More Than a Mission

By Brad McEwen

It’s funny how we perceive things sometimes.

If you’re anything like me, any mention of the Salvation Army immediately conjures up images of second hand thrift stores or those ubiquitous red kettles and brass hand bells that pepper the community each fall and remind us all that the season of giving has begun.

I mean it’s nearly impossible to get out and tackle any holiday shopping without crossing paths with a smiling group of volunteers dutifully ringing the bell and urging us to give for the benefit of others.

For me, I think the seasonal kettle collections and the presence of that thrift store—two things geared at helping those less fortunate than ourselves—have gone a long way toward shaping my perception of the Salvation Army as one of the most recognizable charitable organizations on the planet.

But while collecting much-needed resources around the holidays and offering low-cost clothing and temporary shelter to the needy is an important part of what the organization does, I’ve recently learned that my perception of the Salvation Army has always been a little off base.

Sure the Salvation Army is known across the globe for its humanitarian relief efforts and for being at ground zero whenever and wherever there are people in need, but it turns out it’s much more than that.

And I don’t mind admitting that wasn’t until recently that I finally learned what the Salvation Army is really all about.

I was at the familiar Salvation Army location on 2nd Avenue in downtown Albany the other day to meet with current Albany Salvation Army Corps commanders, Lieutenants James and Rebecca Sullivan, to discuss the particulars of an upcoming event celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Salvation Army in Albany, when Lt. Rebecca pulled back my veil of ignorance and informed me that the Salvation Army is actually a non-denominational Christian ministry that operates as a church.

“This is a church,” Rebecca said as we settled in to chat about the upcoming anniversary celebration. “You are sitting in the fellowship hall and if you go out these doors and come to the front of our building, you’ll see the crest on the front of the glass doors. The crest means there’s a church and the shield means that we have social services here.

“We are a church first and then we administer social services second. We have a thrift store and we have a shelter. So we minister in those areas. So when you hear someone say, ‘The Salvation Army Corps,’ that means it’s a Salvation Army church.”

Now I don’t mind telling you, I’ve had a few “ah ha,” lightbulb moments upon learning some new bit of information that altered my perception of something, but when Rebecca informed me that the Salvation Army was in point of fact a church, I was nearly struck dumb.

I had gone to the interview hoping to help an organization we support and believe in get the word out about such an important milestone, and now here was Lt. Rebecca revealing something so unknown to me that it completely altered the direction of my questions and ultimately the overall focus of the story I was planning to write.

While it’s certainly an incredible thing that the Salvation Army has been making a difference in the Albany community ever since Supply Sgt. S.A. Dillman and his wife founded the Albany corps in a small room in a building on Washington Street back in February of 1919, I simply couldn’t ignore the feeling that I was not alone in my total misunderstanding of what the Salvation Army truly is.

Thanks to Rebecca’s big reveal, I knew this Beyond the Bank had to be more than just informing the community about the 100 year anniversary. It needed to be about the essence of the Salvation Army itself and what draws individuals like the Sullivans to dedicate their lives to spreading the word of the Lord and taking care of those among us who are most in need.

And after just a few minutes talking with Rebecca and later James, I soon learned there was no better way to highlight the heart of the Corps—and the powerful impact it has on so many people—than to learn more about the journey that led the Sullivan’s to Albany.

According to Rebecca that journey really began in earnest a few years ago when she first heard God’s call to service.

“I had my calling first; my husband was not ready,” Rebecca said of her life in Augusta prior to becoming an officer and thus a pastor in the Salvation Army church. “I worked for the Salvation Army, first of all, as a bookkeeper, and then as an auto auction coordinator. And I learned a lot about the Salvation Army working with them through those years. My husband worked at the local hospital and you know he just wasn’t jiving a whole bunch with the Salvation Army, but he knew I loved the Salvation Army.”

Because it meant so much to her, Rebecca said the couple were regular attendees at Salvation Army church services and other events connected to the ministry, but it still took some time before the couple made the life-altering decision to become officers.

“So the teens in the church have a conference every year and the conference is about bringing them all together to get them to understand about the Salvation Army,” Rebecca continued. “It’s really all about opening their eyes to officership. Well, we were at the conference and they were singing a song—I remember it was ‘Blessed Assurance’—and I was holding James’ hand and I remember telling him, ‘Honey, I hear the Lord calling me into ministry.’

“Well, at the time he ignored me; I remember him ignoring me very clearly. So when we got home I waited a couple of weeks or so, and the Lord just kept giving me that nudge. And I said, ‘Honey, I tell you, I hear that call again.’ And he said, ‘Rebecca, I do not want to be an officer.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because they’re broke.’

