The Salvation Army: Small church, big heart

by Yvonne van Dongen / 25 December, 2017

Ron Christopher plays in the band at the Salvation Army service in Mt Wellington.

The Salvation Army is one of the country’s smallest churches. So how did a tiny group of eccentric, quasi-military Protestant Christians become a major provider of non-governmental services and a highly respected commentator on the nation’s social ills? Yvonne van Dongen investigates.

The most traditional Salvation Army church in Auckland looks as plain and utilitarian as the semi-commercial buildings that surround it in the semi-commercial street off the south-eastern highway in the semi-appropriately named Allright Place, Mt Wellington. Flat-roofed and dark-glassed, with a concrete parking bay, this place of worship was clearly not designed to uplift the soul.

But then the congregation arrives, loitering around the large foyer, and the word traditional begins to make sense. Most are white, many white-haired and a goodly number wear uniforms: navy jackets, decorated with badges, and blinding white shirts set off with epaulettes, while a few women sport the Salvation Army hat, which resembles a jaunty bowler.

An older woman with straight steel-grey hair in full Salvation Army regalia shakes my hand. She looks familiar. She is. I’ve seen her advertising the organisation on television.

A brass band files into place as the congregation drifts into the church proper. There’s not a lot of people so they thoughtfully position themselves throughout the room and somehow that makes the numbers look bigger. Shiny wind instruments are hoisted onto laps, music stands rearranged. A conductor, with his back to us, is already waving his baton. Two Salvation Army flags hang limply to my right, next to a drum kit and speakers. A neat, uniformed couple who look like ambulance officers move onto the dais. The stage is set for a traditional service.

Except it’s not, really. It’s a multi-media event. I haven’t been to church for a while, but I’ve rarely been welcomed as warmly or with as much digital entertainment. The huge overhead projector screens musical videos of happy folk and transporting scenery, notices about a ladies’ movie night, the Salvation Army’s magazine War Cry’s special feature on female genital mutilation in Tanzania, and the upcoming quiz evening.

Officers Michelle and Milton Collins take the service, divvying up the tasks between them. Maybe it’s the crisp, laundered shirts and military epaulettes but they look smart and alert, like they know what they’re about – and actually they do. Milton delivers a terrific sermon on Christians being the salt of the earth, illustrated with images of the very salty Dead Sea where he and Michelle holidayed recently.

“Maybe you are here because you rubbed up against some salty Christians. Maybe others have rubbed up against you,” he says. “The presence of the Salvation Army always makes a difference. Things spoil faster without salt. Jesus Christ said it. We are the salt of the earth.” 

“Ask yourself, ‘What work do I do to be the salt in my community this week?’” echoes Michelle, with a radiant smile. “Not that we want to beat people up during worship. This is to refocus our mind. Where there’s a need, the Salvation Army will meet that need.”

The brass band plays and so does a band with drums, electric guitar and two female singers, one in uniform. We sing to words on screen. Glory, glory hallelujah. A child squeals. A severely disabled man in a wheelchair groans. An arm is raised, the Salvation Army salute.

Finally, and fantastically, we are treated to an ancient goosebump-inducing recording of the saltiest Salvationist of them all – the voice of the founder, William Booth, articulating his vision for his Christian army.

“While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight.

While little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight.

While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I’ll fight.

While there is a drunkard left,

While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,

While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight. I’ll fight to the very end!”

The words are stirring, even though the voice is reedy and cracked. It’s astonishing to think this recording was made less than 20 years after Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.

When the service is over, congregation members hand in feedback forms (“Why not? We want to know if we’re hitting the mark”) and we stand around drinking tea and coffee from their training cafe, which is not far from their family store, early childhood education centre, and gambling, counselling, employment and budgeting service, not to mention the Salvation Army Korean church service next door, where the congregation is bigger and younger and the music more bouncy.

Left: Choir singers Juliana Weon (left) and her sister, Gabriel. Centre: Churchgoer Richard Kwon in full voice. Right: Conductor Mark Christianson.

Of course, a lot has changed since William and Catherine Booth founded the organisation in 1865 in England. The uniforms have been modernised (gone is the shovel bonnet in favour of the nifty bowler), the brass band isn’t as big (or as good, say those who remember) and the message has been softened somewhat (less talk about sin). However, in essence, much is unchanged.

With its insistence on military titles and uniforms, it would be easy to miscast the church as fusty and anachronistic. Instead, the Salvation Army has become one of the biggest providers of non-governmental services in the country, certainly the largest provider of addiction services, as well as a highly respected commentator on the nation’s social ills. Its annual State of the Nation report can be relied upon to spark media attention and make politicians squirm, while former director Major Campbell Roberts was one of three finalists nominated for a 2017 New Zealander of the Year award for their “contribution to social good”.

