before being replaced or reupholstered.
Office headquarters, like those of the Massachusetts Division in Boston, are neat and functional, yet very plain. Nonofficers (lay soldiers) serve without pay, as do more than a million volunteers, who are called ``the army behind the Army'' by Lt. Col. Leon Ferraez, the national communications director. ``Without them we can't do the things we do.''
In the United States, the Army itself is a rather lean group of just 450,000 members, including 5,100 officers who have been trained as social workers and evangelical ministers. But it is a vigorous outfit dedicated to heeding the motto: ``Heart to God, hand to man.''
The Army's message
``Our fundamental purpose is to bring men and women, boys and girls, into a right relationship with God, which we believe is the panacea for all human woe,'' says Osborne. The ``gospel of prosperity'' is definitely not part of the Army's message. Treating people with dignity is, regardless of how sordid their past.
Though the Army is first and foremost a church, support for its humanitarian efforts cuts across denominational lines. That's probably because religion doesn't openly intrude into the Army's social services, although Salvationists feel their faith undergirds the balanced ministry. ``We don't even preach to the non-Salvationists here at national headquarters,'' says Ferraez.
The Army is structured along quasi-military lines. The soldiers are the lay members, who attend church services and help with the social-welfare work when personal schedules allow. The officers, including Gen. Eva Burrows, director of the international organization, are the ordained clergy, who daily wear the navy-blue-and-red uniforms. Biblical analogies of waging war against sin, of course, are the symbolic inspirations here.
``We believe the uniform provides opportunity for service that we would not have otherwise,'' Osborne says.
Occasionally, the regimentation can be irritating, Ferraez submits, ``but over the long haul it has proved very effective for us.'' Specifically, he cites how it facilitates officer reassignments.
Decentralization is another key element to the Salvation Army's operation. Although there is a national office in Verona, N.J., and regional headquarters in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Palos Verdes, Calif., fund-raising is handled locally. ``The money raised in Tupelo, Miss., stays in Tupelo,'' Ferraez says.
Band music has always been a big part of the Salvation Army. It plays an important role in the ministry, attracting people to hear the army's message, whether on the streets or in hospitals.
The bell ringers who serve at the Christmas kettles are yearly fixtures on street corners and at shopping centers.
According to the National Charities Information Bureau in New York, the total dollar amount of US charitable giving goes up annually. That is good news for the Salvation Army, which raises nearly $900 million a year to serve approximately 19 million people. More charities, of course, are seeking a piece of the pie. In response, the Army is escalating its fund-raising efforts.
``We're doing more mailings than we've ever done,'' says Maj. Douglas Lowman, the Massachusetts Divisional Commander. ``We used to be very cautious about that, apologetic maybe. We go back to the well and some people are offended, but those who have been our support base over the years continue to support us.''
Corporate backing is also assuming increased importance.
Changes and challenges
In addressing society's ills, the Salvation Army has gone from a Band-Aid-type approach to attacking the root causes, says Ferraez. In the process, greater reliance has been placed in the hands of professionally trained people, including some non-Salvationists.
On entering the '90s, Commander Osborne identifies three major challenges to the Army: the need to keep up with the high-tech, information society; to garner the necessary resources in the face of growing competition for the charitable dollar; and to avoid compromises of principles and standards. ``People may think we're old-fashioned,'' Osborne says, ``and we are when it comes to values,'' which is just the way the Salvation Army wants it.