Ringing in Miracles
The holidays wouldn’t be the same without the Salvation Army’s red kettles and bell ringers, especially for families in need.
On the day after Thanksgiving, John Green routinely dons a black top hat, black frock coat, white shirt, and black string tie. He looks like either Scrooge or Abraham Lincoln.
“Take your pick,” he says with a laugh. He goes to the Kroger in Collierville, Tennessee, on Byhalia Road, stands near a red kettle, and starts ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.
Green, owner of John Green Realtors in Collierville, has been ringing so many years that people expect him. “They see somebody crazy enough to dress up and they’re more apt to give,” he says.
The bell ringing, familiar kettles, and assured cheery greetings are part of America’s Christmas tradition — and a chunk of the Salvation Army’s annual fundraising.
“We raised $903,000 last year,” says Major Zach Bell, who with his wife, Major Shelley Bell, co-command the Salvation Army for Memphis and the Mid-South. “It’s 20 percent of our yearly support.”
Approximately 80 kettles dot the nine-county, Tennessee-Mississippi-Arkansas area of this Salvation Army. Most donations are $1. Most ringers are volunteers; Germantown Baptist handles two weeks of kettle duty, for example.
“We also have paid ringers; some 150 people get seasonal work.” Zach says.
Are there memorable donations? Yes, indeed. The Bells mention an anonymous donor who routinely puts several hundred dollars wrapped by a single dollar bill in various kettles (never the same one). “We should have a nickname for him,” laughs Shelley, expressing her thanks.
Green praises the generosity of those slipping donations through a kettle’s narrow slot. “Those you think would give the least give the most.”
When asked why this is so, he pauses and then says: “It seems that people who don’t have much appreciate what the Salvation Amy does. Maybe the Army helped them.”
For instance, Joey, a middle-aged white man with tattoos, describes the painful period before he came to the Salvation Army Mid-South Adult Rehabilitation Center as dark, cold, very lonely, and hungry.
He participated in the live-in, six month program for men, and, as he says, worked on his life. “God did show up in ways that I never expected,” he shares. Joey completed the program. He now has a job, truck, and safe place to live, and he reconnected with his children. “I am extremely grateful to God,” he says.
Angel Tree is another popular Army Christmas program. Depending on funding, it serves 4,000-5,500 pre-screened children and seniors. Angel Tree provides Christmas presents — and more.
“It gives a family slack,” Zach says. “A parent doesn’t have to choose between paying the light bill and getting the children presents.”
Lists from seniors and children dot the Angel Tree, and then anonymous donors buy what the child or senior wants. The presents are wrapped at an Army warehouse, but nothing identifies them as coming through the Army. In that way, as Zach says, “the gifts give dignity to the parents. Families can enjoy Christmas together.”
The Salvation Army has a history of helping others. Its motto — Doing the Most Good — fits its mission. Founded in London in 1865 by William and Catherine Booth, the Army’s ministry is to the poor and destitute on the streets; it now serves in 128 countries.
Five local churches brought the Salvation Army to the Memphis area in 1900. Over the years as programs grew, developed, and changed to meet many needs, the focus always remained this: Sharing God’s Love by Serving Others. The Army’s structure is based on the Methodist model.
The Army has 111,859 staff worldwide and over 200 in Memphis. Career staff, like the Bells, are officers; churches are called corps; and corps members are soldiers. There are two corps (Salvation Army churches) in Memphis — at the Kroc Center and Purdue Center.
Most of the Mid-South staff have been with the Army for 12-plus years. “That’s unheard of in non-profits because of burnout,” Zach proudly says.
The Bells have led the Memphis Army for three years. They came as captains and were recently promoted to majors. They recently received doctor of ministry degrees from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
The two obviously love their jobs. “We see miracles every day,” Shelley says.
Zach continues: “We’re evangelistic in everything we do. We preach with words and actions. We preach the good news. Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. We love without discrimination.”
Insights from Army volunteers
Judy and Homer Moore, volunteers with Salvation Army backgrounds for generations, are Purdue Center favorites. The retired couple drives from Southaven, Mississippi, several times a week ready for, as Judy exclaims, “Anything that needs doing!”
That means data entry for her and counting Christmas kettle money. Homer recently tackled cleaning a closet, a two-day project, but always broke for hugs. “When the kids come in from school, they run to Homer. There aren’t a lot of men in that part of the women’s shelter, and children need a man,” Judy says. “He holds them and talks to them. It’s great for them to see a grandfather figure.”
Purdue houses 122 women and children and 20 single women per night. The women participate in programs while the children attend school; the programs give security, counsel, teaching, and social service support for months. Their purpose is to fight multigenerational homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, and addiction.
Christina Roberts, an Army volunteer for about seven years, smiles when she gets what she calls “godly taps” from the officers.
“An officer will say there’s a need or an event coming up; the word goes out,” she explains. Roberts just stepped down as president of the women’s auxiliary and now is the adult sponsor for Salvation Army GPS Squad. Short for Give Pray Serve, GPS is an online resource of 500 teens and family members.
GPS hosts at least one Purdue event monthly like a game night, cookout, or dance. Students do things like lead devotions, bring desserts, and distribute Angel Tree gifts.
Roberts loves volunteering because, as she says, she sees so many miracles. “People come in broken and we watch their lives become transformed. To watch God’s work—it’s amazing!” And it’s done something for her as well: “It’s completely blessed and transformed my life.”
Miracles, documentation, plans
It turns out that documentation backs up the miracles, those good results the volunteers, officers, and participants mention. An independent data processing firm called Slingshot Memphis looked at Purdue’s records.
Zach summarizes Slingshot’s findings: In 17 years of serving women and children and single women, there have been 13,000 residents. In Renewal Place, a two-year residential program for addiction and recovery, 71 percent now have independent housing, there is a 76 percent sobriety rate, and 95 percent of the children are in school. During those years, there have been only three teen pregnancies and none of the children have entered foster care.
“That’s why we believe in miracles,” Shelley says.
Zach adds, “What makes this happen is Jesus Christ.”
These data give backing for the Army’s $12 million capital campaign. The goal is to be able to house 75 more people a night.
“Memphis needs the facility,” Zach says, mentioning the area’s reputation for violence, homelessness, addiction, and poverty and its obvious need for healing. “We have the answer: Jesus Christ. We are unashamed of that. We are the Salvation Army.”
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