Although followers no longer march down Auckland’s Queen St on a Friday night as they did during the 1960s and 70s, there are few people who don’t know what they do. A 2015 survey conducted by Research New Zealand revealed that the Salvation Army was the most well-known charity in New Zealand, equal with the Cancer Society and St John Ambulance.

And yet the Salvation Army is also one of the smallest churches in the country. Of the 48 per cent of the population who professed to be Christian in the last census, a mere 0.23 per cent were Salvationists. Its membership of soldiers and adherents (roles which require a formal commitment) has declined from a peak of 9500 in 1971 to 6500 today. However, the number of churchgoers has remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years at around 8500.

So the obvious question is, how on earth did such a tiny group of eccentric quasi-military Protestant Christians get to be so high-profile and effective?

Booth would say, and Salvationists would agree, that it’s been by sticking with tradition and adhering to the movement’s original purpose. From the outset, the mandate was more than simply gathering converts. It has always been passionately committed to championing the poor and downtrodden.

Booth was born in Nottingham to a relatively wealthy family who fell upon hard times. He trained as a pawnbroker and converted to Christianity in his teens. From the 1850s on, he embarked on his life’s work as an evangelist in the East End of London.

He was also a maverick. Booth fell out with the Methodist church and several other subsequent churches before launching the Christian Mission from a tent. He believed churches shouldn’t wait for people to come to them but go out amongst the people, and regarded mainstream churches as middle-class and ineffectual. Booth’s followers came from the poor and thus could speak to the poor.

None of this was achieved alone. Although she had eight children, wife and co-founder Catherine Booth was an equal partner in their Christian mission and became known as the Mother of the Salvation Army. Like her husband, she too was expelled from the Wesleyan Methodist church for failing to condemn reformers. She believed in the right of women to speak at meetings and became a powerful preacher in her own right, a role almost unheard of at the time. While William addressed the poor, she spoke to the rich, seeking support for their ministry.

To this day, ministering couples known as officers are the backbone of the Salvation Army. No one can become an officer if their partner is not involved.

Photos of Booth reveal a long-nosed, snowy-haired chap with a big fraying beard – in appearance, rather like an Old Testament prophet, and in manner, something of a religious firebrand. Booth preached eternal punishment would follow those who did not repent or believe Christ’s gospel. The famously autocratic leader viewed his movement as waging a spiritual battle against sin, hence the adoption of the military structure and imagery. In 1878, he renamed his mission the Salvation Army and gave himself the title of General, aiming to “carry the Blood of Christ and fire of the Holy Ghost into every corner of the world”. “Blood and Fire” remains their motto, their weapons the word of God and music.

Although the message of eternal punishment is rarely preached now, the Salvationists continue to view the behaviour and lifestyle of their followers as a powerful example to others. Milton’s sermon says it all. They are salty Christians seasoning the populace.

Booth was more than an evangelist; he was also an activist. His 1890 book In Darkest England and The Way Out detailed the suffering of the poor and provided strategies to lift them out of poverty. It led to the Salvation Army establishing social services such as Britain’s first labour exchange (almost 20 years before the government took up the idea), which placed almost 70,000 people in work in seven years; homes for the rehabilitation of prostitutes, ex-prisoners and alcoholics; sheltered workshops; shelters for the homeless, and a missing person’s bureau. The Salvation Army even established a matchstick factory using red phosphorous instead of the more common toxic yellow phosphorous. The factory paid double the going rate at a time when women and children worked 18-hour days at other matchstick factories and suffered jaw rot from toxic fumes. The factory was a great success and spurred competitors to switch to the safer red phosphorous.

By the time Booth died in 1912, at the age of 83, there were Salvation Army corps (churches) throughout the world. Today, though numbers in the west are generally declining, the organisation still operates in 128 countries and has a million soldiers and 157,000 adherents. The largest branch of the church is in Kenya followed by India, Zimbabwe and the United States.

A new generation of Salvation Army supporters is keeping the number of churchgoers remarkably stable, at around 8500 nationwide.

The Salvation Army arrived in New Zealand in 1883, after receiving a written invitation to come “to the rescue of perishing souls” by Dunedin woman Arabella Valpy, who donated £200 for this purpose. Booth duly sent out two young officers and they held the first open-air meeting of the Salvation Army in Dunedin. By the end of that year, 11 corps from Invercargill to Auckland had been established. Booth himself visited the country four times between 1891 and 1905 and met Prime Minister Richard Seddon and other politicians.

