Lieutenant Blusiewicz’s East End

The Salvation Army’s infancy in London’s East End, its Founder, William Booth, saw people sleeping under bridges and ordered Bramwell, his son and second-in-command, to “do something!”

That historic tidbit was not lost on the newly commissioned Lieutenant Elizabeth Blusiewicz when she arrived at her first post at Charleston Citadel in West Virginia. Within days of taking up her duties as the corps officer, Blusiewicz noticed people coming and going under a bridge located a couple of blocks from her corps.

Appointing herself a committee of one, and with General Booth’s mandate ringing in her ears, Blusiewicz decided to “do something!”

But that’s only half the story.

The Charleston Area Command has a Salvation Army canteen in good working order; in fact, it had just returned from serving in flooded areas of South Carolina. After that disaster service, the canteen needed to be cleaned up, restocked and driven around at least every week or so, just to keep the battery charged and the tires from rotting.

“I saw that canteen and asked our area commander [Major Darrell Kingsbury] if our corps could take that [maintenance] project on,” Blusiewicz explains. The major allowed her to keep it there at the corps as long as the unit would be made available in the event of a divisional or territorial disaster. Blusiewicz reasoned that this was a great way to have the Charleston Canteen always at the ready.

As for the people under the Elk River Bridge, Blusiewicz saw a way to kill two birds with one stone. She could fulfill her promise to Major Kingsbury about the canteen and also have a practical and efficient way to bring hot meals, blankets, toiletries and other necessaries to the homeless folks under the bridge.

“I didn’t start out too well,” the lieutenant admits. “The first night I took the canteen out, I got too close underneath the bridge and took out the air conditioning unit on top of the roof!”

But that has been the only setback in fulfilling what she calls “doing something meaningful” for the very people The Salvation Army was created to help.

“The first few nights, I was by myself. In fact, the first time I went under there a fellow met me and asked me what was I doing.”

Blusiewicz told him that she was from The Salvation Army and that she was just there to “check out how things were going and how we can be of help to you.”

“You mean, you’re here by yourself?” he asked, surprised.

“Sure. I’m a person and you’re a person…what are you going to do, hurt me?”

“Oh no,” he answered. “We’d never do that! We’ve never had anyone brave enough to come down here, that’s all.”

It seems God had sent that man to meet Blusiewicz on her initial venture under the Elk River Bridge, because he immediately took her down to the tent city, a spattering of tarps and tents housing some 25 to 30 people and hidden from public view. “He took me to every one of the homes in that tent city and introduced me. And because he did, I was immediately accepted,” Blusiewicz says.

“The public doesn’t know they are there,” she continues. “One couple I have gotten to know has been living under that bridge for four years!”

The lieutenant goes under the bridge when she has something to take to her new friends there, for instance, boxes of unsold Girl Scout cookies and thermoses of hot coffee. She spends some of her evenings just sitting with them,” usually in front of a blazing fire.

“On Sunday evenings, I cook a big pot of chili or chicken soup,” she says. “When we [had] a corps dinner, I made extra so I could have some for that night to take to them. That’s about when my corps people began to figure out that I was up to something!”

They began asking their new corps officer what was going on. When she explained what the Lord had laid on her heart to do, “a lot of our soldiers began to realize: “You know what? We are The Salvation Army and this is what we are supposed to be doing. These are our people!”

And so the citadel corps people bought into their energetic officer’s mission. First a brand new soldier, April Sigman, and then April’s daughter, Baylee, joined in. A few more of the corps’ young people and some adult leaders also came on board to help each Sunday night.

“This is a wonderful way to feed the homeless and hungry people here in the capital city of West Virginia; but it is also a practical and meaningful way to share our love for God by loving His children who don’t have as much as we do,” April says.

Blusiewicz insists that she is not out to start a feeding program among Charleston’s homeless; that was never her intention. Instead, she would like to form relationships that quietly and effectively point others to Christ.

And relationships are forming, one by one, “One guy saw me and asked me to pray for him. ‘Life really sucks for me, right now,’ he told me.”

When the corps’ Fall Revival approached, the lieutenant wanted to invite her new friends to the special meetings at the citadel. She decided to host a barbeque chicken dinner.

“Sure enough, they came for the barbeque, but I was totally floored when my soldiers had our guests go through the line first. Then, when we went into the chapel for the meeting, my soldiers invited them to sit down in front among them.”

She describes that evening as a turning point for her corps. She definitely sensed the love of the Holy Spirit. “That was the payoff for me!” Blusiewicz invited the guests to come to church that Sunday morning, and a few of them did.

It is no secret that the Army in the Charleston area is struggling financially. There are not a lot of resources.

“But that’s not really a problem,” Blusiewicz insists. “Every week the Lord provides what we need. Like, last week someone shook my hand and in the handshake I found a check for $70. The lady said ‘Use this for your outreach ministry!’”

Something that began in the heart of one individual has grown into a ministry performed by a group of Salvationists who, like our early pioneers, have realized that people are hungry for much more than just food; they are hungry for relationships.