“At that time only the male received a paycheck, the woman didn’t. So my desire went beyond getting a paycheck. It was a calling you know. I had seen other officers, I had been mentored by an officer, I had worked for the Salvation Army and I knew the work was hard. But I knew the hard work was going to have a payoff at the end.

“But James said to me, ‘No, we’re not doing this. We’re not doing this.’ So, I said, ‘Honey, why don’t we pray about it?’

“Well I waited a couple of years because I knew at this point he was not ready,” she continued. “Then after a couple of years we went to that same conference again and he got me by the hand, took me on stage and I just kind of looked at him and said, ‘Are you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’m ready.

“When we went on that stage I thought, ‘Thank you Jesus. You have taken my husband by your hand and he has taken me by his hand so that we can work and serve you.’

“And I have never looked back.”

While at first blush it might not seem like that big of a deal for the couple to make the decision to become officers with the Salvation Army, the truth of the matter is, it was a major commitment that immediately changed the course of the Sullivan family’s life.

“When you’re called into the ministry, you sell everything, your house, your vehicles and you go to seminary college for two years. Once you finish your two years, then you’re appointed to a Salvation Army entity. We’re broken into four territories—we have the Southern, we have the Eastern, we have the Central and we have the West. We’re in what you’d call the Southern territory, so we could be sent anywhere in the Southern states.”

Rebecca went on to explain that once a person completes seminary and earns a Degree of Divinity, they are “commissioned” and can then be assigned to a Salvation Army area that has a church.

“Once there we’re called Lieutenants,” Rebecca said. “Your first five years you’re a Lieutenant and then after five years you become a Captain. James and I will be Captains this May. Then after 15 years you become a Major. Then after Major you can become Lieutenant Colonel. So it’s rank based on years.

“You mentioned something earlier about you’re not sure why we call it an army. Well the reason we call it an army is because the Salvation Army is known all over the world. And we like military terminology. We operate like the military. We wear a uniform every day. We wear a uniform in church on Sunday. The ladies wear skirts and the men wear pants. In the office we wear a uniform. As a Lieutenant I have one star on my epaulets and then as a Captain you wear two stars. And then as a Major you wear a crest.

“When someone joins the church it’s called ‘Solider Enrollment,’ so they’re enrolled as a soldier. You have to be a solider before you can become an officer. And you have to take classes to understand what the Salvation Army is all about. So we have soldiers that come in every Sunday and they wear their uniform just like we do. And they have leadership roles like Sunday school teachers or treasurer. And we have soldiers that go out and do nursing home visitations and things like that.”

Or in other words, much like the soldiers and officers in the military, members of the Salvation Army church are involved in missions.

And no mission is more central to the Salvation Army than spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and putting those teachings into action through selfless service to others.

“My role is to be a pastor first and an administrator second,” Rebecca said as we discussed the central mission and structure of the Salvation Army ministry. “My role basically ties in with our mission, which is to preach the Gospel, motivated by love, without discrimination of individuals, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.”

I had heard the Salvation Army’s mission statement before and knew its volunteers were charged with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but prior to speaking with Rebecca, I simply didn’t realize that the organization’s chief directive is essentially borne out of the basic Christian principles held sacred by other churches and parishes across the globe.

In talking with Rebecca, and later James, about the different missions and ministries the Salvation Army is involved with, and viewing all of what they told me through the lens of a Christian church, I was really struck by the purity of the Army’s structure and how awesome it is that in our collective conscience the Salvation Army is viewed not by what it calls itself but rather by the work it does.

As I learned more, it started to make sense that I had always viewed the Salvation Army as a charitable organization and not as a church, because it’s the acts of the ministry that resonate so much.

In his Gospel, John famously posits that “faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (John 2:17),” thus making the argument that it is simply not enough to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But rather if one believes in those teachings then they should be compelled to take action.

In that same passage of scripture John asks the important question, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

While I once attended Catholic middle school, have sat through hours of Sunday school classes and even earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Religion from UGA, I am by no means a Bible scholar. Yes I’ve done plenty of reading and studying, but I’m simply not a person who is often quoting scripture.

But as soon as Rebecca started talking about the commitment she and her husband made to dedicate their lives to caring for others in the name of the Lord, John’s assertion that the works of faith are more important than a profession of faith, immediately popped into my mind.

Here I was viewing the Salvation Army as simply a charitable organization, when in point of fact it is really a church in action. A church whose congregants are so wholly committed to honoring the teachings of Jesus that they have become an army dispatched around the world to do for humanity what their Father has tasked them to do.

“We’re not asked we’re told,” Rebecca clarified when I asked her about what happened after she and James took the leap of officership. “It’s a calling. I tell people, I was called to “Take up your cross and follow Him. Or follow Jesus, that is.’

