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.