Church Life · Social Action

How the Salvation Army changed the world.

I grew up in the Salvation Army (have I mentioned that before?) listening to the stories of the Army before I was born.

I heard how the ‘Army’ produced the first safety matches. Taking on the UK match companies that left poor workers with the awful occupational disease Phossy Jaw.

Or how we began the employment agencies over 100 years ago, well of course we did. Suddenly we have a church that is saving alcoholics and the newly sober people needed steady work, how else would we respond?

Or how we helped bring about changes in the law of underage sex and child slavery by our part in rescuing a girl sold by her parents for £5.

This week alone, I’ve had two conversations with people who’ve mentioned how older folk give money to the Army because of what we did for their husbands in the war.

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It’s all wonderful… and yet…

It feels as though, the last couple days, the UK has suddenly woke to the scandal of our Government and it’s abusive benefit cuts.

How did this happen? How did they manage to, overnight, put parents in the position of losing £120 a week, receiving just 50p a week from the Government in housing benefit support?

But this isn’t an overnight thing, the government have been bullying the poor for several years.

The country have, over the past few years, been enjoying the ever growing number of TV shows about benefit cheats, scroungers, “too lazy to work” streets and the huge number of kids everyone on benefits have. I’ve watched people’s attitudes harden as they sit around their TV’s shaking their heads at the seeming audacity of scroungers claiming something they’ve never worked for.

At this point in my rant/post I need to add a Disclaimer:

I apologise in advance to my mum, nephew and anyone else who I name in this post. I love you all, but I’m so annoyed that I can’t be bothered to change names today.

Okay, that’s done.

I sat in the car with my retired Salvation Army officer mother a few weeks ago and she started telling me about a woman she had seen on TV. The shame that this woman received so much benefit and was on TV saying it wasn’t enough… that is, until I spent time with my mum breaking down the woman’s likely weekly expenses and mum realised it didn’t leave her with money for food.

My mum, who spent decades of active officership working with homeless and mentally unwell people had somehow lost her ability to recognise the situation of the poor.

Anyway, I wasn’t writing this post about benefit cuts…

My church has recently started asking for more people in the congregation to attend the weekly lunch club it runs. I went a few weeks ago and for £3.50, me, and 12 elderly people, enjoyed a three course basic meal.

My church (or Corps to those Army folk who don’t like to think of us as a church) is situated in a large and poorer part of South Leeds, surrounded by HMO’s (Houses of Multiple Occupancy). Drugs, addiction and prostitution is rife in the area, so a perfect location for an Army hall.

We have a lunch for anyone to enjoy, four times a week, for a mere £3.50. You’d think we would be packing the place with hungry locals, but in fact, lunch club is dying.

Yes, there are patches of nice housing in the area, and patches of elderly housing, but there’s a lot of single people, young single people on benefits living in HMO’s. (I’ve written about HMO’s in the past too)

A single young person on benefits gets £57.90 a week. If we imagine a situation where all his/her rent is paid by housing benefit (hopefully, this is the case), how much is left for that person if they live in a HMO?

Gas/electricity/water  £10-15 perhaps

Weekly bus pass  £15

Basic food (tea bags, bread, milk etc..)  £5-10

Mobile phone*  £15

Even with just these four essential bills it leaves just over £10 for main meals, TV licence, clothing, taking a girl on a date, a drink in a pub to talk to another human, basic toiletries.

Imagine too, the mental strain of living in a room smaller than some peoples bathrooms, having your cooker a few feet from your bed. Having to remember to take loo roll every time you need to go to the shared toilet, neighbours fighting through thin walls, and the stench of marijuana from the guy below.

How wonderful it would be for that single person to be able to escape the confines of the HMO and have a hot meal at my church in it’s spacious dinning room with access to free wifi. To be able to sit with others and talk to someone rather than feel imprisoned in the cell-like place they call home.

But as I pointed out in another blog post, £3.50 is too expensive for the most desperate people in my churches area.

I think we have a situation where our Army folk have forgotten what it’s like to be poor.

Again, this post wasn’t about the shame of the HMO’s…

This week I saw a new Lap dance club given permission to be set up in Leeds.

“What do you mean by another one” I hear you say, “How many do we have?”

Well enough that one website has a top 5 list of the best ones. One of which is within walking distance of my church I might add.

Do I need to explain what’s wrong with treating women as sexual objects? or how I’ve seen women in our legalised prostitution area charge less than a Costas coffee for sex?

And, yet, this blog isn’t about prostitution either…

Yesterday my nephew took me out for my birthday, (yeah, thanks, it was a nice day).

I’ve had a few chats recently with him about life, the Army, God and romance.

A couple of years ago he gave up two years and a lot of money to train as a youth worker in the Salvation Army, and yet, I was sitting with him asking why his bible had a light covering of dust and he didn’t seem happy at his church, so much that he seems to have stopped going.

I recognised myself in him, as a young person, attending youth events and getting fired up by stories of the old Army. How, as a young person in the Army, he has the ability of changing the world for good and for God. I’ve seen his room filled with postcards and tokens from music schools and youth events that are supposed to remind him of his power to change the world.

Yet, yesterday I saw a young man with no outlet for his vision. I recognise myself, as a young woman, wanting to work with homeless people and being fired up by big church youth meetings, then coming home to my local church and being told there was nothing for me to do. I sat there, talking to this young man, trained by the church as a youth worker, but given no youth to work with, and so, he has an air of giving up about him.