Not everyone welcomed these enthusiastic evangelists. Many councils objected to their meetings and marches, and Salvationists were regularly imprisoned. But this was just grist to the mill for the fledgling church. An 1885 edition of the War Cry records that following the release of Salvationists incarcerated in Timaru for beating tambourines and obstructing the public thoroughfare, they were met by a large body of Salvationists, then “hoisted aboard a ‘war chariot’ (dray cart) and marched in triumph through the streets to the Army barracks where a great meeting was held”.

Members were also early adopters of technology. Salvationist Major Joe Perry was a pioneer New Zealand feature filmmaker and toured the country with his magic lantern shows, raising money for the movement.

In New Zealand, the Salvation Army went on to establish the country’s first labour exchange, as well as children’s homes, maternity hospitals for unmarried mothers, prison gate homes, rescue homes for women, rest homes, employment training, addiction services and early childhood education.

While it has generally been well regarded during 135 years of existence downunder, in the early 2000s a group of people claimed they had suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse between the 1940s and 1970s at the hands of Salvation Army staff members. The organisation  didn’t deny that historic abuses took place in homes run by the church and, in 2006, then-Salvation Army commissioner Garth McKenzie apologised to the complainants.

The Salvation Army’s reputation also took a battering for its vociferous opposition to the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform campaign, although it has since apologised and made new connections with the gay community. As Major Campbell Roberts puts it, as far as homosexuality is concerned, the church is still on a journey.

However, as the 20th century drew to a close, some within the ranks worried the organisation had drifted from its roots, and turned into the very thing Booth detested: it had become middle class. The Salvation Army offered charity, but didn’t have a lot to say about justice.

Roberts was chief among those critics. Now officially retired, he remains principal adviser to the Social Policy Research and Parliamentary Affairs Unit, which he helped launch in 2004. A small, mild-mannered man, he seems an unlikely inheritor of the Booth zeal for reform. And yet, while he’s no Old Testament prophet, he is no less radical.

His background is classic Salvation Army. As a baby, Roberts’ father was found, wrapped in newspaper, on the steps of the Salvation Army children’s home in Hamilton. After five years, he graduated to the boys’ home in Putaruru, where he was given a farming education. Roberts’ mother came to the Salvation Army in Dunedin via another classic route. An unmarried mother, she was cared for in a Salvation Army home until the baby was adopted, eventually being found work in Hamilton looking after other people’s children.

When law changes allowed children to track birth parents, Roberts’ long-lost sister was one of the first applicants. She struggled to track down her birth mother. When she finally did, she heard she was ill and held back. But her mother died soon after, so the first time his sister saw their mother was in her coffin. “We didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “On the day of my mother’s funeral, I found out I had another sister. I have two other sisters and we have all since made connection with this new sister.

“That story or similar stories occurred quite a bit then in the Salvation Army. People became connected to the army through desperate social circumstances. By the time I was young, that ceased to be true. The Salvation Army had changed and the congregation didn’t see so many people in hardship.”

Roberts eventually trained as an accountant (“probably not a very good one”), but a few years after qualifying, he began working for the Salvation Army. It was here that he became a serial social entrepreneur.

Major Lorna McMurdo.

In the 1970s, he initiated a mission providing chaplaincy services to industry and government departments, and helped develop the Salvation Army’s national network of community work schemes and community services to the unemployed. In the 1980s, he founded the organisation’s community service operation and, in the 1990s, managed the total reorganisation of its social and community services. More recently, he has helped establish the New Zealand Housing Foundation, looking at housing solutions for low-income households, and he co-founded the Rethinking Crime and Punishment campaign.

As an industrial chaplain, he has fond memories of several triumphs, such as the time he was asked by the manager of a large Dunedin factory how to make 50 workers redundant “in a Christian way”. Roberts sat down with the management team and learned that the redundancies were aimed at rescuing another unprofitable branch of the company. Roberts and the management team concluded this was unjust and successfully argued this at board level. The redundancies were never made.

In another factory, he started a workers’ consultation group. Roberts was surprised when a worker invited him for dinner. His wife told Roberts he had changed her husband’s life – no one had ever asked him for his opinion before.

At times, he’s upset his superiors – for instance, when he protested against the Springbok Tour (“I wore bolt cutters under my uniform”). Even then, although the organisation did not support him publicly, the message was, “Don’t stop what you are doing.” There have also been times when the reforming Salvationist finds the uniform restrictive (“It can be a barrier for some people who see you as representing authority”), yet during the Canterbury earthquake, it helped grant members instant access to critical sites.

