BRADENTON — Most people know the Salvation Army for its shelters, soup kitchens and thrift shops with the big red shields on the doors.
But behind the Army’s many outreach programs is a church whose membership crosses every social and economic class in 116 countries around the world.
This past week, the rank and file celebrated National Salvation Army week. Locally, the event marked 86 years since The Salvation Army of Bradenton was founded in 1923.
“Sure, we are known for our outreach,” said Maj. Robert Pfeiffer, the Bradenton Corps’ development director. “But I think a lot of people wonder, ‘Who are these people?’ Well, we are just ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things through Christ.”
The heart of the local corps lies in the spacious, modern Salvation Army Center for Worship and Service in Oneco, which draws hundreds of people not only on Sunday but throughout the week for music events, classes and sports activities.
For 13-year-old Anthony Metcalf, the Oneco church is a second home, a place where he feels welcome and accepted.
“Nobody rejects you here,” said Metcalf, who along with his brother, Timothy, 12 and sister, Tiffany, 10, are members of the local army band.
The Metcalfs reported for practice Wednesday, impeccably groomed.
“The first time I came here, I felt under-dressed,” said Timothy as he straightened his tie. “Everybody was so spiffy. Now we dress up, too.”
“Everybody was so nice and open,” said Anthony, who this year joined the Future Officers Fellowship in preparation for a career as an ordained Salvation Army minister and officer.
All three will go to the army’s Keystone Camp, where they will have intensive music instruction this summer.
“It’s a fantastic time of the year,” said Tiffany. “We have a lot of fun.”
While many parts of the Salvation Army’s services are formal and serious, there is a contagious happy spirit that turns worship into celebration.
“Our mode of worship is unique,” says Terry Sage, of Portsmouth, England, who plays the euphonium in the band during the six months he and his wife, Bonita, spend in Bradenton. “The band for instance does not discriminate. We have some good musicians and some not-so-good musicians, but everybody is welcome. I am a retired bank executive, but I might be sitting next to a road sweeper and that person is my colleague. We may be on different social plains, but it does not matter because we are all one in Christ.”
Founded on principal
The Salvation Army was born on the streets of London’s East End 144 years ago by William Booth, a man of God who could not abide horses being stabled and fed while the poor slept on the streets without food or shelter.
Driven to change the social structure, Booth set out to build a volunteer army, founded on the principle that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
“When William Booth was promoted to glory — that’s how we describe dying — the entire city of London came to a standstill,” said Pfeiffer.
“Thousands came to pay their respects, including the King of England, who stood in line behind a young prostitute who, as the story goes, placed her hand on the casket and said, ‘He cared for the likes of us.’”
More than a century later, the Army’s humble beginnings remain its strength, writes Gen. Shaw Clifton, who with his wife, Commissioner Helen, are the supreme commanders of the Salvation Army worldwide in London.
“We are called by God never to lose ‘the smell of the streets’ upon us,” Clifton wrote in the 2008 yearbook. “And in many places we still march the streets. Our mission is simple; to follow the Holy Spirit.”
For its Victorian beginnings, the Salvation Army has from the start been very modern, says Lt. Col. A. Bamford, who runs the local kettle drive each Christmas.
“We were one of the first Christian churches in modern times to ordain women and give them positions of leadership and power within the church,” Bamford said. “From its earliest days, women have had equal opportunities and every rank and area of service has been open to them. The army pursues that mission without discrimination.”
Catherine Booth, the founder’s wife, was known as the “Mother of the Army.” Evangeline Booth, the Booths’ fourth daughter, served as commander of the Salvation Army in the United States from 1904-34 and then served as general of Salvation Army International from 1934 to 1939.
All in the family
For many Salvationists, as church members call themselves, army fellowship is a family affair.
Like Bamford, who is a fourth generation Salvationist, Maj. Don Spencer, too, was born into the army.
“I’ve never departed,” Spencer said. “This is a spiritual calling. This is where the Lord wants us.”
All officers are also ordained ministers. For married couples, both husband and wife must complete seminary because they serve as a team.
Spencer admits that for some couples, the dual calling can be a challenge. “I am sure that on rare occasions there are spouses who become officers to please the other. We know one dear friend who was introduced to the Salvation Army because she fell in love with an officer. So she became one, too.”
For the past two years, the Bradenton army has been under the command of Majs. Lawrence “Tony” and Suzanne Barrington, who as ministers led the church and as directors oversaw the social service programs to serve the homeless, poor and disadvantaged.
This month the Barringtons received their “farewell orders” from Salvation Army Regional Command in Tampa to take over the command of the Leesburg Corps.
“That’s the army,” said Barrington. “We go where we are sent. We are ready at any moment.”
Maj. Robert Parker and his wife, Cathy, will take over the Bradenton Corps on June 21. Like the Barringtons before them and Jack and Janice Repass before them, the Parkers will continue to serve the down and out, guided by the credo written more than a century ago by Booth:
“While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul with the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight, to the very end.”