Salvation Army: Distinctive corps simultaneously expands, shrinks |

Salvation Army: Distinctive corps simultaneously expands, shrinks

AP Photo Pedestrians pass Emilio Cardenas, a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army, in Rockefeller Plaza Friday in New York. The small, distinctly conservative Protestant denomination sponsors a massive and expanding philanthropic empire even as its membership declines.

Renowned for Christmastime bell-ringers with red kettles, thrift shops, skid row missions and efficient canteens that served 4.8 million meals after Hurricane Katrina, the Salvation Army enjoys a kind of respect accorded few American charities.Yet the Army is not a charity.Rather, it’s a small, distinctly conservative Protestant denomination that sponsors a massive and expanding philanthropic empire even as its membership declines. Last year, the organization spent $2.6 billion and aided 34.5 million people through every imaginable form of social service; about 11 percent of its income came from the government. In the future, the Army’s impact will be enhanced by 30 or more community centers funded by America’s biggest one-time charity gift – $1.5 billion from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald’s founder.

While the fact that devout evangelicals are managing social services partly with government money has provoked protests from civil libertarians and gay activists, it apparently hasn’t undercut public support. Last December’s kettle proceeds set a record and contributions to Katrina relief, the Army’s biggest disaster effort ever, were triple those after the Sept. 11 attacks.Still, the Army faces internal trouble.Its 62,000 employees and 3.5 million volunteers are led by a mere 3,684 “officers” (the equivalent of clergy) whose ranks have declined by nearly a third in the past five years. “Cadets” enrolled at the four U.S. officer training schools are down 18 percent since 1997; membership is also sliding.National Commander W. Todd Bassett of Alexandria, Va., said the Army has been hit with a cultural undertow that has hurt participation in other churches and that officer careers require an unusual degree of “dedicated devotion.” That includes financial sacrifice. For example, 42-year veteran Bassett and his wife, Carol, (all officers’ spouses must also be officers) together receive a $33,000 stipend plus housing, expenses and benefits.”I’m a man of faith so I know we can turn it around,” Bassett said, speaking about the drop in officers.

The Army originated in 19th century England with founder William Booth’s mission to help the downtrodden. Its doctrines, defined in a 144-page handbook, are orthodox Christian with one oddity: baptism and communion are never celebrated.In many ways a product of its time, the Army is saturated with Victorian traditions: brass bands, distinctive men’s and women’s uniforms, street meetings and numerous military metaphors.Today, the Army is a closely knit international organization based in London with 1.4 million followers in 109 countries. The U.S. has the largest national contingent, now celebrating its 125th anniversary, but today’s growth is found in Africa and India.The 113,500 U.S. “soldiers,” the core group among 427,000 members, have taken covenant vows, once known as the “Articles of War.” They cover doctrine, loyalty to leaders, generosity, willingness to evangelize and help the needy, and clean living (no alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, pornography or profanity).

The Army’s belief that “the full expression of sexual love” should be restricted to heterosexual marriage caused dustups in recent years.And an ongoing dispute involves l9 current and former employees, backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, who have accused the Army of religious discrimination in employment. In October, a federal judge ruled that the Army has the right to use religious criteria in hiring.Service contracts signed by the Army include its 1991 self-definition as an evangelical Christian body whose “mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination.”Bassett says that the Army doesn’t discriminate in hiring but believes its social service employees should not “act or promote something contrary to what the Salvation Army is and stands for.”- The Associated Press

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