Danville's Salvation Army also a church

December 03, 2004|HERB BROCK

Salvation Army Capt. Shelley Bell was on a mission trip to Zimbabwe. She and her fellow missionaries did not know the native language but they did know a sentence that broke down the language barriers.

"When we felt we might be lost, we would ask the people we encountered, 'Where is the Salvation Army?'" said the co-commander of Danville's army in a recent interview. "And the people would respond with probably the only English words they knew, 'Oh, the church.' They then would direct us to the nearest Salvation Army church."

It may seem funny but Bell had to go all the way to Africa to find people who recognized the Salvation Army as a church. And it's a reminder that comes in handy this time of year when the fund-raising kettles and Angel Trees reinforce the army's reputation for its outreach in providing Christmas to the downtrodden and food, shelter and social services to the poor the other 364 days of the year.


The Salvation Army is more than kettles at Christmas time. It is a church 365 days a year.

Neither Bell nor her husband and co-commander, Capt. Zachary Bell, will deny the army's image as a social-service agency. In fact, they're proud of it, and they work hard to make sure that all the church's social services are provided and to as many people as possible.

But the Bells stress that the Christmas kettles, Angel Trees and food baskets as well as emergency food and shelter programs are a very important and visible mission of a church - a church that is in 113 countries.

"In the United States, we really are not known as a church, but we are in Africa and other parts of the world," said Zachary Bell. "But we definitely are a church.

"In other countries, we are thought of as a church first with social services as a mission. Here, many people forget, or don't even know, that we are a church. They only think of our social-service outreach. They think of us as an agency more than a church."

A symbol of the confusion over the army's status

The small complex of Salvation Army buildings on South Fourth Street tends to serve as a symbol over the confusion over the army's status. Two of the three buildings generally represent the army's outreach - a gymnasium with offices and the Thrift Store. But in the complex also is a little, 70-seat church.

Before talking about what the church is like today, the Bells provided a little a history of their non-denominational church, which today has 1.5 million members worldwide. Interestingly, the founders, William and Catherine Booth, really did not want to create a church. They were mainly interested in serving as evangelists to the downtrodden of their native England, starting in the 1850's. They began an organized ministry in 1865.

Booth was ordained as Methodist minister and he and his wife were interested in starting a mission to evangelize the poor and also to provide them food and shelter, as well as the Gospel," said Zachary Booth. "They started the Christian Mission. They never intended to start a church."

The Booths' goal was to turn thousands of England's poor into Christians and then encourage them to join the organized churches of the country. But many of those churches shunned the poor, whether they were Christian or not, Bell said.

"It was a two-way street," he said. "Many of those in the churches didn't want the poor around them, and many of the poor didn't feel comfortable around the members."

Because the goal of the Booths' mission was to get the poor into church and because that wasn't happening, they eventually decided they would turn the Christian Mission into a church.

"He and Catherine wanted above all else to see the poor in church. They finally concluded they would have to form their own church in order to attain their goal," Bell said.

Despite widespread criticism, persecution and violence aimed at the Christian Mission, the Booths were able to convert more than 250,000 people to Christianity. The church, which became known as the Salvation Army in the 1870s, spread across England and eventually made it to the United States.

The Bells, who both come from Salvationist families, both graduated from Asbury College and then attended a two-year Salvation Army training college in Atlanta. After completing their training, they were ordained. The Army largely assigns ordained married couples to its churches. Both spouses usually have the same ranks, as either lieutenants or captains, and the same status as co-commanders.

"The Army has always treated women as equals, and probably is way ahead of other churches in that regard," said Shelley Bell.

Military terms are used

Salvationists use military terms to describe their ordained and lay members and follow somewhat of a military structure, Zachary Bell said.

"Our military-like language and references and structure date back to the beginnings of the army when William Booth saw he and his followers as 'fighters against sin' and had them wear uniforms and some of them perform in military-like bands featuring a lot of brass."

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