“We’re based on Methodism. William Booth is our founder, he founded the Salvation Army in 1865 and he was Methodist.

“But we’re non-denominational. Come as you are.”

“We have a church and we have an emergency shelter. And although that shelter piece is there, we still have to, you know, give that peace which is the Word of God, to let them know, and you know, that we’re not trying to give a hand out. We want to give a hand up. Because we know the power of God, that He can do great things for your life.”

That Lieutenant Rebecca can say with confidence that she and others with the Salvation Army know what God can do in a person’s life is not surprising given the fact that it took a mighty effort from above to not only get her husband James to answer the call to be an officer, but to rescue him from the bonds of alcoholism and drug abuse.

“I can tell you this Brad, James had an awesome calling,” Rebecca said. “Before we actually became soldiers, James, he had a drinking problem. He’s sober now. For 17 years he was clean and then bam, one day he just fell off. He lost his job at the hospital and our family was just turned upside down. So he went to a rehab center, which happened to be run by the Salvation Army.

“He spent six months there and he told me he was leaving and I thought, ‘Honey, you don’t need to leave.’ And he said, ‘I’m telling you, it is time for me to leave here. I will never do drugs again. I will never touch liquor again.’

“Well the next thing I know, he calls me in the middle of the night and says, ‘I’m at the bus station, come get me.’ When he got back home he started working tirelessly, volunteering for the Salvation Army. He did not have a job, but he wanted to help others. He wanted to be a part of the Salvation Army because of what the Salvation Army had done for him.”

Indeed, James is very upfront about his past, believing, like most recovering addicts, that it’s vitally important for him to share his story so that others might find the same peace he has found through faith in the Lord.

“I was laying in the bed (at the rehab), I had the top bunk, and this greenish, illuminating light came through the ceiling,” James recalled when he and I sat down to talk about his calling. “It must have gone 15 yards from one end of the room to the other, where I was at. And it pretty much got about three feet from my face and it just stopped and it was just illuminated like Spaceship X or something.

“And this voice said, ‘James, what are you doing? What are you doing? Why are you here? These are not the plans that I had for you. You need to pack up and you need to leave. You know what you’re supposed to be doing.’

“This was about 9 in the morning, so I just wrestled with this thing all day,” James continued. “I was like, ‘Man, was God really talking to me? Or is this the devil trying to get me to leave here and go back to doing what I came in here for?’

“Well I just trusted my heart, so I called the night monitor about 2 o’clock and I told him, ‘Man, God done spoke to my heart. I’m getting ready to leave.’”

James said that the night manager was rightly nervous about James’ decision so he contacted the head of the facility who in turn came down to speak with James and encourage him not to leave. But James said he knew in his heart it was God’s will that he leave and head home to take care of his family.

“They were like, ‘James, don’t leave before the blessing comes,’” James recalled. “And I said, ‘Man, it done already came.’ I said, ‘I’m going. There ain’t nothing else you can say or can tell me to make me stay here.’

“I said, ‘When I walk out of this door, I’ll never use drugs again, alcohol, cocaine, crystal meth, crack. I’ll never drink again. I’m finished with it all. I’m going home to my family.’”

Despite his long history of drug abuse, which he said lasted years, even when he was running his own construction company, James said the transition back into family was relatively easy, something he believes is further evidence of God’s transformative powers.

“I was more about making money back then,” James said of his time in addiction. “And it started happening. I started my own construction company, had six guys, two trucks on the road, doing well. But with that came drugs and alcohol. My dad was a bootlegger when I was growing up so I was always kind of in the midst. But my mom was a church-going, Christian woman.

“But the more money I began to make, the more drugs I started to get into. God has always blessed me with jobs. I remember back in 1982 I was making $15 an hour doing roofing work. Minimum wage back then was like $4.50.

“I’ve always been good with my hands, stuff like construction work and I when I started working for myself I was working jobs with the state. All the pieces started falling in place, guys with their businesses and companies and they would support me and help me get jobs.

“But they didn’t know I was drinking,” he continued. “At first it was just beer. And then liquor. And marijuana. But then I started making more money and it went from beer to moonshine and cocaine. And then from there it went cocaine, to crack cocaine and then some kind of way, crystal meth fell up in there.”

And as the drug problems continued to escalate, James said, his marriage continued to decline, even though he couldn’t see what was happening.

“This was happening when I was married to my wife and man I put her through hell,” James said. “She told me one time, she said, ‘You left me and the kids a long time ago.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean, I’ve always been here.’

“Well it dawned on me years later, when I started using drugs I really wasn’t there for her and the kids,” he said. “We would go to church and we would drive separate vehicles. I would stop by the bootlegger on the way to church and pick me up a 12-pack of beer. I didn’t have a cooler, but I had a five gallon bucket, like one of those Home Depot buckets and I would put my beer on ice, sit in the front seat, cover it up and crack the windows so that the ice wouldn’t melt.

