The Salvation Army is a peculiar and imperfect organisation, consisting of many peculiar and imperfect people – like me. The peculiarities sometimes make med cringe with embarrassment, while the imperfections make me angry – until I remember that I too am imperfect and that my opinion isn’t automatically the only reasonable way to think. On occasion my frustrations have led me to wish I was working somewhere else, but when it comes to the crunch, something has always held me back from jumping ship.
This Summer I was privileged to attend the Salvation Army’s 150th Anniversary Congress in London. Certainly a show-case for the Army’s peculiarities (tambourines? in 2015?), the main sessions were a sort of cross between an Olympic opening ceremony and a revival meeting. Lots of flags, drums and razmatazz – I think somebody spent a weekend with a light and sound effects catalogue and decided to buy the lot. And the O2 arena, even if not full to the rafters, is a great place for special effects. So they put on a great show. But lots of people can put on a show. What made the Congress special was all the other stuff. The sight of 16000 people, from every continent (bar Antarctica), almost all in some variety of Salvation Army uniform, all in one place. And realising that this was just a tiny proportion of the actual number of salvationists in over 120 countries around the world. The variety of music and dance from Korea, California, Angola, Argentina, Indonesia, Sweden, Australia, India and so many more. The smile on the face of the boy from the Seoul Boys Home as he played his drum. And the stories from all over the world. Some old – like the German SS officer who became a Christian and joined the Salvation Army after hearing a group of forced labourers from France singing from a Salvation Army song book. Some more recent, like the salvationist who travelled for six days across Papua Guinea to rescue a girl, a former prostitute, who was kept tied up in a pig-pen. It turned out she had Aids, and the villagers were scared of her “demons” until the salvationist shared a cup of tea with her (really!) and persuaded them to give her proper care. Then there was the Angolan refugee who escaped a firing squad and became a Salvation Army Officer. Or the more “mundane” stories of development work (helping villagers build an irrigation system for crops in Kenya) and rehabilitation (encouraging a South-American street kid to stop stealing and finish school). And the simple things – like the fact that all the bags for the delegate packs were made by participants in the Others programme.
The simple truth is that for all its peculiarities and undeniable imperfections, the Salvation Army does do an unbelievable amount of good for and with an enormous number of people all over the world. And although my little part of that may never make a story worth telling – for once, I’m just proud to belong.