My wife and I have been plucking cards from Salvation Army Angel trees around Christmas time for several years. We have enjoyed shopping for the needs and wishes of disadvantaged children in our community. This year, for the first time, I also volunteered, along with my fellow church elders, to help distribute the hundreds of donated Angel Tree gifts to the families of these children. In doing so, I got a whole new perspective of the Salvation Army. Here’s what I learned.
Frustrated that his church in England wasn’t sharing the gospel with most of those who needed it in 1852, minister William Booth abandoned the pulpit to preach to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute on the streets of London. Within a few years, hundreds from all over England including many converts joined his street evangelism ministry which he referred to in 1878 as the Salvation Army. As they became more structured and organized, this Army identified its management hierarchy with military officer ranks and began wearing uniforms. The top leaders were generals with a subordinate cascade of colonels to lieutenants depending on levels of responsibility and experience. In 1881, Booth’s organization launched an offensive throughout the British Isles that converted over 250,000 to Christianity. The movement spread rapidly gaining a foothold in America and several other countries.
In 1879, Eliza Shirley at age 17 pioneered the Salvation Army of the United States after serving with Booth in England. Joining her parents who had recently immigrated to Philadelphia, she began a mission which grew into peace and hope for the needy of the nation.
Today, the Salvation Army is active in almost every country in the world. It has one of the lowest administrative cost percentages of all charities at just 18 percent. All donations designated for a particular disaster relief effort go directly to that effort without any of it being used for administrative expenses.
My experience this Christmas with the annual Angel Tree project supported the Hot Springs, Arkansas, mission in distributing toys and clothing to the families of almost 500 needy children. Parents were scheduled to come by the warehouse at specific times. They would first attend a brief gospel message by a local pastor, then line up to receive their children’s gifts. My fellow church elders and I, along with several other volunteers, loaded shopping carts with bags of gifts for the specific kids as listed on the Angel Tree cards and purchased by generous donors. We were introduced to each parent or parents receiving the gifts and walked with them to their vehicles as we conversed with them. After loading their vehicles, we prayed with them and wished them a blessed and merry Christmas then started the process over again. The event was very well organized. Almost 200 families heard the gospel and received the gifts in less than four hours.
Of course, the Angel Tree project is just one of many, many projects and ministries carried out continuously throughout the year by the Salvation Army. They feed the poor and homeless. They provide shelter during the coldest days of winter and hottest days of summer for those in need of basic comforts. They are quickly on scene to help with all kinds of disasters. Their thrift stores not only supplement their revenue needs but also provide low-cost clothing and household goods for those struggling economically. They have a women’s ministry that focuses on women’s health and special needs. They maintain connection with local hospitals, nursing homes, retirement centers, and rehabilitation facilities. In all these ministries, they keep their top priority as it has been from the 19th century: evangelism.
So, when I see the folks standing next to those red kettles ringing bells during the holidays, I’m now giving them more than a smile and a nod. And let’s remember that this Army’s need for resources are year-round, not just when the kettles come out. Donate regularly including clothing and household goods for their thrift stores.