However, the key turning point for Roberts was a review of the Salvation Army’s social services in 2003. Some $120 million was being spent each year, yet in every area the organisation was working in, things had got worse. In all the key indicator areas, New Zealand’s social progress was in decline.

As a result, Roberts and other senior members decided there was value in researching areas of social need and developing better policy solutions. Thus the Social Policy & Parliamentary Unit (SPPU) was launched in 2004. The unit also aimed to identify and connect with 300 to 400 key people in the media, education, business, corporate and political sectors and provide them with information.

Left: Salvation Army founders Catherine and William Booth. Right: William Booth leading a hymn at a Salvation Army Congress in 1904.

The unit was a world-first for the Salvation Army. The organisation has since launched similar units in the United Kingdom, Australia and some parts of the United States. For Roberts, the creation of the SPPU was simply a return to the message of their founder.

“What Booth was saying was we need to reorganise society to lift up people submerged in poverty,” he says. “It started off like that in New Zealand and remained that way for about 30 years but for a long time, for almost a century in fact, that message was lost.

“I truly believe the Bible is about justice, that people are impacted by sin and are sinned against. Many of the people I see are not doing the right things in their life, but they are also sinned against by the structures in society and the things done to them in their lives. To concentrate on saying, ‘Turn your life around’ is not enough. We have to change the things that are wrong with society. The gospel at its core is about others.”

Roberts cites liberation theology, the Christian theology developed largely by Latin American Roman Catholics concerned with liberating the oppressed, as another influence.

The Salvation Army committed to supporting the unit for 10 years, funding it internally from interest from reserves and legacies. Initially, Roberts was its only employee. Now seven people are on the payroll. Nationwide, the Salvation Army employs some 2174 people, not all of them churchgoers.

Roberts says there are two parts to the organisation: the church, internally funded by members; and the social services, largely funded by government – although they also receive about $8.5 million annually through legacies and $9.1 million from public and corporate donations. Foodbanks are supported by supermarkets and food companies, while Pukekohe market gardens donate vegetables. 

As the SPPU reached its 10-year anniversary, it put itself under the microscope. In 2012, the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago was commissioned to conduct a critical review of the unit’s work and to make recommendations for its future. The review came out in 2013 and concluded that “the impact of the unit, with its small resources, is quite extraordinary”. In New Zealand, “there are few organisations other than the Salvation Army that are able regularly to provide a trusted non-government view of society and the needy”. Respondents noted that the unit spoke truth to power using a solid research base, that it was down-to-earth and practical while a “very senior former public servant” noted MPs get jittery when they know a SPPU report is imminent.

As for concrete achievements, Roberts says the unit has had a number of wins. It helped put housing on the government’s agenda. “Five years ago we could never get that, but now we do. One of the reasons may be because it’s become harder for the middle class to buy houses.” Then there’s the decline in teen pregnancy, which he acknowledges has been due to a raft of policies such as sex education, access to contraception and support given to young women. “But the Salvation Army has been part of that.”

Improved access to early childhood education was another campaign the organisation was involved in, as was changing the way we deal with criminal offending. “We saw a reduction in offending for a while but we’ve fallen off the bus now. We were starting to do the right things.

“It’s funny, sometimes, the influence you have. I got a phone call from [then Prime Minister] Helen Clark after a report we put out about the criminal justice system called ‘Beyond the Holding Tank’. She said it was magnificent and wanted 30 copies to take to cabinet. But there was actually a stack of reports around on this issue that hadn’t seen the light of day. We just put it all together. We dig around in the reports and find useful stuff that hasn’t got out.

“Our State of the Nation report has had a powerful impact in keeping issues before people. We’ve had the same 25 indicators since the beginning. That’s part of its strength. We’ve been measuring the same things for more than 10 years. It’s a way to keep people honest about what’s really happening.”

Since the unit began, it has published 31 major reports on housing, poverty and prison reform. Its members are frequent visitors to Wellington, although Roberts has resisted pressure to locate the unit there. He believes it must remain where the need is greatest, in South Auckland. He says the reception from politicians is usually cordial. Often the real problem is party politics. “A lot of the time people will say I agree with you, but the party doesn’t.”

Although the Otago University review suggested some Salvationists, particularly those outside Auckland, felt detached from the SPPU – unaware of its role and work – in Auckland, it’s fair to say Campbell Roberts is a Salvation Army hero. He was singled out for special commendation at the Mt Wellington church service by Michelle and Milton Collins, who applauded the work of the unit. Social justice is in our DNA, they said, a phrase I was to hear again at a very different church service run by officers Fiona and Rance Stuart.

