Some 136 years after the burning of Atlanta, this summer the capital city of the New South was under invasion by military forces again. But the only fire these soldiers hoped to light was the flame of the Holy Spirit. About the time of the American Civil War, Gen. William Booth and his wife, Catherine, were marshaling forces to attack sin in London. Booth's brigades became the Salvation Army, now 1 million souls strong in 107 countries. More than 20,000 Salvationists gathered in Atlanta last week for the first International Congress of the denomination to be held outside international headquarters in London."After all these years, it's time it left London, don't you think?" asked Gen. John Gowans, the Army's top officer. As home to the 1996 Olympics, he said, "I think Atlanta's the right place for Salvationists to get together."The Olympics had little on the Salvationists when it came to an international presence. Out on the streets, in parks and hotel lobbies, the world mingled. Female Indian Salvationists in navy saris with white blouses stood near other Salvationist women in the western version of the uniform, white blouses with navy skirts a few inches below the knee. Nearby, Lt. Col. Amos Makina of Zimbabwe wore the full regalia of his country's tan uniform. And in Centennial Olympic Park, Gary Noland of Warren, Mich., in shorts and a purple T-shirt, greeted the uniformed Lt. Klilliqui Sackie of Liberia as a fellow Salvationist."The Salvation Army fights sin," said Noland, who wore a U.S. Army Veteran baseball cap. "The U.S. Army fights so that we can have the right to fight sin."In a summer when several American mainline denominations are struggling over the emotionally heavy and theologically divisive questions of homosexuality, the Army held no discussions and took no votes on social issues. Rather, sessions consisted of practical workshops and pep talks by outside speakers such as Chuck Colson, Joni Tada Erickson and the Rev. Berniece King, daughter of slain Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged Salvationists to take a "Star Wars" approach by devising cutting edge methods to get out their age-old message.The Army consistently faces the challenge of letting the world know that it is more than a social service organization. When Booth founded the army out of a missions agency in the England of the 1860s, its primary force was to reach the unchurched and unwanted, such as prostitutes, beggars and drunkards. Realizing it was hard to interest people in religion when they were cold, hungry and dirty, he offered "soup, soap and salvation."Despite the denomination's name, however, the salvation seems to get less public attention than the soup and soap. And Booth's Wesleyan theology and the Army's position as a conservative evangelical Christian denomination is often overlooked because of the Army's rank among the world's largest social services provider. In 1999, for instance, the Army offered aid to 33 million people worldwide and since 1991, it has ranks as America's most popular charity, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a national biweekly newspaper of the non-profit world.Before the congress, international leaders of the Army met to discuss what they consider the pressing issues of the day, which included how to recruit more officers, or ordained clergy, especially in Europe. Some leaders advocate alternatives to the lifetime enlistment of the current Army policy, but no decision was made.Other discussion involved how the Army—always at the forefront of roles for women clergy—can do even more to assure equality of the genders.The congress gave Army personnel a chance to celebrate and to refocus on the basics of their faith, Gowans said. And just pulling off the meeting was "a miracle," according to the general. The army in wealthier parts of the world helped subsidize or completely fund the travel of people from impoverished areas."It's a good investment," Gowans said. "If the Salvationists go home with a clearer idea of what they're doing and a better idea of how to do it, the whole world benefits."
The Salvation Army's official site offers more information about the international congress. Earlier Christianity Today articles about the Salvation Army include:Saving Bodies, Rescuing Souls | Chechen Muslims find Salvationist care has compassionate accent (Apr. 11, 2000) Salvation Army General Seeks Refocus on Gospel | Newest world leader faces modern challenges (June. 14, 1999) Did Somebody Say $80 Million? (Dec. 7, 1998) Salvation Army Youth Spell Out New Methods (Mar. 3, 1997)Lauren F. Winner reviewed several recent books on Salvation Army history in for Books & Culture. Her article, " From Drum-Bangers to Doughnut-Fryers | Material culture, consumerism, and the transformation of the Salvation Army," appeared in the magazine's September/October 1999 issue.For more on Salvation Army history, see issue 26 of Christian History, a Christianity Today sister publication.Christian Reader adapted one of the articles on Catherine Booth for its November/December 1998 issue.The Times of London reports that the Salvation Army may get change its military-style uniforms to something "more up-to-date, attractive and affordable." Other recent articles on the Salvation Army have appeared in the Miami Herald (which reported on how the Salvation Army helped turn a prostitute's life around) and The Detroit News (which noted that the denomination is trying to reach youth).
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