Charity’s soldiers

For the captains of Columbia’s Salvation Army corps,
providing comfort to the needy is a way of life.
Thursday, November 27, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:25 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Stepping into the office of Major George Windham, a visitor is immediately confronted by the fierce gaze of eagles – 297 eagles, to be exact. The office is full of them: ceramic, pewter and wood, painted, drawn and woven, eagles adorn almost every flat surface. Many of the birds are swathed in, perched on, or otherwise associated with the Stars and Stripes. The eagles and flags are not the only martial trappings in Windham’s office. The gleaming insignia on his uniform collar match an ornate crest on the wall. A closer look at the crest reveals the words “Fire and Blood” emblazoned across a red, yellow and blue shield, topped with a crown and superimposed over crossed swords.

But Windham is no Rambo. He rests his hands on an ample belly as he leans back behind his desk, and the grin that creases his ruddy face can only be described as jolly. For Windham, the word “fire” on the wall is Hell’s fire, and the word “blood” means Christ’s. Windham is most certainly a warrior — in the Salvation Army.

In Columbia, most people know only that the Salvation Army rings bells around the holidays and runs a pair of local thrift stores. Others might be aware that it owns the Harbor House, Columbia’s largest homeless shelter. Few people, however, are aware of the depth of commitment represented in the red epaulets worn on the uniforms of its officers.

Salvation Army officers are part of a bureaucracy that is, according to some, as unwieldy as the worst in government, and they are subject to a vast array of regulations that govern both their professional and personal lives. Yet George and Violet Windham, the officers in command of the Columbia corps since June 2002, gladly labor under strictures that some would see as intolerable, and Columbia reaps the fruits of their labor.

The Salvation Army is the largest and arguably the most effective charity in the country today. With more than 9,200 charitable centers and 45,000 employees providing a myriad of social services across the country, the organization has been cited as a model of administrative efficiency by such publications as Forbes magazine. The Army also runs hospitals, shelters, schools and drug treatment programs that together provide aid to more than 36 million people annually.

In Columbia, the Army runs Harbor House, which can temporarily house more than 60 guests. At the shelter, the Army served 1,657 meals in October alone — free of charge — and it routinely provides food staples and even helps with the rent or utilities of dozens of needy families. In short, the Army is a mainstay of the social safety net, both locally and nationally.

It is also a Christian church. Violet Windham, who shares the rank of major with her husband, says the church is the true heart of the Salvation Army, despite the fact that most civilians see the Army as more of a charity. She compares the Army to a gingerbread man: The arms and legs are the social programs, the head is the National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the heart is the church. Without the heart, everything else dies, she says. Nevertheless, the church accounts for only 16 percent of the Army budget.

For Salvation Army members, called soldiers, the church is as much a way of life as a place of worship. They vow to follow regulations that govern everything from the words they use to the way they dance. They must swear off alcohol, tobacco and “unclean conversation.” Even accruing excessive debt can result in expulsion from the ranks. Essentially, soldiers are expected to deny themselves earthly pleasures that many take for granted. In fact, orders stipulate that church members terminate friendships with those who “would attempt to lead the soldier back into the world.”

Salvation Army officers, the equivalent of clergy, are subject to even stricter regulations, laid down in dozens of different manuals.

They must wear uniforms anytime they are on church business, which is virtually all the time. They do not own cars or homes, and any outside income must go to the church. What this comprehensive code of behavior does is create a common bond between those who abide by it.

Major Violet puts it simply: “Your blood runs red, yellow and blue,” the colors of the Army. Major George agrees and adds his own favorite adage: “The Army is not just a vocation, it’s a calling.” The words come with the ease of nearly four decades of use. The two, both 59, married just before they entered the Army’s School for Officer Training in Chicago in 1964.

Major George, the youngest of 10 children, is a third-generation Salvationist. Major Violet, though the first of her family to be an officer, wears a silver star insignia that says she isn’t the last. The medal reflects the fact that her son Chip is a Salvation Army captain, while son Chris is a soldier, which makes the Majors’ grandchildren, as Major George proudly points out, fifth-generation Salvationists. “He’d like the crest on his underwear if I knew embroidery,” Major Violet says of her husband.

The Windhams handle fundraising together, but split up some of their other duties. Major Violet handles the women’s programs and day care, while Major George does the bulk of the preaching and takes care of the business and financial tasks relating to the thrift stores and the shelter.

“I also preach,” says Major Violet, to which Major George responds, “And I could run the women’s ministry,” his eyes twinkling.

“Oh, you could not. You wouldn’t know where to begin,” Major Violet scoffs.

“She definitely can preach. She practices on me at home!”