Major Campbell Roberts.

The Recovery Church in Mt Eden holds services twice a week, Sunday and Tuesday. Tuesday is graduation night for addicts who have completed the Bridge programme. Here, the congregation is browner, busier, younger and noisier than the Mt Wellington church. There’s no brass band but a popular music group plays modern tunes adapted to the Salvation Army message. “Good singing, family,” cheers Fiona.

Celebrations include a birthday, an engagement, and sobriety for 30, 60, 90 or 180 days, as well as certificates for Bridge programme graduates. Some have come through the Drug Court; indeed, Judge Lisa Tremewan from this court is present and congratulates people in Maori and English. In return, graduates thank the court and a case worker called Jan who, one says, has a gift for “kicking my bum”. A kapa haka group of former graduates finishes with a stirring performance.

The Salvation Army runs the spirituality component of the Bridge programme, which is where the Stuarts come in. “We’re not here to make people Salvation Army sausages,” says Fiona. “We say, belong before you believe. People need to connect with their spirituality and identify with a power greater than themselves. How they do it is up to them.”

Todd, a former Bridge graduate and now band member, says initially it was hard to trust Fiona and Rance. “For a while I was thinking, ‘What do they really want from me?’ But I learned that people like Fiona and Rance, what you see is what you get. They just want to help me get well. I can’t speak highly enough of them. The God aspect can be a bit daunting for some, but I have my own higher power that gives me something to reflect on that can help me.”

While Todd was in the programme, he never sang or played music once during the services. But after graduation, when the call for volunteers came, he put up his hand and now plays in the band twice a week. A 49-year-old former insurance industry employee, who ended up sleeping rough in central Auckland, he says volunteering helps with his sobriety. “I’d been given so much and this is my way of giving back.”

For some, it can be the beginning of a lifelong commitment. Family turmoil brought Andy Westrupp to the Salvation Army when he was a teenager in Nelson more than 40 years ago. The corps stepped in and gave him a sense of belonging and a direction when he needed it most. “When I found the Army – or when the Army found me – it was like finding a glove that fit my hand. I just loved everything about it and I still love serving in it today.” Last year, he was appointed territorial commander, the most senior position in this territory, which includes New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.

Locals queue for food packs distributed by volunteers at a Salvation Army depot in Linwood after the devastating Christchurch earthquake on February 22, 2011.

Westrupp takes pride in the organisation’s ability to innovate. Apart from services in Maori, Samoan, Korean and Hindi, they also run non-traditional church services called “messy church”, which often take place in the evenings and may involve a meal, crafts, games, sports, chatting, singing and a little teaching in what he says is an interactive, fun, spiritual space.

Sitting next to me at Recovery Church is Lieutenant Colonel Ian Hutson, the director of the SPPU since Roberts retired last year. While Hutson is not yet as well-known as his predecessor, he promises to be just as challenging. “In my first month on the job, I ended up contradicting the Prime Minister, John Key, about people sleeping in cars. He said the Salvation Army and WINZ had gone knocking on car windows and people said they didn’t want any help. That just wasn’t true.”

He’s concerned New Zealand has become an increasingly unequal society where short-term measures like food banks have become permanent necessities, and we’ve gone from few street beggars and scant homelessness to both becoming commonplace.

Hutson’s background is in addiction services and his wife is currently the national director of addiction programmes. He says his experience in this field has informed his views. “You see the social issues that have impacted on people that have contributed to them having addictions. You often feel like you’re in the trenches and don’t have time to advocate for some of the reasons people are coming to you. I’m talking about the number of pokie outlets and bottle stores in South Auckland, for instance. Also housing. It’s a privilege to be able to have a role where you can raise these issues.”

But what got him here in the first place was William Booth’s famous clarion call, rousing words Hutson can recite from memory. “When I was young, that caught my imagination. That’s the case for a lot of Salvation Army people.”

Booth’s fighting words, uttered while he lay dying 115 years ago, still have the power to inspire. Hutson recalls seeing a photo of Booth and a poster of his words pinned up alongside photographs of dead bros at a Mongrel Mob Christian camp to combat P in 2009. “I told the leader of the Notorious chapter we have much in common.” 

What Hutson meant is that both this Mongrel Mob chapter and the Salvation Army know from experience the fight against poverty and addiction is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a long, tough battle – but one the Salvation Army has committed to fighting to the very end.

This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.



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