On Sunday, thousands of Christians are expected to march along the Mall in London, past Buckingham Palace, sounding drums and tambourines, trumpets and tubas.
They'll be clad in blue, gray serge or white uniforms with red or blue epaulets and the letter "S" on each lapel. It stands for salvation, as in The Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian church that will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in the city where its global work began, now active in 126 countries.
A church? Yes, The Salvation Army is a church. The "salvation" the movement offers isn't just about used clothing or old furniture, staples of its rehabilitation programs and thrift stores that dot the United States. For the 2 million or so "soldiers" worldwide, the organization is a Protestant denomination descended from the Wesleyan Methodist tradition of its founder, William Booth.
Today's version of what Booth originally called the "Christian Mission" is a global gathering of people who announce they are "saved to serve" others, another interpretation of the "S" insignia on the uniform lapels. In addition to its deploying disaster relief, feeding the homeless or providing a place for after-school activities, The Salvation Army has over 1,200 churches across the U.S. where 77,000 people attend worship each Sunday.
The military name and titles for clergy and army-themed nomenclature were another way Booth and his followers, called soldiers, set the young movement apart. Booth wanted to describe the group as a "volunteer army," which drew objections from his son, Bramwell, because military volunteers were derided in Victorian Britain. "Salvation Army" was chosen instead, and Booth became its first general.
But church officials acknowledge that few people know the religious underpinnings and mission of one the most widely recognized, largest and well-managed charities in the world.
"We have very high name recognition," said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the group's national spokesman in the U.S. "Everybody has heard of The Salvation Army but their main idea about what we do has to do with old clothes, Christmas (donation) kettles and disaster relief."
Christopher Cantwell, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has studied The Salvation Army's American journey, which began in 1880, and understands the public perception issue.
"In the Army's mind, they always understood their (social) service work to be a religious act," Cantwell said. "The public understood they're doing good as an organization that just happened to be Christian."
Balancing the two wings of serving and sermonizing has and will continue to create some tension for the Army and the public. The group staunchly refuses to discriminate in the provision of services, but backs traditional marriage. It has provided adoption services and eschews abortion. And, for church members, smoking, alcohol and drugs are off-limits.
The organization's high standing in America comes from its good deeds, said University of Southern California professor Diane H. Winston, author of "Red Hot and Righteous," a history of the American branch.
The Salvation Army "has been one of the largest fundraisers in this country not because it preaches the Christian gospel, but because it helps people," Winston said.
'Soup, Soap and Salvation'
In July 1865, William Booth and his wife, Catherine, moved to London to continue a ministry of evangelism. Booth, tall and angular with a prominent nose and the bearing of an ancient prophet, stood outside The Blind Beggar pub on the Mile End Road and began preaching, his voice reaching inside.
“‘There is a heaven in East London for everyone,' they heard him cry, 'for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal Savior,’” biographer Richard Collier wrote. The declaration was met with the splat of a rotten egg on the side of Booth's face, yet the preacher walked home at midnight and told his young wife, 'Darling, I've found my destiny.’”
Booth's preaching soon moved to a tent at a nearby cemetery, and converts followed. These new Christians, impoverished and sometimes inelegantly attired, weren't always welcome in the Methodist congregations the preacher frequented. Opening his own chapel, Booth's work soon attracted acolytes who wanted to spread a Christian message of "full salvation" to those who needed it most. According to the group's historical archives in London, branches of the Christian Mission were established in other parts of Britain, and converted to Salvation Army "barracks" when the name changed.
A military-style uniform was adopted, Army lore has it, both to equalize the ranks with no one clothed finer than another, as well as to be distinctive on the street. To this day, an organizational history states, the Army's uniform is a global symbol of people who want to, as Booth's daughter Evangeline put it, "do the most good."
A big part of that "good" in the Army, which in its early years was very much a Booth family enterprise, came in the 1880s, when William Booth ordered his oldest son to get a warehouse and do something for the homeless men of London, adding, "But mind, Bramwell, no coddling!" as Christian History magazine recorded.
The Army's social services, known today as Adult Rehabilitation Centers, are known for involving the homeless and the addicted — women as well as men — in "work therapy," repairing used furniture, cleaning donated clothes and selling the items in thrift stores.
The group says such work, along with clean clothes, showers and a heavy dose of evangelization, helps repair the lives of these "clients," with the hope they will return to their families and communities as productive citizens. The program gained the motto of offering "Soup, Soap and Salvation" to all takers.
Accepting that Christian message, Lt. Col. Busroe said, is optional. "We do not use the (social) services as some type of carrot to entice you to accept and live the way we think you ought to live, though we'd love for you to do that," he said.
Serving others served to endear the Army to the American public, particularly during the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to historian Cantwell. "What led to the Army's overwhelming acceptance was by and large its service work," he said.
Perhaps the group's most recognized fundraising vehicle, the Christmas donation kettle, owes its origin to American efforts as well. In 1891, an officer in San Francisco set up a food kettle as a vehicle for financial gifts, with a sign reading, "Keep the pot boiling." The idea took off and today, the red kettles — some with credit card readers — are ubiquitous outside retail outlets here and abroad.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones annually includes the Christmas Kettle kickoff campaign as part of a nationally televised game. Other entertainment figures have volunteered at Christmas kettles alongside service club members, and the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the Army's 1965 centennial with a special postage stamp, recognition rarely accorded a faith-based group.
Kroc 'supersizes' Army
As The Salvation Army celebrates 150 years of operation, its American unit appears financially in excellent shape. Forbes magazine last year ranked the group No. 2 on its list of the country's largest charities.
The Salvation Army, Forbes said, receives annual donations of just over $2 billion, and about $2.3 billion in grants and government funding. Forbes ranked the group at 90 percent for "fundraising efficiency," which it defined as "the percentage of private donations left after subtracting the costs of getting them."