Earlier that day he’d dropped off his money for another week of music school in the Summer and I worry how many young people feel hurt after a week of being built up, only to return to their church and find no part for them to play. I know it was one of the reasons I gave up church as a young person, and I see him in a similar way. I wonder too, how many vacant chairs in our churches were once filled by someone wanting to do ‘something’, but not given a chance.

Our young people are sent to camp to have the fire in their belly ignited, but then sent home and not given fuel for the fire.

“But they’re just young people”, I hear some of you older folk say,

You should come sometime, to the office where I get my university business support from. They’re you’ll see dozens of young people starting and running successful businesses, making a living and a difference despite having a lack of years.

And again, I say this blog post wasn’t about the lack of opportunity in our churches…

This blog is about how the Salvation Army in the UK once changed the world. I would have liked to have said How the Salvation Army in the UK is changing the world, but I’m not sure I can say that at the moment.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, we are doing many amazing things, it’s just, well…

Going back to the conversations I’ve had this week, you would think the public only think we worked in the war.

Our recent public face makes us appear that we’re more concerned with how a gay celebrity can have a uniform made that won’t cause us offence rather than the growing poverty concerns.

Last weeks Salvationist newspaper seemed more concerned with playing April Fools than speaking of the fire we should have for human rights.

I’ve heard more about people upset that they’re not bringing back the bonnet than upset that our neighbours are in need. I heard of a band master outraged about the joke including woodwind instruments in the ISB, so outraged that he was about to request a refund on a concert ticket because he didn’t want to hear woodwind. (Incidentally, this band master is the only one who allowed my flute into his band, so I don’t know why it’s such a problem). Is that his passion? His righteous anger is focused on buying a brass band concert ticket and the disgraceful possibility of having to listen to a few violins?

In a few years time, when those who fought in the world wars are gone, will we have people to replace those who give because of what we did 70 years ago?

We seem obsessed by asking our people for money, making sure our members buy fair trade, having matching church outfits, and driving our fancy cars to our fancy homes outside of the rough area of our church location.

I don’t have a fancy car or house and I live in one of those poorer areas, but I speak to myself as much as to the richer members of church.

Why am I (and fellow Army members) not doing anything about the hundreds of mostly men living within walking distance of church and living in poverty, loneliness and hunger?

Why am I (and fellow Army members) not picketing outside government buildings with placards stating that “the Army does not approve” of their cuts to the disabled and poor?

Why am I (and fellow Army members) not in the local public and committee meetings demanding the local council stop allowing more places of sexual exploitation?

Why are we content to play our music on quiet streets, playing songs people no longer know the words to, when we should be playing a battle cry outside parliament?

I hear you groaning at me, mumbling that the last TV series about the Army also showed us washing the feet of the homeless. Brilliant, and important to do, but so are many other Christian churches.

And yes, I recognise the number of soup kitchens we run, but again, standard church requirement these days.

We were called to be an Army though, not an average church. We were supposed to be at the front showing how it’s done, but we’re just another face in the crowd now. The early Salvation Army paved the way and left us a legacy that makes people and governments sit up and listen when we speak, but we’re wasting away and keeping far too silent on the war time issues.

Okay, okay, I’m ranting.

I’m angry, but as guilty as the next salvationist.

So why the rant?

I feel at a cross roads. I am in the Army, not because I was brought up in it, but because Christianity, for me, is also about action. I can’t talk about a God of Love and walk past my downtrodden fellow man and I want a church who feels the same way.

I also accept that I am about to start my final year at university and, well, time right now just isn’t a luxury for me.

I might be getting a degree in textiles, but my heart is for the homeless, if I was to choose between a job in a fashion house and less paid work with homeless people I’d choose the homeless person every time.

Being so close to the end of uni I keep thinking about life when it ends and I admit, I don’t quite see a place for me in an Army not in action. I wasn’t made for the wealthy lifestyle or the 9-5 office job, I was raised amongst the homeless, raised to fight for the needy and I’ve sat idle for far too long.

I have friends, in a church, who give everything they have so they can help others, and I look at my friends church and it appeals to me… it appeals to me very much.

And yet, I’m very much aware that I’m here, as a member of the Salvation Army, by no accident. Even my textile degree projects seems to have the Army running through them.

How has it come to the point where a non-uniform wearing salvationist has to say what the leaders should have been saying?

…6…7…8…9…10, okay deep breath.

I don’t know where this rant is taking me, I don’t know whether anyone will feel the passion I feel in this, but well, as another birthday passes, and I adjust my year of birth to fit my alleged age again, I just felt something on my heart that I needed to speak.

I worry about our world, whether my neighbours will manage with the next round of benefit cuts and difficulties. I recognise a hurt people taking their anger out in the voting booths and I worry for where this will lead us.

A quote often used these days is this:

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if, one only remembers to turn on the light”  – Albus Dumbledore, a great wizard, and perhaps in another life, a Salvationist.

We are supposed to be the lights that point to Jesus, truth and righteousness, we’re part of an Army that grew from poverty and the slums that sadly are returning, but without ignition, we’re just dull, grey bulbs.

Rant over.

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Links for more reading:

https://glynnharrison.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/when-william-booth-took-on-the-big-manufacturers-of-safety-matches-and-won/  Also read the link to the article this was written about talking about the Church of England and the dreadful Wonga.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39484897

http://michaelgallagherwrites.com/lizzie-blaylock-books/bridge-of-dead-things/eliza-armstrong.html

*I know many wealthier people think a mobile is a luxury, but try job searching without a phone and you’ll realise how vital it is. You can’t even claim benefits without making a lengthy phone call and having internet access.

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