Courting Peace

When someone in the Men’s Fellowship at the Lynn, Massachusetts, Corps suggested doing something about gang violence in the city six years ago, Major David Payton, corps officer at the time, swallowed hard. There were over 40 gangs in Lynn. It would be hard to find a solution that would really work.

Fast forward to March 2015, when the corps celebrated the sixth anniversary of a unique ministry. Rival gangs have been playing basketball peaceably with each other every Friday night. Mayor Judith Kennedy took part in the celebration. She mentioned that the city could raise local taxes or hire 100 new police officers and it would not have the same impact as the basketball program. New England Divisional Commander Major David Davis congratulated all involved and played a couple of games with the roughly 40 men there from different gangs. Major Payton marveled at the miraculous journey.

The conversation that began six years ago did not die out but intensified. More people joined the discussion. Straight Ahead Ministries, a Christian organization, had been teaching Bible courses to gang members in the local jail, and the corps invited the leader to join the discussion. The corps held a meeting in February 2009 open to anyone interested in addressing the problem. Several non–governmental organizations showed up, as did a representative for the mayor.

“Someone looked at our humble gym and suggested hosting a basketball program for local gang members,” Payton says. “The idea took off! I had not thought that the plan to address the gangs would end up involving my own building! We decided to have members of the Crips and the Bloods play on alternate Fridays to avoid hostilities.”

The Army offered food and drinks during these games. “The players deeply appreciated the simple gesture of opening the gym and offering food to them. It gained us much love and respect,” says Payton.
Soon, Friday evening basketball became a highlight. The gang members did not wear their colors, and no one carried a chip on the shoulder. All they wanted to do was play ball. They were happy, aggressive, determined and serious about their games. They called their own fouls. They kept the peace.

Payton was afraid of the corps becoming a flash point of gang conflict, of handling attitudes about who could come and who couldn’t, of having to deal with hot–headed aggression leading to fights, of confrontations spilling over to the parking lot, of dissenting graffiti on the walls. “In every manner that I could imagine I was delightfully wrong!” he says.

After a few months, participation by local groups that first pledged support dwindled, but the Army and Straight Ahead Ministries kept it going.

Program leaders looked forward to the time when rival gangs would play together. Just three months after the program began, leaders from the Crips and the Bloods came forward to request to play together. “I guess they didn’t like having to wait two weeks to play,” Payton says. “I had about 10 minutes warning that first Friday that they were coming together. We were nervous but everything was fine. And since June 2009 mixed gangs have been playing on mixed teams every Friday.”

How could things run so smoothly? Payton noticed that most of the young men, many of whom were in high school, simply wanted to enjoy playing ball for a night without worry, without having to look over their shoulder, dreading trouble from a rival gang or the police. They could relax here. Not everyone in the gangs approved, but those members stayed away.

The players treated Payton and his team of volunteers with respect. “When I said a prayer at the beginning of the games or had a devotion about halfway through, they gave me their attention,” he says. “In six years there has never been a serious incident; no fights, no clashes, not even a serious shouting match! They seem to want to do everything in their power to keep this good thing that dropped in out of the sky in their week. They manage themselves. They occasionally brought their girlfriends, younger siblings or even their children to the games.”

Payton remembers waiting at a traffic light when a young man started striding slowly across the street right in front of him, staring down drivers with his don’t-mess-with-me glare until he recognized the Salvation Army officer. His face lit up as he waved a hand and smiled broadly. “This young man had to put his best gang-face on all day. No doubt it’s a heavy burden. But when he recognized me as the Salvation Army guy from Friday nights he could suddenly become real again,” Payton explains.

The major also recalls how a youth street worker came up to him during a game and said, “Captain, I don’t think you understand what’s really going on here. That guy over there has a brother who was shot by this guy over here. That player got stabbed last week by a rival gang. This other guy was recently shot.”

It made Payton realize just how much these guys were willing to set aside for a fun night of basketball.
At the end of that first summer, Payton asked the police if they had seen a change in city crime statistics. The head of the local gang unit reported a measurable decline in gang-related crime from the previous year, most notably on summer weekends.

The major says the events led him to wonder about that Great Day of Judgment. “What would I say to God if a chance to make a real transformation in my community came to me and I did nothing about it? I kept that question at the foreground as the program began. God honored that call in ways I could not have imagined!”

A teacher at heart, Major Payton’s vision for the Lynn Corps had contained many things, such as Bible studies and home groups, but not this. “This vision came out of left field,” he says, “and while it wasn’t my vision for the corps, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the winds of the Spirit were blowing against me. Once you sense that movement you really only have two options; fight the wind, or put up your sail.”

Advancing a Trusted Brand – A Conversation with Bill Burke

War Cry: Share your faith journey.

Bill Burke: I was born in a very Irish and very Catholic family. In high school, I was in a minor seminary of the Archdiocese in New York, part of the feeder system to become a priest. I felt like I had a vocation when I left eighth grade and went to high school. I realized I was going to have a conflict because I knew that celibacy was not going to work for me. I never lost that connection that I felt I had with the Lord.