After this remark Major George reddens, then bursts into wheezing laughter. Around the church, he is known for his humor, or rather, his attempts at it.

“He laughs at his own jokes,” says Amber True, who at 14 is one of the many teenagers to be found around the corps building on West Ash on any given day. “You have to laugh when Major George says something. He means for it to be funny.” On a cold morning he’ll greet visitors with a cheerful “you know what they say: Cold today, hot tamale!”

Amber is relatively new to the church: She has been attending for about a year and has convinced her family to begin coming as well. Some teens have been part of the church for years and hold the rank of junior soldiers. A child can elect to become a junior soldier as early as 7 years old, a decision which means they become subject to all the regulations of the Army.

In Columbia, there are 17 junior soldiers. Seven are members of the Future Officers Fellowship, an exceptionally high number for such a small corps, reflecting the emphasis the Windhams place on youth programs.

After Sunday services, the Future Officers Fellowship soldiers sometimes linger outside the sanctuary with their friends, clowning around and mock-wrestling. It is strange to see the uniforms among the boisterous group, the uniforms one normally only sees stoically standing next to a red kettle in sub-zero temperatures. Major Violet gushes when she talks about the young people. “They are so important to us. They are the future of the corps.”

On a typical Sunday, a visitor is greeted by a congregation between 30 and 40 people, a number which can double on holidays. A look around underscores the Army’s unique role in the community: Ties sit next to T-shirts, a young African-American couple with three young children share a pew with an elderly Caucasian couple — just in front of a man in a worn leather jacket, the portion of his face above a bushy biker beard scrubbed painfully pink. A scattering of soldier uniforms, differing from the officers only in the color of their epaulets — black instead of red — leavens the mix. Not all of Columbia’s roughly 60 soldiers have uniforms, because as Major Violet says, because “they cost a fortune.”

Evenly split between black and white, and spanning a wide range of income levels, the Army has among the most heterogeneous congregation in Columbia. The service is short on ceremony, long on singing and clapping. Major George misses a step at the piano and plays for a few bars in the wrong chord while Major Violet sings on resolutely and keeps time with short chops of her hand. Major George recovers and finishes with a flourish.

“Well, Major George, you made it through that just fine,” Major Violet says from the pulpit. “After 40 years, he doesn’t impress me much anymore, but I am impressed,” she confides to the congregation.Shortly after their arrival to Columbia, the Windhams arranged the Army’s purchase of a house as their new quarters. “You wouldn’t believe the paperwork to buy one house,” Major Violet says. “They have rules for the number of rooms, the size of the rooms, how far away from the church it can be … They make you jump through so many hoops. We probably had to jump through 300 hoops to make this thing work.”

Their new home sits in a middle-class neighborhood near Forum Boulevard, but previous digs haven’t been as nice. The Windhams shudder when they recall one of their first Army homes, in Chillicothe, Mo., in 1966.

“Cockroaches,” Major Violet recalls. “The furniture up on bricks, the doors ripped off, wires sticking out of the walls.”

The home was easily among the worst in the area, Major George says. “But we made it nice.”

“We made it look like a little dollhouse,” agrees Major Violet.

The Windhams consider the hoops of the Salvation Army bureaucracy a necessary nuisance at worst, but for others, they make service in the Army a daunting proposition. David Fingar has been attending the church for five years, but he and his wife, Rhonda, who is employed by the Army as director of Silver Lining Day Care, only recently decided to take soldier’s vows. The delay was not caused by a fear of committing to the Army: Fingar is the corps’ acting sergeant major, and he plans to become a commissioned officer in the near future. The reason that the decision was difficult, Fingar says, was the prospect of becoming part of the Army’s ponderous bureaucracy.

Fingar worked for the State Division of Family Services for two years but says he became disillusioned with the lack of attention paid to his client’s souls. The Salvation Army’s “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” approach seemed like the answer. Fingar left the Division of Family Services for a stint as director of the Harbor House shelter but found that he was again frustrated by the slow pace with which changes were instituted. Fingar’s face takes on a sour expression when he talks about the Army’s maze of regulations.

“Do you know any bureaucracy that moves quickly?” he asks pointedly. “I have been a bureaucrat, and it’s a big, big bureaucracy.

Another former director of the Harbor House became so disaffected that he gave up on the Salvation Army. Tim Rich, now associate director at the Central Missouri Food Bank, was a third-generation officer like Major George but resigned his commission to return to college for additional training in counseling. He again became a Salvation Army employee as program director at the Harbor House in 1995 and was quickly reminded that the wheels of the Army move at a deliberate pace.

