Sunday, June 21, 2015

As the Salvation Army turns 150, what role does it have to play in secular society? Part 1 of 4

Faith is still central and the Army’s attitudes to social issues haven't changed greatly. But some of its members want to do more.  


Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

William Booth, “the Founder”, began life as a preacher in the Methodist tradition and took an unashamedly militant approach to tackling social evils. 

One evening last January, gusts of icy wind and rain rollicked down Oxford Street in the West End of London, causing passers-by to seek refuge in brightly lit department stores. I, however, ducked into an inconspicuous doorway opposite BHS, entering a world far removed from the shoppers’ paradise outside. The door led to Regent Hall, Oxford Street’s only church. This was an ice rink until William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, converted it into a place of worship in 1882. The large, balconied auditorium was empty and dark, but there was activity outside the back entrance. As many as 30 homeless men, whom Booth would have described as “the least, the last and the lost”, were waiting for a Salvation Army drop-in centre to open.

They were jobless, destitute rough sleepers who spend the nights in doorways or on buses, overcoated and woolly-hatted in futile defiance of the cold, their few belongings crammed into bin bags or old backpacks. Among them were alcoholics, drug addicts, the physically sick and mentally disturbed. A few barely spoke English. Occasionally former soldiers turn up here, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or defeated by unregimented life. “Some cases really get to you, especially when there’s very little you can do,” said Heidi Soljava-Duprat, the cheerful Finn who runs the centre. “It’s sad that we’re in 2015 and the problems are still the same as in Booth’s time.”

The doors opened at 5.30pm, giving the human flotsam a brief respite from the elements. Some sat in groups; others kept to themselves. They ate food donated by Nando’s, Eat and Starbucks. Volunteers handed out blankets, clothing and shoes and offered compassion and advice. For a few hours these men were treated with respect. A silver-haired Syrian who once worked for the BBC’s Arabic Service cried as he told me how he spends nights in churches since his wife ejected him. “This place is like my family home. It gives me great comfort.”

At 8pm the centre closed. The men lingered to the last minute. One or two begged – in vain – to stay. Watching them disappear into the night was “horrendous”, Soljava-Duprat said. A man called Kenny showed me his bag. “This is my pillow,” he said. “And these,” he added, tugging at his clothes, “are my bed.”

***

When Booth founded the Salvation Army 150 years ago next month, he offered the destitute “soup, soap and salvation”, but the food and shelter this evening came with no quid pro quo. The Oxford Street centre did not offer its visitors salvation. Soljava-Duprat hoped that by showing them love and compassion they might turn to God of their own accord, but “no one is forced to receive the message”, she said. “Our job is to get them to a point where they can decide for themselves whether they’re ready to accept some kind of faith.”

A pawnbroker’s apprentice who became one of the most compelling revivalist preachers of his age, Booth had no such compunction. Saving souls was his life’s work. “The Founder” and his redoubtable wife, Catherine, the “Mother of the Army”, pursued that goal with extraordinary single-mindedness. They targeted the poor, the marginalised, the friendless and the fallen – those rejected by the established churches of Victorian Britain – constantly totting up the numbers brought to God.

Open-air meetings, brass bands, rallies outside bars and brothels, testimony from redeemed sinners: Booth did whatever was necessary to attract their attention. He took bawdy music-hall songs, changed the words and turned them into stirring hymns. He connived with the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette to buy a 13-year-old girl for £5 to expose the scandal of child prostitution. For Booth the “soup” and the “soap” were a means, salvation the end. “To reach the people whom we could not reach by any other means, we gave the hungry wretches a meal and then talked to them about God and eternity,” he wrote.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

Life Eternal Paul Lovatt-Cooper  

Part Two follows tomorrow - 
END PART 1 of 4


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