“And I would go sit in church with a quarter ounce of cocaine in my pocket. And every chance I would get I would go to the bathroom and put out a line or two, sometimes a line as thick as an ink pen. And sometimes I would mix cocaine and crystal meth together, it’s called speed-balling, and come right back and just look at the preacher while sitting in the front row. And I don’t think anyone knew except my wife.”

Well as it turned out, Rebecca wasn’t the only one who knew what was going on, and as is almost always the case with most recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, James believes the God who knew his heart and knew what he was doing to himself and his family eventually brought him low so that James would be forced to confront his addictions and his faith.

“I was at the bottom,” he said. “I was tired of living the life I was living. And God made sure I ended up where He wanted me to be.”

And what He wanted was James ministering to other struggling souls in need of salvation.

Because of the Salvation Army’s mission to feed the hungry and clothe the naked while feeding them with the power of the Gospel, those soldiers and officers who are connected to the ministry, spend the lion’s share of their efforts ministering to the less fortunate among us. And quite often those individuals who are struggling to find food and shelter are also dealing with mental illness and addiction, meaning the majority of the individuals the Salvation Army is trying to help are people not unlike James himself—a fact which only serves to motivate him to touch as many lives as he can.

“I say it doesn’t matter where you come from, how low you may think your life is, thinking it’s out of reach or that no one cares,” James said. “God always cares. God has the power to pull you from the lowest of the low and set you on sturdy ground.

“God didn’t create us to fail. I would have never known that this was going to take place. I would have never known that all this right here was gonna take place and in my lifetime. A young man dropping out of school in the 12th grade and all this stuff, now in the ministry, and able to teach others, preach the Gospel, learn business from the bottom to the top, in and out. And I wouldn’t give it up for the world man.”

While many people would be concerned with how others might perceive their past, or perhaps harbor concerns that their past could impact their ability to open lives to the healing power of Christ, James sees his life experience as a way to connect to others and to connect God’s message of salvation to others.

“As soon as I got here, the first thing I told the congregation when I got up on the podium to preach was, ‘I am a recovering addict—crack cocaine, crystal meth. Any questions?’” James said matter-of-factly. “I told them, ‘My life is an open book. You know everything about me now, the drug addictions. I give them a testimony of what I went through before I got into preaching.’ I say, ‘I don’t want no one coming up to you saying, ‘your pastor ain’t nothing but a crackhead. Did you know he smoked crack? Did you know he used to do this?’ Now they can say, ‘Oh my pastor already told us about that.’

“And that’s the way I go everywhere. When I go speak at these Kiwanis meetings or Rotary, I tell them, ‘First of all, I want you to know that I’m an addict.’ And I share the story with them. And then I go into the Salvation Army. I want you to know what I did and where we are. It ain’t always been cake and ice cream.”

James said that by sharing his personal story of salvation it helps not only to serve as an illustration of God’s power to heal, but also as a way to help him build relationships with parishioners, many of whom first encounter the Salvation Army through its charitable work.

“It’s something, when people know where you’ve been and you talk with them on the up and up, you create that relationship, that bond with them,” James explained. “I mean I can go around here now and talk to any of them cause they all know me. I spend time with them. I talk with them. I try to help them with their situations because being with them; it lets them know that nothing has changed. Addiction is still out there. There are still people suffering. So my job is to help everyone that I can.”

I found it heartwarming listening to James and Rebecca share their personal story of struggle and salvation, but I found it truly inspiring to see how God has touched their lives and how that touch has emboldened them to dedicate their lives to the service of others—to make Christ’s commandment to care for our fellow man their chief motivation in life.

In James and Rebecca Sullivan I found two individuals who give true meaning to John’s notion that faith without works is dead and therefore embody the true missionary spirit of the Salvation Army.

I may have gone to that meeting simply to gather info about the upcoming 100 year anniversary celebration, but what I encountered when I spent time with the Sullivans was something more powerful altogether.

As it stands now, that anniversary is planned for the weekend of March 9-10 and there will be various opportunities for the community to celebrate the ministry that started with S.A.Dillman and his wife so many years ago.

On Saturday the 9th the community is invited to a special gathering at 2 p.m. and then on Sunday the 10th, area residents and supporters are welcome to attend a special worship service in the chapel at 10 a.m.

I think it’s important for our community to recognize this momentous occasion for sure, but as we reflect on the 100 years the ministry has been feeding those in need both literally and spiritually, I think it’s important to think about the commitment of the Christian soldiers who have dedicated their lives to doing God’s will.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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