The Salvation Army, LGBT issues, and the elephant in the room

Let’s begin with a bold, true statement: The Dane County Salvation Army does not have an anti-LGBT agenda. Hiring practices are nondiscriminatory, health insurance is available to domestic partners, and service is not denied to recipients who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. In fact, the Salvation Army here has employees who are comfortably “out”; one employee, in fact, holds visible leadership status in the LGBT community.

This past Christmas season, in my role as an advisory board member, I reached out to some companies to participate in the Dane County Salvation Army’s “Adopt a Kettle” campaign, wherein businesses could send employees to man a kettle for a specified time during the day. Many companies agreed, knowing the money collected will support critical programming for the feeding and sheltering of area people, as well as disaster response and community building.

Some business executives sent me a different reply email, explaining that while they’d love to help, some staff members were very affronted to be asked to support a Christian agency that discriminated against gay people. This reaction is understandable, given a statement made in Australia by a Salvation Army minister (who thereafter was removed from his post) who said that church doctrine decried homosexuality as a sin and that “gays should die.”

This hate speech reverberated in echo-chamber social justice circles. That one person caused a ripple that today is besmirching all of the good works done over decades by tireless, dedicated volunteers worldwide; closer to home, the spouting off by that individual is now affecting our ability to feed or shelter children in Dane County — since half of the people receiving services at any time are children.

The Christmas campaign suffered this year, and some bell-ringers were harangued by people on the grounds that the larger organization was “anti-gay.” This means that some difficult budgetary decisions will have to be made locally — following on the heels of staff cuts last year — affecting employees who already work under market value, since dollars collected go to programming versus high staff salaries. When you can no longer cut overhead, that means programming has to be pared down, and that is serious indeed in a county with such demonstrated need.

Major Loren Carter, the leader of the Dane County Corps, is frustrated by the situation but lacks an advertising budget to countermand the scuttle and set the record straight. “We follow the teaching of Christ to love one another without judgment,” he said. “We serve our community in the spirit of love. This misunderstanding is threatening our ability to help people during their time of greatest need, including the many people who may be gay that we serve — we never ask, nor do we care about sexual orientation. We care about need.”

It is estimated that there are as many as 60,000 gay, lesbian, or transgender people in Dane County, which is perhaps the highest concentration in the state. Likely you love an LGBT person as a family member or friend. I know I do. And we, as caring people, care about gay rights issues; I’ve been a vocal proponent of the right for two consenting adults of legal age to legally marry, regardless of gender or gender assignment. I’m an ordained minister; as soon as it is legal in Wisconsin, I would happily officiate at any marriage for gay or lesbian partners.



Perhaps not all of the advisory board members would agree with that position, but regardless of our same or differing perspectives, we’re representative of the community in which we live — and we come together for the higher purpose of serving those who most need our help.

The Salvation Army is a huge organization, second only to the United Way in terms of nonprofit reach. There will always be some loose cannons in an organization of that size and always room for growth and improvement, but no single organization does more with less better than “The Army.” It gets your money back into the community, helping to stabilize families and extend housing opportunities.

Like the military model it adopted, change for the Salvation Army comes slowly and after much internal deliberation and debate. Most ministers will be progressive, others likely conservative. A few will be hatemongers who need to be ferreted out. Operating inside a clear and binding chain of command, they aren’t likely to perform same-sex marriages tomorrow. But the money raised in Dane County is spent in Dane County and decisions about programming are championed here by two majors who are rooted in the principals of Love, Respect, and Service — for all, without question or judgment.

Feeling good about not putting change in a kettle or ringing a bell … how much better and further along we’d all be if, instead, those who truly want social justice might engage in an LGBT dialogue with area leadership — and be part of the change they’d like to see in the world, meanwhile entrusting the coins or dollars in a wallet to those who can put them to greatest use for all TODAY.

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