It's that time of year again. At shopping centers everywhere, representatives from the Salvation Army, dressed in their paramilitary attire, ring their bells and aggressively invite your holiday donations. And I always see people eagerly throwing money into their big red kettles. I suspect that most of these generous individuals aren't aware of what their dollars are actually funding.
Last year I wrote a column titled "The Salvation Army's Red Kettle of Trouble", in which I outlined the Salvation Army's long and disturbing history of religious coercion, abuse, and intolerance. An excerpt:
I have spoken with a number of people who have sought assistance from the Salvation Army in the past, particularly for disaster relief. I was told of how these people were preached to and forced into praying with the Salvation Army folks to their Christian God as a prerequisite for receiving services. If you're Jewish, tough. If you're Hindu, tough. Gotta pray their way, to their God, or else you're not worthy of assistance. It's quid pro quo. Gotta take advantage of people when they're most vulnerable. Contrast this with the secular Red Cross, which just wants to help disaster victims, not save their souls. (In the interest of full disclosure, I personally received help from the Red Cross when my apartment building burned down in 2001. They were extremely helpful and compassionate, and expected nothing in return.)In the year since I wrote that piece, I have heard from several people who have shared their own negative experiences with the Salvation Army. Their stories have reinforced -- and even worsened -- my own impressions of the organization.
As if the religious coercion isn't enough, the Salvation Army has also been implicated in a number of cases of alleged sexual abuse, ranging from molestation of child members of the Salvation Army's Red Shield swim team in Seattle to pedophile rings that operated out of Salvation Army-run orphanages in Australia and New Zealand. (Yes, they like to "spread the love" worldwide.)
The Salvation Army is also homophobic -- so much so that they would stop helping the poor if it meant they had to respect equal rights for gays and lesbians. In 2004, they threatened to close their soup kitchens in New York City rather than comply with the city's legislation requiring firms to offer domestic partnership benefits to gay employees.
A retired U.S. military officer contacted me after considering the Salvation Army for his charitable donations. He wrote:
"I'm glad I came upon your article about the Salvation Army. I have been considering leaving my worldly goods to them because I thought they did nothing but good. I had second thoughts when I was late in answering their charitable request. I have since found many disturbing facts about the Salvation Army."A former Salvation Army volunteer from Canada shared his experience with some ethical issues:
"Everyone [at the Salvation Army] liked me, because I also went to the service on Sundays. I am a believer in God. After 4 weeks [as a Salvation Army volunteer], I noticed whatever came in the back door for donation, for the poor, also left through the back door, and never reached the vulnerable or needy. All the good stuff the volunteers took.But by far the most compelling response I got was from an anonymous emailer who contacted me through a Yahoo account, probably accessed via a public library or other community Internet resource. This woman, who signed the email message simply as "Feeling helpless", wrote:
"I complained to one of the Salvation Army workers, That this should not be happening so close to Christmas. I was told to keep quiet, because the Major and some of the volunteers had an understanding. I was told to look the other way. I tried to ignore it, but it became very hard, especially when a local business donated six big boxes of clothes and shoes for children. All went missing.
"I complained again, and now I was labeled a troublemaker. In the end, I was told to leave."
"I am a homeless woman living at the Salvation Army women's shelter. Can you help me expose the Salvation Army? I have so much to tell you but I can not do it by email."Unfortunately, no other contact information was included, and my attempts at follow-up seem to have fallen through, but hopefully she received my suggestion that she contact the appropriate authorities and the local media for immediate help in exposing and addressing whatever issues she was facing. This woman clearly needed more help than I alone can provide through my own writing and activism. I hope that her situation has since improved.
The bottom line is this: While the Salvation Army may have done some good work over the years in providing assistance to the poor, the addicted, and the marginalized, their methods and practices are not ones that I approve of. There are many other nonprofit organizations out there that provide similar services in a more ethical manner.
And, if you're a Christian, consider this: The ironic thing about the Salvation Army's practices is that they do all that while labeling themselves as "Christian". But think about it: If Jesus were here today, he surely would not approve of their methods.
So please think twice before tossing your spare change into their red kettles of trouble. Think about what you would be supporting with your hard-earned cash.