As the holidays approach black clad troops seem to dominate street corners on every urban landscape in the nation. Their determination is fierce, their commitment unwavering. Their enemy is any bureaucracy or institution that tolerates irresponsible behavior. Their mission is to inspire hope in those oppressed for generations by their reliance for their very existence on society’s generosity.
“Our success will depend upon the extent to which we are able to establish and maintain in the minds of the poor workers sound moral sentiments and to cultivate a spirit of hopefulness and aspiration.” If this sounds like President Clinton touting the end of welfare as we know it, its not. It became the motto of the shock troops of social reform in 1877 when William Booth sent his black clad Salvation Army into London’s streets to wage a war on poverty.
One legitimately wonders how fierce a French horn can be? What intimidation is there in a tambourine? A ringing bell is not exactly a clarion call to arms. Nevertheless in the last century they have become the most effective weapons in the battle against poverty’s insurgent cycle. When governments reform welfare they simply stop writing checks making the Salvation Army the allies of welfare recipients in their constant battle against despair. In their hardened creed these veterans know that a handout can win somebody’s heart but an inspiration can capture their imagination.
And the Army succeeds. Occasionally overwhelmed by unpredictable demand, it manages its resources well and maintains one of the highest direct service ratios of any charity in the world. On average 85 cents of every dollar donated to the Salvation Army goes directly to the disadvantaged. Just in the Army’s eastern district of Pennsylvania last year more than 287,000 people relied on them for more than $25,000,000 in emergency assistance. But in its highest ranks you won’t find an officer making much more than a living and so many of the every day things that most of us take for granted to them are extraordinary blessings.
Yet the politically correct courts in ‘90s America haven’t been good to the Salvation Army. Judges have warned shopping centers and storeowners that if you allow one bell ringer in you might have to allow them all. If a Salvation Army soldier blows his or her horn in the wrong place, the property owner can be required to allow anybody with a horn to blow theirs too. That’s why in the mall that you shop in or the town square where you go to see the holiday decorations, Salvation Army workers wave silent bells over empty kettles.
Army officials report that where the bells have been silenced, donations are down by as much as 50%. Fortunately in some areas the business community has found other ways to help. Efforts like Allegheny County’s highly successful Christmas Kettle Challenge and Project Bundle-Up have helped offset the losses. But this Army runs on its money. Judging by last year there’s 560,000 meals, 150,000 nights of lodging and 61,000 Christmas toys that will need to be paid for in eastern Pennsylvania alone.
It would be our ultimate indignity in this time of abundance if anyone should go hungry because we were stingy. As you begin your holiday shopping look for the soldiers in black waving their silent bells. Remember a time when they were accompanied by horns playing Christmas songs and remember who they are waving them for: those that have nothing. Those that rely on the Salvation Army not only at Thanksgiving but every other day too. Give thanks that you and your family don’t need their help and then open your wallet with your heart. The compassion and toughness of the Salvation Army philosophy is our best hope to some day win the war over poverty’s despair. Through them you can give the best gift of all, the gift of a better tomorrow.