Management guru Peter Drucker once said, without any qualifiers, that The Salvation Army was "the most effective organization in the United States."
But the efficiency of the Army's fundraising and administration isn't limited to its American operations, current international leader General André Cox noted.
"I think (William Booth) would be pleased to see the readiness and compassion of Salvationists today where we respond rapidly to emergency and disasters, but also to human need," he told the Deseret News via email. "I saw an example of this in Ireland recently where the Army, in collaboration with the local authorities, opened up an emergency shelter program from scratch within two weeks. That is impressive, to say the least."
One prominent American supporter was the late Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's hamburger restaurant co-founder Ray Kroc. Three months after her death in October 2014, Kroc's estate announced a $1.5 billion bequest to The Salvation Army. The gift was earmarked to construct special centers where physical fitness, the arts, education and worship would be emphasized, after the pattern of a $90 million Salvation Army center Kroc financed in San Diego during her lifetime.
The gift allowed the group to, as Lt. Col. Busroe put it, "supersize" its community work. The Kroc centers, of which there are now 26 across the country, were placed in communities that presented a proposal for funding and operating the centers.
In May, the Army's national headquarters released a study that showed the 25 centers constructed before the most recent in Camden, New Jersey, delivered more than $258 million in "annual positive social and economic impact" for their communities, or roughly $10 million per center.
The community impact goes beyond tangibles, noted Steve Wilson, president of the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Chamber of Commerce. By having a Kroc Center in the city, The Salvation Army is a major employer, he said, with "a direct impact on the livability of the community, which is critical to the expansion of the economy and moving people into the area."
'Invading' Coeur d'Alene
The northern Idaho resort community of Coeur d'Alene isn't the kind of place you'd imagine needs the influence of The Salvation Army. The wealth generated by the mining and lumber business in the town's early history paved the way for the "millionaire's row" of high-cost homes along the city's famous lake and affluence among many residents.
But Maj. Ben Markham, the pastor and commanding officer of the Coeur d'Alene Kroc Center, said the appearance of wealth paints half the picture. There are "some pockets of extreme poverty" in and around the city, and at the three public schools closest to the center, more than half the students receive free or subsidized lunches.
The Army didn't have a physical presence in the city for decades, a long-ago outpost having folded into history, Maj. Markham said. When the Kroc grants became available, Coeur d'Alene jumped at the chance to put in a proposal. According to city spokesman Keith Erickson, "We didn't have a community center, (and) we needed a place to come together."
The $80 million, 12-acre Kroc Center includes a chapel/performing arts center, teen activities center and game room, aquatics center (where the local high school swim teams train and compete), sports training, recreation center and recording studio. Coeur d'Alene is the smallest American community to win one of the facilities, city spokesman Erickson noted.
Justin Shiflett, a 38-year-old former Coeur d'Alene police officer, didn't know The Salvation Army held worship services when he and his wife, Jennifer, 39, became members of the Kroc Center's recreational programs. In 2010, the couple was "looking for something different" in their religious experience, he recalled, and Jennifer suggested the weekly worship services she'd learned took place in the facility.
Within two years, the Shifletts became "Senior Soldiers," or adult members, of the church. Justin stopped working as a private investigator and came on staff as the congregational life manager, working with other parishioners. Jennifer, a former Pampered Chef consultant and team leader, took a part-time job helping with Christmastime fundraising.
Eventually, the pair felt a call to become Salvation Army officers. In September, they'll be at one of the group's regional seminaries for two years of classroom and field training, while their three children, 7, 11 and 15, attend a local school near the seminary. On graduation, they could be assigned anywhere in 13 Western states, or three U.S. Pacific territories.
"It's exciting," Shiflett said of his family's future. "There's a sense of calm and a sense to us of what we'll be doing for the next 25 years is totally part of God's plan. We're pretty excited, because the opportunities are pretty unknown."
There were "some naysayers" about the bid to place a Kroc Center in Coeur d'Alene, said Erickson, but the center has "exceeded expectations," getting 14,000 paid users of the athletic programs. The city, he said, "had to build a parking garage to accommodate" visitors, including those coming from Spokane for plays and concerts there.
He said construction of the center spurred completion of the city's Prairie Trail, a four-mile walking/biking path that connects the city's northwest section with downtown, he said.
Gateway to the future
The Kroc centers, of which seven are located in the West, are a "thrilling" part of the Army's mission to reach others, said Commissioner James Knaggs, who is the top Salvation Army official in charge of the group's Western U.S. region.
On any Sunday morning, he said, 13 percent of the worship attendance is in the Kroc Center congregations, with the balance spread among approximately 275 corps, or smaller churches. In Kapolei, Hawaii, near Honolulu, he said, 900 turned out for Easter Sunday worship at the Kroc Center there.
Commissioner Knaggs, twice nominated for the movement's top global position, said the impact the Kroc centers have on church attendance isn't surprising. The Army, alongside its social service success, wants to have a spiritual impact on as many people as possible.
The regional leader acknowledged that balancing the two isn't always easy. "The question of social services versus church is a real question everywhere, and there’s a tension everywhere about it," he said.
Commissioner Knaggs said that maintaining that balance falls on local Salvationist pastors. He said the movement hires professionals to deliver the social services while depending on its clergy to add a spiritual element.
"In some places the social services are stronger than the church," he said, "but as long as those services have an officer somewhere in the picture, the heart of God is going to be present."
General Cox said the movement can't be complacent about its successes. "If we have (learned) anything in these past 150 years it is the danger of becoming settled and comfortable in our places of worship and how easy it is for us to shield ourselves from the great needs out in the real world," he said. "We need to feel less comfortable in our (meeting) halls and get out more" to preach the Army's Christian message.