When we moved to Ohio, our neighborhood was loaded with born again Christians. We didn’t know what one was. My wife began going to a Bible study in our neighborhood with other moms. I was working my way through our local parish of the Catholic Church. Our timing on coming face-to-face with the Lord was very close. She had her born again experience with the ladies in the Bible group. I was at a men’s retreat one weekend and for the first time in my life someone handed me a Bible. As testimonies were given I started opening up the New Testament, randomly picking out Scripture, reading it and thinking, “This is really relevant to me.” Scripture and some testimonies intersected for me with memories of how one of our kids was born in a traumatic situation. It dawned on me that the sacrifice of God’s Son was for me. I could relate to it because of my experience with my own son. That’s when the clouds opened and the sun came through. My wife and I joined an evangelical, Bible-based church. I became active and grew substantially by absorbing Scripture and doing Bible studies, listening to the Lord.

            Ultimately, I got a ministry degree from Grace Seminary in Indiana. I thought the Lord was calling us to full-time ministry, but we couldn’t see how. We continued to pray, “What will you have for us Lord?”

WC: How did you become involved in The Salvation Army?

BB: In 1996, a note came out at the company where I was working that several non-profits were looking for board members locally. One was The Salvation Army. I knew very little about the Army, so I decided to inquire more deeply and wound up having breakfast one morning with Lt. Colonel Guy Klemanski. That led me to tell him, “I know more about the Army now. Sign me up for the advisory board. However, I don’t want to be another name on the letterhead. My wife and I want to do something.” We joined up with the Heart-to-Heart ministry, volunteering every Saturday night for two consecutive years at the canteen that went around to feed people in need on weekends. That was our date night. We started sharing the opportunity with our neighbors and friends at church. We became the schedulers rather than the doers. We moved on to more family-based work to help people with their utility bills, getting them signed up for “Christmas Cheer” and other programs. I became more deeply engaged with the local Central Ohio Advisory Board. My work became less on the street, which I loved, and more at the advisory board level.

A year later I was on the National Advisory Board, humbled as could be. I remember going to my first meeting in St. Louis and just looking at the names of the people sitting around the table. I was awestruck. It took me a couple of meetings to finally open my mouth.

WC: What do you tell the corporate world about The Salvation Army?

BB: The first thing is, “The Salvation Army is not a social services agency. The Salvation Army is a church, a mission agency that does social services to reach and facilitate the mission.” I talk about the effectiveness and efficiency of the Army. And I talk about the Army at the frontlines, that we are there before, during and after the needs of people are met, doing the most good. 

WC: How does the National Advisory Board contribute to the mission and work of The Salvation Army?

BB: We are advisors. We are not fiscally or operationally responsible for the Army. We take the best of our education and experience and helpthe Army position itself both for today and tomorrow based on the economic, social, business demographic trends that we see.

WC: What challenges does the Army face?

BB: We run on the Spirit and on dollars to fund the mission. The Spirit leads us, gives us the ability to serve globally in a way that no other organization can. In the United States, folks who are not engaged in the Army know the Army does good things. We have a wonderful brand reputation, [but] they don’t know the breadth of what we do, the impact on a local level. One of our challenges is to make clear who we are and what we do and to get donors totally aligned with our mission and support what we are doing.

A second challenge is to excite those Salvationists who are executing the plan and those who receive what we do so that they don’t just receive the benefits of our social services but they also receive the Word so they can find salvation. One example of this plan is Pathway of Hope, an extraordinary program. Its aim is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty through specialized case management. We are moving at the right pace. If we move too fast and fail, we are not going to be able to recover.

Third, we have one of the most trusted brands in the world, and being able to make sure that our brand is always presented well is important. There’s an inconsistent application of the brand across the country. We have some outstanding examples of best practices pocketed all over the country, but we don’t always do the best job in pulling them together so we can learn from each other. Wherever the board can enable and facilitate sharing best practices is key.

People not associated with the Army view it  in two ways: the Red Kettle at Christmas or the place to donate their clothes. We have to figure out how technology plays into the kettles. The branding of our family thrift stores that support the Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARCs) is also very important.

Fourth, how are we relevant to the millennials, the next generation? The millennials want to serve; they want genuineness, transparency. They want to get their hands dirty, and while we are an Army that moves on volunteers, we have to capture their hearts, minds and ultimately their financial resources as they become older and more solvent.

WC: Is there anything else?

BB: My personal love affair with The Salvation Army. The Boundless Congress in London last July tied together a lot of the things for me. To see the international nature of the Army was phenomenal. Africans dressed in their light brown uniforms, Asians dressed in their whites. And to see the joy that was there! It wasn’t orchestrated joy. It was amazing to be with people who are serving the most unloved, who hold Sunday services with people that the traditional churches reject because they don’t fit in, who serve with joy but who probably don’t smile all the time when they’re doing it because it’s such hard work. To see them smiling ear-to-ear, embracing one another, reenergized by each other, was so uplifting.

The worship sessions were a reminder this is not man’s work, this is God’s work. The blueprint of the Army is not man’s blueprint, it’s God’s blueprint.

Now when I see a lieutenant working in a corps, frustrated in trying to get funds and facilities, having people leaving worship and coming back into worship, all those frustrations are settled by the fact that we’re doing it for the Lord.