“The bureaucracy is incredible. Many times you faced an urgent need and it was impossible to get a quick decision to meet that need,” he said.

Rich began working at the Food Bank in 1998 because its director, Peggy Kirkpatrick, had a reputation for cutting through red tape. Though the Food Bank is a secular institution, Rich’s faith still motivates his work, and he says the ability to implement changes without a mountain of paperwork is a blessing.

To some, copious paperwork is the least of the Salvation Army’s flaws.

The organization has been accused of discriminating against gays. A June 2001 Washington Post article revealed that the Army had been in negotiation with the Bush administration to become exempt from state laws requiring the extension of employee spousal benefits to same-sex partners. The Army’s decision to deny such benefits at the national level five months later prompted a “fake donation” campaign by gay-and-lesbian-rights groups. Salvation Army kettles were stuffed with fake $3 bills bearing messages of protest.

The Army spells out its position on homosexuality in its Orders & Regulations for Soldiers of the Salvation Army, Chapter 8: Christian Standards of Sexual Morality: “Homosexual practices unrenounced render a person unacceptable as a Salvation Army soldier.” The Army has made it clear that gays and lesbians are eligible for employment with the organization, and its social services are provided based exclusively on need. Where its employees are concerned, though, the Army has stated that it will not elevate same-sex unions to the same status as heterosexual marriage.

In Columbia, the protest campaign didn’t amount to much — Major George says about 30 fake bills turned up last holiday season, and he doesn’t expect many more this year.

His take on the question of health benefits for same-sex partners is a bit different: “It has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation. If you extend benefits to those people, you’d have to do it for anyone in the house — boyfriends, girlfriends, who knows? The cost would have drove the Army out of business.”

Despite the fact that national headquarters has issued statements underscoring the religious motive for the decision, both majors are adamant that the real reason is financial. Perhaps their insistence comes from the fact that the Windhams know that several of their best workers over the years have been gay.

Loyalty and friendship run deep in Army officers. The Windhams’ friendship with Majors Bill and Donna Hurula is a good example. Major Bill sits atop the Salvation Army’s mountain of paperwork in Washington, D.C., as national financial secretary, but he came to Columbia earlier this year with his wife to visit their old “session-mates” the Windhams. The two couples were in the same session of Army officer school in 1964.

As a break from studying, Major George organized a basketball league, at first within the school and later among the area corps. He and Major Bill played on the same team; Major Bill played small forward, and Major George played, as he says, “starting left tackle,” and pats his belly.

The two became good friends — so good, in fact, that in June 1965, they appeared onstage together at a strip club in Calumet, Ill. “We just picked one at random and charged in, about 12 of us with guitars, drums and trombones. The performers onstage decided that they wanted to take a break when we came in,” says Major George. The group began a quick program of hymns interspersed with readings from the Bible. “We calculated exactly how long it would take for the sheriff’s deputies to get there. We finished up our program and were headed out the door just as they got there.”

Says Major Bill, “With those bright lights on you, you can’t see the audience. We couldn’t see anyone out there at all, but I heard one guy say in a loud voice, ‘I was at church this morning — I don’t need it again tonight!’ ”

The Salvation Army’s mission of saving souls was once its primary focus, but in the last 50 years, evangelizing has dwindled in comparison with the social services the organization provides. Business efficiency guru Peter F. Drucker often uses the Salvation Army as a model to illustrate his principles, and Forbes magazine says an amazing 84 percent of the Army’s budget goes to social services.

Locally, the Salvation Army’s community projects employ more than 40 people. At the back of the sanctuary, behind the rows of pews and concealed by folding doors, a vast heap of bulk food staples sits, awaiting distribution to clients through the back door of the church. The Windhams are the chief executives of a bustling enterprise, yet they each take home a paycheck of less than $150 a week.

“When you take into account that our housing is paid for by the Army, our utilities are paid for by the Army, our transportation is paid for by the Army, it’s not bad,” says Major Violet. “We have enough for what we need. We can take vacations — of course, we can’t go off to Europe or something like that, but if we want to drive somewhere, we can.”

The economic and social sacrifices the Windhams have made have been considerable. In the end, they are content with the bargain they have made, for with the sacrifice comes the gift of service.

“What do you do when you’re feeling sad or down?” Major Violet asks as she conducts a Bible-study session. “What do you do to feel better?”

“I have a hot chocolate,” answers one group member. “I wrap up in a blanket on the couch and watch a good movie,” volunteers another.

Major Violet’s response could be directed at herself and her husband as much as to the group: “All those things give us comfort, and help us when we’re stressed out or down. That’s what we need to be to other people — we can be those things to them.”

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